Rand's Death: An Exaggerated Report

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Jennifer Burns of the Hoover Institution has written an interesting op-ed titled, "Ayn Rand Is Dead. Liberals Are Going to Miss Her." Along with several other things in the piece, I dispute the premature obituary -- and can almost hear Rand say, "It's earlier than you think." That said, Burns ends with a very good point:

Mixed in with Rand's vituperative attacks on government was a defense of the individual's rights in the face of a powerful state. This single-minded focus could yield surprising alignments, such as Rand's opposition to drug laws and her support of legal abortion. And although liberals have always loved to hate her, over the next four years, they may come to miss her defense of individual autonomy and liberty. [bold added]
This sentiment echoes a point Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Institute made a few years ago, when he asked of liberals, "Why let conservatives monopolize her?"
This is precisely one issue on which Rand challenges modern liberals: whether it's consistent to advocate an individual's intellectual and personal liberty while denying him economic liberty.

It wasn't always so. Liberals in the nineteenth century were champions of science and at the forefront of abolishing slavery and securing a woman's individual rights. But they were also champions of private property, free trade and economic liberty. It is this combination that produced the individual's unprecedented progress in that century. Modern liberals, however, abandoned the right to private property in favor of various socialistic visions, which have since faded with awareness of what socialism and communism actually wrought. The result is what [Yale historian Beverly] Gage notes: modern liberals bereft of an ideal.

Any liberal-leaning person today who seeks long-term goals and a new vision, but will not touch the political right because of conservatives' anti-evolution, anti-immigration, anti-abortion platforms, would do well to remember nineteenth-century liberalism. Perhaps the two alternatives confronting us, a government with virtually unlimited power to dictate our personal lives or our economic lives, are both defective.
Each piece provides evidence that neither "side" of today's political "divide" consistently stands up for what it claims to uphold, be it prosperity (by the right) or personal freedom (by the left). But each also indicates why: an unmet need for the philosophical ideas that these goals depend on. It's only more obvious that the left never gave Rand a serious look, but the alleged adoption of Rand by the right sketched by Burns wasn't exactly deep. Someone who happens to want to spout off about some position that happens to align with one espoused by Rand will find eloquence and polemical material in abundance to lift, but so what? Can anyone who does this, and yet so plainly continues embracing contradictory ideas (e.g., Paul "Ayn" Ryan's professed desire to save the unsavable Social Security system) really be said to have taken a serious look at Rand, either?

As a long-time student of Ayn Rand, who was initially attracted to her in part for the ability I thought she would confer on me to eviscerate opponents, I can say this: Any fool can be a critic. Building a positive case for freedom is much harder, and requires a mode of thought that differs in kind from simply tearing down opponents (which just about sums up what most people do these days when discussing politics). If you truly value economic freedom, don't yield to the temptation to simply take easy (and easy-to-ignore) pot-shots at leftists. And if you truly value personal freedom, consider the idea that government "social" programs rob individuals, like yourself and people you care about. The fact that no one was able to rise above the palpably toxic level of "discourse" during the last election raises the question of why the GOP's alleged fans of Ayn Rand didn't display the certainty and serenity that comes with conviction.

Ayn Rand is too powerful a voice to ignore, but she is also too subtle a thinker to win instant converts. Whether Rand truly becomes a strong-enough cultural force to turn the political tide of history remains to be seen, and it is a mistake take abandonment by people who never really accepted her as a sign that the force of her ideas is spent.

-- CAV

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