Ayn Rand was born 100 years ago this month.
Until being reminded about the February 2nd date, I'd forgotten she was an Aquarian like me. And wouldn't she have hated that sentence!
Ayn Rand, the author of "Atlas Shrugged," "The Fountainhead" and "We The Living," would have tossed astrology into the general category of "mysticism" or "faith," which she deplored. Her philosophy of Objectivism was based on reason as the only absolute, a world view with man's mind at its center and his freedom to live by its reason-based judgments as the only valid political goal.
Despite having read all her books and subscribed to her newsletters, I did not consider myself an Objectivist because it seemed to my mind that there was more to the world than my brain could discover. I understand now, as greater minds than mine make magnificent discoveries far beyond our senses, that objective reality is there whether I can see it or not; astrology may well work within some natural law that hasn't yet been found. I'd love a chance to debate this with her, though I doubt she'd tolerate much argument.
I did talk with her once, on the phone, crammed into a booth with an Objectivist who may or may not have been Alan Greenspan, presently the Federal Reserve Board chairman. I remember only someone named Alan Green-something who led a discussion group during my sophomore year at Penn State. I asked a question about property rights that Alan couldn't answer, so we went to a phone booth and called Ayn Rand in New York. I know that Greenspan was, during that period, a member of her inner circle, and I have been told that he spent time at Penn State, so it may well have been he.
With all due respect for reason, my first reaction to Ayn Rand was purely emotional. At least three guys I dated at Penn State told me that I would like her books; then one of them gave me "Anthem," a 118-page novella about "rebellion against totalitarian collectivism" that expressed her basic philosophy in simple yet dramatic terms. I cried as I read it; at 18 I had found something that expressed the way I felt about myself and my life.
Several years later I attended a lecture by Rand's protégé, psychologist Nathaniel
Branden, who laughingly mentioned the tendency of Randian neophytes, including himself in the beginning, to over-identify with the characters in her novels. He suggested that we absorb the philosophy, then move on to think for ourselves about the applications to our own lives. I happily moved on into my own paradigm, which allows for the power of the unconscious mind to touch on yet-undiscovered realities.
Her philosophical enemies charge her with materialism and support for big business. But her love of money reflects not the things that it can buy, but the qualities of mind and character that allow it to be earned. She admires entrepreneurs and creators, but saves her deepest contempt for businessmen who cheat, lie and steal, naming such characters in her books Wesley Mouch and Tinky
Halloway. Her most likeable characters are ordinary working people who share her heroes' values, if not their extraordinary achievements.
Her basic principles hold true: that the mind, not blind feeling, should determine one's values; that each man exists for his own sake, not to be used by others; that violence should never be initiated; that self-esteem comes from one's ability to perceive genuine self-interest and be free to act on it.
The latest findings in evolutionary biology seem to prove her "virtue of selfishness" theme, as researchers argue that mankind's genes function "selfishly" for survival. This is valuable information as we try to deal with today's issues. Branden's theory that "every psychological problem is traceable to low self-esteem," which leads to a lack of personal responsibility, makes more sense with every news cycle. It also seems clear that these psychological problems lead to the societal dysfunction that the government either exacerbates or fails to effectively address.
Rand argues that each man's individual happiness is the reason for his existence. Communitarians who deplore this philosophy miss its value to them, the simple fact that everything, including society, is a sum of its parts. If her ideal were realized and all men and women achieved self-esteem by taking personal responsibility for their lives and their children, if force could not be used in human interaction, the world would have to be a better place.
This is not going to happen in our lifetime, of course; mankind hasn't evolved nearly enough. More taxation than Rand would approve is necessary to deal with a world that lacks integrity. But as we do the best we can, there must always be an ideal to aim for, on the far side of pragmatism. A totalitarian state in which people are controlled by government is one ideal that is slowly losing credence as its failures become obvious. Ayn Rand's vision leads us in the other direction, toward freedom and happiness. Join me there.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem
News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence
Journal and other newspapers.