Sunday, October 11, 2009

*Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right* Review

To this day, Ayn Rand elicits many strong reactions, few of which are evenhanded. Her fans (I count myself as one) adore her; her enemies dismiss her, at best, or savage her, at worst. While there are exceptions that prove the rule, most who know enough to have an opinion come down on either side. Ayn Rand remains the polarizing intellectual figure of the last half-century.

Her ideas have been canonized, co-opted, obfuscated, openly misunderstood, and caricatured by friends and foes alike. Biographies of Rand have either been hagiographies or outright smear-pieces. Only in the last fifteen years have serious, though marginal, academic publications begun to study Rand's ideas. But now two major biographies, Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made, and Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, have arrived to set the intellectual record straight and reassess Ayn Rand as serious thinker, free from the shackles of her admirers and detractors.

(I have only read Burns' work, since Heller's has not yet been released. A review of that book will follow.)

I'm happy to report that Goddess of the Market is an excellent intellectual biography of Ayn Rand. Burns briskly retells Rand's life, from her childhood in Soviet Russia, to her early adult life in Hollywood, her rise as a novelist and philosopher, and her place within "libertarian" thought today. (Rand never aligned herself with the libertarian movement. In fact, she referred to them as "hippies of the right." Still, the libertarian movement largely credits Rand as one of its founders.)

Burns spent eight years researching the book, and had unprecedented access to the Ayn Rand Archives (which Heller did not). And it shows. While she has an unfortunate penchant for taking Rand's ideas out of context, she still exhibits a impressive understanding of Objectivist thought. However, concerning Rand's personal life (which I think has little bearing on the validity of her philosophy), Burns sides with Rand's detractors more often than not, without explanation. This is the book's greatest flaw, especially since it is the first to have access to such a wide breadth of primary sources.

The highlight of Goddess of the Market is its description of Rand's middle-years, the time between the writing of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. This era found Rand a burgeoning political activist (first for Wendell Willkie, and later for Barry Goldwater), who was interacting with libertarian luminaries like Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman. Here Burns shows how they aided Rand in defining her philosophy, either by providing the perspective that Rand lacked (Paterson and Mises), or by providing touchstones for disagreement (Hayek and Friedman).

The latter half of the book focuses on Rand's post-Atlas Shrugged life, with emphasis on her doomed (professional and personal) relationship with Nathanial Branden. While this story has been told before, of particular interest is Burns' description of Rand's increasing influence on the ideas of the political right, which was both welcomed and harshly rejected. Her most important opponent was William F. Buckley, whose National Review provided the most scathing criticisms of Rand, more so than anyone on the Left. (Rand's current vogue among conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck is tenuous and superficial; they largely focus on a narrow understanding of some of her political philosophy, and simply ignore the bulk of her ideas, which are at odds with theirs.)

Though Rand's blithe disregard for her enemies fueled their vitriol, her ideas were sure to inflame both sides of the political spectrum on their own. She not only advocated capitalism, but bluntly stated that it was the only moral political system, something even the Right was hesitant to do. She was also an outspoken atheist, who abhorred the Right's increasing religiosity (this was the source of Buckley's dislike). And both sides bristled at Rand's idea that altruism is evil and selfishness is good.

To the chagrin of literary critics, college professors, and political commentators, Rand remains immensely popular. Her fame has only increased since her death in 1982. Indeed, her continued relevance could be described as populist, at least in the cultural sense. Her novels continue to thrive on word of mouth recommendations, an amazing feat for books that are at least 50 years old.

Rand's critics focus on her negativity, which was undoubtedly robust. She loathed most of modern culture, and at times was pessimistic about the future. But they miss what her fans embrace about Rand: her celebration of the individual, her fierce advocacy of freedom, her belief that the rational human mind is man's greatest asset.

Burns' book doesn't seek to bridge the differences between Ayn Rand's fans and enemies. Instead, it provides an intelligent assessment of her place within 20th century thought. Something she has been denied, until now.