It’s no secret that the right is awash in Ayn Rand. Tea Partiers carry signs like “Who is John Galt?” and, astonishing for a novel published 55 years ago, sales of Atlas Shrugged topped 445,000 last year.
All of this has prompted researchers like Yale historian Beverly Gage to wonder, “Why is there no liberal Ayn Rand?” Good question. Liberals today, Gage observes, have no long-term goals or vision, no big ideas, no canon.
Here’s a radical thought. Instead of liberals dismissing Rand’s appeal to the American spirit of individualism and independence, as President Obama recently did in his Rolling Stone interview, why don’t liberals make Rand part of a new canon? Why let conservatives monopolize her?
Rand herself I suspect would have welcomed this. In a talk in Boston in 1961, she lamented the fact that both liberals and conservatives were ideologically bankrupt, with too many liberals turning sympathetically to unlimited government and too many conservatives turning back to the Middle Ages. She was seeking to address, she said, “the ‘non-totalitarian liberals’ and the ‘non-traditional conservatives'” in the audience.
Her message that night was the need for a principled, uncompromising fight for a moral ideal she thought long abandoned by both sides, the rights of the individual. This means life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness: your moral right to follow your own reasoned judgment in earning your way in the world and achieving your happiness.
Religious conservatives like Paul Ryan have to distance themselves from Rand’s philosophy. Theirs is an inconsistent position. Ryan, for instance, wants to be seen as an advocate of individual rights while simultaneously making a mockery of a woman’s right to the pursuit of happiness by proposing to force her to bring a pregnancy to term even in the case of rape.
Rand rejects such medievalism. Precisely because raising a child is a personal and immense undertaking, a woman must have the freedom to judge whether and when to have children. To equate an embryo with a human being, a potential with the actual, and then to declare the willful ending of a pregnancy murder, is to abandon reason and science in favor of mystical Church dogmas. No government, Rand argued, should have the power to dictate to a woman in such matters; it’s her life and her decision.
The same principle — the individual’s moral right to his own life — put Rand on the side of other supposedly liberal causes: she was a staunch defender of free speech and immigration and a staunch opponent of racism. But this very principle led Rand to reject what too many liberal-leaning people seemingly dare not even question: the modern regulatory-welfare state.
What in the end is the regulatory-welfare state but a massive and growing attempt to override our reasoned choices and decisions: to dictate to us whose permission we must obtain to drive a taxi or serve alcohol in a restaurant, what questions we’re allowed to ask in a job interview, whose health care we must pay for and in what way, how much we must “save” for retirement (which the government then proceeds to spend), and on and on and on.
Take the case of but one regulatory agency, the FDA. The FDA wasn’t created to outlaw fraud, which was already illegal. It exists to tell us which drugs we can buy, companies which drugs they can sell, how those drugs must be tested and how manufactured. What if people rationally disagree with the government’s dictates? What if a company thinks it has developed a better way of testing for efficacy or an unconventional but superior manufacturing process? What if a patient is willing to risk known and even unknown side effects because of the unusual severity of his disease? If the decision about abortion should be left to a woman (in consultation with her doctor), why shouldn’t these important decisions be solely between the individuals involved? Because they are economic in nature, and therefore subject to majority vote?
This is precisely one issue on which Rand challenges modern liberals: whether it’s consistent to advocate an individual’s intellectual and personal liberty while denying him economic liberty.
It wasn’t always so. Liberals in the nineteenth century were champions of science and at the forefront of abolishing slavery and securing a woman’s individual rights. But they were also champions of private property, free trade and economic liberty. It is this combination that produced the individual’s unprecedented progress in that century. Modern liberals, however, abandoned the right to private property in favor of various socialistic visions, which have since faded with awareness of what socialism and communism actually wrought. The result is what Gage notes: modern liberals bereft of an ideal.
Any liberal-leaning person today who seeks long-term goals and a new vision, but will not touch the political right because of conservatives’ anti-evolution, anti-immigration, anti-abortion platforms, would do well to remember nineteenth-century liberalism. Perhaps the two alternatives confronting us, a government with virtually unlimited power to dictate our personal lives or our economic lives, are both defective.
For anyone willing to explore this possibility, I can think of no better place to start than with Ayn Rand.