I've been reading so much about Ayn Rand lately. Her work has suddenly come into vogue, being used to justify this era of greed -- in a nation so rife with huge economic divisions that it has come to resemble Medieval Europe -- a land of overlords and serfs.
I could not believe any mature person would take the works of Ayn Rand and her "philosophy of selfishness" seriously. Yet Paul Ryan and others of his ilk have cited her as a major influence. Of course, Ryan did this, only to repudiate her later, in view of the public ridicule he received. Then he incongruously cited Thomas Aquinas as his mentor -- as he proposed to cut social programs.
Ryan was so impressed with Ayn Rand's views that he was known to hand out copies of her most successful book, "Atlas Shrugged," as gifts to his staff. The book, a fantasy dystopian novel -- a once-popular genre that also produced George Orwell's 1984 -- uncannily reflects the niggardly mentality of our era: The productive leaders of her society go "on strike" and abandon the rest of mankind, creating a society of their own. This scenario is ironically not unlike what is effectively occurring in our era of globalization, where joblessness has hit an all-time high. Rand's leaders are driven by what she calls "ethical egoism" in her philosophy. Quite understandably, Rand and her views were never the subject of mainstream scholarship, but her ideas did develop a cultlike following. Now, her work has become as a sorry symbol for what is happening in our times.
I read Ayn Rand in high school, before I went on to read more serious socially responsible literature. It was not long before I saw her main characters to be of merely cursory interest. "Shallow" would be the more apt word. Man's highest purpose is his own happiness? How selfish! Also, this self-centered point of view is frightening, as it provides an underpinning for ruthlessness. Not surprisingly, her philosophy has come to justify capitalism in its most extreme form -- the goal of making money at all costs, no matter what the cost -- including the exploitation of others.
Rand's view of the man who is born a superior human being and succeeds by virtue of his own exceptionalism is almost a version of the Aryan superman, who came to dominate Hitler's thinking. I suppose that's how Ryan sees himself, as one of the elect, as opposed to others, who are not as deserving nor as talented. Now that's a pretty scary and not a very egalitarian philosophy in this nation that espouses democratic values. As Ryan's own career shows, the idea of the lone individualist is a myth, as one suceeds only with the help of others.
It is indeed sad that Ryan never moved on in his reading to enjoy the old-fashioned novel, say, like that of Dickens who does not write about the acquisition of money but about its corrupting influence. His edifying caricatures of misers, such as Scrooge and Fagin, provide a lesson in greed: Those who hide away their profits benefit no one, not even themselves. Unlike Rand and her "moral relativism," Dickens is a consistently moral writer, whose purpose is the betterment of society. His destitute and exploited heroes can serve as foils for those of Rand, whose grandiose heroes lack a moral compass in a godless world. A reading list that overlooks the greatest works of literature and philosophy, and primarily relies on Ayn Rand is sophomoric and sorely limited and does not say much about a party that considers Ryan one of its great "thinkers."
Rand's version of exploitative capitalism is indeed an embarrassing philosophy in a land where capitalism has gone awry. Particularly at a time when never have profits from business been higher, and never has the number of those taking advantage of them been lower. Dickens' more earnest and universal message of social responsibility would have provided a good humanitarian and unifying counterpoint that speaks to all of society, not just the 1 or 5 percent, and would have served Ryan better. But that is certainly not what Paul Ryan or his message of elitism and disenfranchisement are all about.