When the literary editor of The New Republic asked me to review two new books on Ayn Rand three years ago, I readily agreed. Rand, the Russian-born writer known for her take-no-prisoners defense of capitalism, was beginning to come back into vogue among conservatives, and I recalled hearing that there was a congressman from Wisconsin who was singing her praises and assigning her writings to his staff. I had had my own flirtation with Rand, when I was 18, and although it lasted less than a year, I could never forget a college classmate who kept extensive index cards ready so that he could quote her whenever he deemed the situation appropriate.
The two books were interesting, indeed fascinating. One, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, was written by Jennifer Burns, a historian at Stanford University. The other, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, came from the journalist Anne C. Heller. As good as the books were, however, I felt that to do justice to the essay, I would have to reread Rand’s own novels. That proved to be too much. One of the best things I have done for American politics in recent years was to turn down the review assignment. It went instead to Jonathan Chait, now at New York magazine, and I consider his masterly essay to be one of the outstanding pieces of political journalism of the past decade.
With Paul Ryan’s selection as vice-presidential candidate on the 2012 Republican ticket, Rand is back in the news. Chait continues to write about her. Burns came out with two essays about her contemporary relevance, one in The New York Times, the other in The New Republic. We now know that Ryan tempered his enthusiasm for Rand when he realized that her atheism might prove problematic for members of his party. It has become clear that Rand was pro-choice and, like any hater of government properly ought to be, a civil libertarian. She would be disgusted by the Republican Party’s spending on defense (let alone Ryan’s support, during the George W. Bush years, for the Medicare Part D prescription benefit and TARP).
Yet as much as I like it when intellectuals receive attention, I still find myself uninterested in Ayn Rand. I do not care what she would have thought of the current scene. That those who invoke her name treat her selectively is of almost no significance to me. I have the sense, moreover, that I am not alone, at least among those in the academic world. Despite a flutter of interest, she has been mostly ignored.
Rand wrote novels that are highly unlikely to be read and taught in departments of English. Her subject was the market, but no academic economists take her seriously, unless, of course, wealthy libertarians offer funds for that purpose. She considered herself an Aristotelian, but it is impossible to imagine departments of philosophy and political science adding her to the canon.
For those under Rand’s spell, all this is just more evidence of academe’s irrelevance. For me it demonstrates that, for all the attacks directed against it, American academic life still has standards. I will be teaching a course next semester called “Liberalism and Conservatism.” John Stuart Mill and Edmund Burke will be on the reading list. So will libertarians such as Friedrich von Hayek and the founder of the National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. Contemporary liberals such as E.J. Dionne will be there. But not Rand. My reasons for excluding her may be the same reasons that other academics ignore her.
Rand’s “thought,” such as it is, boils down to two propositions. One is that selfishness is the highest of moral virtues. The other is that the masses, above all resentful of success, are parasites living off the hard work of capitalists far superior to them in every way.
Self-interest is a useful concept, while selfishness is not. That, I believe, helps explain why Adam Smith is a first-rate thinker and Ayn Rand is an amateur.
Self-interest makes altruism possible: I can decide to help others, even if in doing so I may be set back financially, because other gains to my self-esteem are important to me. Self-interest requires a nuanced psychology, which is why economists now find themselves investigating all kinds of human behavior and are increasingly interested in how the mind works. Selfishness, by contrast, is not psychologically interesting; Rand’s understanding of human behavior has no room for the complex, the unexpected, or the paradoxical. It is one thing to say, as she frequently did, that altruism is evil; that is a normative position with which one might agree or, I hope, disagree. But to claim that altruism is impossible, an empirical question, is another matter entirely. Any social science, including economics, must be based on a realistic psychology. Rand does not offer one.
As for the masses, serious thinkers have shared Rand’s concern about their impact on society: de Tocqueville spoke of the tyranny of the majority and Ortega y Gasset of their “revolt.” There was a time when the concept of mass society was taken seriously in academic sociology: Daniel Bell wrote an essay about it, C. Wright Mills a chapter, and William Kornhauser a book. But while we continue to discuss mass media and mass culture, we have also learned, as Mills tried to teach us, that elites have flaws of their own. A theory of society that attributes virtues to one group and vices to another cannot pass the realism test: Rand’s “inverted” Marxism, as Chait calls it, is as myopic as its opposite.
Right-wing think tanks can have Rand (even if she had little use for them). In the academy, she is a nonperson. Her theories are works of fiction. Her works of fiction are theories, and bad ones at that. Should the Republicans actually win in 2012, we might need to study her in the academic world. It would be for the same reason we sometimes need to study creationism.
Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and a professor of political science at Boston College.