“This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self interest,” Gore Vidal saidof Ayn Rand, writing for Esquire in July 1961, “and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the ‘freedom is slavery’ sort.”
The mindset of Rand’s followers has not changed over the decades. “She has a great attraction for simple people” Vidal said then, “who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the ‘welfare’ state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts. For them, she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil, self-interest is the only good, and if you’re dumb or incompetent that’s your lookout.”
Even so, then as now, Rand had a large following. “What interests me most about her,” wrote Vidal, “is not the absurdity of her ‘philosophy,’ but the size of her audience (in my campaign for the House she was the one writer people knew and talked about).”
Vidal also described Rand as “a rhetorician who writes novels I have never been able to read.”
In the 50 years since Gore Vidal penned those words, the cult around the philosophy of that “odd little woman” has grown both in size and influence.
Today, the best-known Republican propagandists — Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck — have praised her. GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is a Randite, as is the Republican Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was both an acolyte and close friend of Rand in his youth.
But her philosophy is most influential in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where her number-one fanboy is, hands down, Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and author of the GOP’s signature kill-Medicare budget bill.
“The reason I got involved in public service,” Ryan once said, “if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”
What is it about Rand’s philosophy that Ryan finds appealing? “Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism,” Ryan has said. “And this to me is what matters the most: it is not enough to say that President Obama’s taxes are too big or that the health care plan does not work, or this or that policy reason. It is the morality of what is occurring right now; and how it offends the morality of individuals working for their own free will, to produce, to achieve, to succeed that is under attack.”
How important is Rand’s philosophy to him? “I give out Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents,” Ryan has said, “and I make all my interns read it.”
Ryan is a practicing Catholic, according to his official biography. But here we have him handing out copies of Atlas Shrugged, a paean to godlessness and anti-Christian values, as Christmas presents.
Remember that Rep. Ryan is supposedly one of the big thinkers on the right these days. As a die-hard devotee of Ayn Rand, he has to know that she was adamantly opposed to religion in general and Christianity specifically.
“I don’t approve of religion,” she once stated, flatly. Elsewhere, she decried religious faith as evil. “[Faith],” she said, “is a sign of a psychological weakness … I regard it as evil to place your emotions, your desire, above the evidence of what your mind knows. That’s what you’re doing with the idea of God.”
She was particularly scornful toward the foundational premise of Christianity, that Jesus sacrificed himself for the sins of others. “According to the Christian mythology,” she wrote, “[Christ] died on the cross not for his own sins but for the sins of the non-ideal people. In other words, a man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious and who are expected or supposed to accept that sacrifice. If I were a Christian, nothing could make me more indignant than that: the notion of sacrificing the ideal to the non-ideal, or virtue to vice. And it is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors. That is precisely how the symbolism is used. That is torture.”
The prospect of a schism between Randites and religious fundamentalists in the Republican Party has been around from the beginning. Here is Vidal describing it in 1961:
She is fighting two battles: the first, against the idea of the State being anything more than a police force and a judiciary to restrain people from stealing each other’s money openly. She is in legitimate company here. There is a reactionary position which has many valid attractions, among them lean, sinewy, regular-guy Barry Goldwater. But it is Miss Rand’s second battle that is the moral one. She has declared war not only on Marx but on Christ. Now, although my own enthusiasm for the various systems evolved in the names of those two figures is limited, I doubt if even the most anti-Christian free-thinker would want to deny the ethical value of Christ in the Gospels.
To reject that Christ is to embark on dangerous waters indeed. For to justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil. For one thing, it is gratuitous to advise any human being to look out for himself. You can be sure that he will. It is far more difficult to persuade him to help his neighbor to build a dam or to defend a town or to give food he has accumulated to the victims of a famine. But since we must live together, dependent upon one another for many things and services, altruism is necessary to survival.
But there has been no schism. Quite the opposite. And the fact that Republican evangelicals, who are instructed by Christ to feed the hungry, house the homeless and heal the sick, have embarked into these dangerous waters so quietly and without hesitation is telling. If they are at all disconcerted by the Randites’ push to cut government assistance for the poor, elderly and infirm and reallocate those taxpayer dollars as subsidies and tax breaks for the Republican Party’s corporate sponsors, they have kept their concerns to themselves.
So how did conservatives reconcile the opposing creeds of Christian selflessness and Randian selfishness? As Vidal noted in Esquire, they simply redefined morality:
To get people to do needed things is the perennial hard task of government, not to mention of religion and philosophy. That it is right to help someone less fortunate is an idea which has figured in most systems of conduct since the beginning of the race. We often fail. That predatory demon “I” is difficult to contain but until now we have all agreed that to help others is a right action. Now the dictionary definition of “moral” is: “concerned with the distinction between right and wrong” as in “moral law, the requirements to which right action must conform.”
Though Miss Rand’s grasp of logic is uncertain, she does realize that to make even a modicum of sense she must change all the terms.
The unlikely partnership of Bible beaters and Randites was on display earlier this month at the Faith and Freedom conclave convened in Washington by Ralph Reed, the former head of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and alleged money-launderer for the Republican conman, “Casino Jack” Abramoff. One of Reed’s featured speakers was the Christian/anti-Christian coalition’s point man, Rep. Paul Ryan.
Greed is no longer simply good. With Ralph Reed’s blessings, it is now holy. Vidal continues:
Both Marx and Christ agree that in this life a right action is consideration for the welfare of others. In the one case, through a state which was to wither away, in the other through the private exercise of the moral sense. Miss Rand now tells us that what we have thought was right is really wrong. The lesson should have read: One for one and none for all.
What Vidal could not have known in 1961 was that Ayn Rand’s ultimate lesson would be, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
At the end of her life, suffering from lung cancer as a result of a two-pack-a-day nicotine addiction, Rand quietly renounced her philosophy of selfish self-reliance. According to the Oral History of Ayn Rand by Scott McConnell, founder of the media department at the Ayn Rand Institute, after the American capitalist medical system had wiped her out financially, she used her married name, Ann O’Connor, to apply for and receive Social Security and Medicare.
Yes, in the end, when Ayn Rand found herself in the unfortunate position of those she’d built a philosophy, not to mention a career, castigating — when it was she who was elderly, broke and ill — she availed herself of the crown jewels of American socialism.
Vidal concluded his Esquire “Comment” with a warning that in retrospect seems to presage the rise of her cult at the core of the American empire. “Ayn Rand’s ‘philosophy,’” he wrote, “is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society. Moral values are in flux. The muddy depths are being stirred by new monsters and witches from the deep. Trolls walk the American night. Caesars are stirring in the Forum. There are storm warnings ahead.”