A reader sent in this to me to get my opinion. I have read every word Ayn Rand ever wrote publicly, and I was into her for quite some time. Here is quite a bit to unpack here. For context, you should go read the opinion and then come back here. I promise you that it’s worth it.
1) She lived a sort of heroic life and despite all her railing against Altruism, she never made much money and was completely dependent on Social Security into her old age. She seldom lived alone and independent, was constantly depending on men to take care of her…speaking of men.
2) She burnt through men like some people go through underwear, only she didn’t wash and re-use. So much for her upstanding morals? I don’t mean to shame her or her sex life, but it is a little bit ironic that the person who is advocating selfishness was dependent on the compassion and kindness of others for her living for most of her life.
3) I don’t think she misunderstood “selfishness” I think that’s precisely what she meant. She saw herself and others as truly free agents who would, should, and could do the “right,” “moral,” and “selfish” thing. This is the woman who literally stole another woman’s husband because it was the “reasonable” thing to do because she loved him. She viewed whatever she did as reasonable.
4) The article forgets that her philosophy didn’t just reject government overreach. It was a rejection of altruism. I don’t know how you can write about Ayn Rand without mentioning that word. She says it dozens of times in contemporary interviews. She believed that no one was obligated to do anything for anyone apart from themselves. That was central to her idea that selfishness was moral, and she wrote a short non-fiction titled “The morality of selfishness;” I read it three times.
5) Ayn Rand was very much a product of the Soviet system, although in probably its most prosperous stage. Stalin’s ability to turn an agricultural economy into an industrial one in less than 10 years is quite remarkable. However, I think she saw the pernicious nature of government and how people had traded one form of totalitarian control for another. There is something in the Russian character that must be controlled by an outside force. They are a people that craves the lash and order. It’s in their literature. She saw herself differently. She saw herself as an individual, a subject, a free agent. Obviously, this was incompatible with Stalinist communism.
6) I think Ayn Rand has a great deal of appeal to young, particularly men, who want to bust out and do big things in the world. This is why it appealed to me for a long time. It wasn’t until Occupy Wall Street (in Denver) that I realized how wrong I was. I had no idea how much I was dependent on a system that I did not understand, and how much of a free agent I was not. It would take me another 15 years before I figured out that my identities meant that society had already cast me aside and no amount of hard work, tenacity, and smart ideas was going to make my dreams possible.
7) I do agree with Tucker that people do like to create villains and saints out of certain thinkers. Often it has to do with how popular their thoughts are at the time. Someone can be popular for several decades and then fall out of favor. To some degree, this has happened to Rand. She is still so popular in Silicon Valley that people name their kids after her or her characters. It’s rather telling that the tech bros see themselves through that lens only. They do not see themselves as part of the greater story or the tapestry of society. This is why they hate the humanities, because the humanities asks you to think beyond yourself and about other people. Ayn Rand rejected the very idea of thinking about others.
8) Ayn Rand was very much the right person at the right time for what she was writing and talking about. I think that was why she was so popular. Everyone was so afraid of communism, we recreated our entire society to be focused on the individual. We added “under god” to the pledge of allegiance in 1959 to counter godless communism. We changed the way we wrote fiction so that it would focus on the individual. People who were a part of the John Birch society and the Federalist Society began a work that has now reached its zenith. Neoliberal economics and the primacy of the individual has burdened the working classes on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world with unimaginable austerity, debt, and economic servitude to the 1%.
My main problem with Ayn Rand and her acolytes is that they don’t realize that American prosperity, particularly during the 20th century, was predicated on a virtuous cycle of people being able to afford to buy products and afford to actually live life. The government dumped money into projects like Bell Labs, without which modernity wouldn’t exist as we know it. Until now, the government pays for most pharma research. The internet, cellphones, TCP/IP protocol were all government projects. Modern air travel was directly created by the Department of Transportation via subsidies to Pan-Am, which drove several other airlines out of business. Our civilization would not be possible without a bunch of government spending on things that don’t have much value in the private sector, at least not at first. Reagan convinced the Boomers that the government was the enemy, and that simply wasn’t true in 1980, and it is not true now.
No one has had more outsized effect on American politics than Ayn Rand though. I will say that. Her influence is everywhere. I was just writing about this concept. From my upcoming, America’s Lost Generation:
Millennials want to believe in the government. It is in our collaborative nature that has strong desires to work together as a group to achieve a certain goal. However, other generations on either side of Millennials are far more suspicious of the government. This has to do with the narratives around government. For Boomers, the Draft, Watergate, and Kent State reinforced anti-government narratives. For Gen X, the HIV/AIDS crisis and Iran-Contra further reinforced this narrative. For Millennials, it should have the lies around the Iraq war, but many Millennials were still in high school. 9–11 came too soon as well. 2008 was blamed on the banks, not the government, and so the pandemic is really the first opportunity for Millennials to get a taste of the government not working well.
Policy Wonk, Nate Silver draws an interesting connection between this phenomenon and changing public attitudes toward the government over the latter part of the twentieth century: “we may have gone from conceiving of the government as an entity that builds roads, dams, and airports to provides shared services like schooling, policing and national parks, and wages wars, into the worlds’ largest insurance broker Most of us don’t much care for our insurance broker.” (Nate Silver in The New York Times, 1–17–13)
However, the problem with people, the government and Millennials especially begins with their grandparents and the reforms of the New Deal. Sternberg writes of the New Deal reforms, “With the creation of Social Security and unemployment assistance programs in the 1930s, the government offered a financial backstop for those who lost their jobs, or for the elderly who hadn’t been able to save adequately for their retirements.”
The reforms of the New Deal were followed on by large social spending and change domestically in the years after World War II. The Bretton Woods economic system gave the US an economic advantage to pay for all these new programs, fight the Cold War, and send a man to the moon. This would come crashing down in 1971. Sternberg writes, “One reality was that to foster security and economic growth, the United States as a new superpower would have little choice but to play a much greater military role in the world. The Boomer’s parents and grandparents made a serious fiscal mistake in the 1950s and 60s when they acted as if the higher level of US military spending during the Cold War was only temporary. That might have seemed true at the beginning, when some analysts expected the Society Union and Mao’s People’s Republic of China would collapse relatively quickly. But at a certain point, Washington should have realized that elevated military spending — which was almost 9 percent of GDP in the 1960s, and more than 5 percent of GDP on average through both the 1970s and 1980s — was no longer what Alexander Hamilton would have considered an “emergency.” It was a new and ongoing fact of life, and other parts of the budget should have adjusted in response.”
But other parts of the budget didn’t adjust and our combined spending on the Cold War, Vietnam, the Apollo program, the war on drugs, and the Great Society reforms led to a collapse of the Bretton Woods systems and American prosperity in 1971 when Nixon took the US dollar off the gold standard and let the currency free float. This set off a decade of trouble that included the oil crisis with the Middle East and outrageous interest rates and stagflation that would punctuate the malaise of the late 1970s.
If the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations had budgeted differently, they could have saved the Bretton Woods systems at least. It is not that we couldn’t have done all of those things, but we might have needed to reign in costs, especially in Vietnam. Some parts of the Great Society could have been cheaper or cost less and the spending around the space program, while glamorous, was a bit unnecessary all because Kennedy promised that America would be a man on the moon by 1969 and his assassination made it seem like that promise had to be fulfilled in his memory.
These two eras of progress would set up difficult economic times ahead. Layoffs began in earnest, entire companies and even whole industries began to dry up overnight. Family farms collapsed too. Anyone depending on credit for business operations were crushed by eleven to seventeen percent interest rates. American business, which had operated smoothly for nearly 30 years, was grinding to a halt. The halt was not just caused by a change in economics or the collapse of the gold standard, either. Foreign competition had come into play. By this time, the economics of Japan and Europe had rebuilt, and their goods were flooding into American shores. Their technology was newer, faster, and more efficient. The American industry hadn’t competed internationally before, and its first outing was a rout.
Coming out of the 1970s, Paul Volcker would break the terrible inflation of the late 1970s. The petrodollar would help absorb most of the currency inflation. Reagan would be swept into office, promising to undo the regulatory environment that had seemingly caused the last decade of economic issues. Reagan was not a vanguard, he was a product of political and economic attitudes that had begun in 1951 with the Federalist Society, The John Birch Society, The Austrian, and the Chicago Schools of economics. Neoliberal economics had arrived, and it was here to stay.
The next several US presidents would assiduously tear apart the progress made between 1933 and 1971. Everything from trucking to airlines would be deregulated, taxes were lowered, higher education would be defunded, mental healthcare would be defunded, welfare would be reformed, and people would be set free to “do what you do best,” as Reagan would put it. These ideas had great appeal because people, rightly so, believed that they could do better on their own with all the government interference that had become common place in the American economy over the course of the 20th century. What Boomer voters in 1980 did not realize was that they were selling their children and their grand-children up the river for temporary gains and the scion of “shareholder value.”
Thanks to corporate capture of government, neoliberal economics have ruled the US economy for Millennials entire lives. People still believe that if the wealthy and corporations don’t get what they want, the terrible conditions of the 1970s will return. Since 1977, wealth has flowed away from productivity and workers and to the wealthy. Financialization and securitization in the 1980s and 1990s would accelerate this trend even further, as the banking sector began to dominate more and more of the American economy. Goods were cheaper thanks to cheap overseas labor, but services skyrocketed in cost. In economic circles on social media, a familiar graph will get posted showing how the price of goods has fallen and nearly everything has increased in price.
The Boomers did well under this system. It’s hard to deny it. Many have become wealthy in relative terms. Homeownership rates remain high among this generation. Retirement accounts are filled with trillions of dollars that bump around the stock market. Many Boomers who came from little were able to be upwardly mobile in ways that seem to express the highest aspirations of the American dream. An economic boom did occur from 1993–2004. Alan Greenspan graced the covers of Time magazine, proclaimed as the master of the economic universe who had finally figured out how to manage the American economy.
However, this came at a terrible cost. Politics ground to a halt in any functional terms because both major parties serve the corporate interest. The national debt, as a percentage of GDP, is at 110% now thanks to years of tax cuts extending back to Reagan. Wealth inequality has reached Gilded Age levels according to every measure, and the problem has become so severe that even the well-heeled folks at Davos and the World Economic Forum have realized that it has become a problem.
Politically, the Boomers have controlled American politics since 1980. Their preferences, values, and desires have held the country hostage. Their seeming hostility to social programs of any kind, taxes, and their desire to keep asset prices rising have prevented any sort of mitigation of the worst effects of neoliberalism and austerity. Millennials and Gen Z look at Europe’s generous social programs with envy of what this country could have had, and they wonder why we don’t have those sorts of programs here. The answer is simple: their parents and grandparents voted to make sure that would never happen in this country. What little social safety that was available has been pared back to be nearly useless.