Ah ideology. Whether it is left or right, pink or blue, it is ideology non the less. Ayn Rand was clearly an ideologue and people liked her because she provided justification for all sorts of greedy, selfish, and inconsiderate behaviors under the banner of some sort of naturally sanctioned individualism. But swing the pendulum the other way and we trod on our fellow peeps in the name of the collective good. My question? Are left and right really that different when the result (oppression, suppression, and concentrated wealth) are the same?
In a recently-released (01/26/2012) documentary, Ayn Rand& the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged, stalwart defenders of Ayn Rand’s unique interpretation of the ideal of American freedom argue that government overreach is, as Rand predicted in Atlas Shrugged, intent upon extinguishing the essential democratic freedoms that have made the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness possible in the USA.
Ayn Rand (1905-1982) is the author of multiple books—the most famous being The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957)—that have sold tens of millions of copies. As such, Rand qualifies as one of the best-selling, and most influential authors of the twentieth century. Voluminous as her books may be, Rand was able to sum up her political philosophy in a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace in the following, very straightforward terms: “I am opposed to all forms of control. I am for an absolute laissez faire, free, unregulated economy. Let me put it briefly, I am for the separation of state and economics” (Kirk, 2010). In contemporary terms, Ayn Rand could be described as an arch free market capitalist.
It is worth emphasizing at this point that arch free marketers, such as Ayn Rand, typically endorse a qualified view of “government interference.” Since the modern nation-state is tasked with the responsibility of maintaining a monetary system, in spite of Rand’s idyllic view of a 100% laissez faire business environment, it would be impossible for an economic system to function in total isolation from government intervention. For starters: without governmentally-produced, managed, and insured money, “free market” economic activity would be impossible.
Further, the nation-state provides a wide range of other goods and services that Ayn Rand and free marketers tend to overlook, but without which the private enterprise system simply could not function. In brief, vast investments by the US federal government in public education, universities, infrastructure (roads, railroads, shipyards, airports, dams, power grids, Internet, etc.), technology, the military, security, etc., create a ripe environment for private investment. Indeed, it was such state-level investments (e.g., the New Deal, the Great Society, investments in the Military-Industrial Complex, the space program, AI, etc.) that transformed the US from a rural to a post-industrial society. Ayn Rand elects to assign all of the credit for such social progress to the individualist heroes of her novels, such as, Howard Roark, Dagny Taggart, and John Galt. Doing so might make for entertaining story-telling, but this assures that her novels will be forever consigned to the fiction racks in bookstores. Rand willfully ignores the vast, positive, and essential social contributions that can only be mobilized by a nation-state. Nation-states do a lot of things wrong, but sometimes they do get things right.
It’s one small step for man…One giant leap for mankind…
The key point to understand is that, so long as free marketers profit from their relationships with the nation-state, they do not characterize those relationships as forms of “interference.” In fact, they often fail to acknowledge that the relationships even exist. For example, you will never hear military contractors who count their profits in the billions griping about federal interventions in their private affairs. This is in spite of the fact that there is mountains of evidence that the feds have been tucked snugly in bed with private military contractors ever since WWII. It is only when free marketers feel encumbered by the feds, i.e., when they are asked to pay taxes, or obey regulations, that they begin to protest about unfair federal interference in their business.
Also, if Ayn Rand truly believed in her own “absolute” conviction about the necessary separation between government and private interests, then why did she attend the swearing-in ceremony at the White House for one of her most famous acolytes, Alan Greenspan, who became Chair of the US Federal Reserve (Kirk, 2010)? Would John Galt ever have worked for the feds? And, if Greenspan/Galt took the job to tear the system down from within—which is what he ultimate accomplished—then what does that say about the man, his patriotism, the mentor that he esteemed so highly (Greenspan, 2008, p.51), and the philosophy in which he invested so much faith?
Greenspan commented in his memoir that, as he swore his oath of office, he knew that there were many laws that he would be obligated to uphold with which he deeply disagreed (Greenspan, 2008, p.51). As such, Greenspan’s approach to dealing with regulations that he opposed was to avoid enforcing them. Under Greenspan, the environment that the Fed cultivated was, as one might expect, one that emphasized laissez faire free market competition. Indeed, Alan Greenspan was so committed to the virtues of deregulation that, at one point, he informed Brooksley Born, Head of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission that he believed there was no need for the federal government to regulate fraud because Greenspan was convinced that the invisible hand of the free market would auto-magically find its own solution for fraud (Kirk, 2010). Is it any wonder that the financial system eventually collapsed as a result of such “leadership?” For a while Greenspan’s strategy appeared to work very well. Greenspan was hailed as a hero, a genius, and a “wizard” throughout the 1980s and 1990s. However, Greenspan’s deregulation binge ultimately created a financial bubble that caused an economic calamity in the first decade of the new millennium.
In 2008, having shepherded the USA’s financial system to the brink of ruin, George Bush departed office and shifted responsibility for tidying up this monumental mess to his successor, President Barack Obama. Given the scope of the economic disaster that Bush and Greenspan/Galt had created, Barack Obama was forced to take extraordinary steps to prevent the economy and financial system from falling into a state of crisis that could potentially have dwarfed even the Great Depression of the 1930s. In order to stave off such systemic economic and financial ruin, the Obama Administration approved massive federal bailout programs, such as TARP, but also secured massive additional resources to bailout major corporations, such as General Motors, Freddie Mac, AIG, and countless others.
While this strategy did prevent the kind of ruinous and prolonged economic crash that was associated with the Great Depression, the Obama Administration’s bailout strategy seemed to generate more enemies than allies. From the Tea Party movement to the many faces of the Occupy movement, droves of citizens have surged into the streets to condemn the social inequalities that have been perpetuated by the Obama Administration’s bailouts. And, now, in what could arguably be characterized as the unkindest cut of all, in Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged, Rand supporters argue that what’s really wrong with the post-2008 financial bailouts— that, mind you, were caused by Greenspan/Galt’s singularly misguided application of Ayn Rand’s ill-begotten laissez faire deregulatory ideals— is government overreach. Therefore, the cure for what ails us (Drum roll, please…) is another whopping dose of John Galt/Greenspan heroism.
I think it is fair to say that citizens in any democracy must remain eternally vigilant about their rights and responsibilities, especially in this post 9/11 era wherein civil liberties are under siege from so many new technological and legal threats. That said, I do not think that we can hope to find the solution to the problems that 21st century citizens face in the pages of Ayn Rand’s novels. If anything, Alan Greenspan/Galt has demonstrated that Rand’s ideas are a recipe for social and economic disaster in the 21st century.
One of the most disappointing aspects of Ayn Rand’s work is that, while Rand tries to promote herself and her ideas as a “defense of the little guy,” in fact, Rand’s philosophy is nothing more than a brazen apology for naked self interest. The moral of Ayn Rand’s books goes something like this: The rich can (and should!) get richer because they are virtuous, and the poor, because they are a bunch of parasitic losers, can kiss off and die!
Ultimately, Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged is an exercise in spin control. The 2008 financial meltdown has focused a great deal of public attention on the global financial environment—and, in particular, upon the character flaws of its leaders. The obstinacy of the Occupy movement has further sharpened that focus: common folk have been encouraged to blame Wall Street one-percenters for the burgeoning climate of socio-economic difficulties that the 99% are facing. In an environment wherein Ayn Rand’s self-interested heroes are beginning to feel the heat, Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged, is an attempt to deflect attention from Rand’s heroes to her favorite straw man: big government.
Will audiences be snookered thus? Well, instead of 3D glasses, I think the makers of Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged will need to distribute a special type of “Ayn Rand blinkers” if they want audiences to believe, in post-2008 era, that a new generation of Greenspan/Galt heroes will be our salvations in the future.
In your dreams, Ayn. They never were, and they never will be.
Greenspan, Alan, 2008. The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World. New York: Penguin.
Kirk, Michael 2010. Frontline: The Warning. PBS. Boston, MA: WGBH. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/warning/view/
Mortensen, Chris, 2011. Ayn Rand the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged, Los Angeles, CA: D&E Entertainment.
About the Author: Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University – Pueblo. The Socjournal is an outstanding resource for all things sociological. Too often, the media examines social issues from a singularly economic perspective. If you really want to understand how the social world works, it's better to use a broader, clearer lens. In this column, I will discuss a variety of forces (technological, scientific, political, cultural, and, yeah okay, economic) that are currently reshaping the globe. Whether or not the world is changing for the better is an open question — and, thus, it's a question that I look forward to debating at length in this column.