Ayn Rand Reconsidered

, Malcolm A. Kline, 41 Comments

She’s been derided in academia for decades: Panels disparaging her works are not unusual at the Modern Language Association’s annual confab.

Yet and still, her virulent atheism has made her controversial on the right, where, it would seem, she would find a more sympathetic audience.

Nevertheless, when it came to worldly matters, she was uncommonly prescient. For one thing, the Russian-born novelist had a keener understanding of the U. S. Constitution than many American Constitutional law professors do today. “The Bill of Rights was not directed against private citizens, but against the government—as an explicit declaration that individual rights supersede any public or social good,” she wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Moreover, coming to America in the roaring 20s from the Soviet Union gave her a world view sensitive to early manifestations of totalitarianism. Indeed, a warning she issued in The Virtue of Selfishness sounds eerily topical today, half a century after it was written.

“A collectivist tyranny dare not enslave a country by an outright confiscation of its values, material or moral,” Ayn Rand wrote. “It has to be done by a process of internal corruption.”

“Just as in the material realm the plundering of a country’s wealth is accomplished by inflating the currency—so today one may witness the process of inflation being applied to the realm of rights. The process entails such a growth of newly promulgated ‘rights’ that people do not notice the fact that the meaning of the concept is being reversed. Just as bad money drives out good money, so these ‘printing-press rights’ negate authentic rights.”

“Consider the curious fact that never has there been such a proliferation, all over the world, of two contradictory phenomena: of alleged new ‘rights’ and of slave-labor camps…”

Speaking of money, which she touched on in the above passage, Rand had a keener understanding of it than many tenured economists. As Randians know, she liked to put her ideas into dialogue spoken by her favorite character. The uninitiated might find this literary device tedious but it’s worth bearing with her to encounter some real nuggets of insight.

For instance, in the 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, copper magnate Francisco D’Anconia gives a speech that news readers in 2014 might find haunting:

“Let me give you a tip on a clue to men’s characters: the man who damns money has obtained it dishonorably; the man who respects it has earned it…

“Then you will see the rise of the men of the double standard—the men who are the hitchhikers of virtue. In a moral society, these are the criminals, and the statutes are written to protect you against them. But when a society establishes criminals-by-right and looters-by-law—men who use force to seize the wealth of disarmed victims—then money becomes its creators’ avenger. Such looters believe it safe to rob defenseless men, once they’ve passed a law to disarm them. But their loot becomes the magnet for other looters, who get it from them as they got it. Then the race goes, not to the ablest at production, but to those most ruthless at brutality. When force is the standard, the murderer wins over the pickpocket. And then that society vanishes, in a spread of ruins and slaughter…”

If you think that sounds hyperbolic, visualize Detroit.

One final time-capsule moment: Read what she said about the media in 1957 and see how current it looks. “It was their daily duty to serve as audience for some public figure who made utterances about the public good in phrases carefully chosen to convey no meaning,” Rand wrote in Atlas Shrugged. “It was their daily job to sling words together in any combination they pleased, so long as the words did not fall into a sequence saying something specific.”