Ayn Rand: Why is she so popular?
A Russian-American writer who died 30 years ago is still selling hundreds of thousands of books a year, and this week one of her former devotees, Paul Ryan, became Mitt Romney’s running mate in the US presidential election. So why is Ayn Rand and her most famous work, Atlas Shrugged, so popular?
It’s 1,200 pages long and was panned by critics when it was published 55 years ago.
Yet few novels have had an impact as enduring as Atlas Shrugged, a dystopian allegory in which captains of industry struggle against stifling regulations and an over-reaching government and one by one close down production, bringing the world economy to its knees.
Rand’s philosophy, which she called objectivism, tapped directly into the American ideals of freedom, hard work and individualism. In novels like Atlas Shrugged, and her non-fiction like The Virtues of Selfishness, Rand argued for the removal of any religious or political controls that hindered the pursuit of self-interest.
As she explained in a 1959 television interview: “I am primarily the creator of a new code of morality which has so far been believed impossible - namely, a morality not based on faith, not on emotion, not on arbitrary edicts, mystical or social, but on reason.”
She believed, she added, that man’s “highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness, and that he must not force other people, nor accept their right to force him, that each man must live as an end in himself and follow his own rational self-interest.”
Atlas Shrugged is her magnum opus, set in an undated American future, although it is reminiscent of the 1950s. The strike by millionaire tycoons is orchestrated by the Christ-like figure of John Galt, who towards the end of the novel makes a 60-page speech that took Rand two years to write.
Her voice and ideas are clearly present in the noble characters of Galt, railway heiress Dagny Taggart, copper magnate Francisco d’Anconia and steel tycoon Hank Rearden.
This quartet are idealised figures, capitalist high-fliers who must defeat Rand’s “looter” enemies - unions, lobbyists, government officials and any supporters of altruism and welfare.
“She’s become a more dominant influence than she’s ever been and that’s bad because she’s made it cool to be selfish. It’s bad for the people outside her favoured elite, the 99%. And it’s bad for the morality of the US,” says Gary Weiss, author of Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul.