It’s not news to anyone that Ayn Rand is getting a lot of attention recently. Between a recent politician’s vacillating endorsement of her values and the reactions thereof from rival personalities, the philosopher’s students and readers see her ideas resurging in America. According to Yaron Brook, director of the Ayn Rand Institute, Atlas Shrugged sold almost 500,000 copies in 2011. So who’s reading it?
I recently had a conversation in a chatroom with a person with an unusual perspective. Critical of Occupy Wall St. and a “die-hard Republican,” I suggested that he might be interested in an Austrian economics chatroom for his answers to society’s ills. No, “I go to Ayn Rand for answers,” he explained. I told him of my interest in Objectivism and bluntly asked how he reconciled Ayn Rand and the Republican party? He was “aware of her atheistic leanings” and considered her “philosophy of economics [to be] brilliant.” Rand’s term for a person’s implicit philosophy and subconscious emotional values was “sense of life,” and this person identified with the sense of life in Rand’s novels. “It’s the personal success that I subscribe to,” he explained. Intellectually, I knew that many American conservatives affiliate with Ayn Rand’s mood, but I had never personally encountered such a vehement example. As the person had come to the channel for help on a college assignment, I sensed that I would need to engage aggressively to hold his interest, and began to grill him on practical politics and strategy.
The Republican Party taking back the Senate and the White House would get us “less government, more austerity and closer adherence to the Constitution.” I explained the central role of credit in a capital-intensive economy and asked him what Romney would do about the core of the American economy, its central bank, but it was not something he had much thought on. Cutting spending would set the country on the right track to a more decentralized economy, and the Republicans were the ones to do it. I could certainly empathize with this viewpoint; apart from his low opinion of atheists, he was approximately where I was at his age. But I remember what that party did when they last controlled the legislature and the presidency. I will not attempt to address such a boundless issue as political strategy in this essay, but only as it is influenced by a mode of thinking.
One occasionally hears of studies finding that conservative or liberal political views result from an individual’s temperament and personality. Setting aside the idea of universal human psychological traits causing choice of temporal packages of specific ideologies, people of similar temperaments frequently affiliate as a coalition of common ideology. Along many psychological axes identified in “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” a review published in the American Psychological Association journal by Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway, the conservatives surveyed in the studies reviewed seem to have a natural affinity with Rand. Between commonalities in intolerance for ambiguity, integrative simplicity, and even aversion to unfamiliar music, Americans identifying as “conservative” might find a natural ally in Rand. The need of conservatives for cognitive closure can often by satisfied by Rand’s philosophy.
Objectively, the psychological need for cognitive closure does not conflict with rationality. To the contrary, the need for cognitive closure motivates people to gather empirical evidence to induce firm principles. Indeed Rand’s writings offer conservatives an air-tight and integrated ideological framework supported by a substantial body of evidence. The flip side of the need for cognitive closure, is that once it is satisfied, motivation for gathering new evidence disappears. As a historian, Rand fell into this same trap; events that do not fit neatly into her cultural narrative are omitted.
Rand’s understanding of history was colored by revolutionary events in Russia. Her reactionary response to Marxist ideology led her to downplay the prevalence of mercantilism in the Western world. Whereas the centralization of political power in America in the late 19th century was driven by rent-seeking businesses, in her view of history “robber barons” used political pull to influence economic regulation out of self-defense from labor movements fueled by collectivist ideologies. In researching the etiologies of today’s political systems, conservative fans of Ayn Rand and Objectivists alike might better identify the beneficiaries of the mixed economy and gain new insights in how to reverse it. Only when we understand how we got here will we be able to find a way out.