Gillis J. Harp: Conservatives Should Not Get Too Close to Ayn Rand





[Dr. Gillis J. Harp is professor of history at Grove City College and member of the faith & politics working group with The Center for Vision & Values.]

Prior to the 1990s, few scholarly studies of post-World War II American conservatism were published. Happily, this situation has changed in recent years. Much solid academic work has appeared which takes conservative thought seriously and attempts to explain its historical and cultural context. Jennifer Burns' new biography of Ayn Rand, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, is a welcome contribution to this growing body of literature. Burns has produced a thoroughly researched and critical (but fair) study of one of the conservative movement's most influential and colorful thinkers....

Hoping to work on a possible Broadway production of one of her plays, Rand and her husband moved to New York in November 1934. The city's frantic pace and intellectual life suited Rand better. During these early years in New York, Rand published her first book, *We The Living* (1936), which drew upon her experience in Leninist Russia. The hostile reaction to the book by many of New York's left-leaning intelligentsia convinced Rand that all was not well with American culture. Rand concluded that the rot of collectivism was infecting the home of rugged individualism. Though she voted for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Rand soon became a harsh critic of the New Deal. She was introduced to the turbulent world of partisan politics by contributing to the Wendell Wilkie campaign of 1940.

In 1941, Rand wrote the booklet, "Manifesto of Individualism." Yet, it was her two published novels, *The Fountainhead* (1943), and *Atlas Shrugged*(1957), that catapulted Rand into celebrity. The first eventually became a best-seller and won favorable reviews even from critics not fond of Rand's philosophy. The second, though it sold well, was less fortunate; it was dismissed by many as heavy-handed and patently ideologically-driven....

Conservatives with Christian convictions may be inclined to dismiss Rand's personal story as a weird aberration, while cherry-picking those bits of her philosophy they find attractive (eschewing, of course, her obnoxious atheism). That would be a mistake. Rand's objectivism is of one piece and Burns's biography is in part a sobering cautionary tale for conservatives. The narrative offers at least three timely lessons worth noting:

One involves Rand's radical individualism. Americans have a well-earned reputation for being fiercely individualistic, but Rand's system is based upon a hyper-individualism developed to its logical (often absurd) conclusion. Burns includes a chilling account of how the young Rand wrote admiringly about a brutal, unrepentant serial killer named William Hickman, praising his uncompromising independence and bold willingness to flout societal norms. "What the tabloids saw as psychopathic, Rand admired," Burns comments (*Goddess*, 25)....

Second, Rand and her circle consistently demonized the state as the principal source of evil in the world. Such a caricature has been alien to Christian political theology from Thomas Aquinas, to Richard Hooker, to Leo XIII and Reinhold Niebuhr. Rand's anti-government stance can lead to troubling contradictions in a representative democracy, and Burns notes how Rand often slipped into an arrogant elitism. The rational faculty she increasingly emphasized in her thought was best exhibited by "the better species, the Superman," and not by that group of mindless citizens she dismissed as mere "human ballast" (Goddess, 114, 326, note # 7)....

Third, her elitism was connected to a myopic dogmatism that would have warmed the heart of any Stalinist. Sadly, some conservatives have occasionally exhibited some of the same unattractive characteristics of their opponents....

During the spring and summer of 2009, a few Tea Party protestors showed up at demonstrations with placards inscribed with the question: "Who is John Galt?" The reference was to a character in Atlas Shrugged who personifies the rugged individualist battling organizational conformity and statism. Jennifer Burns' insightful biography clarifies that Christian conservatives should be deeply suspicious of any movement that celebrates Ayn Rand's "superman."



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