It isn't surprising that the libertarian dogmas of Ayn Rand, once considered beyond the pale of intellectually polite company, are today receiving a second look. Given the continuing plague of joblessness in America under a president once presumed to be an activist liberal in the Roosevelt tradition, large elements of the populace are looking for solutions at the opposite end of the political spectrum. One possibility there is a Republican vice-presidential candidate who has promised economic growth based on a federal budget that would radically shrink the size of government. He has also in the past cited Ayn Rand as a major intellectual influence. He is, of course, Rep. Paul Ryan from Wisconsin.
In my own opinion as a political progressive, Ayn Rand's ideas deserve serious examination not only because of Ryan's past (though not present) acknowledgement of her influence, but because she espoused a political theory that was, in some form, reflected in the failed economic policies of the W. Bush administration and remains an undercurrent in the anti-government views of Tea Party Republicans. That such views, whether in part derived from Rand or simply reincarnated afresh, should still have life in today's political debate strikes me as astonishing. The supply-side theory espoused by Rand was a key factor in the economic slide during the Bush administration, and one wonders how it can be seriously considered as a possible solution to the country's current problems. Government investment in the economy shrank under Bush, and has been short-changed under Obama, contributing to a now radical divide between the privileged few in America and the many who have never been, or are no longer, financially secure.
In light of that divide, what could Congressional Republicans possibly have been thinking in taking the following actions? By late 2011, all but a few in both the House and Senate had tied themselves inflexibly to the Grover Norquist pledge of no new taxes -- even on multi-millionaires. In the Senate, GOP leaders said they would not accept even a federal budget that provides ten dollars of spending cuts for every one dollar of tax increase. Paul Ryan has fashioned a proposed federal budget that would overturn, by its radical downsizing of government, eighty years of American consensus on federal responsibility for social welfare. And more recently, we learn that Mitt Romney last May offered this notoriously dismissive assessment of half the American population to a closed-door gathering of about thirty wealthy donors from the ranks of the One Percent: "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what.... All right -- there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing."
Such extreme positions, one would think, must have their origins in a deeper source than traditional Republican resistance to government spending, which has always before been subject to pragmatic compromise. Views so dogmatic are often found to have been inspired by a kind of s cripture. Perhaps Ryan, in the past, and undoubtedly others on the political right, have found God's own hand in the writings of Ayn Rand. From what I now know, their positions and words certainly reflect them.
My Own Introduction to Rand.
I should make it clear at the outset that, as a dyed-in-the-wool political progressive, my own acquaintance with the work of Ayn Rand has until now been limited to a stereotype. I had heard of her doctrine of "selfishness," her vilification of government, her dismissal of poor Americans as "parasites" on the country's "producers," and her antipathy, in both personal and social terms, to "sacrifice" for the sake of others. I knew these things from hearsay, without having read a page of her voluminous writings. What I had heard was enough, however, to make it easy to regard her both as an intellectual quack and a very unpleasant human being.
However, after taking notice of the hullabaloo about Rand's influence on Paul Ryan, and becoming aware of the expanding media interest in her work, I decided to watch a documentary on Rand's life and work, available on Netflix. Perhaps the most important thing I took away from the film was one small datum: that one could come to grips with Rand's central ideas by reading just one chapter of her most celebrated novel, Atlas Shrugged. The chapter consists of a radio speech given by the novel's hero, John Galt, to a nationwide American audience. In it, he explains his reasons for calling a strike of the world's "producers," its indispensable creative leaders, including inventors, artists, and businessmen, who he believes have been undermined in their life-serving purposes by society's misfits and failures. These "parasites" lean on the producers for benefits they don't deserve, but to which they have come perversely to feel entitled. Galt's purpose is to demonstrate to the undeserving that they could not live without the contributions of the producers, and must therefore allow them to pursue their goals in freedom.
Incredibly, Galt's speech alone, with its carefully parsed arguments, is some fifty-five book pages long. I felt inclined to read it, however, as it seemed an easy way to discover what the current stir about Rand is all about. I therefore downloaded the speech from the Internet (available in its entirety at http://amberandchaos.com/?page_id=106). At another website in the same search, I learned that Rand herself had invested a full two years of her life in composing the speech, making the time I was prepared to invest in reading it seem only a modest sacrifice.
The Context of Galt's Speech.
The circumstances giving rise to the speech by John Galt offer the reader an introduction to Rand's misgivings about the welfare state as a type of social organization, and to her reasons for leading an intellectual crusade against it. The details are revealed only retrospectively and in bits, but they can be quickly summarized.
We learn that Galt has risen from humble beginnings as the son of a garage mechanic to the heights of both academic and technological achievement. He has earned a double-major university degree in physics and philosophy, and become an engineer at the Twentieth Century Motor Company. There he invents a revolutionary new "motor" that converts ambient static electricity to practical kinetic power. Since this motor can be used anywhere in any applications, it is dubbed, and can truly serve as, "the world motor."As it happens, however, the original owner of the Twentieth Century Motor Company dies, and three heirs take over. They propose what they believe to be an inspired plan to run the factory according to the Marxist maxim "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." At an open meeting, the plan is overwhelmingly ratified by the factory's six-thousand employees. John Galt, however, is dismayed by the prospect of what is to come. He refuses to work at the company any longer, and also abandons further development of his grandly promising world motor. As it turns out, Galt's misgivings are well-founded. The experiment in Marxist production proves a disaster, and the company goes bankrupt.
Why and How the Marxist Experiment Failed.
In the experiment in "Marxist" production at Twentieth Century, the workforce itself was given the power to decide by a vote both the remunerative needs of each employee and his (or her) required output, based on an estimate of ability. A CliffsNotes summary of the episode on the Internet (see http://www.cliffsnotes.com/study_guide/literature/atlas-shrugged/summary-analysis/part-2/chapter-10.html) suggests that the arrangement had two obvious defects. The first was that, because pay was determined by a vote of fellow workers, each employee was reduced to soliciting the support of colleagues for the level of pay he (or she) thought necessary, rather than proudly earning wages consistent with his (or her) productivity.
The second defect had to do with decisions made in estimating an employee's ability and the output expected from it. Workers whose performance was assessed as below expectations were required to make up the shortfall by working overtime. But, because their income was based on need, not on the value of overall output, additional hours were not compensated. Relations among the employees became strained, and worker morale broke down. The employees began to lie down on the job, working little and making no effort to do their best in what they did. In short order, the resulting declines in factory production condemned the company to bankruptcy.
The narrative of the company's collapse -- I won't comment on the literary quality of the rendition -- is related retrospectively by a former employee. Indignantly, he cries out: