Ayn Rand, Conservatism’s Favorite Philosopher

There is a line of Scripture politicians commonly recite when American warriors killed in action or law-enforcement officers killed in the line of duty are commemorated. They may refrain from identifying the New Testament as its source lest they risk breaching our liberal republic’s sacred “wall of separation” between Church and state, but we can do so. It is John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

We recall this saying of Our Lord on self-sacrifice because our subject here is Ayn Rand, author of phenomenally-successful best-selling novels (The Fountainhead, first published in 1943, and Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957) and leading light of a brand of philosophy cobbled together by her and that she and her disciples called Objectivism. Some have described it as “romantic selfishness.” Moral anarchy would be a better description.

A celebrity in her day, Rand was frequently interviewed on television and in print media. Numerous of the TV interviews can be found on YouTube by those who are interested. They will hear that she had a stock answer for responding to any interviewer who asked, “What is Objectivism?” or “What exactly do you believe?”

She gave the same answer in a Playboy magazine interview in 1964. She held that “man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself for others, nor others to himself.”

That’s quite a contrast to John 15:13.

If the notion that the pursuit of our own happiness is our highest moral purpose strikes us as an idea that would have special appeal to a self-absorbed adolescent, we shall ignore it that it is also proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, the republic’s foundational document, as one of three “unalienable rights,” together with life and liberty. What interests us is that Rand’s philosophy figures in the thinking, and perforce the actions, of men of power today who are old enough that they ought long ago to have outgrown the self-centeredness of adolescence.

According to an article in the New York Times last July 13, President Donald Trump has named Ayn Rand his favorite writer and The Fountainhead his favorite novel. Of course the President has been quoted elsewhere as boasting that he doesn’t read books. Perhaps he read Rand when he was nineteen, before self-promotion and making money took all his time. In any event, the same article reports that former Big Oil CEO and now Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “has cited Atlas Shrugged as a favorite work” and quotes CIA Director Mike Pompeo saying the book “really had an impact on me.” It also directly quotes Ray Daleo, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, as saying “her books pretty well capture the mindset” of the Trump Administration.

Washington D.C. in the era of Trump isn’t the only place where the thinking of leading figures has been stunted by Rand. There is also Silicon Valley. Vanity Fair magazine has named her the most influential figure in the technology industry, surpassing Steve Jobs. It is easy to believe. There aren’t many other places with a greater concentration of individuals devoted to making money heedless of the social consequences of what they do.

As for Rand’s influence in Washington’s corridors of power, readers unfamiliar with the nation’s capital should know that we who live in the place didn’t have to wait for the advent of the current Administration to be aware of it. Before Mitt Romney named him his running mate in 2012, House Speaker Paul Ryan was known around Capitol Hill for requiring his staffers and interns to read Atlas Shrugged. In a New Yorker profile in 2009 he enthused,“What’s unique about what’s happening today in government, in the world, in America, is that it’s like we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel right now. I think Ayn Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism.” However, Ryan, who was born and raised Catholic, started singing a different hymn in 2012, declaring his adherence to Objectivism to be an “urban legend,” that he rejected Rand’s philosophy because it is atheist, and claiming the real influence on his thinking to be St. Thomas Aquinas!

Politicians can always be counted on to say what is politic.

Alan Greenspan was not a politician, not in the sense of ever running for an elective office. In 1974 President Gerald Ford made him Chairman of his Council of Economic Advisors. In 1987 Ronald Reagan named him Chairman of the Federal Reserve, a post he continued to hold until 2006 under the presidencies of Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, his easy-money policies now seen as a leading cause of the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 and consequent near-meltdown of the U.S. and world economies.

When they wanted to pretend that advancing their own financial interests wasn’t their only concern, conservatives in those days used to talk about the kind of economics advocated by Greenspan as “trickle-down.” The idea was that as the rich got richer, everybody else would supposedly prosper. “All boats will be lifted,” it was said. In fact working middle-class income has been stagnant since 1972.

It has nothing to do with economics, but we now know that in the run-up to the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the pretext Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, behind the scenes Greenspan was lobbying senior officials of the George W. Bush Administration for regime change in Baghdad.

What some readers may not realize about Alan Greenspan, although the facts are well known and even flaunted by him, is that during the fifties and sixties he was a fervent Objectivist, a member of an inner circle of Rand devotees called the Collective. (The appellation was a joke, radical individualism being at the heart of their beliefs.) Rand stood next to him when he was sworn in as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in 1974.

In a TV interview with Mike Wallace in 1959 Rand declared: “Out of my own mind, with the sole acknowledgement of a debt to Aristotle, the only philosopher who ever influenced me, I devised the rest of my philosophy by myself.” Like her philosophy, Rand manufactured her name (the Ay is supposed to be pronounced as “I”). She was born Alisa Rosenbaum. That was in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905. When she died in New York City in 1982 a six-foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign stood next to her coffin at her funeral.

(To be continued)

Addendum. Having here spotlighted something of Rand’s influence, in a few weeks I’ll deal with her work, but I don’t want to conclude now without some lines devoted to Our Lady, the next month being a time rich in anniversaries of her action in the world.

September 8, of course, is the Feast of Our Lady’s Nativity, her birthday. Inasmuch as God Incarnate took His human flesh from her, we can see her birthday as the origin of all other feasts.

Four days later comes the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary. It was in gratitude to the “Liberatrix of the West” that Pope Innocent XI extended this feast to the Universal Church after her intercession secured the victory of Christian forces over the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683.

On September 15 we remember Our Lady at the foot of the Cross on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Can we fathom how her Immaculate Heart must have been racked when she witnessed the Incarnation of Divine Love scorned by the world to the point of His being tortured to death?

Yet on October 7 comes the Feast of the Holy Rosary, which was included in the Church’s calendar by Pope St. Pius V to mark the victory of Christian forces fighting under the banner of Our Lady over the Turks – Muslims again bent on enslaving Western Christendom – at Lepanto in 1571. October 7 will also be the last day of this year’s annual SBC conference with speakers invited to offer “A Worldview in the Light of Fatima”.

Cardinal Sarah has identified the materialism of today’s liberal West and Muslim jihadists as the two great threats facing the Church and thus, we may say, the world in our time. The dollar sign next to Ayn Rand’s coffin where a cross should be tells us where materialism will lead if we let it. So does a President when for the sake of a “huge” armaments deal he makes his first stop on his first overseas trip the country that is the birthplace and center of Islam. (We can imagine the Saudis gloating about how they were selling “conservatives” rope with which to hang themselves.)

Inspired by this month’s coming feasts, let our worldview be that even as Our Lady rescued Christendom from the brink of catastrophe in the past, so also will her Immaculate Heart finally prevail against today’s threats, exactly as she promised at Fatima (provided we do our part as she prescribed).

  • When I was reading this article, the following jumped out at me:

    She gave the same answer in a Playboy magazine interview in 1964. She held that “man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose [my emphasis—BAM], that he must not sacrifice himself for others, nor others to himself.”

    If the notion that the pursuit of our own happiness is our highest moral purpose strikes us as an idea that would have special appeal to a self-absorbed adolescent, we shall ignore it that it is also proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, the republic’s foundational document, as one of three “unalienable rights,” together with life and liberty.

    Some may read the passage I emboldened simply to be a restatement of the Aristotelian eudaemonism that was “baptized” by Saint Thomas in his own ethical system. But, from the mind of Rand, it is neither Aristotelian, nor (with an even greater certainly!) Thomistic.

    Providentially, while researching another topic entirely, I came upon an article by Father EDMUND WALDSTEIN, O.CIST.: Thomism, Happiness, and Selfishness

    The article deals with Rand by name.

    It’s worth a read.

  • Max Wylde

    A conundrum I found with the Objectivist train of thought is what to do about a man about to commit suicide. You come to a man on a bridge, and he looks like he’s about to jump. It was asked to Milton Friedman that in a libertarian/Objectivist society, is it permissible to get that man help and get him not to kill himself? He answered that, in such a society, you would not be stopped.

    However, I suggest quite the opposite. You might not be initially stopped by anyone, but the mindset such a society induces would prevent you from doing anything to stop him, lest you be accused of “imposing your morality” upon him. As if I have my own morality, and you have your own, and that this is important to the individual. Hence, if you helped such a person in crisis, you might end up being chastised, or worse, prosecuted for daring to impose your morality upon him, because every society guards its philosophies. Even our own does, though it’s rather gooey; Conduct Over Creed, in that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you’re a nice person (go along to get along). We may say we believe in free speech, but I’d say that’s under question at the moment.

    In an Objectivist society, I suggest that it would be illegal for you to be a saint. Because if you acted as saintly as you can, in accordance to the teachings of Christ, the Church, and the Saints, you would naturally pose a threat to the established order of things; because you’re bound to offend someone. Not intentionally, but then again Our Blessed Lord said that He did not come to bring peace, but the sword, meaning that Truth itself is contentious; it discriminates against Error. By living as saintly as you can, you would be a living threat to Error itself. Those that try to live Godly lives are difficult for the wicked to bear, because they make them self-conscious, and that might make them feel bad, and feeling bad is to be avoided.

  • TesaBess333

    She was never Catholic—Ayn Rand, born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia and grew up there and on the Crimean Peninsula in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. Rand was born Jewish, though she declared herself an atheist at a relatively young age. http://hollowverse.com/ayn-rand/

  • Professor Q

    I think Ayn Rand is a good projective test for differentiating between “neo-conservative”, Traditional, and “liberal” (aka heterodox) Catholics.

    Neo-Conservatives think she’s great, think John Paul II would have approved of her, and can’t understand why all those mean liberals and integralists don’t like her.
    “Liberals” respond with paroxysms of infantile rage, and then proceed to blame her for everything that is wrong with the world.
    Traditionals – those steeped in Catholic morality and teaching – write thoughtful pieces like the ones above.

  • Sharon Theil

    Let me get this straight, Ayn Rand is an atheist, materialist, feminist, radical individualist and greedier than Gordon Gecko and therefore she must be every conservative’s favorite philosopher?! Wow! That is such an insult! And I would be really offended if I didn’t know something that Mr. Potter seems to have overlooked, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and Playboy are not reliable sources.

  • Gary Potter’s latest book is now available:

    https://twitter.com/Brother_Andre/status/912471318054019072