(Note: This article originally appeared on America’s Future Foundation’s Doublethink Online on August 22, 2012 and was co-written with my good friend Amanda Carey Elliot.)
The days following the addition of Paul Ryan to the Republican presidential ticket have been difficult for anyone who admires, appreciates, or respects the ideas of philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand. Never before have mainstream political writers, reporters and commentators expelled so much energy to discuss Rand or her impact on the contemporary cultural climate. While it’s nice to hear her name repeated in the mainstream, what’s concerning is the associations being thrown around with it.
We read Huffington Post bloggers describe Rand’s ideas as the bread and butter of the “developing adolescent mind” (really?), while imploring Ryan to “grow up.”
We watched the New York Times opinion page wax philosophical about how Ryan’s complicated respect for Rand represents the complicated crumblings of the conservative movement.
We shook our heads as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson got away with reducing Rand’s philosophy to a false dichotomy between “cold selfishness” and “community.”
We silently suffered while Jane Mayer used her perch at The New Yorker to opine that Ryan’s retreat from Rand in an interview with National Review was “politically essential” because, after all, we can’t have a Republican ticket with a Mormon AND an “acolyte of an atheist.”
Then we sat dumbfounded as Ann Friedman warned us in the online sphere of New York Magazine to “GTFO” if we spy a copy of Atlas Shrugged on a potential partner’s bookshelf.
Though not surprising, this parroting of short-sighted straw men and underdeveloped ad hominems is disappointing. And like Howard Beale in “Network,” we’re not going to take it anymore.
You see, we read all those things, flipped through our own copies of Atlas Shrugged, and struggled to find one word that pointed to what any of them were saying. The tragedy hidden behind all of these dismissive, catch-phrase “refutations” is that the true power behind Rand’s ideas and their impact on American politics are being missed.
We want to clear the air. Nowhere does Rand say that every rich person is good and every poor person is evil, that money should be stockpiled by any means possible, or that people should be treated like objects. We can only conclude that those who state otherwise are willfully trying to distort and misrepresent her ideas.
Whether you agree or disagree with Objectivism, her philosophy can be understood as the “radical” notion that the choices we make, how we make our money and how we treat our friends and family, define who we are.
As Rand pointed out, the only system in which such life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are possible, is one that adheres to the primary principle of individual freedom.
That means individual freedom without undefined shackles like “complicated, real-world context” (in Robinson’s words), that prevent individualism from being realistic in today’s world. Who gets to define “community”? Or “real-world” or “human,” for that matter? Are we any less “human” if we make millions?
Still, we’ve seen countless people in the last week use the idea of “community” as a justification for policies focused on high-income taxes, government regulation, and market manipulation.
Each and every one of us, as individuals, define these terms for ourselves. Government bureaucrats, politicians, and Washington Post columnists can’t do it for us. The act of even trying would be arbitrary and meaningless. You can’t force “community.”
In her essay “What is Capitalism,” Rand wrote that “Reason is the only means of communication among men, and an objectively perceivable reality is their only common frame of reference; when these are invalidated . . . force becomes men’s only way of dealing with one another.”
Life can only be understood and communicated as a first-hand experience. When Rand rejected the notion of a community, she wasn’t denying its existence, she was denying its existence as anything other than a collection of individuals choosing to associate freely as traders of values. Put simply: each of us gets to decide what other people mean to our lives.
So to every aforementioned blogger, opinionator, politician, stenographer and date-advice giver who denounce our right to our own lives, we leave you with this Rand quote: “Capitalism is a society of traders—for which it has been denounced by every would-be gunman who regards trade as ‘selfish’ and conquest as ‘noble.’”
Amanda Carey is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and Justin M. Lesniewski is a writer who taught at Clemson University. He was most recently a Research Assistant on the set of Atlas Shrugged Part 2, in theaters October 12th, 2012.