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Ayn Rand, Libertarian Beacon

Born 1905 in St Petersburg, Russia. Died 1982 in New York


A Novelist as Economist?

It’s just too easy to dismiss Ayn Rand as an economic lightweight, as so many commentators have tried to do. But it’s far less easy to play down her commitment to a radical political economy which has been moving in and out of favour for the last 70 years. The recent libertarian tide in the United States has drawn much support and inspiration from a conservative writer whose American career ran from Hollywood right through to influencing former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, no less. Her lifelong rejection of ‘interfering’ statism, and her insistence that unfettered capitalism and small government provide the only true freedom, was never in any doubt.

That, of course, has drawn Rand’s ideas into bitter criticism from the centre and from the left. Greenspan’s own mishandling of the asset bubble in the early 2000s provided plenty of ammunition for those who sought to blacken libertarianism’s reputation by association. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s failure in the 2012 elections was sometimes attributed to his deputy Paul Ryan’s ardent adherence to Rand’s theories.

 

Russia’s Outcast

Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum was born at just the wrong moment to catch the two Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 at their terrible worst. Her Jewish family’s displacement early on, and the Bolsheviks' seizure of her father’s business, may have owed something to their political leanings, or then again it might have been the other way round. Either way, her espousal of anti-statism ran deep, and understandably so.

Having graduated in the creative arts in Petrograd – and having survived a ‘bourgeois purge’ – she moved in 1926 to New York but soon headed for Hollywood, becoming a US citizen in 1931.Her first novel, the semi-autobiographical We the Living (1936), portrayed the struggle between individuals and the state in Russia, and subsequent works also dealt with the waste and futility of big government. Rand opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal as a way of getting America out of the 1930s depression – something for which she was ferociously attacked.

 

Political Activism

The early 40s brought a period of new activity, and involvement with an intellectual group which included Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt and other conservatives. Her first hit novel, The Fountainhead, described a young architect’s battle against "second-handers"— people who try to live through other people’s lives; instead, it was only first-hand, individualist thinkers and doers, who Rand favoured.

Decried by critics as promoting selfishness, Rand eventually saw success when The Fountainhead  achieved major film status. Her second big novel, Atlas Shrugged, followed in 1955, a period when she maintained a New York circle that included Greenspan.

Atlas Shrugged featured a group of creative scientists and artists who declare a ‘strike’ and set up a free-living mountain community which is finally doomed to failure by its unreality. Without the efforts of industry and commerce, there was no future to be had.

 

The Lecture Circuit Beckons

Rand’s gradually failing health may have been the reason why she turned away from novels in the 1960s and 1970s to a focus on platform politics – defending her ideas of laissez-faire capitalism and ‘objectivism’, and getting involved in debates about Vietnam, abortion, gay rights (which she deplored) and US military involvement.

Meanwhile, the firm defence of rational and ethical egoism (rational self-interest) continued , The individual, she said, should "exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself." Not an easy line to follow, even today. But without doubt, Rand’s legacy lives on today in libertarian hearts – though perhaps diluted just a little?

“Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life.”

 

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