Reflections on Ayn Rand 114 Years After Her Birth

Thursday, January 31, 2019
Hoover Institution, Stanford University
Image credit: 
Eric Draper

Image credit: 
Eric Draper

Ayn Rand was one of the first to offer an alternative vision of the knowledge economy where intellect truly drives a creative and free marketplace, a Hoover scholar says.

February 2 is the anniversary of Rand’s birth 114 years ago in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum, she emigrated to the United States in 1926, became a Hollywood screenwriter for Cecil B. DeMille, and then began writing fiction and nonfiction books on diverse topics, including political thought. She passed away in 1982.

Jennifer Burns, a historian and research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is an expert on Ayn Rand and the American conservative movement. She authored the acclaimed biography Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right and is now writing an intellectual biography of the economist Milton Friedman. In 2017, Burns wrote a Washington Post article on Rand’s influence on American intellectual thought.

Burns recently discussed the impact of Rand on American political policy and philosophy:

What is Ayn Rand best known for?

Burns: Ayn Rand is best known for two novels she wrote more than 50 years ago, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1958). Although these books were bestsellers and enjoyed by many as fiction, they also helped spread her political ideas about capitalism and limited government. Today Rand is remembered as an important inspiration for the conservative movement, although she was critical of most conservatives during her lifetime.

How would you describe the impact of Rand’s ideas on current US policy and politics? 

Burns: One way you can measure the impact of Rand’s ideas is that they don't sound very remarkable today. She wrote a lot about how capitalism could be creative, innovative, and inspiring; and business a place where individuals leave their mark on the world. These are all common sentiments today, particularly in the entrepreneurial world. But during Rand’s lifetime, corporate capitalism was seen as a soul-stifling realm of drudgery and conformism. She was one of the first to present an alternative vision of the knowledge economy where intellect was the driving force behind capitalism.

Rand was also a vociferous opponent of expanded government, arguing the only proper role of the state was national defense, enforcement of contracts, and maintenance of law and order. Her legacy in this area can be seen in moves towards privatizing government functions or opening up regulated markets for competition. Her books were part of a larger wave toward deregulation that peaked in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ayn Rand seemed to grow in popularity soon after the 2008–09 financial crash. Why, and how would you describe the interest in her in 2019?

Burns: Rand’s appeal is always cyclical, and she is paradoxically most popular during liberal presidential administrations. So some of her popularity after the financial crisis was simply conservatives returning to classic thinkers in opposition to the Obama presidency. But there were also two specific policy connections. First, conservatives frustrated by bank bailouts pointed to Atlas Shrugged in order to illustrate the dangers of “crony capitalism,” or government support of favored corporations. Second, Rand was cited in arguments against Obamacare. Rand’s philosophy held that social programs like health care were not the responsibility of government.

In 2019, Rand’s place in American politics is less clear, in part because politics is so unsettled. President Trump has cited her as one of the few authors he has read and admired. But Rand would have been extremely critical of his actions as president.

For example, take Trump’s criticism of Carrier (the air conditioner manufacturer) for its decision to close an Indianapolis factory. This incident has some parallels in president John F. Kennedy’s 1962 criticism of the steel industry for raising prices. Rand attacked Kennedy for using his political powers to pressure a private business. She called it a first step toward totalitarianism. If she were alive today, she would likely say the same thing about Trump.

What would Rand think about America First and populism?

Burns: Rand’s views on foreign policy are complicated! At times she expressed views that could be considered isolationist or in the tradition of America First. She opposed the Vietnam War, believing the United States had no national interest in the conflict.

At the same time, she was a refugee from Soviet Russia, and a Cold Warrior before there was a Cold War. Even without a Communist government in power, she would reject any moves toward a closer relationship with Russia. But she would be in favor of rethinking US foreign policy and strategy with an eye to putting national interests first and reducing involvement in overseas conflicts. Rand was a fervent believer in free trade, calling it the foreign policy of capitalism.

And the nationalist turn in American conservatism?

Burns: Rand was first and foremost an individualist. She thought racial, religious, or nationalist ideas were an example of “mysticism.” In her view, they were all forms of collectivism, which would eventually lead to totalitarianism, as in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. During her lifetime, she believed that conservatives were generally more committed to individual rights than liberals or the left. But toward the end of her life, she became extremely worried about the rise of religious conservatism, which she considered a threat to individual rights. She attacked Ronald Reagan for a “dangerous” combination of church and state. She would similarly oppose the turn to nationalist or racial thinking on the right today. She celebrated individualism as the true American creed and unregulated capitalism as its purest expression.

What do contemporary critics of Rand say about her influence?

Burns: What’s interesting about Rand is that she has never mapped cleanly onto left or right politics. Her economic ideas are very conservative, but they are mixed with a libertarian emphasis on freedom and individual rights. This makes her exciting to think about in a moment of political change and possibility. Rand shows that our assumptions about right and left don’t need to stay the same—and in fact these divisions we take for granted have never been as solid as we think.


Media Contacts

Clifton B. Parker, Hoover Institution: 650-498-5204, cbparker [at] stanford.edu