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It's easy to dismiss some of the wackier Republican attacks on the President and his -- our -- political party as just that, wacky. If we do that to ALL their ideas, especially the ones that involve gutting government expenditures to the bone, we do so not realizing that there's a decided ideological underpinning to some of them in Ayn Rand's work. If we dismiss her as a kook, we're really in trouble. This is the message of Gary Weiss's book, Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, and a struggle it is, between people who understand that governement can be a force for good and people who reject that idea. Weiss makes it very clear that we progressives need to understand that.

This diary is also in some ways a duplicative effort, because Ellid reviewed the book very well at the beginning of March. Because she did, I'm referring you to her diary for details about Weiss's project, a review of the extent to which a philosophy based on Ayn Rand's work, Objectivism, has permeated the American Right (and an encounter with a Randian troll in the comments; if you're a TU, edit your profile to turn on the hidden comments display). She also asks the right question at the end:

What sort of America do you want?  The world of the Founders, or the world of Ayn Rand?
In the four months that have passed since her review, we have learned that the impact of Objectivism on American politics is worse that Weiss imagined. The wonderboy of Republican budgeting, Paul Ryan, announced in mid-April that his granny-starving budget was based on an appreciation of Ayn Rand's message, and within a couple of weeks, under pressure from, among others, the Catholic Church, he had to repudiate the statement, although you know that his budget still reflects her principles. Follow me below the great orange cartouche for an analysis of why this is a must-read book.

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Ellid explains Gary Weiss's career as an investigative journalist in the financial area and describes Ayn Rand's career in the United States very well. Weiss observes that he began this inquiry to determine how involved Alan Greenspan was with the ideas promoted by Rand and the committed people who surrounded her. As Weiss writes:

Today [Rand's] vision of radical capitalism has never been more popular. She is the godmother of the Tea Party and the philosophical bulwark that stands behind the right's assault on Social Security and Medicare. Yet during her lifetime, she was the leader of a cult, an adulterer, a militant atheist, a supporter of abortion, and an opponent of antidrug laws.
Her preeminent critic? William F. Buckley (and see this March 2012 diary by Raven for the implications of that)!

Her philosophy, as expressed in all of her novels and essays, has become known as Objectivism. Objectivists (as Ellid notes,the main institutions that support Ayn Rand's ideas are The Ayn Rand Institute and the Atlas Society) try VERY hard to make you think that this is a complicated philosophy that can't be reduced to a few words. Maybe, but to understand how destructive it is, consider that Objectivism is based on two core ideas: 1) reason trumps faith in every area of thought and b) the individual is supreme (or selfishness is good, and altruism is bad). It can also be called radical capitalism or no-government capitalism, a system with no regulation in which the free market dictates everything. Government programs that benefit anyone -- Medicare, Social Security, public universities, national parks -- all evil and disposable because, as Leonard Peikoff, Rand's heir, says,

Government is inherently negative.
(If we get an Objectivist commentator, I'll be told I bastardized Objectivism and that's not what Rand meant. The hell it isn't.)

Ellid also talks about the purges within Objectivism and the shunning of people who are purged, and I agree with her that in many ways Objectivism sounds a lot like a religious cult. Since we were consumed by the idea that Rick Santorum (and possibly Antonin Scalia) were influenced by Opus Dei a few months back, there's reason to be alarmed by anything cult-like in politics, and that brings us to Alan Greenspan. Greenspan wouldn't talk to Weiss, but we have his writings and his statements to Congress, so we can figure things out. As Fed chairman, Greenspan opposed regulation of any sort, because, as Weiss notes, anything a bank wanted to do to increase profits represented the bank acting in its own rational self-interest. Hence he supported the repeal of Glass-Steagall and he refused to let Congress close a loophole in derivative trading that had helped Enron defraud its stockholders, actions which only make sense if they are viewed through the lens of Objectivism. As Weiss writes,

The derivatives that were byproducts of the housing boom, such as collateralized debt obligations, were now regulated only by the best possible regulator, "the greed of the businessman."
Weiss wouldn't go this far, but it's clear to see that this opposition to any kind of regulation of business EVER is at least supported by the acolytes of Ayn Rand and Objectivist theory concerning the role of government, if not the result of the Objectivist movement.

This has implications for the safety net established by the New Deal and strengthened by the Great Society. If government is evil, than this isn't an attempt to roll anything back, it's an effort to stop the government from doing anything that interferes with the perceived rights of an individual. Hence, Weiss immediately thinks about the Tea Party and its approach to the idea of liberty:

The Tea Partiers weren't pretending to react to the same, honest-to-goodness oppression of liberty, actual liberty, that motivated the Founders. To our latter-day patriots, "liberty" was a slogan, to be used as signature lines in e-mails and otherwise thrown around willy-nilly in a way that would have made the Founders flinch in their powdered wigs. The Tea Partiers did not appreciate that these quaintly attired gents were radicals -- and not radicals for capitalism.
(Did I mention that Weiss writes really well? This is a painless must-read.)

Ellid accurately points out that making the Objectivist-Tea Party connection is very difficult:

Along the way, Weiss debunks the myth that the early Tea Party was permeated by Objectivism . . . . At the same time, he confirms the truism about Objectivists reading Rand's books as teenagers or young adults; almost every true believer he encounters read Rand's novels in high school or college, with some (most notably Yaron Brook) undergoing a near-religious conversion from socialism or liberalism to Objectivism.
So we won't try, but we'll note that one obvious disconnect comes from the fact that Ayn Rand was an atheist, and core belief #1 of Objectivism is that reason always trumps faith.  And read Ellid's diary on Weiss's conversation with Oliver Stone, in which Stone observes that the government Ayn Rand was criticizing was really the Soviet Union under Stalin, and that current Objectivists don't realize that.

Finally, Weiss warns us that the earliest manifestations of Objectivist America have already arrived.

An objectivist America would be a dark age of unhindered free enterprise, far more primitive and Darwinian [he means Spenserian, but that's okay] than anything seen before. Objectivists know this. What perhaps they do not always appreciate, given their less than fanatical approach to reality, is what turning back the clock would mean. Or perhaps they do not care.
And I can't do better with the epilogue than Ellid did, so here's Ellid:
The book ends with a dystopian epilogue describing an Objectivist America, one with no public services, no public transportation, no charity hospitals, no safety net, no food and drug laws, nothing but the ultra-wealthy in their gated communities and the undernourished, half-savage masses toiling for their masters.  It is a profound un-American world, one closer to the hellish society of The Handmaid's Tale or Heinlein's If This Goes On - than the one the Founders dreamed of, and it is far closer to reality than most Americans know.  Weiss urges his readers to oppose this by asking the question over and over again until the old American ideals of helping one's neighbor, of banding together for the common good, of striving toward a common goal, overcome the Objectivist ideal of working for one's self and only one's self
THAT is why this is a must-read book for progressives. Here is another new enemy to our cause, and it's one we should have begun to fight years ago. It's best we become fully aware of the threat Collectivism poses to our own core beliefs, and Weiss provides a good start.

Incidentally, the Ayn Rand fans are beginning another campaign against the book at Amazon and Barnes and Noble (so much for letting the free market do its work), and you can uprate it here and here. By the way, Howard Fineman just called Romney's rebuttal to Obama's communitarian remarks Ayn Rand-ish on the Ed show.

11:16 PM PT: It's after 11 PM here, and we're running errands tomorrow, so except for about half an hour tomorrow morning, I won't be paying full attention to this until about 4 PM Wednesday. If any trolls show up, you know what to do.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Jul 24, 2012 at 05:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by The Federation.

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