In 2011, news broke that notorious libertarian/objectivist Ayn Rand had accepted Social Security and Medicare in the 1970s after she was diagnosed with lung cancer (unsurprisingly she was a cigarette-cancer connection denier).  Among liberal circles, a lot of attention was paid to the hypocrisy angle of all this (and much more to taking SS cheques than enrolling in Medicare).  A person who spent her life railing against collectivism and dependency accepting the benefits of the very programs her beliefs called "evil."

Hypocrisy isn't the important thing here.  Ideological failure is.

To the defenders of Rand, the most common reply is that Rand had paid into these programs through her involuntarily seized taxes, and if she was going to be forced ("at gunpoint" as libertarians always say) to pay for these programs, why shouldn't she at least get something back from them?  Actually, I don't really disagree with that.  Liberals didn't support the Bush tax cuts, but I doubt many liberals gave back the government the extra taxes they would have had to pay under the Clinton rates after the tax cuts passed.  You're not typically morally obligated to martyr yourself for your beliefs. 

A Failure of Ideas, Not the Individual

No, the really important fact that this episode reveals is not Rand's hypocrisy, but the utter failure of her ideas.  Even she couldn't live without the social safety net.  Here's how the woman who persuaded her to take part in socialism explained it to a fellow objectivist in 1998 (emphasis added):

“The initial argument was on greed,” Pryor continued. “She had to see
 that there was such a thing as greed in this world. Doctors could cost
an awful lot more money than books earn, and she could be totally wiped
out by medical bills if she didn’t watch it.
Since she had worked her
entire life, and had paid into Social Security, she had a right to it.
She didn’t feel that an individual should take help.”

McConnell asked: “And did she agree with you about Medicare and Social Security?”

Pryor replied: “After several meetings and arguments, she gave me her
 power of attorney to deal with all matters having to do with health and
 Social Security. Whether she agreed or not is not the issue, she saw
the necessity for both her and Frank.
She was never involved other than
to sign the power of attorney; I did the rest.”

Ayn Rand was at that point a successful author with several best sellers which continued to move well.  No, she wasn't a billionaire or anything, but she was certainly not hurting for cash in ordinary people terms.  This site claims* that the NY Times reported her estate as being worth $500,000 at her death in 1982.  An online inflation calculator says that's worth $1.2M today.  Most people would be thrilled if they were told they'd be worth that much in retirement. Yet even so, Rand looked into the giant gulping maw of the for-profit medical industry and blinked, fearing her cancer would bankrupt her.

That's the failure here;  Rand needed society's help.  Rand ran headlong into the very premise of why Medicare was created in the first place:  The for-profit insurance market is terrible for the elderly and particularly to those already stricken with serious diseases.  It's not about chortling at Rand as yet another greedy right wing hypocrite, it's about realizing she implicitly acknowledged the superiority of liberalism with her actions.  This is her endorsement, and as Paul Ryan's sort gears up to destroy Medicare, we shouldn't hesitate to remind them that Ayn Rand, whatever her rhetoric and books, ended her life on our side.

Naturally, Rand showed no signs of rethinking anything in the face of her own personal failure to survive in the world she would see created.  She strutted the high wire for a while, but when the wind picked up, she was glad to have the safety net there to catch her as she fell.

* - that author actually uses that figure of $500,000 to claim Rand didn't need to take Medicare but I think the quoted part above shows the person closest to her deciding to take part clearly thought fear of medical bankruptcy was the primary motivating factor.  While it's possible $500,000 would have been enough to cover her medical bills to death in 1982, 1974 Rand would have no way to know how long she would live or what costly care she'd need.  Finally, a big part of the safety net is not just the literal fact of avoiding medical bankruptcy, but having the sense of security that you won't.  I would bet heavily that Ayn Rand slept a little more soundly after going on Medicare knowing she wouldn't die a pauper under any circumstances.

Cross posted with minor updates from Autonomy For All.

Originally posted to Scientician on Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 06:25 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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