Ayn Rand at 100: An 'ism' struts its stuff
By BENJAMIN HARVEY Columbia News Service | May 15,2005
NEW YORK — Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, pointed to a map of the United States colored to mark school districts where he had shipped more than 165,000 free copies of Ayn Rand's books. "My goal is to make that map green," he said.
Before an enthusiastic audience of more than 200 self-described "rational egoists," Brook set out his goal of fundamentally changing American culture, a goal that's only appropriate for a fan of one of the 20th century's greatest advocates of human ambition. And Brook thinks he can do it.
"If we get this many kids reading Ayn Rand, it really is over," he said.
Although Rand died in 1982, many of the people who came to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the novelist-philosopher's birth — at a two-day, $600-per-person centenary event in New York City — think she's doing better than ever.
Rand's books, which include "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged," are selling at all-time highs, more than half a million copies per year. Ayn Rand high school and college essay contests are receiving thousands of entrants. And the Irvine, Calif.-based institute, with a budget of more than $4 million, is helping to set up campus clubs across America and preparing to graduate its first class of students schooled in Ayn Rand's philosophy, called objectivism.
"You see young people reading her paperbacks in the subways all the time," said Alice Birney, an American literature specialist at the Library of Congress.
And at an Ayn Rand birthday party earlier this year in Washington, D.C., "the young people were the ones who really rallied," Birney said. The birthday party, complete with cake, candles and all, was co-hosted by 35-year-old Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, who sponsored a House bill to privatize Social Security accounts.
Ryan, who encourages his staff members to read "Atlas Shrugged," is one of many prominent figures who said they were influenced by the ideas of Ayn Rand. Others include chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, director Oliver Stone, author Salman Rushdie, and Madonna, along with scores of businessmen and entrepreneurs.
But it's the young people Brook, a 43-year-old Israeli-born former professor of finance, wants to focus on, the "new intellectuals" who, he says, will eventually lead a "philosophical revolution" in America. Objectivism teaches that adopting a self-centered approach to life will yield happiness and progress, while altruism promotes wasteful bureaucracies and mediocrity.
To be sure, objectivism has its detractors. Though Rand's ideas have gained inroads into several universities, including Duke, Clemson and Brook's alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, objectivism isn't embraced by most academics.
Rand is "outside of the mainstream of philosophical works," said David Sidorsky, a professor of moral and political philosophy at Columbia University. Objectivism, he says, is more of an ideological movement than a well-grounded philosophy, which explains in part why it isn't more widely taught, he said.
"I can understand the fascination exercised by Ayn Rand's work on some people," said Harvard professor of philosophy Philippe Van Parijs, who gained some renown for his proposal that every person, regardless of productive output, be paid a "Universal Basic Income" by the government. "But academic recognition is a matter of intellectual strength, depth and rigour, not of more or less ephemeral and local fashion."
The objectivists remain unfazed, however, and Brook says the institute is committed to the goal of having at least 20 objectivist philosophers teaching in serious university programs by 2020.
These true believers are committed to the notion that altruism is immoral. They also worship reason and disdain religion. In addition, they distrust claims of innate rights, are wary of environmentalism, and believe free market capitalism is the best and most ethical system for the organization of societies.
Above all, they see men as capable of being heroic beings, and believe that it is the ambitious individual, often acting against the mob, who is responsible for the advancement of humanity.
"This is about Ayn Rand winning, her ideas winning," Brook said, to cheers from the audience, "so that the next centenary will include not an address by me, but by the president of the United States, as well as fireworks over Manhattan and over the capital."
Objectivists are encouraged by book sales that have more than doubled since Rand's death, and often refer to a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club that asked readers to name a book that made a difference in their lives. "Atlas Shrugged," the story of society's gradual collapse after the "men of ability" go on strike, came in at No. 2 — just behind the Holy Bible.
"Victory is ours! Victory is ours!" Brook cried. "Because truth is on our side."
The objectivists also see opportunity in what they see as the failure of other parties to address America's political needs. "The left is bankrupt," Brook said. "They've gone to nihilism, and America doesn't like nihilism. And the right, all they have to offer is religion."
At the end of the conference, Brook said he was traveling to Asia, where he would lecture on objectivism. Most important, he said, will be a visit to China, where at the invitation of a Hong-Kong based think-tank called Capitalist Solutions, he will give a lecture on the morality of capitalism.
With Rand's influence negligible outside of the U.S., Brook expressed excitement about plans to translate Rand's books in China, a land of 1.3 billion people.
"We hope that'll sell billions," he said.