Now that Republican vice presidential pick Rep. Paul Ryan is in the limelight, a number of reports have focused on his open admiration for Ayn Rand.
To some, this makes him a thrilling champion of liberty; to others, it's a sign of kooky extremism. Rand, the Russian-born philosopher and best-selling novelist who died 30 years ago, has devout followers who see her as the greatest mind since Aristotle; most mainstream commentators dismiss her as a dreadful writer and worse thinker who appeals to selfishness and greed.
In fact, Rand is neither prophet nor caricature. I myself was once fascinated by her work; I never became a true believer -- and never rejected her as a youthful infatuation. She had important ideas and insights; but her thinking had some major problems and limitations that could also point to problems with Ryan's views.
A refugee from Soviet communism, Rand wrote at a time when collectivism was widely seen as the inevitable future. She became a powerful voice for each person's supreme right to exist for his or her own sake. She asserted the importance of individual spirit, intelligence and creativity as a driving force in human progress. She strove to provide a moral foundation for liberty, in contrast to those who conceded the nobility of communist ideals and defended capitalism only as a necessary evil.
While Rand was not the first to articulate a morality of individualism and rational self-interest, she had a unique ability to dramatize those ideas. Instead of dry economic reasoning, she offered a bold romantic vision, asserting that material achievement has spiritual value.
Many of Rand's arguments remain highly relevant. People who speak of redistributing wealth still tend to forget that there can be no wealth without production. Too often, "compassionate" social policies not only punish the productive but create perverse incentives that ultimately harm the beneficiaries of compassion.
Unfortunately, Rand's hyper-individualism also disregards major aspects of human existence: the role of family and community in shaping accomplishment; the reality of weakness and dependency as near-inevitable for part of most lives. In Rand's world, the weak and helpless are nearly always to blame for their plight. (That's one obvious reason her writings often appeal to teens, who think they're invincible.)
While Rand grudgingly acknowledged charity as a minor virtue, in her fiction even private charitable activities are usually derided, especially when directed at such undeserving recipients as "a pregnant slut." When other free market champions, such as economist Friedrich A. Hayek, allowed the government a role in alleviating poverty and its effects, Rand excoriated them for ideological impurity.
Like many intellectual constructs, Rand's philosophy suffers from the flaw of ignoring practical realities. In the heyday of her "Objectivist" movement, Rand brushed off charges that her heroes were unrealistic by asking, "Am I impossible?" Yet on her way to success, she accepted far more help from family and even charity than she would admit.
Rand is best appreciated as a visionary whose insights coexist with other important truths. Ryan has publicly renounced his erstwhile guru's atheism to embrace pro-life social conservatism -- to the regret of those of us who hoped Randian beliefs would inject the conservative movement with more secularism and respect for personal freedom. But does he recognize Rand's blind spots when it comes to wealth, poverty, and social obligations? The answer may determine his ability to offer a conservative vision that can work. Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.