The first year I was in graduate school up in Oregon, I drove back and forth to the Bay Area a large number of times. One of the things I remember was hearing conservative talk radio. It was surprising to me just how often people would mention John Galt.
For those of you who have not read the novels of Ayn Rand (I don’t recommend it), John Galt is the hero of Atlas Shrugged. He’s an unapologetic capitalist who is rich because he is morally superior to the little (read: poor) people. And because the society is not licking his boots enough, he’s going to take his toys and go home. It really is that ridiculous, but if you want to see the hero rape the heroine, you’ll have to read Rand’s other opus, The Fountainhead (’cause chicks just love that).
I bring this up, because Ayn Rand’s presence in conservative politics has grown from the freaks on the fringe to the mainstream of the Republican Party. Who is John Galt? Mitt Romney is John Galt! (Paul Ryan just thinks he’s John Galt.)
Because I was once forced to marry a woman who was an Ayn Rand fan, I’ve read pretty much everything she’s ever written—at least in book form. And I think people miss the true horror show that is Ayn Rand when they focus just on her pseudo-free market beliefs. As bad as these are, there are even worse things
Let’s Play “Ayn Rand and Indians”!
In her Address to West Point in 1974, Ayn Rand had the following to say about the theft of Native American lands:
They didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using… What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their “right” to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent.
Okay, okay: this is vile. And it is racist. But that’s not even what I want to talk about here. This undercuts Rand’s basic philosophy in two ways.
First, this goes against Rand’s often stated claim that she was against violence. She often talked about the need for a “revolution of thought.” But here she is making a clear “might makes right” argument. “We don’t like what you’re doing with the land so we’re taking it.” Second, she is claiming that some outside authority knows better than a land owner what his land should be used for. Her thinking could as easily be used to justify the Nazi confiscation of Jewish property. You are either for the rule of law or you are not. Rand was not.
The End of History
What most strikes me in the quote above are the scare quotes around the word “right.” This is necessary for her to make her argument: our rights are real and their “rights” are illusory. But what kind of future does that provide for her philosophy? After all, aren’t other people going to come who don’t accept our “right” to exploit the land as we do?
The subtext of this is that we have reached the end of history. No better system of government could possibly be created than the one that Rand now sees. And this goes to something I often talk about: the libertarian (or conservative, more generally) belief that their preferred system is “natural.” The truth is that it is not. Humans naturally exhibit individualistic and communal tendencies and these are constantly jockeying for prominence. But even if the cut throat libertarian ideal were natural, is that good? Murder is natural. Rape is natural. But I wouldn’t want to base a society on them.
Rand, however, does want to base a society on them. She explicitly put rape as a positive act in one novel and one play. And murder by other means (e.g. starving the “moochers”) is found throughout her writing. But as we see in the case of the Native Americans, she was also for murder in a more explicit way.
And now some horrible combination of Ayn Rand and Old Time Religion are the core of the Republican Party.