Acton Institute Powerblog

Rand Redivivus?

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Heather Wilhelm of the Illinois Policy Institute examines the usefulness of Ayn Rand for political engagement by friends of the market economy in a WSJ op-ed, “Is Ayn Rand Bad for the Market?” She concludes,

Rand held some insight on the nature of markets and has sold scads of books, but when it comes to shaping today’s mainstream assumptions, she is a terrible marketer: elitist, cold and laser-focused on the supermen and superwomen of the world.

Wilhelm’s picture of Rand underscores the distinction I’ve made between libertarianism as a world-and-life view and as a political philosophy. Rand is clearly of the former type: a Weltanschauunglich libertarian par excellence.

As Wilhelm writes, “For her fans, Rand’s appeal lies in her big-picture, unified, philosophical approach to man’s purpose and the meaning of life.” But this is also her greatest weakness, in that it opposes her to collaboration with those who might share inclinations toward limited government, but do not buy into the comprehensive “blend of atheism, absolutism and ruthless individualism.”

This is a more thorough-going critique of Rand’s viability as a model than simply noting the vigor of her polemic. As Acton Institute president Rev. Robert A. Sirico says, “If you want to offend, Rand accomplishes that. But if you want to convert—well, for instance, who could imagine Rand debating a health-care bill? I wouldn’t want to take an order from her in a restaurant, let alone negotiate a political point.”

Over at First Thoughts, Joe Carter juxtaposes Frank Capra’s George Bailey (of It’s a Wonderful Life) with Rand’s Harold Roark (of Fountainhead). Carter concludes that the two figures represent sharply different visions. Indeed, “Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: it is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.”

This is something that Rand and her disciples would find odious. Thus “those who view Roark as a moral model—are not likely to appreciate Wonderful Life. Indeed, the messages are so antithetical that only a schizophrenic personality could truly appreciate both George Bailey and Howard Roark.”

Update: Reason‘s Katherine Mangu-Ward passes along the words of Rand’s “one-time intellectual heir” Nathaniel Branden, as a kind of addendum to Rev. Sirico’s comment:

The luckiest beneficiaries of [Ayn Rand’s] work are the people who read her and never see her, never meet her, never have any reason to deal with her in person. Then they get the best of what she was.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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