The Non-Contradiction of Rand’s Capitalism

Adam Kirsch reviews Anne Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made in the NYT.  As others have noted, the review contains a curious passage.

Nor would Rand, sooner than any other desert prophet, allow her message to be trifled with. When Bennett Cerf, a head of Random House, begged her to cut Galt’s speech, Rand replied with what Heller calls “a comment that became publishing legend”: “Would you cut the Bible?” One can imagine what Cerf thought — he had already told Rand plainly, “I find your political philosophy abhorrent” — but the strange thing is that Rand’s grandiosity turned out to be perfectly justified.

In fact, any editor certainly would cut the Bible, if an agent submitted it as a new work of fiction. But Cerf offered Rand an alternative: if she gave up 7 cents per copy in royalties, she could have the extra paper needed to print Galt’s oration. That she agreed is a sign of the great contradiction that haunts her writing and especially her life. Politically, Rand was committed to the idea that capitalism is the best form of social organization invented or conceivable. . . .

Yet while Rand took to wearing a dollar-sign pin to advertise her love of capitalism, Heller makes clear that the author had no real affection for dollars themselves. Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision is something that no genuine capitalist, and few popular novelists, would have done. It is the act of an intellectual, of someone who believes that ideas matter more than lucre. In fact, as Heller shows, Rand had no more reverence for the actual businessmen she met than most intellectuals do. The problem was that, according to her own theories, the executives were supposed to be as creative and admirable as any artist or thinker. They were part of the fraternity of the gifted, whose strike, in “Atlas Shrugged,” brings the world to its knees.

It would seem Mr. Kirsch does not understand Rand’s capitalist ideal and is not all that familiar with Rand’s work (perhaps beyond what he read in Heller’s book).  If he’s read The Fountainhead, he clearly missed the essential features of Howard Roark’s character and the underlying egoism driving all of Rand’s heroes.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to criticize about Rand and her work — unlike some libertarians, I was never all that enamored with Rand or her ideas — but this alleged “contradiction” is not one of them.