» Ayn Rand Bust

“Every man is free to rise as far as he’s able or willing, but it’s only the degree to which he’ll rise.”

- Ayn Rand

Critical Essay By
Dr. Bas van der Vossen
Associate Professor, Director, Law and the Liberal Arts Minor
Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy
Schmid College of Science and Technology; Department of Philosophy
View Bio

Ayn Rand (1905–1982) was a novelist and philosopher, best known for her novels Atlas Shrugged (1957) and The Fountainhead (1943). Born in Russia (as Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum), Rand witnessed the Russian Revolution and civil war. Throughout her life and work, Rand would oppose communist and socialist ideology. It’s thought that she adopted the name Ayn Rand to protect her Russian relatives. Both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are landmark statements of the (or: one particular) defense of capitalism. Later in life, she would help develop a philosophical movement called Objectivism. 

In 1925, Rand got permission to visit relatives in the United States. Hating the Soviet system, she left for good. She quickly made her way to Hollywood, where Cecil B. DeMille helped her get a job as a script reader and screenplay writer. In 1951, Rand moved to New York City, where she became a pivotal figure in the intellectual revival of classical liberalism, a theory organized around liberty, individual responsibility and rights.

Both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, although panned by critics, became best-sellers. Rand’s novels have a strong philosophical focus, celebrating the individual as a heroic being. Rand saw our own happiness as the core moral goal in life, productivity as the noblest activity and reason as the source of truth. Capitalism is the only political system that respects individuals in this manner, Rand argued.

The central problem with collectivist (like communist or socialist) ideals is that they involve people imposing their terms of life on others, according to Rand. As she argued in her writings on Objectivism, the central ethical value is that a person’s central “aspects of existence” are “open to his choice.” (1961b: 27) These aspects include “the terms, methods, conditions and goals” of “man’s life.” In Rand’s philosophy, she often referred to this as “man’s survival qua man.” (1961b: 25)

This ethical ideal is central to Rand’s work. Atlas Shrugged explores her ideal society, a society built around a genuine respect (or: what she would recognize as respect) for free individuals. The plot turns around a society-wide strike. This is a strike not of workers (a common focus in literature) but of “men of mind.” Entrepreneurs, industrial leaders, philosophers, scientists conclude that if those less productive than them are going to deny them the freedom to determine their own terms, they will retreat from society and form their own community, “Galt’s Gulch,” a “voluntary association of men held together by nothing but every man’s self-interest.”

The Fountainhead chronicles the struggle of Howard Roark, a brilliant young architect (loosely based on Frank Lloyd Wright). Roark encounters a society that refuses to let him construct his great buildings. His response also is one of disengagement. When Roark is not allowed to build as he pleases, he first chooses to leave architecture and take up work in a quarry. Later, when a building of Roark’s – a revolutionary form of lower-income housing, which promises to greatly improve the lot of the poor – is altered without his permission, Roark decides to blow up the building before construction is completed. Roark’s stance matches Rand’s conviction: if one cannot produce on one’s own terms, it’s not worth producing at all.

Rand sometimes summarized this idea in “the trader principle.” This principle, the idea of “value for value,” requires voluntary and mutually beneficial exchange between independent equals. The flip side of the call to benefit others is self-interest. We thus face a choice, Rand argues. Either people can be forced to serve other people’s interests, at the expense of their own self-interests. This is the approach collectivist societies adopt. Or people must demand that their own self-interest be served through their beneficial activities. This latter view – serving others only on the condition that one serves oneself – is the selfishness that Rand (so controversially) celebrated.

This selfish ideal is visible in the protagonists of her novels. These are not characters with a mission to help society or the weak. They are the men and women that benefited society through building America’s steel mills and skyscrapers, ran its transcontinental railroads and revolutionized architecture.

The villains in Rand’s work are the opposite of this ideal. They desire power, unearned wealth, social status and fame; they resent the actual producers of goods, independent thinkers and those who will not let their lives be dictated by others around them. These prominently include the intelligentsia of her time, the literary critics and wordsmiths, what she called “second-handers.” These people adopt the language of “altruism” in a thinly veiled attempt to wield power over others, usually for direct personal gain.

Perhaps as a result of her direct attack on establishment intellectuals, academics have widely rejected Rand as a serious author or thinker. Literary critics have often mocked her novels, dismissing her writing style as well as the perceived lack of depth of characters, motifs and storylines. Some find a condescending streak in Rand’s writings. Both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged feature extremely long speeches, explicitly and painstakingly spelling out all the points most readers will have clearly understood during the hundreds of preceding pages – almost reminiscent of being lectured at. Her philosophical essays are often seen as lacking the rigorous attention to logical argument of analytic academic philosophy, or serious responses to possible objections.

This range – and intensity – of responses illustrates Rand’s influence and importance. She delivered a major statement of a distinct defense of a free society. She produced best-selling novels, books that are still widely read more than half a century later and have been turned into several movies. And she received a (fanatical) following, including many prominent and influential persons. Few throughout history can match the contributions she made.

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Ayn Rand bust


Vernon L. Smith

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Juan Rosillo

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