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The Influence of Ayn Rand on Republican Politics

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy has been exercising a noticeable influence on American politics, so much that people think one Republican Senator is named after her. Reflecting on her great work The Fountainhead can help us understand why today the influence of this Russian-born intellectual is so important. (All quotations below are from the screenplay of the film, every word of which was written by Rand herself.)

The Basic Idea

The protagonist, Howard Roark, is a very talented architect and a strong individualist. He is uncompromising in his refusal to modify his work to appeal to popular trends. He would rather forego commissions completely than change even a small detail of his original designs at the request of his patrons. He is fiercely independent. “I don’t give or ask for help,” he says proudly.

Roark’s only allegiance is to his own vision. Next to that, even the possible benefit of his work to others counts for nothing. To a suggestion that he agree to design an affordable housing project for humanitarian reasons he responds: “The man who works without payment is a slave. I do not believe that slavery is noble. Not in any form nor for any purpose whatsoever.” However, he is quite willing to work for nothing if his payoff is not serving others but the unfettered expression of his own ideas. “To get things done you must love the doing, not the people. Your own work, not any possible object of your charity.”

Roark’s antagonists counter that society demands self-sacrifice and service to others for the common good. Roark finds this tyrannical. It is an attempt to kill free thought and a debasement of the talents of gifted people to please the masses. The state wants to destroy the individuality of creative people to enhance its own power. It acquires that power from the selflessness of others, especially those with exceptional abilities, who become special objects of coercion. The state allows no deviations from the norm, and the norm is mediocrity leaving no room for excellence. Selflessness (altruism) is therefore a weakness, a submission to the leveling forces of the state.

The gifted person exists only to serve society, say Roark’s antagonists. And society is defined by its lowest common denominator. Society therefore imposes an obligation on creative people to temper their creativity and cater to the preferences of the multitude. (One inevitably recalls the Marxist phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat.”)

Roark would therefore rather destroy his own work than see it compromised in any way. On trial for a particularly egregious act of destruction, his summation in defense of himself gives him the opportunity to serve as Rand’s mouthpiece:

“No creator was prompted by a desire to please his brothers. His brothers hated the gift he offered. His truth was his only motive. His work was his only goal. His work, not those who used it. His creation, not the benefits others derived from it....

“Man cannot survive, except through his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon. But the mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain....

“A parasite seeks power. He wants to bind all men together in common action and common slavery. He claims that man is only a tool for the use of others, that he must think as they think, act as they act, and live in selfless, joyless servitude to any need but his own. Look at history. Everything we have, every great achievement, has come from the independent work of some independent mind. Every horror and destruction came from attempts to force men into a herd of brainless, soulless robots, without personal rights, without personal ambition, without will, hope, or dignity. It is an ancient conflict. It has another name: the individual against the collective. Our country, the noblest country in the history of men, was based on the principle of individualism.”

What This Means for Us

Roark gives it up for us when he says: “It has another name: the individual against the collective.” Notice that Roark (Rand) does not suggest a balance between the two. He (she) sides with the individual absolutely. A position this severe might be understood as a reaction against the extreme collectivism in which Rand grew up and that caused her family so much suffering. It makes less sense when transplanted in American soil.

I remember once hearing a Russian propaganda broadcast over short-wave radio. The program extolled the virtues of truly horrible and unimaginative popular music over more sophisticated and creative compositions. It really did sound like the society against which The Fountainhead strongly rebels, one where the creative intelligentsia are forced to prostitute themselves to please the masses. That is life under communism. But as a description of the United States it is at best a caricature, at worst a gross distortion. For the problem with the United States is not too much collectivism. It is precisely too much individualism.

We are already a highly individualistic society and are moving more in that direction. A couple of examples should suffice.

Republicans interpret the Second Amendment to signify an absolute individual right to bear arms, in spite of the language about a “well regulated militia.” This individual “right” overrides the needs of society as a whole, to the point of rejecting any sensible compromise. One’s personal desires come before communal safety. Some people may have legitimate reasons to own firearms, and there should be no objections to safety training and licensing - we require as much for owners of motor vehicles. But the individual “right” to bear arms is considered absolute, justifying opposition to every reasonable safeguard including universal background checks, denying firearms to the mentally ill or people on terrorist watch lists, and restricting combat-grade weapons. There is no question that the United States towers over the developed world in firearms death rates because of the easy availability of firearms. Responsible regulation without confiscation is possible. But our individualists and Libertarians won’t hear of it. To them the individual is more important than society, even at the cost of human life.

The same approach applies to health care. The Republican/Libertarian/individualistic ideal is that one should be responsible only for oneself. There should be no debt to the “collective.” Therefore the individual mandate should be abolished, even though it makes health care affordable to people of modest income who have preexisting conditions. Men should not have to pay for prenatal care because they don’t use it. Young people should not have to pay for services they probably won’t use just to subsidize others who are older or sicker - even though they too someday will become older and sicker and will need that provision. One should never have to pay for another person’s services: therefore tax rates should be lowered even if that money comes from healthcare for people who can’t afford it without some government support. The latter are also individuals and should pay their own freight.

One of Rand’s works is entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. No wonder she is so attractive to today’s individualists. Rand completely rejected altruism, self-sacrifice, and the idea that the individual has any moral responsibility to society as a whole. Thus she provided a philosophical justification for the selfish views of the modern American right. So decimating Medicaid and throwing tens of millions of people off health insurance rolls can now not only be justified, it can be presented as a virtue. If people are too poor to afford health insurance, it is their own fault. They should get up off their lazy behinds and work for it. One is responsible only for one’s own rational self-interest. There is no moral obligation to work for the good of others.

Of course this is a gross distortion of reality. It ignores the fact that even if one is able to work - and many Medicaid recipients are not; that is why they are on Medicaid - one doesn’t stand much of a chance of acquiring a job lucrative enough to pay unsupported health insurance costs. Class mobility in this country is at its lowest point ever. Millions of people work themselves to exhaustion just to make ends meet, and many do not succeed. They hardly have even the time or the strength, let alone the experience, training, and personal connections, to search for those high-paying bonanza jobs that would make health insurance a triviality.

This is the society we are becoming. One where we are no longer our brother’s or sister’s keeper, where compassion is considered folly (“bleeding-heart liberals”) and exploitation of the poor and the weak a virtue. A society where government regulation is equated with Soviet collectivism. A society where every restraint on the rich that prevents them from transferring wealth from the lower classes (e.g. Dodd-Frank and progressive tax rates) should be removed.

There is a profound anomaly here. The Republican individualists who are making these moves present themselves as champions of the downtrodden against the liberal “elites,” and enough voters bought it to elect an incompetent and dangerously unstable pretender as our President. What does that word “elite” really mean? Who are the real “elites“? If the real “elites” are not precisely those who have the most money and power, who would create a tax code just to benefit themselves and would cut off poorer people from essential services, and who are working as hard as they possibly can to increase income inequality in this country, then the word “elite” has absolutely no meaning and should be dropped from our vocabulary. What has happened to produce this strange result?

What happened was the selling of resentment. Donald Trump won the Presidency by doing something his Republican colleagues did not do: stirring people’s rage against immigrants, against Muslims, against “elites” who are “rigging the system.” He surrounded himself with a collection of people with backgrounds in white supremacy. He blamed every country in the world, and especially our allies, for America’s “problems,” in spite of the fact that the United States is the most prosperous country on the planet. It is true that changing conditions in the world economy have had bad consequences for some people. But Trump has successfully diverted attention from the real issues such as how to adapt to those conditions, directing it instead towards the immigrant fleeing gang violence in Central America, the Muslim who may have given service to this country but who is still a Muslim, and the black who “cut in line” because the government is too generous with doling out benefits to loafers. Donald Trump, for all his lack of qualifications for the job he now holds, did understand one thing better than anybody else: that America was passing through a sensitive time after eight years of a black President and with a white population soon to become a minority. He knew the country was ready to erupt, and he took full advantage of it.

This country may be at a defining moment. Supposedly it was founded on Judeo-Christian values. What are those values? In the midrash Rabbi Akiva said that “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is “the great principle of Jewish teaching.” Jesus said “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11). Yet many of those now advocating a reversal of these values in practice are the same people insisting that the United States is a “Christian nation.”

Perhaps what we really need is a sense of irony.

June 2017