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Ayn Rand Syndrome

My father gave me a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged when I was 13 and was regularly expounding leftist doctrines at the dinner table. My father, no conservative himself, gave me the book to force me to engage with the conservative mindset. He knew Rand’s grandiose speeches about the rights of the individual and idealization of the “best and brightest” would appeal to me. Atlas Shrugged, which took me a month to read between classes and soccer practice, was engaging and appealing to me — though I attribute this more to my pompous adolescence than to the merits of the book’s philosophy.

While reading Atlas Shrugged, I was drawn to Dagny Taggart, the whip-smart and ever-pragmatic female protagonist, and I took solace in her coming-of-age story. We were both intelligent tomboys surrounded by people who just didn’t get us. I felt that this interaction between Dagny and her mother could have been pulled directly from a conversation between my mother and myself, and I turned to it frequently:

Mrs. Taggart: One is not supposed to be intellectual at a ball. One is simply supposed to be [happy].

Dagny: How? By being stupid?

Mrs. Taggart: I mean, for instance, didn’t you enjoy meeting the young men?

Dagny: What men? There wasn’t a man there I couldn’t squash ten of.

Dagny was entirely reasonable, frighteningly competent, and beautiful in her own way — it was an odd hero for a girl to have, but the appeal of Ayn Rand was that I could consider myself better than others for idolizing her. And nothing is more tempting for a teenager than a sense of superiority.

As I aged, however, Dagny became less appealing. At around age 16, I began to feel that her relationships with men were unhealthy and unequal. Not soon after I began to question the efficiency of a society based entirely on self-interest. The more I learned about economics and the social sciences, the more I felt that objectivism was simply untenable. The more I studied ethics and philosophy, the more I felt that a society based on such a doctrine was undesirable. I gradually began to equate Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand with stuffed animals that I once loved but had since outgrown.

That’s why I was so shocked to hear Paul Ryan lavish praise on Atlas Shrugged and objectivism in general. Leaving aside the fact that Ryan’s religiosity, hawkish foreign policy, and opposition to gay marriage and reproductive rights would have appalled Ayn Rand, to hear a grown man advocate objectivism as a philosophy was like seeing a 10-year old in a stroller. It’s funny at first, and then you realize how profoundly absurd it is.

When Paul Ryan professes his admiration for Atlas Shrugged, he is asserting his opinion that America would be better off if people never considered the consequences that their actions have on their neighbors and community. In an age of environmental catastrophe and economic volatility, Objectivism appeals to adolescents because it gives an eloquent voice to the frustration that accompanies the surge in their hormones. It seems that at 42, Paul Ryan still has some growing up to do.

Hilary Matfess is an Institute for Policy Studies intern and a Johns Hopkins University student.

This column is distributed by Other Words.

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