Heather Wilhelm: Is Ayn Rand Bad for the Market?

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[Ms. Wilhelm is vice president of marketing and communications at the Illinois Policy Institute, a free-market public-policy organization.]

Say what you will about Ayn Rand, but one thing is certain: She had no use for common niceties. A grimly precocious, friendless Rand declared her atheism at age 13. "Atlas Shrugged," Rand's secular sermon-as-novel, boils with revulsion toward the "looters" and "moochers" who consume public funds. Rand scornfully excommunicated followers who disagreed with her, and in 1964 she told Playboy that those who place friends and family first in life are "immoral" and "emotional parasites."

Shoddy manners aside, 52 years after the release of "Atlas Shrugged," Rand seems to be roaring back. Sales are surging—Brian Doherty, author of "Radicals for Capitalism" (2007), recently calculated that in one week in late August, "Atlas" sold "67 percent more copies than it did the same week a year before, and 114 percent more than that same week in 2007." Two buzzed-about Rand biographies hit the shelves this fall, and an "Atlas" cable miniseries is reportedly in the works. Designer Ralph Lauren recently listed Rand as one of his favorite novelists, and CNBC host Rick Santelli, whose on-air antibailout rant inspired hundreds of "tea party" protests across the nation, admitted the same. "I know this may not sound very humanitarian," he said, "but at the end of the day I'm an Ayn Rand-er."

To many, it doesn't sound humanitarian at all. To be an "Ayn Rand-er" sounds, as the New York Times recently put it, "angry" and "vulgar." In its review of the new Rand biographies, the New Republic bemoaned the "cacophony of rage and dread" surrounding Rand's acolytes. Even in Rand's heyday, many conservatives shrank from what they saw as her toxic blend of atheism, absolutism and ruthless individualism. "William F. Buckley must be spinning in his grave to hear all this chatter about Rand," says Jennifer Burns, the author of "Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right," "because it was a goal of his to make Rand an untouchable."

In this, apparently, Buckley failed. Despite her tendency to lose friends and alienate people, Rand's guru-status in today's free-market establishment, detailed in Mr. Doherty's book, is undeniable. "People who are in influential positions at leading free-market organizations were very likely influenced by her at one point," says Chip Mellor, head of the libertarian Institute for Justice. And, he notes, with the spike in government spending and wealth-redistribution programs, "the prescience of her writing has been brought home with a vengeance this year." ...

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