The Plank

Real World Ayn Randism

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Sunday's Washington Post featured a story about FreedomWorks, the Dick Armey-run anti-redistributionist lobby. Unsurprisingly, FreedomWorks turns out to have a large poster of Ayn Rand in its reception area.

I mention this because my recent review essay about the continuing influence of Randian thought on the conservative movement drew the ire of Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute. Wilkinson objects that I failed to capture the true nuances of Rand's thinking:

he lazily confuses a certain syndrome of anti-redistributive thinking common among Glenn Beck aficionados, in which some Randian themes certainly do appear, with Rand's own thought.

It's certainly true that Rand did not intend her ideas as a blanket defense of the rich in all their forms. She idealized certain kinds of wealth, and scorned others. Wilkinson writes, correctly:

She did think that those who through effort or industry improve others' lives ought to see the value of their work acknowledged and rewarded in some form or other. But no one would infer from Rand's novels and nonfiction that the United States looks, or in her day looked, anything like her ideal.

The problem is that, even in Rand's time, her ideas were largely taken by the rich as a blanket defense of wealth and privilege. Wealthy businessmen actively promulgated Rand's work, and she solicited their help. In my review, I quoted one steel executive gushing that Rand finally understand what he had been saying all along:

"For twenty-five years," gushed a steel executive to Rand, "I have been yelling my head off about the little-realized fact that eggheads, socialists, communists, professors, and so-called liberals do not understand how goods are produced. Even the men who work at the machines do not understand it."

My review focused on the real-world impact Rand's ideas have had. There is a large and influential strand of thought on the right which holds wealth to be a sign of virtue and redistribution from rich to poor the most evil thing a government can do. It may not be a precise translation of Rand's ideology, but it's a pretty decent facsimile. The actual influence Rand exerts on the world comes in the form of people like Dick Armey working to protect the interests of the actual rich, not just those rich who meet the ideal of the imaginary Randian hero.

Wilkinson's objection reminds me of Marxists who deny any responsibility for conditions in Communist countries. It's true that actual communist states always differ from theoretical Marxism. At some point, though, it's fair to examine the reality created by the theory, not just the theory itself.

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