Saturday, May 28, 2011

Was Ayn Rand a Conservative?

Note: A 2005 Essay from Rebirth of Reason


Some years ago I consulted a biographical dictionary for information on Ayn Rand. The dictionary described Rand as a “conservative.” Rand, as we know, did not consider herself a conservative. She called herself a “radical for capitalism.” In addition, many of her views were contrary to those of mainstream conservatism. She was an atheist and a fierce critic of religion. She advocated abortion on demand and refused to support Ronald Reagan because of his ties to the religious right. (Letters of Ayn Rand, p. 666) Nor can one forget that National Review rejected Rand in 1957 with Whittaker Chambers’ scathing review of Atlas Shrugged, entitled “Big Sister is Watching You.” To Chambers, Objectivism was just another variation of atheistic materialism.

At the same time, the occasional references to Rand as a conservative call for explanation. As I hope to show, while the term “conservative” is inappropriate for Rand, her similarities to conservatism should not be ignored either. There is a broad “conservative ethos” which pervades Rand’s writings, particularly when read in the context of the Cold War and the 1960s.

Ayn Rand’s “Conservatism”

The idea that Rand was a conservative probably results from a focus on her advocacy of capitalism in isolation from the rest of her thought. Certainly, belief in free enterprise is a staple of most conservatives' thought, even if they don’t advocate consistent laissez-faire. In addition, Rand supported free enterprise because she believed in rational self-interest. She also thought that the individual pursuit of self-interest would lead to social and economic improvement. This theme (which goes back to thinkers such as Adam Smith) has echoes in conservative thought, with its opposition to a centrally planned economy. In addition to supporting free enterprise, Rand was staunchly opposed to communism, socialism, and the Soviet Union. During the charged days of the Cold War, anyone denouncing communism would likely be called conservative.

Another reason Rand might be considered a conservative is that some of her views on moral theory and individual moral issues also find echoes in conservative thought. Rand advocated moral absolutes and rejected cultural relativism. In spite of her irreligion and her contempt for supernatural ethics, many of her views were fairly conventional. She opposed homosexuality, considering it “immoral” and “disgusting.” She famously stated that a rational woman would not want to be president since “the essence of femininity is hero worship—the desire to look up to a man.” (The Voice of Reason, p. 268) And, say what you will about Rand’s affair with Nathaniel Branden, she was not a “libertine” in her private life.

It is also interesting to observe how Rand allies herself with the middle class in opposition to the intellectuals and the “counter culture.” In her essay “Apollo and Dionysus,” Rand discussed Apollo 11 and the Woodstock music festival, and placed herself on the side of the middle class. “[T]he people are reality-oriented, commonsense-oriented, technology-oriented ...” (Return of the Primitive (“ROP”), p. 102) She denounced the “hippies” who attended Woodstock. In fact, “hippie” seems to have been a favorite term of derision for her, used for both Kant (“the first hippie in history”) and anarcho-capitalists (“hippies of the right”). (ROP, p. 105)

There are other issues on which Rand sided with conservatives and the middle class. She opposed modern art for its reduction of “man’s consciousness to the level of sensations.” (Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, pp. 76-77) The conservative critique of modern art is often similar. Richard Weaver discusses contemporary art's focus on the artist’s desire to escape “form,” “responsibility,” and “direction.” According to Weaver, much contemporary art is “nominalistic” and attempts to free the lower levels of the mind from constraint. (Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, pp. 87, 89, 90-91)

Rand also attacked progressive education and its chief theoretician, John Dewey, both frequent targets of conservatives. (ROP, p. 68) Incidentally, Russell Kirk begins a critique of John Dewey with a mention of Rand. Kirk’s description of Dewey is reminiscent of Rand’s critique of progressive education:

Dewey was bent, though perhaps only half-consciously, on creating an impersonal society: that is, a society in which strong personalities would be eliminated. For there is no personality, really, except inner personality, subjective personality; if, then, its perfection is denounced as rotten, human beings are expected to efface personality altogether. They become “other-directed men.” Lacking belief, loyalty, and self-reliance ... they are moved only by fad and foible, and are blown about by every wind of doctrine. Objectivity of this sort terminates in pusillanimity. (Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, p. 159)

Not only did Rand denounce progressive education, but also sided with government authority and private property in the context of the student “rebellions” of the 1960s.

It is important to remember that most of Rand’s philosophical essays were published in the 1960s and therefore during the Cold War and the rise of the “counter culture.” In this context, someone such as Rand who defended private property, educational standards, and self-restraint was likely to be seen as conservative, if not reactionary. A superficial reading of Rand probably led many conservatives to believe that Rand was a fellow traveler or even a fellow conservative. In fact, a member of the Young Americans for Freedom wrote to Rand in 1965 asking for permission to name a chapter of the YAF after her, which she refused. (Letters, p. 635)


In my essay “A Common Thread: Anti-Egalitarianism in Objectivism, Conservatism, and Libertarianism,” I argued that Rand, along with conservatives and libertarians, holds human inequality to be fundamental. She argues that in a free society, those with superior ability will inevitably form something of an elite based on merit. This hierarchy, however, does not work to the detriment of the less able: in fact, it works to their benefit. She called this the “pyramid of ability” principle. The following statement, by British conservative W. H. Mallock in 1894, could have been written by Rand:

Equality benefits no one. It frustrates men of talent; and it reduces the poor to a poverty still more abject .... For inequality produces the wealth of civilized communities: it provides the motive which induces men of superior benefit to exert themselves for the general benefit. (Mallock, Labour and the Popular Welfare, p. 233)

A belief in hierarchy is central to conservative thought as well. In Continental thought, Church and aristocracy are predominant; in its American version the self-made man (often a businessman) is upheld for praise. I recall that, during the 1980s, the Left denounced Ronald Reagan for his “Horatio Alger” belief that the “little guy” could rise to the level of a successful businessman. Rand, of course, disagreed with traditional state-imposed hierarchies such as existed in Europe. An Objectivist society would be a hierarchy of merit, but it would be no less hierarchical.

The State

Libertarians, particularly those of the anarcho-capitalist variety, have on occasion called Rand a conservative. Rand advocated laissez-faire capitalism and a minimal state. She was, to use the recently coined term, a “minarchist.” She considered anarchy highly impractical and ridiculed the idea of “competing governments” as worse than a “floating abstraction.” (The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 131-32)

Rand certainly was not an apologist for the state. At the same time, her discussions of government don’t reveal the depth of hostility (or even skepticism) toward the state that characterizes many libertarians. Consider the well-known statement of Albert Jay Nock:

Taking the State wherever found, striking into its history at any point, one sees no way to differentiate the activities of its founders, administrators and beneficiaries from those of a professional-criminal class.

It is difficult to find a statement by Rand as critical of the state as this one, and many Objectivists have adopted her attitude.[1] Contrary to anarcho-capitalists, Rand viewed the state as an improvement over anarchy. (See Nicholas Dykes, “Anarchism and Objectivism,” JARS, Vol. 7, No. 1)

In libertarian critiques of Rand as a conservative, reference is often made to Rand’s belief that big businessmen were America’s “persecuted minority,” and the essay of that name published in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. As her libertarian critics point out, it is difficult to describe big businessmen—with their tax-subsidies, restrictive tariffs, and the like—as “persecuted.” Leftist and libertarian historians have shown that many interventions in the economy were first introduced at the behest of big business. Murray Rothbard argues that most big businessmen have long made their peace with big government out of self-interest. As Rothbard concludes:

Persecuted? With a few honorable exceptions, big business jostles one another eagerly to line up at the public trough. Does Lockheed, or General Dynamics, or AT&T, or Nelson Rockefeller feel persecuted? (For a New Liberty, Rev. ed., p. 309)

It should be mentioned, however, that at times Rand was skeptical about the goals of businessmen. In essays such as “The Roots of War” and “The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus,” she understood the role many businessmen played in undermining capitalism and advocating imperialism. Rand may seem conservative to many libertarians[2], but as a description of her political theory this is imprecise. Chris Sciabarra has shown that Rand’s views on this question are reasonably close to the standard libertarian critique. He urges Objectivists to reclaim Rand’s “radical” legacy.


Ayn Rand was not a conservative. However, certain conservative themes pervade her work.[3]

Consider, for example, that much of Official Objectivism accepts the government’s rationale for the war in Iraq.

[2] For example, Rand’s support for intellectual property, laws against slander and libel, and (from what I’ve read second-hand) compulsory subpoenas probably place her on the “conservative” spectrum of minarchist opinion.

[3] Rand’s limited conservatism is not unusual in the libertarian movement. Ludwig von Mises was something of a social conservative, as was Murray Rothbard. Friedrich von Hayek famously wrote an essay entitled “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Yet when asked by how he would classify his politics, he responded “Old Whig.” (Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination, pp. 198-99)

No comments: