Who Was Ayn Rand?
You’ve probably heard of Ayn Rand’s bestselling novels, such as Atlas Shrugged, Anthem, and The Fountainhead. But, Rand was much more than just a novelist; she was a philosopher who used her fiction to illustrate her ideas. Thanks to her philosophical and economic beliefs, she has become an icon of capitalist movements worldwide. Let’s take a look at Ayn Rand’s life, philosophy, and what she had to say about economics.
Born in Russia in 1905, Rand enjoyed life as the daughter of a successful pharmacist until Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power when she was twelve years old. Her father’s business was seized by the state, and her family fled to the Crimean Peninsula. They would later return to St. Petersburg, now called Petrograd, but life would never be the same. Under the new collectivist regime, Rand and her family suffered hardship and need, often going without enough to eat.
As a child, she dreamed of the United States. She was a great admirer of the American Founding Fathers and their ideas of limited government. In 1926, she escaped Russia, bound for Chicago under the guise of visiting relatives. Upon arriving, she made her way to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter, and by 1929 she was a permanent resident of the U.S. Just two years later, she became an American citizen.
Though she had been writing novels, plays, and more since childhood, it was in America that she began to establish herself as an author. Her first great success came with her novel The Fountainhead in 1943. In it, an idealistic architect named Howard Roark struggles to stay true to his own artistry amidst a society that attempts to co-opt his creativity. It was a manifestation of ideas she’d been writing and thinking about for years – namely philosophies like individuality and self interest as the highest moral goods (called egoism); and anti-collectivism. These concepts are hallmarks of Rand’s worldview; a philosophy called Objectivism.
Her other two most well-known works, Anthem and Atlas Shrugged flesh out this philosophy even more. In her novella Anthem, she depicts an oppressive society so collectivist that even the word “I” is erased from the lexicon, and love is discouraged because no one is supposed to care for any one person above another – that wouldn’t be in the interest of the collective. By the end, the hero has realized that the highest human ideal is that of individual existence; that the Ego, rather than the collective, is the most sacred thing in the world.
Similarly, Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged is an indictment of collectivism, a defense of self-interest, and an exaltation of capitalism. The novel’s heroes, a group of individualist businesspeople, fight back against the increasing government oppression that eventually leads to the collapse of society.
Though Rand also published many other works, including numerous philosophical essays and manifestos, her novels remain the most enduring aspect of her legacy. Through them, the philosophy of objectivism continues to make its mark, defined by its four pillars: Reality, Reason, Self-Interest, and Capitalism.
From her objectivist worldview, Rand argued that it is not only virtuous for everyone to act in his own self interest, but that it’s actually the best way to create a healthy and prosperous society. To Rand, self-interest didn’t mean stepping on other people to get what you want – rather, she believed that the true reality of existence meant that treating others with respect was actually in the best interest of each person, and that to truly choose the highest self-interest would involve respecting the personhood of others. In such a system, she argued, each person would pursue his own highest good, resulting in innovation and progress that collectivism could never hope to achieve. In one of her nonfiction books, The Virtue of Selfishness, she explains, “there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.”
While objectivism as a philosophy may not resonate with everyone, the conclusions Rand drew from it about how an economy should function are observable in the free market. In a free market, each party pursues his or her own gain. The result is mutual benefit. [See The Free Market Economy; What is it Really? for more on this concept] On the other hand, in a collectivist society, the top producers are forced to act against their own self-interest, and as a result, production slows until there is barely enough to go around.
Ayn Rand saw this play out firsthand in her own life, as she watched her family’s financial ruin in the name of the Bolshevik “greater good.” Instead of the utopia Lenin promised, in which everyone was taken care of via the collectivist government, she saw the suffering, starvation, and destruction that socialism always brings in its wake. Instead of anyone achieving his or her own best interest, everyone was brought down to the same level of ruin, unable to better their own situation or anyone else’s.
In contrast, upon moving to the United States, she saw a system in which anyone was free to pursue whatever degree of success they wanted. She saw a kind of prosperity – even amongst everyday Americans – that she had only dreamed of as a young woman starving in Bolshevik Russia. She saw American businessmen and women creating empires that served their own best interests, certainly, but those empires also provided incredible feats of innovation enjoyed by the public at large, all while employing countless people – enabling others to act in their own self interest and pursue their own success. She noted this in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
“America’s abundance was not created by public sacrifices to 'the common good,' but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes. They did not starve the people to pay for America’s industrialization. They gave the people better jobs, higher wages, and cheaper goods with every new machine they invented, with every scientific discovery or technological advance — and thus the whole country was moving forward and profiting, not suffering, every step of the way.”
It wasn’t perfect, she admitted – indeed, the title of her aforementioned work Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, speaks to her belief that true capitalism, an inherently moral system, would exist only when the government was limited purely to the protection of individual rights. This, she said, had never been tried to a sufficient degree, even in America. Yet even with only imperfect attempts to observe, it was clear to Rand what kind of system worked better – the individualist American market or the Russian collective. In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, she writes, “why have some nations achieved material abundance, while others have remained stagnant in subhuman misery? … Capitalism is the only system that enables men to produce abundance — and the key to capitalism is individual freedom.”
Drawing from her observations, Rand’s fiction takes things a step further, using idealized and archetypal characters, settings, and plots to more starkly illustrate her philosophy. By creating extreme scenarios in her fiction, she shows us all the more clearly how devastating the effects of collectivism can be. It’s no wonder then, that she has become such an icon for those in favor of free markets, even among groups who might not agree with all of her ideas.
If you want to learn more about Ayn Rand and her ideas, pick up one of her novels – her novella Anthem might be a good place to start. Another great resource is The Ayn Rand Institute's website, where you can read extensively about her life, work, and philosophy.