The Bad Idea That Keeps on Giving

By Scott TimbergJuly 27, 2018

The Bad Idea That Keeps on Giving
“SOUNDS GREAT on paper.” That’s a phrase I heard a lot as a kid in the late ’70s, usually when my parents and their friends were talking about communism. Certainly an earthly paradise as depicted in the writings of Trotsky or Lenin, but — shame, isn’t it? — communism did not seem to actually work in real life.

The notion that something could sound smart in theory and not work out in practice applies just as well to another product of early 20th-century Russian thought: the individual-over-the-masses, market-worshipping libertarianism philosophy that comes from Ayn Rand. It’s been carried on, after Rand’s 1982 passing, by American acolytes including Alan Greenspan, Ron Paul, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and, probably, someone you went to high school with.

The fact that the libertarian wonderland of absolute sexual and economic freedom only ever worked in Rand’s melodramatic novels and helium-voiced Rush songs — that her philosophy of “Objectivism” has never been successfully applied to actual governance — does not seem to cross the minds of libertarian true-believers. And to many of them, it seems not to matter: a fealty to Rand, to heroic ideas of intellectual superiority and capitalism’s grandeur, is more important than what puny mortals consider political or intellectual reality. If you try arguing sense with them, you’ll quickly wish you hadn’t.

Why should we care, then, about a discredited goofball ideology from deep within the last century? Because Ayn Rand–style libertarianism has probably never been more assertive in American politics than it is today.

What once seemed like the golden age of Rand turned out only to be a warm-up. In the 1950s, you could go to Objectivist salons in New York, where sycophants like Greenspan and future self-esteem guru Nathaniel Branden would gather round the goddess to luxuriate in every word (in some cases, the connection was more than purely intellectual: Branden was one of the polyamorous Rand’s numerous younger boyfriends). In the ’60s and ’70s, you could attend vaguely countercultural conventions across the nation where men would shout conspiracy theories and women would emulate their heroine by wearing broaches shaped like dollar signs. For a while, the Christianity-and-Cold-War strand of the American right headed by William F. Buckley Jr. marginalized the libertarians for their atheism and noninterventionist stance. From the evidence of 1971’s inside-the-whale memoir, Jerome Tuccille’s It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand, this movement was hardly built on solid intellectual ground. The abundance of selfish children driving the ship, part–Veruca Salt, part–Mike Teavee, made this seem like the kind of cult sure to wither of its own ridiculousness.

But with the Reagan Revolution, libertarianism was brought indoors, and the direct-mail New Right that accompanied the movement relied heavily on anti-government dogma. In many parts of the United States — the Sun Belt, the boys’ club of billionaires who fancy themselves self-made heroes, and various enclaves in the capital — Rand’s vision established its second beachhead.


And gradually, the discredited movement that tended to attract nerds and know-it-alls became part of the political mainstream.

“I give out Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents,” outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan told the Weekly Standard, “and I make all my interns read it.” He only backed away from Rand when her atheism caused him image problems with God-fearing Republicans, who, if they looked closely, would see that Objectivism is almost exactly the opposite of what’s preached by the Biblical Jesus.

In fact, several of the key Republican young guns are Fountainhead-adjacent. Senator Rand Paul is not only the son of longtime libertarian crank and Texas Congressman Ron Paul (he of the racist newsletters). The younger Paul is such an Atlas Shrugged–pounder that a rumor flourished for years that his first name came from the family’s favorite author.

In Silicon Valley, billionaires are working to put the “liberal” back into libertarian — at least, the 18th-century “classical liberalism” cooked up before industrialization, widespread racial tension, and modern finance capitalism. For all their quoting of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, it makes their retro version of Objectivism about as useful for 21st-century life as an 18th-century telescope. The Randed-out Peter Thiel, whose commitment to free speech did not keep him from suing a major media company into oblivion, is perhaps the most prominent Valley libertarian. But he’s hardly alone: if you wondered why Elon Musk was selling flamethrowers, just remember he’s another guy who loves freedom.

Besides the true-believers, reactionary wackjobs often stop over at Galt’s Gulch on their way to even scarier neighborhoods. Mike Enoch — born Mike Peinovich — is a racist and anti-Semite beloved on the alt-right for his The Right Stuff blog and the popular podcast The Daily Shoah. On his journey from leftist extremism to far-right derangement, he was energized by the work of Rand, Murray Rothbard, and economist Ludwig von Mises; his libertarian blog sported posts like “Socialist is Selfish” and “Taxation is Theft.”

Similarly, the polite Midwestern Nazi profiled by The New York Times, Tony Hovater, was a vaguely leftish heavy-metal drummer until he discovered libertarianism. He was, in fact, radicalized by what he considers the Republican Party’s perfidious treatment of libertarian hero Ron Paul; today he reads numerous Rand-y academics for intellectual guidance.

Then there’s Robert Mercer, one of the invisible rich people who has more influence on world affairs than just about everyone you know put together. Mercer, who helped fund Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidential race, and, for years, Breitbart News, is also the father of Rebekah Mercer. A toxic rich girl par excellence, Rebekah is known to Politico as "the most powerful woman in GOP politics” and to others as the first lady of the alt-right. (She recently sowed a rift on the right by cutting off Steve Bannon’s paychecks following his tussle with President Trump.)

Even in this charmless crowd, Robert Mercer’s obnoxiousness stands out. The Citizens United decision has unleashed people like Mercer — secretive gazillionaires whose expenditures are often untraceable despite the way they remake our shared reality. “In my view, Trump wouldn’t be President if not for Bob,” an old colleague of Mercer’s told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer.

Oh, and then there are Charles and David Koch. “Suddenly, a random billionaire can change politics and public policy,” election watchdog and registered Republican Trevor Potter told Mayer, “to sweep everything else off the table — even if they don’t speak publicly, and even if there’s almost no public awareness of his or her views.” And, as of this fall, the Kochs now effectively own Time magazine as well as a bunch of other publications ranging from Sports Illustrated to the retro British rock magazine Uncut.

And Charles Koch’s foundation has given something like $200 million to colleges and universities, in many cases to appoint pro-business, anti-government scholars to institutions like Chapman University.

The Kochs’ defenders talk about libertarians as some kind of oppressed minority. But unlike most other right-of-center subcultures, libertarians are woven into the nation’s intellectual and cultural mainstream. If you went to a liberal arts college, live in a big city and read The New York Times or Washington Post, follow indie-rock bands and watch trendy shows on HBO, you probably don’t know many evangelical Christians. You could very well spend your days with very little contact with war-mongering neoconservatives. The rural/working-class/NRA side of Caucasian conservatism is likely something you experience mostly through Hillbilly Elegy or reruns of the now-cancelled Roseanne. Libertarians, by contrast, are everywhere. Go on Facebook, and some former friend from childhood is lecturing you about the free market.

We are now, many decades after the germination of Rand’s cult of personality, in a world where a Library of Congress survey deems Atlas Shrugged the most influential book next to the Bible. As the GOP, Wall Street, the intellectual plutocracy of think tanks and foundations, and Silicon Valley grow in coming years, expect to see the influence of this group and its ideas grow and stretch.

Despite numerous parallels with Scientology, Objectivism is not just sitting still, getting weirder while remaining confined to a few thousand worshippers. We have not yet reached Peak Libertarian. So where do these goofy ideas come from, and what effect might they have?


A partial answer — both rigorously told and incomplete — comes from a recent book, How Bad Writing Destroyed the World, by Wellesley College comp-lit professor Adam Weiner.

Weiner’s key insight is connecting Rand’s ideas — and the Russian literary intellectual lineage she emerged from — with the 2008 financial collapse. “By programming Alan Greenspan with objectivism and, literally, walking him into the highest circles of government, Rand had effectively chucked a ticking time bomb into the boiler room of the US economy,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “I am choosing my metaphor deliberately: as I will show, infiltration and bomb-throwing were revolutionary methods that shaped the tradition on which Rand was consciously or unconsciously drawing.”

Most historical changes have some kind of intellectual root, for better and worse; kudos to Weiner for tracing how a series of bad ideas and clumsy prose led the nation to the Great Recession. But Weiner, a scholar of Russian literature, appears to be far more interested in one of Rand’s antecedents than Rand herself. Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the revolutionary socialist best known for his 1863 novel What Is To Be Done?, written while its author was imprisoned in a St. Petersburg fortress, is his true subject. The book famously inspired Lenin’s world-shaking pamphlet of the same name.

There’s one small problem with this premise, and one large one. Weiner shrewdly anticipates the first: how could a man of the extreme left — who helped inspire the terrorists who coalesced around the Russian Revolution — simultaneously provide the intellectual foundation for the godmother of the market-worshipping right? He finds the common denominator in Chernyshevsky’s notion of “rational egoism,” which Weiner describes as the idea that “the rational pursuit of selfish gain on the part of each individual must give rise to the ideal form of society.”

Sound familiar? This chimes almost exactly with Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” — the bedrock of her pseudo-philosophy of unchecked capitalism, minimalist government, and rugged individualism pursued by übermensch heroes. “The main heirs of Chernyshevsky’s bumbling, illogical aesthetic,” Weiner writes, “were the Soviet-mandated novels of socialist realism and the ‘capitalist realism’ of Ayn Rand.”

Weiner deftly handled the contradiction here: a bad novel could not only become ideologically potent, but it could also inspire people who would not recognize each other as fellow travelers.

Yet Weiner’s book lives up to neither its title nor its subtitle, “Ayn Rand and the Literary Origins of the Financial Crisis.” Weiner’s final chapter, “In the graveyard of bad ideas,” returns to Rand’s biography — she grew up in St. Petersburg and watched as the Bolsheviks looted her family’s possessions — and intellectual roots. But it feels like an addendum, however skillfully told, to a reasonably lucid and well-researched book about an influential but not very good 19th-century Russian novelist.

In connecting Rand — and contemporary American libertarianism — to an extremist strain of pre-revolutionary Russian thought, Weiner does help clarify this bizarre lineage, its combination of heartland America Firstism with something clearly alien to our Constitution and its mostly British political origins. Ayn Rand is not just Adam Smith in a screenwriter’s bungalow — she’s coming from somewhere different from classical liberalism.

The book Weiner seemed to be delivering — offering the intellectual history of either kook libertarianism, or the 2008 crash, or both — still needs to be written. Until then, the second edition of Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind — released in November, this time under the subtitle “Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump” — does a skillful job connecting philosophers, historians, and economists of the past with our recent rightward turn. His chapter on Ayn Rand and libertarianism, in specific, offers much of what Weiner’s volume promises and fails to provide.

“Saint Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladimir Nabobov, Isaiah Berlin, and Ayn Rand,” Robin begins. “The first was a novelist, the second a philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both.” Robin, a political professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, starts with pre-revolutionary Russia, but considers Rand’s real birthplace to be Hollywood, where she landed in 1926 and was quickly recruited by Cecil B. DeMille. “For where else but in the dream factory could Rand have learned how to make dreams — about America, capitalism, and herself?”

And Rand’s us-versus-them formulation of the stalwart genius against the “moochers” and “looters” — revived by Mitt Romney in his “makers” versus “takers” speech — is textbook vulgar Nietzscheanism. It also helps explain the appeal of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead to misunderstood adolescents who dream themselves the übermensch.

Rand’s novels heroize — in the same campy way she learned from Russian operettas and Hollywood movies — defiant, comically masculine builders like architect Howard Roark and engineer/inventor John Galt. It feels somehow inevitable that the recent libertarian, anti-government, pro-business strain on the American right would lead us to a man who seems right out of her pages: the defiant, comically masculine real estate developer Donald Trump.

The real history of Ayn Rand’s bad ideas — their roots, their trajectory, their collateral damage — can’t be contained in any book, however good or bad. It’s all unfolding around us, as her zombie devours the Republican Party and soon, the rest of us, with no sign of abating.


Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.


Banner image by Erik Fitzpatrick.

LARB Contributor

Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, an examination of the damages to our cultural landscape wrought by recent technological and economic shifts and an argument for a more equitable and navigable future. Timberg is writing a book called Beeswing: Britain, Folk Rock, and the End of the 60s with the guitarist Richard Thompson.


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