The Wall Street Journal has an interesting column that asks whether Ayn Rand, the famous libertarian novelist and philosopher, is a net plus for the free-market movement. This seems like an odd question. After all, her books (especially Atlas Shrugged) have been hugely influential, exposing countless people to a libertarian message.
But the column's author, Heather Wilhelm of the free-market Illinois Policy Institute, has a good point. Rand's emphasis on individual freedom is laudable, but she makes herself an easy target by asserting that this requires über-individualism and leaves no room for altruism. Indeed, I'll always remember being somewhat put off by the scene in Atlas Shrugged where one of protagonists rents, rather than lends, his car to a friend. And even though I'm rarely in a church, her insistence that atheism was a necessary component of her philosophy also struck me as odd (not to mention needlessly exclusionary).
From Wilhelm's column:
Rand seems to be roaring back. Sales are surging—Brian Doherty, author of "Radicals for Capitalism" (2007), recently calculated that in one week in late August, "Atlas" sold "67 percent more copies than it did the same week a year before, and 114 percent more than that same week in 2007." Two buzzed-about Rand biographies hit the shelves this fall, and an "Atlas" cable miniseries is reportedly in the works. Designer Ralph Lauren recently listed Rand as one of his favorite novelists, and CNBC host Rick Santelli, whose on-air antibailout rant inspired hundreds of "tea party" protests across the nation, admitted the same. "I know this may not sound very humanitarian," he said, "but at the end of the day I'm an Ayn Rand-er."
...But in an age where hope, change and warm-hearted marketing clearly resonate, is revitalizing and glorifying Rand's acerbic "virtue of selfishness" doing the free-market movement any good? Doubts are starting to emerge. Leonard Liggio, a respected figure in libertarian circles and a guest at Rand's post-"Atlas Shrugged" New York get-togethers, sees value in Rand but admits she wasn't a bridge builder. ...Others, however, go further. "Rand has this extremist, intolerant, dogmatic antigovernment stance," says Brink Lindsey of the libertarian Cato Institute, "and it pushes free-market supporters toward a purist, radical vision that undermines their capacity to get anything done."
...How are free markets best "sold"? A more compelling approach flips Rand's philosophy on its head, explaining how everyone, especially society's neediest, benefits from economic liberty. It's a compelling story about how freedom and prosperity can change lives for the better. And Ayn Rand is of little help in telling it.
As an economist, I certainly don't pretend to be an expert, but Rand's philosophy seems vulnerable. And her personal style apparently was less than perfect. But, returning to the main issue, surely Rand has been a net plus for the cause of liberty. I'm not a Randian (and am not even sure what that entails), but I have probably given copies of Atlas Shrugged to about 50 people over the years. Simply stated, the book is a very compelling introduction to the idea that government is corrupt, that it attracts (and benefits) corrupt people, and that redistributionism is a corrupt philosophy.