Assessing Ayn Rand: “An Utterly Intolerant and Dogmatic Person Who Did a Great Deal of Good”

I was very interested to read historian Jennifer Burns’ important new biography of Ayn Rand in part because Rand and I have a great deal in common. We are both Russian Jews from St. Petersburg, both atheists, and – most important – both of us became libertarians in large part because of our experience with communism. Burns interestingly describes how Rand’s opposition to communism was influenced by the repression suffered by her parents after the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 (for example, her father’s home and business were confiscated, and the family was discriminated against because of their “bourgeois” background). My great-grandfather (who was much poorer than Rand’s father), also had his small business confiscated in 1918, and this was one of a series of incidents that influenced my paternal grandfather’s own lifelong opposition to communism. He and Rand were almost exact contemporaries, born one year apart.

Despite all of the above, I was never much influenced by Rand or impressed by her writings. I became a libertarian in high school primarily as a result of reading Friedman, Hayek, Nozick, and Thomas Sowell – and because being a refugee from communism prevented me from becoming a left-liberal, as would otherwise have been likely. I also read some of Rand’s books at that time. But I wasn’t impressed with her effort to defend free markets based on her theory of the “virtue of selfishness,” or her “Objectivist” philosophy. Many of her ideas seemed poorly developed or superficial. I was also turned off by her intolerance for disagreement and her lack of serious effort to engage with opposing points of view.

I still think these criticisms of Rand are largely accurate. There was, however, one important point that I underrated: Ayn Rand was the greatest popularizer of libertarian ideas of the last 100 years. Many more people have read Rand’s books than have read all the works of Friedman, Hayek, Mises, Nozick, and all the other modern libertarian thinkers combined. In becoming a libertarian without any influence from Rand, I was actually unusual. Over the last 15 years, I have met a large number of libertarian intellectuals and activists of the last two generations, including some of the most famous. More often than not, reading Rand influenced their conversion to libertarianism, even though very few fully endorse her theories or consider themselves Objectivists. Burns quotes Milton Friedman’s perceptive assessment of Rand as “an utterly intolerant and dogmatic person who did a great deal of good.” I think he was probably right.

Being remembered primarily as a great popularizer would have angered Rand. As Burns’ biography makes clear, Rand saw herself as a pathbreaking original thinker who had discovered important philosophical and political truths that had previous been ignored or at least underemphasized. Rand believed that her theory of Objectivism was the only possible moral grounding for a free society. Burns documents her contempt for scholars like Hayek, Friedman, and Murray Rothbard, who tried to defend libertarian ideas on other grounds. For example, she called Hayek’s work “pure poison” and considered him “an example of our most pernicious enemy.” Indeed, the very word “libertarian” was anathema to her, and she viewed most non-Objectivist libertarians as ideological enemies. Rand also believed that one could not be a true supporter of free markets and limited government without also endorsing Objectivist views on a wide variety of non-political subjects, such as her atheism, her “Romantic” views on art and literature, and what she considered to be her rationalistic theories of love and romance. Over the years, she cut herself off from nearly all of her friends and admirers, often because they had expressed disagreement with some relatively minor part of her views.

Burns also extensively documents Rand’s many conflicts with social conservatives, especially William F. Buckley and other writers at National Review. The National Review conservatives particularly objected to her atheism. Rand was just as obnoxious to her conservative critics as she was to rival libertarian thinkers. And the conservatives often gave as good as they got. For example, Whittaker Chambers’ 1957 review of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in the National Review ridiculously compared Rand to the Nazis and communists, claiming that the true message of the book was “To a gas chamber — go!” Rand’s claim that atheism and support for freedom are inseparable was likely wrong. On the other hand, she was more insightful than the National Review conservatives on a great many other issues; for example, her opposition to Jim Crow, and her 1963 denunciation of racism as “the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism” hold up better than this notorious 1957 National Review editorial arguing that the “white community” of the southern states were justified in denying the vote to blacks “because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”

One of the strengths of Burns’ book is that she – unlike some other liberal scholars – has an excellent understanding of the issues that divided libertarians and conservatives, and also of the distinctions between different types of libertarianism. As a result, she is able to situate Rand effectively in the context of these related movements. Though the book is subtitled “Ayn Rand and the American Right,” much of it chronicles major conflicts between Rand, her supporters, and rival libertarian or conservative groups. Burns effectively shows that many other libertarian and conservative thinkers disagreed with Rand, or even hated her (as she often despised them). But they nonetheless benefited from her ability to attract an enormous new audience to libertarian and pro-market ideas.

I do have a few disagreements with Burns. The main one is with her claim that it was Ayn Rand’s emphasis on the importance of free markets that prevented an alliance between libertarians and liberals of the kind advocated in the late 1960s and early 1970s by libertarians such as Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess (ironically, Rothbard later advocated an alliance with Pat Buchananite conservatives). Rand, who despised the left even more than she did social conservatives, played a role. But many other factors were more important, including the lack of interest in such an alliance on the left. To the extent that the libertarian emphasis on free markets prevented the alliance from forming, this was hardly the result of Rand’s influence alone. Support for laissez-faire was common ground for nearly all libertarians – including those most hostile to Rand and most eager for a coalition with the left. Even at the height of libertarian dissatisfaction with conservatives during the Bush era, a variety of issues unrelated to Rand prevented the much-discussed “liberaltarian” coalition from getting off the ground.

Despite such reservations, Burns’ book is a great analysis of Rand’s place in history, and I certainly recommend it to anyone interested in Rand or the history of libertarian and pro-free market movements. Today, Rand is as popular as ever, and the debate over her legacy will surely continue.

UPDATE: To avoid misunderstanding, I should note that my grandfather’s opposition to communism was also influenced by much greater forms of oppression than the confiscation of a business, including the regime’s mass murders, suppression of religion, secret police system, censorship, and so on. Burns describes how the same was true of Rand and her family. However, the confiscation of one’s entire livelihood also should not be underrated, and in both cases it was noteworthy because it was one of the new regime’s earliest repressive measures.

UPDATE #2: Some commenters and others doubt that Rand actually believed that true support for capitalism and a free society requires endorsement of her views on religion, literature, and other nonpolitical issues. However, Rand repeatedly stated that Objectivism was a unified philosophy that had to be accepted across the board. As Burns shows in her biography, this was one of the reasons why Rand was so intolerant of other libertarian thinkers – and even members of her inner circle – who disagreed with elements of her philosophy even though they agreed with her on most public policy issues. She also claimed that religion was intrinsically “anti-man” and inherently hostile to freedom and capitalism. Rand expressed similar views about the need to adhere to the correct views on literature and other issues, in order to consistently support freedom.