Judeochristianity Jewish star Christian cross

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 two great works The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged can help us understand why today the influence of this Russian-born intellectual is so important.

The Fountainhead

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 (these passages are from the film’s screenplay, written by Ayn Rand):

“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.”

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.

Atlas Shrugged

Rand's other great novel, Atlas Shrugged, is a metastatic version of The Fountainhead. Here it is not just one lone heroic figure destroying his own work to protest a parasitic collectivism. In this version an entire class of creative, entrepreneurial industrialists commits the same action. The backdrop is a United States that government regulation has taken to the point of Soviet collectivism. Producers do not have control over their productions. Their output is dictated by central planning, and a false moral pressure manipulates them into providing “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Governmental regulations dictate how much a producer can produce and how much a consumer can consume. The result is a tyranny of the collective that plunders the work and thought of creative people to make them serve others who have no rights to the fruit of other people's efforts and talents. It is “makers” vs. “takers.”

The makers respond very ingeniously. In perhaps the most massive fit of pique in literary history they go on strike. So an oil man blows up his oil fields as if to say, “I made this and you can’t tell me what to do with it.” Then he disappears, along with every other genius in the world whose work ever proved useful to anyone else.

This picture is absurd for a number of reasons. First, no one person builds an oil field or a railroad or a skyscraper all by oneself. The people at the top, who no doubt deserve credit for their inspired ideas, still could not be successful without the thousands of people below them who make their visions real. What if they were to go on strike? The man who blew up “his” oil field destroyed the work of many people besides himself.

The second great absurdity is situating the action in the United States. Indeed Rand was so traumatized by her experience in the Soviet Union that she feared a similar development here. But this is not the USSR and government regulation in this country has never reached the extremes that the novel portrays, not even close. The book seems to say that any government regulation at all takes us down a slippery slope to communist hell.

Thus in a manner that can only be described as perverse, Atlas Shrugged has become a manifesto for small government and dismantling government regulation - because once we allow the government to regulate business at all, we risk falling into the full apparatus of communist dictatorship. The Atlas Shrugged scenario could not happen here because, as already noted, American society suffers from too much individualism to begin with, often sacrificing the good of the community to individual desire. Communism is not the only danger; there is an extreme on the other side as well. We have already seen what reckless deregulation can produce: the financial crisis of 2008, from which we barely escaped. But now the dominant forces in government are bent on restoring the conditions that produced that crisis. And Ayn Rand is their ally.

Defenders of Rand say she opposes “altruism” but not “benevolence.” People with means are still free to do beneficial acts; they should just not be forced. But how does this work in practice? We have seen it: the fanatical cry against any kind of “redistribution” of wealth produces a moral justification for depriving millions of people of health care or other vital services. In that mindset no one should be forced to pay for services for anyone else - but that is exactly how taxation works and has always worked. Taxation exacts contributions from society’s productive members to serve the common good. This is anathema to a philosophy like Rand’s, and no doubt many of her adherents would be pleased to abolish taxation altogether even if it meant shrinking government so small that it could serve no one who really needed it. If you are wealthy enough not to need it, why should you care?

Rand’s ideas become especially toxic when mixed with the Calvinist/Puritan tradition that is so much a part of this country’s heritage. The idea that government and society owe nothing to people who cannot pay their own way is abetted by the belief that poor people are responsible for their poverty. “Let them get jobs“ say many who are ignorant of the fact that most people on Medicaid already work, and many others are too sick or disabled or simply too old and frail. People who need Medicaid to live in a nursing home and who have sacrificed their entire life savings to get it are not leeching off society. Class mobility in this country is also extremely limited and is lower than in other Western democracies. Many people work themselves to exhaustion at low paying jobs that, if they are fortunate, barely qualify them to purchase health insurance under the ACA. They are not lazy. They just do not have 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. They also lack the good fortune to have inherited the wealth that privileges so many who show contempt for them.


Ayn Rand's ideas, so powerfully expressed in these novels, have made a significant contribution in shaping today's political discourse. They provide intellectual cover for actions that are self-serving and, frankly, immoral.

There is a profound anomaly here. The Republican individualists who worship Ayn Rand 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 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: 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’s founding supposedly was influenced by Jewish and 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). We now have to ask ourselves: Who benefits from a reversal of those values? The answer is clear.

Those who have the most to gain from negating Jesus are those against whom Jesus stood when he defended the weak and the poor. Rand would have considered Christ a fool: laying down your life for another, becoming another's servant, selling what you have to give to the poor - Jesus was indeed the anti-Rand. Would Jesus have supported taking health care away from poor people to make rich people richer? Would he have agreed we are responsible to no one but ourselves and our own rational self-interest? Would he have sanctioned the claim of “This is mine!” to projects that are the work of many hands? Conservative Christians should find such questions embarrassing - unless they discover another philosophy that gives them an out.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy provides an antidote to Jewish and Christian values. It especially enables those who insist that America is a “Christian nation” to mask their hypocrisy and espouse precisely the opposite of what Jesus taught. In Rand’s ideas one hears echoes of Nietzsche: morality is an invention allowing the poor to use guilt to manipulate the rich. No one has a moral obligation to the community. The individual reigns supreme. Even the most extreme income inequality is not a bad thing; it is the just recompense to those who keep society moving. One may therefore pursue policies of shifting wealth from the lower to the upper classes without concern about the nasty things Jesus said regarding rich people and the Kingdom of Heaven.

So Paul Ryan can use Ayn Rand to justify cutting off services to the poor and still call himself a good Catholic. The Tea Party can promote Atlas Shrugged like a second Bible. As long as she gives them justification for what they really want, they can ignore the fact that she stands foursquare against everything in which they pretend to believe.

It would not be the first time philosophy was used to evade and complicate the uncomfortably simple message of Christ.

June 2017