Influencers: Ayn Rand
The New Conservatism is in the vanguard of upbraiding politicians and others who have not had a “proper job”, but the roll-call of their heroes is not a happy one in this respect. Adam Smith spent his last years as a public servant - a Commissioner of Customs - in a job that came with its own house, Milton Friedman spent his working life in Government service and academia, and Ayn Rand spent her last days claiming welfare.
Yet Rand is widely cited as a champion of libertarianism, and opponent of state overreach. This is down mainly to her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, which describes a dystopian future where businessmen go on strike against an overbearing Government.
Rand considered Atlas Shrugged to be her greatest work, yet it was not well-received by critics, although it has sold well over the years. Its reputation has not improved over time, despite its championing by the libertarian right. Successive attempts to make it into a film have foundered. The possibility exists that an America in thrall to socialist oppression may not be perceived as realistic, save for the audiences of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and the assembled hosts of Fox News Channel.
Part of the book’s plot involves steel boss Hank Rearden, whose product Rearden Metal is so superior to other steels that his competitors put the word around that it is dangerous. Rand suggests in her narrative that other steel producers, and the Government, have joined forces to protect the status quo, and by implication, oppose the progress that a genuinely free and unregulated market would bring.
What Rand is describing, though, is an exaggerated resistance to the perceived threat of a new product, but this does not have to involve Governments. Her scenario of vested interest and Government conspiring together is a manifestation of corruption, not socialism.
Worse, the idea of a new product and its inventor threatening to put established industries out of business had already been the subject, in a far more light-hearted and therefore effective way, six years earlier in the Ealing comedy The Man In The White Suit. There is always some resistance to new technology; this too is not unique to left-leaning politicians.
After Atlas Shrugged, Rand abandoned fiction writing and turned instead to philosophy, and her promotion of Objectivism. This, too, was not well received, but interest has increased more recently, as the New Conservatives see in her another champion of free-market capitalism, along with individual freedom.
How did she explain that philosophy? “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”. One should pay particular attention to the phrase “his own happiness”; here is a further justification for not merely self-interest, but selfishness.
In her later years, Rand agreed to be signed up for Social Security and Medicare, which may have offended her ideological sensibilities, but after years of heavy smoking, resulting in her being treated for lung cancer, it was probably a wise move.
Thus we see another imperfect and not always successful New Conservative icon. Yet, after her death in the early 1980s, the Ayn Rand Institute was set up in her name, to promote her philosophy, and spread her word. Lobby groups like the IEA host speakers from the Institute and cite Rand regularly.
We have seen a range of influencers from which the New Conservatism takes its cue. But the reality of its presence, its behaviour, its outlook, its purpose, and above all its influence are yet more fascinating. I’ll look next at the one of the alphabet soup of lobby groups that has entered the public conscience the most, and has influenced the behaviour of all the others - not necessarily in a good way.