Jason Lewis: Who was Ayn Rand?

  • Article by: JASON LEWIS
  • Updated: April 19, 2011 - 10:47 AM

A bold idea from a still-timely thinker (and now in a theater near you).

Commentary

There are seminal moments in the philosophical underpinnings of everyone's life. Some are recognized, and some, I suppose, remain just beneath our consciousness.

Certainly for me, the crystallization of a worldview that put liberty as its epicenter came into much clearer focus when I read "Atlas Shrugged." Obviously, I wasn't alone.

Ayn Rand's magnum opus, published in 1957, is still in print today and is rated in a number of surveys as second only to the Bible in its cultural and political influence.

Her philosophy of Objectivism, placing a premium on individual reason and productive enterprise, had always been somewhat intuitive in the human condition. The statist's demand of self-sacrifice, on the other hand, has to be inculcated at an early age.

What made Rand so popular (her books have sold more than 25 million copies) was that she gave validation to millions by challenging the false altruism that remains the basis for modern liberalism to this day.

Collectivism, which uses the power of government to undermine self-interest, was anathema to Rand. And for that she was never forgiven -- especially by left-wing intellectuals.

Even so, the critics proved no match for the staying power of "Atlas Shrugged." Read it today, and it's hard to imagine the author wasn't talking about the financial bailouts of 2008.

I first read it in 1983, when it seemed the hero of the novel, John Galt, was warning about a federal "industrial policy" that would become a linchpin of Walter Mondale's campaign the following year.

But Rand also had critics on the right. William F. Buckley Jr. disdained her irreligiousness. Not only was the Jewish immigrant who fled the Soviet purges an atheist, but Rand's philosophy took dead aim at "original sin."

She abhorred the idea of unearned guilt because she feared it would lead to perpetual atonement -- something that would make the individual a permanent slave to societal institutions, including the church.

Indeed, Rand wholeheartedly rejected "mysticism" in favor of "man's only tool for survival" -- reason. Since humans are not born with instinctual attributes, the most productive thinkers (the "men of the minds," as she put it) are to be valued the most.

And those who would interfere with their achievements are the focus of evil. If freedom is the absence of force or fraud, after all, than anything that restricts our ability to think and act freely -- including intrusive government -- is "anti-life."

Though her views on religion may not have been borne out by history (libertarianism and religion are compatible), Rand's political philosophy certainly has. And this, in my mind, was always her greatest contribution -- the idea that society does not own you and that personal accomplishment is not a crime.

Yet the Randian notion of "rational selfishness" remains foreign to most Americans. Profit is a dirty word, while fulfilling one's "obligation to society" is a moral imperative.

Not a duty to refrain from harming others, mind you, or for that matter, even a commitment to civility, but a code of self-sacrifice that places the masses atop the ethical pyramid. Objectivism rejected such altruistic notions in favor of the individual -- and put profitable enterprise as the greatest vehicle for good.

In modern parlance, Rand was a charter member of the "leave us alone" coalition, denouncing a redistributive caste system of permanent makers and takers. Is it really immoral, she would ask, to lead your own life as you see fit with your own survival as its standard?

Collectivists, so prominent in the institutions of liberalism today, answer with a definitive "yes."

Which is why, after all these years, it's a bit of a miracle that "Atlas Shrugged," the movie, has finally been made. The massive undertaking, on and off for decades, is being released in three parts, the first of which came out this weekend.

If its effect is anything like the book, the celluloid adaptation may have a whole new generation of Americans asking why they have to apologize for their own existence.

Jason Lewis is a nationally syndicated talk-show host based in Minneapolis-St. Paul and is the author of "Power Divided is Power Checked: The Argument for States' Rights" from Bascom Hill Publishing. He can be heard locally from 5 to 8 p.m. weeknights on KTLK Radio, 100.3-FM.

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