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Many have commented on the remarkable callousness fashioned by this Republican presidential field. Most prominently, Herman Cain maintained that the poor and unemployed are responsible for their own plight; Ron Paul claimed that people who refrain from buying health insurance but become debilitated should not be bailed out by government healthcare—they should just die instead, his audience helpfully suggested (or hollered, rather); and just about all the candidates have recommended ever harsher, ever more absurd measures to keep out poor immigrants on our border with Mexico: double fences, electric fences, even soldiers with ‘real guns and real bullets,’ as Herman Cain put it.
What’s driving this show of meanness? You might say it’s just what the electorate—or some loud part thereof—wants. It seems like there are some seriously angry voters out there these days, and I’m sure the recession is taking a toll on people’s patience and generosity. And yet, I suspect this is no fleeting trend, but something with deeper ideological roots. In short, I sense Ayn Rand.
Rand has always had a good following, but her popularity has surged in recent years as conservatives repeatedly invoked her to counter Obama’s “Socialist” agenda. She has an impressive roster of conservative devotees: Clarence Thomas, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Ron Paul. Paul’s son, Senator Rand Paul quoted Ayn Rand at length during a congressional committee meeting this past year—to argue against government mandates for energy efficient light bulbs, of all things. Congressman Paul Ryan, the rising star from Wisconsin who drafted the Republican’s celebrated plan to slash the federal budget, reportedly urges all his staffers to read her works.
This is a powerful fan-base, and many have feared the consequences of Rand’s influence. I think we are seeing it now, for there are clear strains of her venom in the excesses of the Republican candidates—and beyond. Her trademark callousness is increasingly evident throughout our political discourse regarding the poor and vulnerable of society. The congressional super-committee charged with agreeing on a trillion dollars in federal deficit reduction is reportedly contemplating cuts to food stamps, while Republicans remain steadfast that taxes not rise on the rich. This, as the recession lingers and poverty rates soar, and we witness the greatest concentration of wealth among the rich since the 1920s. The Republican stance is mind-boggling in these circumstances—but Rand would certainly approve; indeed, she might favor far worse. Consider:
In her popular novels, Rand glorifies ambitious, fiercely independent individuals who soar and succeed by virtue of their own resources and willpower alone. It’s her ode to individualism that captivates her fans. Also the simplicity of her world view, I suspect: Rand’s is a Manichean universe populated by a few great souls on one side, and the inept masses on the other; the masses would perennially muddle in their own misery if not for the exceptional creativity and bravery of a few to do great things, and it’s up to the masses to keep out of their way. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand declares “The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time.” Upon little reflection, Rand’s reasoning is obviously specious. Who on earth rises to the top without the help of someone, anyone at all? Indeed, luck plays an important role in a person’s success, too—if you evaluate it honestly, that is. Rand’s thinking is a pleasant enough fiction for those at the top of the heap, but it’s wholly improbable, naïve—and rude.
Pry a little further, however, and Rand’s thinking quickly becomes quite cruel. In a 1967 article entitled “Requiem for Man,” Rand issues a scathing rebuttal to Pope Paul VI who dared suggest that capitalists must be mindful of global wealth disparity and the sufferings of the poor, and recognize a social obligation to help the unfortunate (the Vatican has notably issued similar remarks in a recent statement on the global financial crisis). Rand slams the Pope for urging us to show brotherly love to poor 3rd world “savages.” To the contrary, she declares, when civilized man “discovers entire populations rotting alive in such conditions” he should not feel pity, but “a burning stab of pride” for “the achievements of his nations and his culture…” Amazingly, Rand fails to acknowledge how much the civilized nations have prospered at the expense of the global poor thanks to imperialism. Would she have us applaud the imperialists for their opportunism and exploitation?
In Rand’s view, the poor are better subject to our derision than compassion. What they want, what the Pope calls us to be sensitive to, are perfectly despicable needs: “The inhabitants of the world [that the Pope’s encyclical] proposes to establish are robots tuned to respond to a single stimulus: need—the lowest, grossest, physical, physicalistic need of any other robots anywhere: the minimum necessities, the barely sufficient to keep all robots in working order, eating, sleeping, eliminating, and procreating, to produce more robots to work, eat, sleep, eliminate, and procreate.” Her message to the millions starving in the world: your needs are not worth our consideration; just die why don’t you.
I’ve long wondered why—or how—Rand’s disciples conveniently, miraculously, ignored her heinous conclusions. It’s time Rand was seen for what she is—no glossing over it. Clearly, it’s not acceptable for our political leaders to be associated with her thought. Conservatives—any of her disciples indeed—have a clear choice: marginalize her work accordingly, or explain how a vision of radical individualism such as Rand’s does not lead to hate. A lot could be gained by the latter. At the very least, it might reveal the appropriate boundaries of our individualism, and make us more thoughtful to the vulnerable among us.
Firmin DeBrabander teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he is also chair of the Humanistic Studies department.