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Ayn Rand: One Key to Today's Right Wing

By Margy Stewart
Analysis | October 20, 2012

MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - I have been puzzled by the new Republican Party -- not the party of my father or grandfather, not the party of excellent local public servants such as Tom Moxley, Ben Bennett, Roger Reitz, Jeff Longbine, Rebecca Bossemeyer, or Florence Whitebread -- but the extreme right-wing party of Paul Ryan, Sam Brownback, and many members of the Tea Party. Their views seem illogical. After unregulated financial dealings brought down our economy in 2008, why make a fetish of the free market? Why talk as if everything government does is bad, despite obvious counter-examples (clean water, enforceable contracts) ? And why paste labels on Americans of modest means, when they clearly don't deserve it? Why call them the "47%" who "will never take responsibility or care for their lives," as Romney did at a private fundraiser, or the "30%" who are "Takers, not Makers," as Ryan did before a conservative group?

In search of a better understanding, I decided to learn more about the philosophy behind this trend. For years Paul Ryan has cited Ayn Rand as the thinker that inspired him to get into politics; he asks his staff to read her works. So off to the library I went and came home with a copy of The Fountainhead. I read all 700 pages of it. And lo and behold, there it was, in this novel written in the 1930s and published in 1943, a philosophical justification for the apparently counter-intuitive positions of today's right wing.

If you go through the looking glass and enter the world of The Fountainhead, all of a sudden today's right-wing rhetoric makes sense. The contest between the novel's hero and its villain embodies Rand's view of good vs. evil -- or, in her world, individualism vs. collectivism. The hero is the innovative architect Howard Roark, the self-sufficient, uncompromising individualist, described by the author as "the noble soul par excellence -- the man as man should be -- the man who lives for himself."

The villain is Ellsworth Toohey, a man who pretends to live for others, a crusader for the common man, a believer in equality, and a raiser of funds for charities. But in Rand's world, the person who lives for others lives on others, a sort of parasite, not living his own self-reliant life and not letting others be self-reliant, either. In Rand's view, compassion, empathy, altruism -- all are shams and cons, perversions of the self-interested individualism that is the real purpose of life. So Rand makes the scheming Toohey, who "glorifies all forms of collectivism," the "born, organic enemy of all things heroic." Throughout the book, Toohey is the implacable opponent of Howard Roark.

All of history is just Roark vs. Toohey, writ large, according to this book. As Roark puts it, history is "a contest of the individual against the collective." In that history, just a few heroic individuals have been "the Creators" whose achievements "carried all humanity along." Everyone else has been "second-handers" or "parasites" who "contribute nothing except the impediments." Laissez-faire capitalism is the best system for Creators; there's only one constructive thing society can do, and that's get out of their way.

Needless to say, Ayn Rand's "Second-handers" and "parasites" bear a strong family relationship to Romney's "47%" and Ryan's "Takers." If you accept her premises, today's labels make sense. So what if Social Security, soldiers' pay, and veterans benefits are earned? They're funds handled by the government, aren't they? And government is an expression of a country, a collective, and therefore by definition something corrosive, something that saps moral fiber, corrupting everything it touches. As an expression of collectivism, government is inherently "the problem, not the solution." This view explains someone like Missouri right-wing senatorial candidate, Todd Akin. Akin called government support for student loans "Stage 3 cancer." This is nonsense unless you accept the premise that government is inherently pathogenic, "the disease, not the cure." Akin is, of course, the "legitimate rape" guy. Indeed, in The Fountainhead, the heroic Howard Roark, the "man as man should be," does rape the female lead--and the author makes it so that it's the best thing that ever happened to her. Roark also blows up a housing project but the jury nullifies the law--because no law that restrains a Heroic Individual should be enforced. Now that's strong support for laissez-faire!

Similarly, today's "Job Creators" are lineal descendents of Ayn Rand's "Creators" -- the Valuable Ones, the ones who must be deferred to and admired above all. So what if successful businesses rest on a foundation of public infrastructure? If individualism is the source of everything good in human history, and the public can only get in the way, then it has to be that "I built it" -- there can't be any "we" about it! And why not call a moderate, pro-capitalist Democrat like Obama "a socialist?" Obama talks about the common good, doesn't he? That's collectivism! Socialism, communism -- they're all collectivism. Talk of the "common good" is also the "justification of every tyranny", according to Rand -- so let's call Obama "a dictator," too. Regulation of the financial markets? Universal health care? Equal pay for equal work? More collectivism! More "impediments" in the way of our heroic capitalist Creators!

But that still leaves unanswered the question of why this right-wing view should come to the fore just after a number of "heroic capitalist Creators" took our country into a recession in their unregulated quest for short-term profits.

Perhaps what seems like a contradiction is actually cause-effect. After all, Ayn Rand wrote The Fountainhead during the Great Depression, when the failures of unregulated capitalism were visible for all to see. During those years, many were calling for fundamental changes to free enterprise. Her work was a reply to those calls, a defense of laissez-faire capitalism, a repudiation of the New Deal. The unemployment lines, the lost savings, the hunger--these were no excuses for government action, in her view. Sympathy for others was a diversion, a delusion, a weakness. Heroic Individualism means that one person's problems are of no concern to anyone else. "Suffering is a disease," Roark says. "And the creator is not concerned with disease."

The dramatic failure of the free market in 2008 may have called forth a similar reaction -- a similar doubling down on laissez-faire and denunciation of government action. Today's right-wing also features a very Ayn-Rand-like scorn for compassion. Empathy is not cool in today's right-wing circles. We saw during the Republican primary debates how the audience cheered executions in Texas, booed a gay soldier's concern for his rights, and applauded the idea of uninsured people dying of curable diseases. We saw how the right-wing scornfully rejected Rick Perry's call for an immigration policy "with a heart."

After my sojourn with Ayn Rand, I want to say to today's right wing: Maybe you're onto something with your celebration of individualism. If so, put it into practice! Go off by yourself and invent something, start a business, compose a symphony, write a book. But true individuals don't lock themselves into a repudiation of something else. So drop the demonization of community, interdependence, togetherness, society, government. All collectives can be improved, but only by building on strengths, and you don't see any strengths. Reject compassion if you want, but then stay away from other people! Who wants someone who is militantly anti-empathetic to have political power? Leave the collective enterprise of politics to those who see something good in collective enterprises. Leave service to the public to those who respect and care about every member of it.


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