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Cardinal Conversations

Uncompassionate Conservatism?

The influence an author, dead for decades, is having on the 2012 presidential race.

Courtesy Jennifer Burns

By Sam Scott

Ayn Rand, the Russian-American author of The Fountainhead and other novels, has never fallen out of fashion, especially with young readers drawn to her themes of brash self-reliance. But this summer, 30 years after her death, the novelist-philosopher is being talked about like never before.

First, the Library of Congress included her 1957 work, Atlas Shrugged, in its list of 88 Books that Shaped America. Then the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan—who has often cited Rand’s influence—as Republican nominee for vice president. His references to Rand have brought new attention to her influence on American conservatives.

Stanford assistant history professor Jennifer Burns (pictured at left), author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right has, consequently, been sought out everywhere from the New York Times to the Colbert Report to shed light on Rand’s beliefs and why Ryan has spent a lot of time lately downplaying an ideological bond with her.

Stanford caught up with Burns for her thoughts on Rand.


First things first, I always stumble on her name. What is the correct pronunciation of Ayn?

Here’s a good trick to remember it. In keeping with her philosophy of selfishness, “Ayn” rhymes with the word “mine.”


She was never required reading for me, but recent events underscore her influence. Is Rand someone we need to read to be culturally informed?

I do think she is someone worth familiarizing yourself with if you want to understand current political currents. Paul Ryan is a great example of that.

She has been sort of under the radar in American literary history. She has never been a critical favorite. She is now assigned in high schools and in some colleges, but she has never been loved by the literary establishment. People kind of discover her on their own.  And one group that has always discovered her and become fascinated and even obsessed with her ideas are conservatives, particularly young conservatives.

Her discussion of the morality of capitalism comes, for many people, as this eye-opening, earth-shattering revelation that this is the way things should be. And that’s a long-running trend since the ’60s. What you saw happen in 2008 with the Tea Party was a new audience seizing upon her.


Would you recommend one particular work to get someone up to speed on Rand?

That is a tricky question because Rand was not a concise writer. Her major novels are all 500 to 1,200 pages. I think Atlas Shrugged is the most influential of her novels at this political moment, but it’s 1,200 pages long.

The shortest book of hers is called Anthem. It’s about 100 pages long but it’s a very abstract sort of science fiction story. It will give you little flavor of her but not too much.

Another one I would recommend is called The Virtue of Selfishness. This is a collection of essays along with excerpts from her fiction.


Why is the media so fascinated with Rep. Ryan’s interest in Rand? As you said, conservatives have been reading her books for generations.

Rand has always been a kind of subterranean current in the conservative movement and in conservative thought. Ryan is one of the first national-level politicians to really be on the record as pledging an allegiance to Rand.

Very few contenders for national office have made her an explicit part of their political identity because she’s very controversial in a number of ways.

Burns book cover

Such as?

Modern-day Republicans emphasize her view on limited government and the morality of capitalism, but she was also an atheist. She was pro-abortion rights. She was antiwar. She was [for the] legalization of drugs. She staked out a lot of positions that a wise and careful politician would want to stay away from. And her fiction has some very racy, very controversial sexual passages and some pretty harsh writing.


And that’s why Ryan has begun to measure his support for her?

She is very hard for politicians to embrace because not only is she not religious, she’s antireligious. The fact that Ryan gave Atlas Shrugged as a Christmas gift [to staffers] is a tremendous irony because Rand was a fire-breathing atheist. She did not believe in God. She called religion a psychological disorder. She truly believed you needed to use reason and logic and no faith whatsoever. 

So as Ryan’s star began to rise, he quickly began to back away from her for that very reason. And he made this sort of clumsy substitution of St. Thomas Aquinas as his major inspiration rather than Ayn Rand, although he’s on the record in multiple places very recently talking about Rand and not talking about Aquinas.


So what does Rand’s philosophy of objectivism boil down to?

Here is how Rand summed it up in ten words or less: “metaphysics: objective reality; epistemology: reason; ethics: self-interest; politics: capitalism.”

If I was going to break that down a little bit, metaphysics is objective reality, which means we can only rely on our mind and on reason. It’s our only guide to thought and action. Epistemology, reason. The only way we can know anything is through the reasoning mind. Ethics, self-interest. Rand claimed that selfishness was a virtue. It was virtuous to pursue your own interests and defend your own interests. And politics is capitalism because laissez-faire capitalism for her was the only system that allowed the individual to realize his or her full potential and to keep the fruits of his or her labor and not be obligated to others or punished for success.


Was she concerned about the less fortunate?

That was not a big part of her ethics. Her ethics were based on the individual and on the individual’s right to pursue his or her goals. The individual was not obligated to other people. If you chose, because of your own values, to help other people or to engage in charity, that was fine, but that did not make you a moral person. What made you a moral person is relying on yourself, pursuing your own interests, and not being a burden on others.

Some of the characters she depicts the most negatively in her novels are people like social workers. She thought social workers were [about] the most evil people possible because they made their lives on the misery of others. Morality and ethics, for her, had nothing to do with helping other people.


You wrote in the New York Times recently that she wouldn’t have approved of Paul Ryan. Why?

You have to understand how deeply Rand disliked religion and how fundamental atheism was to her thought and to her personal identity. She thought those who endorsed capitalism yet also tied it to religion were extremely dangerous. She denounced Ronald Reagan for doing that.

She almost would have preferred to deal with a politician who was very liberal or very socialist. At least you understood where that person was coming from. Someone who claimed to be a capitalist but also embraced religious conservatism or wanted to restrict certain rights because they clashed with religious beliefs—such as the right to abortion—that would be, for her, a more dangerous person, because they’re like a false friend.


What is the value of bringing Ryan’s fondness for Rand to light?

I think it is illustrative to take the social policies—and values—he’s proposed and look at their root. Their philosophical root comes from a world view that doesn’t really stop to consider the less fortunate and doesn’t really have a social vision or even a sense of anything remotely like the common good. That wasn’t a concept that Rand understood or accepted.

And so it’s absolutely worth examining. As Paul Ryan has said, Atlas Shrugged depicts the kind of world or points to the kind of vision that he wants his policies to enact. I think it’s absolutely legitimate to look and say, “What did she say, what did she believe, and where did her ideas come from,” and ask, “Is it tenable to hold these types of economic and social ideas and yet also lay claim to a Christian ethic that Rand opposed?”


You got a lot of attention when your book came out in 2009 around the time the Tea Party was gaining steam. Now you’re seeing more interest connected to Ryan. Which spike has been bigger?

When my book came out I was making an argument that some people were resisting. People were a little reluctant to say a figure like Ayn Rand is deeply relevant to our nation’s politics. Now, I think my book helped make that argument and helped establish that. So now that Ryan and Rand have arrived, [people] already believe in her influence and now they have the biggest piece of evidence they could want. The Tea Party was huge news, but there’s nothing bigger than a presidential election. To be able to connect into that is absolutely fascinating.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Comments (5)

  • Ms. Marsha Murphy

    Excellent interview and captures the Objectivist philosophy very concisely. I first read Atlas Shrugged at age 14, and read it 7 times. I was a serious devotee for about 15 years, subscribed to her newsletter (I still have many issues), and even went to one of her lectures in NYC. Ever since I heard about Paul Ryan citing her work, I've wondered what his followers would think if they found out she was an atheist.Sad to say I don't think many of them read the NY Times, nor have they read any of Ayn Rand's books, much less Ms. Burns' book. Thanks for the article.

    Posted by Ms. Marsha Murphy on Sep 5, 2012 11:52 AM

  • Mr. Bijay Singh

    You stress about how Ayn Rand would have been averse to Paul Ryan's religious beliefs. How would she have reacted to his stance on Medicare and entitlements? Wouldn't she see these as against the ethos of selfishness, and essentially stealing? Also, Ayn Rand despised those who confirmed to other's wishes rather than following what their mind mapped out for them. She made a hero of those that followed their true path, yet suffered as a consequence of their choice, particularly via being ostracized from a 'fake' society from which they would be hypocritical to seek acknowledgement. Can a politician really be a 'Randist'?

    Posted by Mr. Bijay Singh on Sep 5, 2012 8:10 PM

  • Mr. Dan Bednar

    Since this has to do with Paul Ryan, ideology,  and politics, I think the most instructive part of Rand's ethical system involves the question: "Am I my brother's keeper?" - to which her answer is an emphatic "No".

    Posted by Mr. Dan Bednar on Sep 5, 2012 9:17 PM

  • Kenneth Polasko, PhD

    Basically you are throwing the baby out with the bath water - poor scholarship.  Show me a perfect ideaology.

    Posted by Kenneth Polasko, PhD on Sep 7, 2012 7:57 AM

  • Muhammad Arrabi, II, MA

    Good interview. I highly believe in reading books in pairs - where you hear the pro & con. The best novel to pair with Atlas Shrugged is Upton's Jungle. Written around the same time (1905), it creates a very convincing narrative of why Capitalism and Selfishness can be extremely dangerous.
    I learned tremendously from both points of view - and I do not subscribe to either fully.

    Posted by Muhammad Arrabi, II, MA on Sep 9, 2012 4:54 AM


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