Clarence Thomas and Ayn Rand

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

From time to time throughout his tenure as chairman of the Federal Reserve, I've heard the occasional fan of Ayn Rand speculate on whether Alan Greenspan might be some kind of Objectivist "mole", hiding his actual beliefs in order to slip under the radar to be in a position to avert disaster.

But Greenspan has over time demonstrated by word and deed -- so thoroughly that even Andrew Ferguson could grasp it -- that he is anything but an Objectivist.

He was once part of the novelist-philosopher's inner circle, but fell away from it. He never, to my knowledge, formally broke with the movement, although his past association has caused him to enjoy some measure of notoriety.

The question of whether Greenspan might "really" be an Objectivist indirectly brings up an interesting question: What would an example of the increasing influence of Objectivism look like in politics? Our cultural context would all but preclude one of us being elected to office any time soon and politics as it is today would preclude being effective once there. Besides, I can't imagine one of us wanting to live in the cesspool of politics enough to try either.

The advent of Objectivism as a strong cultural force would show up as many politicians feeling a need to run on a platform of reducing governmental interference of all kinds in our lives by cutting the size of the welfare state, getting the government out of the business of enforcing a religious agenda, and rolling back all kinds of other government meddling in our personal affairs.

You will notice that I have said nothing about a political party. This is both because the cultural change I am talking about is deep enough to be impossible through the means of a political party and because such a fundamental change in political attitudes would transcend political parties anyway. If the overall political trend -- dictated by the public in general having a firmer grasp of the importance and desirability of individual rights -- is towards freedom, our two major parties would merely differ in how (or how fast) they would move in that direction. No deep, fundamental debate ever occurs over an election.

That said, the Libertarian Party, which, despite evidencing a wholesale rejection of her philosophical approach, owes its existence to Ayn Rand, is only evidence that Objectivism has shown up on the cultural radar, but has not yet achieved real influence. The notion that Greenspan is an Objectivist or is what an Objectivist political figure might "look like" is arguably another such sign. Flash-in-the pan charlatans like Logan Darrow Clements are also examples.

Part of Objectivism achieving real influence will, perhaps counterintuitively, manifest as the mere mention Ayn Rand's name not being such a big deal. A figure who praises (or is associated in some way with) Ayn Rand will not automatically be taken as an advocate of her ideas or even, necessarily, of capitalism. People will expect substance and they will know it when they see it. If you talk the Rand talk, you will be expected to walk the Rand walk, and people will know what to expect.

It is when we start seeing on a regular basis political figures who, although not necessarily Objectivists, admit to having been fundamentally and positively influenced by Rand (and live up to that professed influence) that we will have an early sign that the tide is turning in the favor of individual rights.

As an example of what such a figure might be like, consider not the attention-grabbing Alan Greenspan, who long ago abandoned the gold standard in more ways than one, but the low-key Clarence Thomas, whose recently-released book Ann Althouse excerpts as follows:

It was around this time that I read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Rand preached a philosophy of radical individualism that she called Objectivism. While I didn't fully accept its tenets, her vision of the world made more sense to me that that of my left-wing friends. "Do your own thing" was their motto, but now I saw that the individualism implicit in that phrase was superficial and strictly limited. They thought, for instance, that it was going too far for a black man to do his thing by breaking with radical politics, which was what I now longed to do. I never went along with the militant separatism of the Black Muslims, but I admired their determination to "do for self, brother," as well as their discipline and dignity. That was Daddy's way. He knew that to be truly free and participate fully in American life, poor blacks had to have the tools to do for themselves. This was the direction in which my political thinking was moving as my time at Holy Cross drew to an end. The question was how much courage I could muster up to express my individuality. What I wanted was for everyone -- the government, the racists, the activists, the students, even Daddy -- to leave me alone so that I could finally start thinking for myself. [via Glenn Reynolds, bold added]
Thomas's appreciation for Rand seems genuine. Rather than dropping her name at every opportunity for attention, like some former associates of Rand (not including Greenspan to my knowledge -- but see Note 2), or implying more agreement with her than actually exists, like many libertarians, he acknowledges both his differences with her and debt to her. Most importantly, he has shown a lasting appreciation for what it was about Rand's thought that appealed to him the most:
Evidence of these leanings can be seen in the influence of libertarian [sic] icon Ayn Rand on Thomas. In Rand's work, Thomas saw a model for independence and self-sufficiency. Dating back to his days at the EEOC, and continuing once he got to the Supreme Court, he would require staffers to watch the 1949 film version of Rand's best-selling book The Fountainhead. The plot centers on an architect's struggle to preserve his integrity against the voices of conformity.
His judical philosophy has shown the mark of Rand's thought, although his view that Roe vs Wade should be overturned probably shows an inconsistency. (Although, to be fair, this ultimately depends on why he thinks this should be the case, a question I do not feel qualified to speculate upon.)

When we start seeing elected politicians like Clarence Thomas, we'll know that the cultural tide has turned, although I suspect we'll have plenty of other signs as well.

-- CAV

Notes: (1) A commenter provides a very good example of Thomas as not consistently upholding individual rights.

(2) Diana Hsieh notes of Greenspan that, "He endorsed Barbara Branden's smear of a biography with a laudatory quote printed on the back cover. (You can see it for yourself on Amazon.)" So much for Greenspan remaining loyal to Ayn Rand on a personal or philosophical level.


: (1) Corrected passage on name-dropping. (HT: Toiler) (2) Added a note.
10-4-07: Added a second note.


Stephen Boydstun said...

Mr. Van Horn,

Justice Thomas voted consistently to allow the States to criminalize homosexual acts. His understanding of and commitment to individual rights is not solid. Rand would have blasted his position on this (just as her associate Harry Binswanger did in the 1986 case).


Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you for noting that.

This is a far better and more clear-cut example of an inconsistent grasp of Rand's principles than his known position on abortion.

I noticed last night that Thomas is pro states' "rights", a common position among conservatives who wish to circumvent federal protection of individual rights. What I lacked was a good example.

Toiler said...

You wrote: "Rather than dropping her name at every opportunity for attention, like a Greenspan..."

Hmmm. I'm not really sure this applies fairly to Greenspan. I haven't seen any evidence at all that he's a name dropper, neither of Rand nor of anyone else. Have I missed this side of his character?

Greenspan's policies are certainly mixed, though less so than most outright statists on the left and the right. Still, I do appreciate one thing about him. To my knowledge, he has never turned on his mentor nor abused her name in any way, as so many of Rand's early fans did out of shame or vanity. In fact, as far as I know, he has always shown her unqualified respect. That's worth something.

(Please correct me if I am wrong about this. I haven't read his biography.)

Gus Van Horn said...

I have heard other Objectivists comment on remarks by Greenspan that definitely put him in the category of "former" Objectivist, but I must admit that it was a lapse on my part to call him a name-dropper.

Since I will not compound that lapse with the injustice of leaving it unchanged, I will fix that as soon as I post this reply to your comment.

Thank you for throwing the flag on that one.

Michael Caution said...

For further insight into whether Greenspan can still be described as an Objectivist consider a quote from his book when discussing his views on Ayn Rand's philosophy and his application of it:

"Compromise in the public sphere is the price of civilization, not the abnegation of principle." - Age of Turbulence

(I don't have the book in front of me but I'm pretty sure that's the quote)

Anyone who knows Ayn Rand and her philosophy, Objectivism, will recognize the complete rejection of it's message in those words. For Greenspan principles are not absolutes and can be forgotten at a moments whim. This is pragmatism at its core.

Gus Van Horn said...

That would pretty much be in line with the other instances I recall coming up. Thanks for the example.

Toiler said...

By the way, by "vanity", I meant superficial fame chasing a la Peter Keating.

Jim May said...


This is a great post that reaffirms something I've come to believe as I get older: our success will not be measured so much by the success of individual Objectivists (though it is no doubt driven by that) as by observing the frequency with which her ideas are echoed back to us from non-Objectivists in the culture at large.

I once thought to myself: today, you can hear Kant's ideas and their consequences in the things people say, even though they have no idea who he is and don't care to find out.

Imagine a future where instead of Kant, it's Objectivist ideas we hear in the things people are saying, even though they don't know who Ayn Rand was or care to find out.

I'd make that trade.

Gus Van Horn said...

I think, though that more people then would know who Rand was than Kant now since the ideas of the former would improve the educational system.

In that respect, Kant really is the "all-destroyer": his destruction of society, if ever complete, would erase all historical memory of him.

Diana said...

Toiler said: "To my knowledge, he has never turned on his mentor nor abused her name in any way, as so many of Rand's early fans did out of shame or vanity. In fact, as far as I know, he has always shown her unqualified respect. That's worth something."

That's not true. He endorsed Barbara Branden's smear of a biography with a laudatory quote printed on the back cover. (You can see it for yourself on Amazon.) Thats huge, as it lends enormous credibility to the book.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thank you for that particular clarification, as disappointing as it is to learn about it.


Realist Theorist said...

Gus, Here's an article that quotes Thomas as saying:

"The event, on March 31, was devoted to the Bill of Rights, but Justice Thomas did not embrace the document, and he proposed a couple of alternatives.

“Today there is much focus on our rights,” Justice Thomas said. “Indeed, I think there is a proliferation of rights.”

“I am often surprised by the virtual nobility that seems to be accorded those with grievances,” he said. “Shouldn’t there at least be equal time for our Bill of Obligations and our Bill of Responsibilities?” "

Gus Van Horn said...

Wow! Thanks for mentioning that.

That should serve as a reminder that even when we start seeing more people like Thomas, the battle's hardly over.