David Ignatius of the Washington Post on Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump, then, questions for Attorney General nominee Republican Senator Jeff Sessions.
Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate has brought new attention to the philosopher Ayn Rand. Paul Ryan says as a young man he was inspired by Ayn Rand’s writing. In her novels “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” she described the virtues of private enterprise and the evils of government. Those ideas resonated with Ryan, and in a campaign video from 2009 he said, “Ayn Rand more than anyone else did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism, and this to me is what matters most.” Ayn Rand was also an atheist, and Paul Ryan has distanced himself from Rand’s religious views. But Ayn Rand remains an intriguing figure in American political thought. Senior fellow Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Institute, Slate political reporter David Weigel and Stanford history professor Jennifer burns join guest host Tom Gjelten to discuss her influence.
- David Weigel political reporter for Slate.
- Jennifer Burns assistant professor of history at Stanford University and author of "Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right."
- Onkar Ghate senior fellow and vice president of intellectual leadership at the Ayn Rand Institute.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back tomorrow. Since Congressman Paul Ryan was tapped by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has hit running mate, he has been scrutinized for his interest in writings of Ayn Rand. In 2005, Paul Ryan had to say to the Atlas Society.
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYANThe reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one person it would by Ayn Rand, and the fight we are in here, and make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism. And when you look at the 20th century experiment with collectivism that Ayn Rand more than anybody else did such a good job of articulating that pitfalls of stateism and collectivism, you can't find another thinker or writer who did a better job of describing and laying out the moral case for capitalism than Ayn Rand.
GJELTENThat was in 2005. More recently, the vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, has distanced himself from the controversial author of "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead." In this examine we'll examine why Ayn Rand's writings continue to influence debate more than 30 years after her death. Joining me in the studio are Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Institute and Slate political reported David Weigel. Jennifer Burns joins us from the studio at Stanford University where she is an assistant professor of history, and you can also join us.
GJELTENHave you read of Ayn Rand's novels? What do you think about her philosophy and its relevance to today's issues and debates? Call us at 1-800-433-8850, email us at email@example.com, or join us on Facebook or Twitter. I'm sure a lot of you want to get in on this discussion today on Ayn Rand. But first of all, welcome to our guests. Thanks for joining me.
MR. DAVID WEIGELThank you.
MR. ONKAR GHATEThanks for having us.
GJELTENAnd thanks to you out there in California, Jennifer.
MS. JENNIFER BURNSYeah. Thank you for having me.
GJELTENOnkar Ghate, I want to begin with you. The Ayn Rand Institute so all these years you've been promoting the writings of Ayn Rand. What has the selection of Paul Ryan done to the interest in your institute and the interest in Ayn Rand's writings? Have you seen a kind of an explosion of new interests and new attention to Ayn Rand as a result of Paul Ryan's selection?
GHATEYes. I think we definitely have. Particularly noticeable is on the media. I mean, the media attention that he's getting and what exactly is his relationship to Rand, what did Rand advocate, and we're one of the experts on Ayn Rand. So yes, a definite increase in interest.
GJELTENAnd have you been satisfied with the way that Ayn Rand's writings have been characterized, and also the influence that she has had on Paul Ryan in this media discussion over the past couple of weeks?
GHATEI think it's complex what her impact has been on Paul Ryan. I think there's been a real impact, and I think the stories overall, there's a much better understanding though I think not still completely accurate of what Ayn Rand's views are, but if you compare it to 10, 20 years ago, and certainly at the time when people were writing when she was still alive, it's a more accurate understandings, and that's part of what we do at the Institute. We're trying to get out just what her ideas and what her philosophy are. But it would be interesting to talk about kind of her impact on Paul Ryan.
GJELTENDavid Weigel, this is an issue that you actually started following before Paul Ryan was nominated. How important has -- in your judgment, how important has Ayn Rand been to the conservative movement, and what role have her writings played in the promotion of conservative ideas over the last few years?
WEIGELI'd say a pretty foundational role. It runs through a lot of conservative thinking. The first clip that you played from 2005, remember the context of that. 2005 was before TARP, it was before (unintelligible) . The context at the time was that George Bush was trying to implement Social Security privatization and not succeeding. Paul Ryan was in favor of that, but it wasn't going to work. It wasn't going to pass. And the point he was making was that the reason he had such great respect for the individual -- well, there were a bunch of reasons, but the person who explained it best was Rand.
WEIGELThat Rand's philosophy tells everybody that you can't trust the government to hand out these benefits. That people are going to make their decision themselves. When government is well-intentioned it's going to mess up because that's what government does. And there are other thinkers that -- even in that speech he cites other libertarian economists. But just the pure allegory and the power of fable in that novel have been cited again and again by not just Ryan, a lot of Republican politicians.
WEIGELThey know they get into a little trouble, you know, they might get associated with ideas of hers they don't agree with. But I've talked to many Republican Congressmen, many Republican activists who say this is the -- I read this novel at an early age. I was 16, I was 17, I was 18, it informed the way that I then looked at Friedrich Hayek or I then looked at Milton Friedman, or somebody who used more hard economics than allegorian fable.
GJELTENBut who actually believed in sort of in general terms in the same idea that is government. How would you characterize that, that government -- what effect does government have on prosperity in a society?
WEIGELI guess the simplest way -- I like to hear how other people describe it, but that there are makers and there are takers. There are people who produce and people who loot. I mean, if we're just using words from "Atlas Shrugged," and that government is just inevitably going to redistribute based on maybe what they think are good intentions. And Rand they're because of religious ideas and you can separate that. I mean, Ryan is very religious and he has no problem with her book.
WEIGELThey're going to take wealth from people, redistribute, and it's going to make everyone poor. I mean, in the novel, again and again there are characters who try, you know, build up a, you know, give loans because they feel like it would be the right thing to do, and they're not encouraging good behavior. There are laws passed to restrict people from owning too many businesses, again because government wants to tamp down, I guess, what they would see as the rapaciousness of capitalism, but, you know, capitalism is -- if you just used the first half of Adam Smith, the part of why, you know, why (unintelligible) work, that's more trustworthy than government.
WEIGELI mean, if you trust people to invest and don't take their wealth away and give it to someone else, they're going to sort things out. And again, this is a something a lot of libertarian economists have written but in "Atlas Shrugged" you see society collapse because people try to do that, because government listens to basically greedy people, people who don't achieve on their own. They listen to unethical government bureaucrats and politicians. Basically, if you read into this than all those decisions come, even if they're from a selfless sounding place, they all come from a morally repugnant and socially destructive place. If you just let people trade and work in markets, you're going to have prosperity.
GJELTENJennifer Burns, you've written a book, a biography of Ayn Rand, "Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right." Tell us a little bit about her as a writer, as a person, as a woman.
BURNSSure. I think what's interesting is the way that the basic plot line of "Atlas Shrugged" can be seen as analogous to some events that Rand lived through in her life. So one of her foundational experiences is when was as a young girl she was born Alissa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and she lived through the Russian Revolution, and she saw her family's property seized, her father's business nationalized in the name of the common good, in the name of the state. And that for her became a basic template by which she looked at government action.
BURNSAnd from then on when she heard people talking about the common good, about what government could do to help and improve society, she just went right back to that moment when her family's property was stolen and as David is saying, that's how she interpreted government action as fundamentally theft from the productive, moral, hardworking members of society, taken by an illegitimate state and redistributed to people who did not earn it in the first place.
GJELTENOnkar Ghate, do you feel comfortable with the way that Jennifer Burns just characterized that origin of her thought?
GHATEI mean, I think that's definitely one of her life experiences, but she's a philosopher, so she's looking at things from a timeless perspective. It's too narrow I think to think you're looking at everything through the lens of your personal experience. And she's interested in this issue of individualism versus collectivism, and she thinks collectivism in all its forms, not just when you get to the extreme version of collectivism in Soviet Russia, all its forms are morally wrong.
GHATEAnd so take Social Security for instance, and one of the things that Ryan is interested in, Social Security is a collectivistic scheme. The whole idea is we're going to put everybody in the same pot. We're going to take money from young people and give it to pay for the retirement of old people. And when you look at the statistics, I mean, the people received Social Security in the '60s, '70s, '80s. They collect so much more than they ever have paid in taxes on Social Security. So it's basically a so-called redistribution scheme with the hope that when a person -- a young person now gets old, there's going to be other people who you can take their money from.
GHATEIt ties everybody together. They can't plan individually for their own retirement. There's people who would say, look, I don't want to now pay taxes. I would rather build my business and pour all my money into my business, and that is what will set me for life. They can't do that. Any why? Because they've all been tied together, and that's the collectivism, and she's an individualist and believes in individual responsibility and individual choice.
GJELTENOkay. Onkar, what you're talking about is economic policy, and in particular the Social Security system for example. But this dichotomy of individualism and collectivism for her also extended into more personal realms, and she had a lot to say about organized religion for example, which sort of promotes the idea of collectivism. How possible is it to separate those religious views of Ayn Rand from her economic views?
GHATEI think if you're talking about the level of philosophy, you can't actually separate them. They're part and parcel, and Ayn Rand viewed her philosophy -- and any philosopher views his philosophy as a system, but that -- you still can have people influenced, and they pick up one idea, and they don't go all the way, and I think that is what is happening with Paul Ryan. I think he definitely brings a moral -- when he talks about Social Security or Medicare, he brings a moral perspective on it.
GHATEI would say it's inconsistent with his religious perspective and the idea that you're your brother's keeper. That's a collectivistic tying everybody to the group, you're to look out for others, you're to serve others. I think those ideas are inconsistent, but it's not unusual for a person to be influenced and pick up one idea and not understand the total.
GJELTENAnd this might be one of the reasons why as Jennifer Burns has written, it has not been easy for politicians to fully embrace Ayn Rand in the whole spectrum of her views. And we're going to get to that question after this break. My guests are Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Institute, David Weigel, a political reporter from Slate, and Jennifer Burns, an assistant professor of history at Stanford and the author of a biography on Ayn Rand. Join us, you call us at 1-800-433-8850. Stay tuned, we're talking about Ayn Rand.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in today for Diane Rehm and our focus this hour, our topic this hour is the writings of Ayn Rand and what influence they have had on Paul Ryan, the vice-presidential choice of Republican candidate Mitt Romney but also other politicians who, conservative politicians, Republicans who have been attracted by Ayn Rand's writings and influenced by them over the years. Jennifer Burns at Stanford, this is something that you have paid particular attention to. You asked the question, you raised the question of whether Ayn Rand would approve of Paul Ryan in all his views. What's the answer to that?
BURNSI think it's a pretty safe bet that she would not. We have a lot of evidence, as much evidence as one can have from a deceased historical figure on views of analogist politicians. So one of the last things she ever published was a denunciation of Ronald Regan and it was specifically because Ronald Regan mixed religion and politics.
BURNSAnd because he supported the abolition of abortion so he was pro-life and she wrote a letter to her followers saying, "Reagan is the worst kind of conservative. He's a dangerous man who's mixing religion and politics, who doesn't understand the fundamental importance of the separation of church and state. Don't vote for him and don't support him." So I think she would look at Paul Ryan in much the same way as someone who, while he sounds close to her in economic and fiscal matters, has really missed a lot of her larger messages about the proper role of government.
GJELTENBut does that really matter, Jennifer? Does it really matter? Does it mean that Paul Ryan's thoughts about Ayn Rand shouldn't be taken so seriously, if in fact she would not have agreed with him?
BURNSI mean, that's a great question because Rand was a singular thinker who disagreed with many, if not most, of those who read her philosophy and claimed to be her followers. So when I wrote about her in my book one metaphor I used, I called her the gateway drug to life on the right. So in other words, she was a thinker that people read, they became excited about, she changed their world view, she changed their mind and then they often moved on, bringing parts of Rand with them but combining them with other philosophies, other personal beliefs.
BURNSSo what you see in Ryan is very emblematic, that he's held onto some of Rand's views and he summarizes them and discusses them quite lucidly but he's also packaged them with a set of personal religious beliefs that Rand would have absolutely no truck with. So I think her historic influence is actually strongest in a sort of hybrid way. This hybrid Rand-ism is more common and is more powerful than the pure objectivism that Rand tried to promote in her lifetime.
GJELTENDavid Weigel, you don't have any problem with a politician accepting one part of Ayn Rand's ideas and rejecting another?
WEIGELNo, I think that's true for all of them. There are no avowed atheist Republicans in Congress. I think in the speech Jennifer's talking about, which she -- what Rand referred to as the god-family tradition swamp which is not something that you ever hear a Republican say. The way they square this circle is by saying, government when it intervenes is going to mess up. When it intervenes in charity it's going to screw that up.
WEIGELBut take government out of the way and churches are going to fill the gap. Churches are going to provide what poor people need, individual relationships are going to pull people out of bad economic straits. That's how they get around and I like the way that Jennifer's putting that. I think it's coherent in a couple of ways. It's not a coherent adaptation to everything that she says but that's not uncommon in politics. I mean, a lot of politics is aphorism and taking a quote and using it for your own purposes.
WEIGELAnd that's, you know, when Ryan talks about Rand, it's not in the greatest detail. He just mentions John Galt's speech, some passages in the novel about the meaning of money. They're interesting, but I think, when people refer to "Atlas Shrugged," they're referring to a novel that takes quite some time to read, it's a 1,000 pages long and the way that it gets into politics is just in a couple metaphors and analogies. So I think it's fair they take some of that and just, you know, staple it to the other things they believe as religious, you know, as religiously influenced conservative politicians.
GJELTENOnkar Ghate, as they vice-president of intellectual leadership at the Ayn Rand Institute, what attracted you to the writings of Ayn Rand?
GHATEI read Ayn Rand in high school and one of the things, I think, what stood out the most for me, I started with "Atlas Shrugged" is the seriousness with which she takes ideas and particularly moral ideas. And "Atlas Shrugged" is a book about morality. It's a book, its contrasting conventional morality that has a huge religious component to it. She calls it altruism which means other-ism, that this is what we've been taught from cradle to grave.
GHATEThat this is moral, it's moral to sacrifice, it's moral to serve others and she's challenging that. But she takes seriously that whole doctrine and asks what does it really mean? What would it mean in practice? How do people implement this? And then it offers an alternative which she calls the morality of life. You can call it the morality of individualism. It's the, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, it's the pursuit of happiness, your own happiness.
GHATEIt's the individual striving to make something of his life, to view his as precious, to be concerned with his well-being and with his happiness. And she takes both of these approaches really seriously and tries to dramatize them and that's what really resonated for me when I first read "Atlas Shrugged."
GJELTENAnd she says it's good to be selfish?
GHATEShe says it's good to be selfish, it's good to pursue your self-interests, but it takes a lot of work to understand what actually is in your self-interest, what values you have to pursue, what characteristics of soul you have to build into your person and what virtues you have to practice. So that the typical view is it's the easiest thing in the world to be selfish, just do whatever you feel like doing, do what strikes you that you want to do in the next moment. And she said that's completely wrong if you're actually trying to pursue your self-interests.
GJELTENA lot of interests from our callers in our subject today. Let's go first to Don, who's on the line from Rochester, Ny. Good morning, Don.
DONGood morning. I'd like to comment on something in a biography of Ayn Rand called "Ayn Rand and The World She Made" by Ann C. Heller and in the book the author claims that Ayn Rand went, well eventually became Leningrad State University but at that time was called Petrograd State University and it says, "As a student as in little else she'd benefited from the Bolshevik regime since Lenin had adopted Kolinsky's policy of offering educational opportunities to Jews and women while doing away with tuition fees and reducing the full term of study to three years."
DONSounds like she was being a little hypocritical if she's saying she's against collectivist regimes, obviously if it benefits her, then she's for it and also it sounds like something that was educational opportunities to Jews and women, sounds like what today we would call affirmative action. but it sounds like she accepted the Bolshevik regime when it came to her education and it sounds like what she would, what we now know as affirmative action which is probably something that she would oppose, she accepted it when it came to her.
GJELTENTo her, all right. That's an interesting question, Don. Actually we have an email that raises a similar point. Mike writes to ask whether it's true that Ayn Rand was hospitalized at the end of her life, unable to pay her medical bills and had to rely the American government to pay her medical bills. I've also read that she signed up for Medicare and I'm curious whether that's true.
GJELTENLet me put this question first to Jennifer Burns, Onkar you may want to comment on it as well. But do you know anything, Jennifer, about this hypocrisy that Don raises? You know, whether it was during her university days or at the end of her life in accepting assistance that in theory she should've opposed?
BURNSWell, what I would say is that, first of all, Rand hated living in Soviet Russia and she considered her education of not much benefit to her overall in her life. I don't think that is the best example of what we may say is Rand's inconsistency or hypocrisy, but there is some interesting writing she did when a student wrote into her, asking her what should one do if offered a government scholarship?
BURNSAnd so Rand's counsel was you should accept the government but you should use that funding to promote the values of individualism, essentially that would end and fighting collectivism, that would eventually mean, eventually there would be no government scholarships. So she had a practical streak buried in that strong idealism. In other words you wanted to work within the system. She had great respect for learning even though she thought most of what was taught in universities was not accurate.
BURNSSo she would encourage her followers to get educated, get a good job, spread her ideas, work for change within a system. In other words she wasn't a revolutionary. So she found a way to square that circle. If you're in an unjust system there's a way to take some of its benefits as long as you keep your eye on the bigger picture which is working towards the right kind of world.
GJELTENAnd did she accept government assistance for medical care at the end of her life?
BURNSAs far as I know she did. I don't think it was she relied exclusively on it but there seems to be evidence that she collected social security and also some Medicare benefits.
GJELTENHow would you explain that Onkar? I'm sure you've heard this question before.
GHATEYes, and let me go first to the issue of her life in Russia and the hypocrisy there. I think this is so uncharitable to people in a totalitarian system. Their lives, they live on the brink. She was at times close to starvation, millions were killed in Soviet Russia. If you can get any kind of small benefit, I mean, eke out a living whether it's going to school, getting a job in the regime, you can do that and there's not a moral black cloud cast on you.
GHATEAnd so the fact that she took advantage and she was able to go to school there is not hypocrisy. If you're fighting the system and you view it, this is an anti-life and anti-human system and I think that is of all the victims of totalitarian regimes. You cannot call them hypocrites if they have some association with some of what the regime does.
GHATENow, for social security and Medicare, she may well have taken that. the evidence I have seen is inconclusive but it's true that she wrote that the victims of these policies have the right to collect. She has a very, I mean, and she knew that this would sound paradoxical but her view was those who oppose Social Security are entitled to collect it as restitution so long as they continue to oppose these kinds of welfare programs.
GHATEAnd the people who advocate these programs, because they're advocating the collectivistic scheme that takes away money from young people who've earned it and gives it to people who haven't earned, that this is a wrong and morally wrong. So the people who advocate it actually don't have the right, moral right, to collect it. And she knew this seems paradoxical but she thought this is the kind of moral contradictions that arise from collectivistic welfare programs.
GJELTENOnkar Ghate is a senior fellow and vice-president of intellectual leadership at the Ayn Rand Institute. On Tom Gjelten, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." David Weigel, I got a question for you. In his first speech after he was named Mitt Romney's vice-presidential candidate, Paul Ryan said, we promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes. In your view is that a Rand-ian point of view or does that sort of challenge Rand? I mean, he's promising equal opportunity. Is any politician in Ayn Rand world in position to promise anything?
WEIGELNo, the equal opportunity idea, contrasting that with equality of outcome is a rhetorical trope that you hear in Republican politics, you know, disassociated from Rand. But as far as it pertains to what we were discussing so far, this is, I think, the problem that arises when you rely on the hardcore libertarian philosophy for as the basis for your politics. I mean, let's take it away from Rand, go to Frederick Hayek.
WEIGELThe road to serfdom is a pretty clear argument, it's another thing you hear sited by Ryan, by other politicians. The argument is that any kind of collectivism, any kind of adaptation of socialism in Britain was going to lead serfdom. Well, it didn't. I mean, this country has had for this point several generations, a Social Security system, it has not lead to collectivism and this, when I first kind of started to see this resurrection of Rand as a mainstream rallying thinker during the rise of the Tea Party the argument was not it's going to make things a bit worse for us.
WEIGELIt means, it will literally take away our right to equal opportunity and replace it with a demand for equality of outcome. All of our wealth will be redistributed and this is, I think, the way it's manifested in politics, the problem that people start to talk about when Rand quotes her, quotes (word?) is that if you're this Manichean about economics, you're going to make decisions that are based more in these theories and in these stories than in the reality of economic or political change.
GJELTENAnd Jennifer Burns, what's your view here on, you know, sort of this -- the broader question of whether Ayn Rand really has any, you know, has any role in the Republican discourse. I mean, we're pointing to, the conservative discourse, we're pointing to so many contradictions between practice and theory. What does that say about the relevance of Ayn Rand for our political debate today?
BURNSWell, she is relevant, even if you can't find 100 percent pure objectivism, you know, coming out of the mouths of Republican politicians. One way to think about it is historically and to look just how far the conversation about capitalism has shifted. And Rand has injected a very strong argument into public discourse that capitalism is a moral system and that people are entitled to keep all that they earn and that government welfare is somehow illegitimate or immoral because it's a taking, it's an illegitimate taking from the productive to the nonproductive.
BURNSAnd, you know, conservatives in the 1950s and 1960s, they defended capitalism. They tended to do it in the context of the battle against Soviet Russia but they tended to talk about a modified state regulated capitalism. They tended to be not as forthright, not as openly radical in their defense of capitalism as Rand. And that has really shifted and now you have, you know, education would be a good example.
BURNSYou have, this wasn't an area that Rand wrote on extensively but you now have conservatives, you know, proposing that the state get out of the business of education altogether. This wasn't something mid-century conservatives who had a much more robust sense of the collective good, of the collective importance of certain types of programs for essentially insuring a floor beneath the most impoverished and most needy in society. A lot of that has simply faded from the conservative world views, we've come to a more radical promotion of laissez-fare capitalism and I think that owes much to Rand.
GJELTENBut Jennifer, of course, one of the other strands of modern conservatism, at least as represented in the Tea Party movement, sees a very prominent role for government, at least in the sort of the regulation of personal behavior, of abortion, of marriage, etc.
BURNSYes, that is something that Rand saw happening in her lifetime and she tried in vain to stop it. She saw the bundling of religious conservatism and fiscal conservatism and she thought they were philosophical opposites that couldn't really be joined together. What happened during her lifetime was also the counter-culture, the rise of the sexual revolution, a whole bunch of cultural changes that cause a lot of people to retreat and to cling even more tightly to traditional values and had been the case.
BURNSSo Rand fought a losing battle on that front and, you know, she is a minority voice but she's a powerful voice and as we've all been saying in this conversation it's bits and pieces of Rand more than the entirety of her philosophy that really have gone into the mainstream.
GJELTENJennifer Burns is assistant professor of history at Stanford University and she is the author of a biography of Ayn Rand. It's titled "Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right." A lot of listeners are anxious to join in this conversation. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to the phones and you can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The topic is Ayn Rand and her importance in the political debates of today. I'm Tom Gjelten, stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane Rehm and we're talking about Ayn Rand and her influence in the American political debate. And we're going to devote the rest of the hour to our listeners who are anxious to weigh in on this question and this topic. First we're going to John in Ann Arbor, Mich. John, are you still with us?
JOHNI am, yes.
GJELTENOkay, go ahead.
JOHNThanks. It's a first-time caller.
JOHNWell, first to say I've read "Fountainhead," Atlas Shrugged," "We the Living" and "Anthem." And I guess I've got a couple comments. One is I got different takes in the Republican sort of take on that. One was is if -- you know, if you look say for "Atlas Shrugged" the relationship between John Galt and his workers, there was always harmony between say the owners of businesses who were the creators and their workers. And then of course that relationship is disrupted.
JOHNBut the problem is you don't really see that relationship in say modern contemporary the labor environment. It's usually in us against them as far as being a worker to say the management even more so today. I think...
GJELTENSo your point is it's not a realistic portrayal of, you know, the workplace?
JOHNRight, exactly. Like, you had -- like say John Galt, you know, he always had a great relationship with his workers. And that was -- his angst was that they were trying to upset that balance. But as far as like say the labor movement in the United States the reason why you had unions is because there was no relationship because you had the people at the top who are the takers keeping the workers in sort of this sort of economic servitude.
JOHNAnd then my second comment is I don't hear anybody talking about Ayn Rand this way, especially with say "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" is the heroines Dagny of the first name of the woman in "Atlas Shrugged," and I can't remember her name in "Fountainhead," is they're raped by either Howard Roark in "Fountainhead" or John Galt in "Atlas Shrugged." And then she ends up -- the heroines end up with them by the end of the book. And I'm wondering if this was like a rape fantasy for Ayn Rand, because it's like a brutal rape scene. And then nothing happens to those guys so...
JOHN...in essence she's okaying their behavior. And at the end it's like, well, it's all good because now I'm with him.
GJELTENOkay, John, you've raised a couple of really interesting questions. Let's separate them first. Onkar, of course Ayn Rand wrote about labor strife. She didn't idealize, by any means, the relation between workers and their bosses. Actually she was quite contemptuous of unions. And when they went on strike she made it clear she absolutely did not sympathize with their demands.
GHATEI wouldn't put it that she was contemptuous of unions. What she was contemptuous of was of giving the unions the power of coercion. But she was contemptuous of giving business the power of coercion too. And there's many businesses that run to the government for special favors, for subsidies, for tariffs on competitors, using -- in the modern world using antitrust to shackle competitors. And labor unions used that too through the force of law to make companies negotiate with them, that you can't hire scabs and so on. And she was opposed to coercion in the workplace coming from any direction.
GHATEBut on the issue of the relationship of kind of the leaders of a company to the rest of the company it's true that what you get depicted in "Atlas Shrugged" is that there's a real harmony of interest when they both understand what really is in their interest. And if you ask what -- this doesn't happen in the modern world -- if you take the relatively free elements of our economy -- and I would put the high tech sector as the most free element in the economy. It has the least amount of government control regulation direction. There's a harmony of interest.
GHATEDo you think Google's employees hate the company, Microsoft's employees hate the company, Apple's employees hate the company? They recognize that their fortunes are built on Steve Jobs' and Bill Gates' achievements.
GJELTENOkay. And, Jennifer Burns, I want you to address this other issue of violence in her writings. He mentioned the rape of women by what are essentially heroic figures in Ayn Rand's novels. We've got a number of listeners who have also called attention to what she had to say when she apparently was praising a serial killer who acted on the basis of his personal desires. She actually called him a superman. I've got several emailers who wanted to understand what that is about.
BURNSYeah, I keep waiting for these so called rape scenes to pop up in discussion of Paul Ryan. They haven't so far. As your caller mentions, these are very disturbing fictional episodes that are really hard to wrestle with. And Rand said a number of things about them, this wasn't really rape. It was a metaphor. It was rape by engraved invitation. But as a reader coming to them, looking at them, it's hard to see them as anything other than shockingly violent and disturbing on a very fundamental level.
BURNSI would sway it does have something to do with Rand's own sexual psychology, her own desires, her own ideas about what would be exciting or what would be interesting. It's also very common in romance novels, of which "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" resemble in some ways as a genre to have the hero rape the heroin. So it's not completely out of the bounds of literary metaphor but it is something that's hard to wrestle with and hard to take without -- you know, without strong feelings.
BURNSI would say the same about her glamorization in her early notebook of the serial killer William Hickman. She tried to be clear that she was drawn to him as sort of symbol of the individual who was unfettered by social norms and by the thoughts and ideas of others around him. And you can point to other writers. Dostoyevsky would be one who sort of used criminality as a metaphor for the individual's role in society.
BURNSBut again when you get into the text and you read what she had to say about Hickman it's hard to escape the sensation that Rand is crossing a sort of line and glorifying deeply antisocial, deeply disturbing and violent behavior. And I don't think that can really be explained away. It just remains as one of the uncomfortable pieces of her legacy.
GJELTENWell, we have said from the outset that Ayn Rand is a controversial writer, a controversial thinker and we've illustrated a couple of reasons for that. Let's go now to Tom who's on the line from Orlando, Fla. Good morning, Tom. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
TOMGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.
TOMI got into Ayn Rand's books, all the fictional books back in my 30's -- late 20's, early 30's and was so intrigued by them because I consider myself a devout capitalist that I went and read her other writings. And that's when I got completely turned off because it seemed to me that she espouses that there's two classes of people, which is obvious and everybody said so. There are creators and there are takers. But she goes further in her personal views that creators are superior and deserve to be superior. And takers are inferior and deserve to be exploited by creators.
TOMAnd I want to make a point to the happiness of Silicon Valley high tech people. I think if you take the whole eco system of those situations and, for example, include Foxconn in Apple's environment, you might find there's more unhappy people than happy people. So I'll take the comments of the panel offline.
GJELTENOnkar, do you have any thoughts on that?
GHATEI don't think she looks at people in terms of classes or groups. The makers and takers, if you want to use that language -- or the creators and parasites is one of the kind of distinctions Ayn Rand makes -- they're not -- you're not born into these. They're not classes like that. It is you have a choice. Are you going to dedicate your life to an orientation to creating values or are you not going to do that?
GHATEAnd the whole depiction in "Atlas Shrugged" is this is a fundamental choice that has huge ramifications in a person's life. And the two main characters where you see this are siblings, Dagny Taggart and Jim Taggart -- or James Taggart. And he makes a different choice and has a very different orientation in his life but it's a very individualistic perspective. You have the power within your own soul -- whatever your level of intelligence, whatever your level of ability -- to dedicate yourself to the pursuit of values and their creation or to their destruction.
GHATEAnd she views that as a fundamental divide, but it's not classes. It's a moral judgment on people. But she believes in the power of morality in people's freewill.
GJELTENYou know, we're talking here about in her writings, in some ways, a kind of idealized hypothetical world. And it's really interesting to consider some of these points in the context of what really is the real world. Jack, for example, from Montpelier, Ohio is wondering what Rand would have to say about the major financial frauds and thefts of the past few years. For example, what took place at Enron or with the Bernie Madoff scandal where he ripped off so many of this investors.
GJELTENAnd, in fact, I mean, we know that Ayn Rand would've opposed to government bailouts, but what would she have said about the financial system that broke down in 2008, David?
WEIGELI think there are villains in "Atlas Shrugged" -- I mean, that's the main text -- who she would've evoked if she was around discussing them. There are people in the novel exploiting -- people who should be industrialists. Dagny Taggart's brother for example, who are instead exploiting their connections to government and looting the entire system that way. But I guess as it gets into politics, that's where it gets complicated.
WEIGELIf you get into politics in order to deregulate, if you want to make things easier for the creators, you're going to attract the attention of capitalists who want to organize legislation so that they get more benefits from it. It doesn't need to be benefits directly to their company. It might just be tax breaks but in a lot of cases you're going to be interacting with business in a way that's complicated. I don't mean to be glib about it but this is a real problem. This is, again, something Adam Smith wrote about. Laissez-faire is good, but you can't trust capitalists on their own word because they're always going to try to take more out of the system.
WEIGELThere are things the government's quite good at and they're going to try -- they're going to, you know, shoehorn their way in and look for benefits. So I think Rand would've had the philosophical basis for opposing that but remember, we started this by talking about Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan, who (unintelligible) voted for the bailout. He's voted in a couple of cases for a piece of legislation that benefited people who in Rand's novel would've been looters.
WEIGELAnd that's because when this hits the real world it's tough to take a philosophical concept like this and apply it to situations where all of these avenues exist for exploiting the wealth that Americans put into the economy, into their -- you know, into the work of government and, you know, keep it completely separate from -- you know, completely independent, completely capitalist.
GJELTENJennifer, is there any politician that Ayn Rand liked and admired throughout her life?
BURNSThere were a few that she liked early in their careers. So she was very attracted to Barry Goldwater early in his career and early in his presidential run before he, you know, his religiosity became more clear and before he sort of tacked to the center in his political campaign. So she had a fundamental problem with the life blood of politics, which is compromise and horse trading. That just felt wrong to her.
BURNSI would just want to piggyback on what David had to say there about "Atlas Shrugged" and the financial crisis. One of Rand's major blind spots was the way she idealized businessmen. And so, you know, in her moral scheme it would not be moral for a businessman to go to government and try to capture regulators and try to capture the political process. And the moral businessman should know better than to do that.
BURNSWhen you look at the real world we find those people who see an opportunity and don't take advantage of it because they'd rather do it all themselves without taking advantage of what they can, we find those people to be very, very rare. And her system doesn't have room for someone like Bernie Madoff who doesn't care if he's found out as a fraud. What he wants to do is make a quick buck and he doesn't have integrity and he doesn't have moral values and he can still do a tremendous amount of damage because there is not internal sensor and there is no internal moral compass guiding that person.
BURNSSo those people tended in her novels to be so utterly incompetent that it would be obvious what they were doing. They were never able to really damage innocent people.
GJELTENOh, she'd have a lot of material to work with if she were still alive and writing novels, wouldn’t she? Jennifer Burns is an assistant professor history at Stanford University. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And I'm going to go now to Carol who's on the line from New Hampshire. Good morning, Carol. I know you've been waiting a long time.
CAROLThank you very much. Quickly, I have great problem with any elected official, appointed official or government employee who claims to adhere to the ideas of Ayn Rand. And it's for one simple reason, is that all government people take an oath of office in which they swear to uphold and protect the U.S. Constitution. And if you read the preamble to our constitution it says that one of our purposes is to promote the general welfare. And I don't know how anyone who can say that they believe altruism is wrong can then legitimately take that oath of office and remain supposedly protective of the constitution and the programs that deride from it.
GJELTENLet me put that question to Onkar Ghate. Did Ayn Rand even believe in the concept of a greater good?
GHATENo, not the sense that morality is about achieving something other than the individual's own good. But what she would view the general welfare clause as, as what the constitution is meant to secure is each individual's rights. The rights declared in the Declaration of Independence, right to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of the individual's happiness. And if the government protects that for everyone then in that sense everyone's welfare is advanced. And you can call that the general welfare, but that is just the welfare of each and every individual as individuals.
GHATEAnd that -- but the foundational concept of the American system of government and what is so new is this idea of individual rights and Ayn Rand was an incredible defender of individual rights and said, this should be the foundation of our system of government. So to view that as somehow incompatible with the American system I think is wrong.
GJELTENWe have time for one more comment from a caller. Trip is on the line from Baltimore. Trip, very quickly.
TRIPYes, it's good to be selfish makers and takers. My question is, how can you separate her atheism with her philosophy of without god as a restraint to grieve? I mean, all I hear is this is some sort of capitalist wet dream of a philosophy where you can rationalize selfish behavior. It's -- and I'm a member of the real world here. Thank you.
GJELTENYeah, well, I guess that the answer that we've heard -- we've been discussing this all morning -- is that politicians don't have to accept an entire philosophy when they say that somebody hasn't inspired them. They can be inspired by bits and pieces of somebody's writings without taking their whole philosophy onboard.
GJELTENWe're at the end of our program. Onkar Ghate has been my guest, senior fellow and vice-president of Intellectual Leadership. Also -- at the Ayn Rand Institute -- also David Wiegel from Slate, Jennifer Burns from Stanford University. I'm Tom Gjelten. I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
Most Recent Shows
Maya Angelou came onto this program several times over the years. But in her last conversation with Diane, in 2013, she talked about writing about her fraught relationship with her mother for the first time. Her last words to Diane: “I love you, Diane Rehm. And I look forward to seeing you and talking to you again and again.” A year later, she died at the age of 86. In one of Diane's most treasured interviews, the women reflect on forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.
Mary Chapin Carpenter joins Diane to talk about her new album, the "artistic insight of middle age" and rewriting her life story in new ways.
A rebroadcast of Diane's 1999 interview with J.K. Rowling, author of the acclaimed Harry Potter series.