Is Ayn Rand Bad for Libertarianism?

In this Wall Street Journal article, Heather Wilhelm argues that Ayn Rand is bad for libertarianism because her personal obnoxiousness, emphasis on the “virtue of selfishness,” and celebration of a small entrepreneurial elite tends to alienate potential adherents. I too dislike some aspects of Rand’s personality and disagree with many parts of her philosophy. Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Rand has done more to popularize libertarian ideas than any other writer of the last century or so – a point I emphasized in my own recent critical assessment of Rand . Literally millions of people have been influenced by her, including the vast majority of the last two generations of libertarian scholars, activists, and intellectuals, many of whom first became libertarian in the first place after reading her books. No other modern libertarian writer has won over so many people, and only a handful of nonlibertarian ones have equalled Rand’s achievements in popularizing an ideology. I am unusual in having come to libertarianism without any significant Randian influence, and despite a mostly neutral to negative reaction to her work. Even if Rand’s negative qualities have alienated a million potential adherents from the free market cause, she has attracted many more.

Brian Doherty and Katherine Mangu-Ward have already picked apart Wilhelm’s piece, and I agree with most of their points. I would add that Wilhelm is somewhat unfair to Rand in this passage:

Rand held some insight on the nature of markets and has sold scads of books, but when it comes to shaping today’s mainstream assumptions, she is a terrible marketer: elitist, cold and laser-focused on the supermen and superwomen of the world.

How are free markets best “sold”? A more compelling approach flips Rand’s philosophy on its head, explaining how everyone, especially society’s neediest, benefits from economic liberty. It’s a compelling story about how freedom and prosperity can change lives for the better. And Ayn Rand is of little help in telling it.

As a result of the recent resurgence of interest in Rand, I have been rereading her most famous book, Atlas Shrugged – a work that I gave up trying to finish the last time I tried reading it many years ago. One of the main themes of the story is precisely the way in which ordinary people, including the “neediest,” suffer when free markets and entrepreneurship are replaced by government planning and interest group lobbying. Railroads, factories, mines, and other key industries malfunction and collapse as a result (even before Rand’s entrepreneurial heroes go “on strike” in order to counter the movement toward socialism). Rand even has one of her “superman” heroes (Francisco D’Anconia) deliver a speech explaining in somewhat tedious detail why voluntary market exchange benefits the public more than government control. Economist Bryan Caplan has an excellent article explaining how Atlas Shrugged vividly (and often realistically) portrays the dangers that government control of the economy creates for the general public.

It is true, of course, that this theme is a less prominent element of Atlas than Rand’s valorization of elite entrepreneurial “supermen and superwomen.” Had I written the book, I would have concentrated a lot more on the former and a lot less on the latter. I would have done many other things differently, too. Then again, if I had written the book it probably wouldn’t have attained even a fraction of its vast popularity.

Rereading Atlas Shrugged today, I come away with a more favorable impression of Rand than before. Rand’s positive heroes still seem unrealistic and sometimes unappealing. On the other hand, I find her villains and her portrayal of government generally compelling. I still think that her philosophy and her literary style have many shortcomings. Today’s free market advocates shouldn’t ignore Rand’s weaknesses, nor should they accept all of her ideas. They certainly shouldn’t imitate her authoritarian leadership style and her intolerance for opposing views. But it would be wrong to deny that her influence has been a huge net benefit for the movement.