The Ultimate Gateway Drug to Life on the Right


At the New Republic, there’s an amazing review of a new Ayn Rand biography by Jonathan Chait that actually explains everything you need to know about the American right. An infatuation with Rand’s works is something of a rite of passage among right-wingers; “for over half a century,” Chait quotes the biographer, Jennifer Burns, “Rand has been the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right.”

The article opens with the following paragraph:

The current era of Democratic governance has provoked a florid response on the right, ranging from the prosaic (routine denunciations of big spending and debt) to the overheated (fears of socialism) to the lunatic (the belief that Democrats plan to put the elderly to death). Amid this cacophony of rage and dread, there has emerged one anxiety that is an actual idea, and not a mere slogan or factual misapprehension. The idea is that the United States is divided into two classes–the hard-working productive elite, and the indolent masses leeching off their labor by means of confiscatory taxes and transfer programs.

Chait goes on to explain how this idea has colored “much of the conservative outrage at the prospect of health care reform,” and after citing a number of examples, says: “In these disparate comments we can see the outlines of a coherent view of society. It expresses its opposition to redistribution not in practical terms–that taking from the rich harms the economy–but in moral absolutes, that taking from the rich is wrong. It likewise glorifies selfishness as a virtue.”

The Virtue of Selfishness is, of course, the title of one of Ayn Rand’s tracts as well as being one of her kookier ideas; pity that it was so central to her outlook.

She wrote of one of the protagonists of her stories that “he does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people”; and she meant this as praise.

Chait neatly summarizes her socio-economic views:

In essence, Rand advocated an inverted Marxism. In the Marxist analysis, workers produce all value, and capitalists merely leech off their labor. Rand posited the opposite. […] She did believe that the rich pulled forward society for the benefit of one and all, but beyond that, she portrayed the act of taxing the rich to aid the poor as a moral offense. […] Countless conservatives and libertarians have adopted this premise as an ideological foundation for the promotion of their own interests.

Here’s where it gets really interesting, because this outlook explains the otherwise-baffling conflation of virtue with wealth that underpins much right-wing commentary:

Let us begin with the premise that wealth represents a sign of personal virtue — thrift, hard work, and the rest — and poverty the lack thereof. Many Republicans consider the link between income and the work ethic so self-evident that they use the terms “rich” and “hard-working” interchangeably, and likewise “poor” and “lazy.” The conservative pundit Dick Morris accuses Obama of “rewarding failure and penalizing hard work” through his tax plan. His comrade Bill O’Reilly complains that progressive taxation benefits “folks who dropped out of school, who are too lazy to hold a job, who smoke reefers 24/7.”

And towards the end he says some very true things:

For conservatives, the causal connection between virtue and success is not merely ideological, it is also deeply personal. It forms the basis of their admiration of themselves. If you ask a rich person whether he ascribes his success to good fortune or his own merit, the answer will probably tell you whether that person inhabits the economic left or the economic right. Rand held up her own meteoric rise from penniless immigrant to wealthy author as a case study of the individualist ethos. “No one helped me,” she wrote, “nor did I think at any time that it was anyone’s duty to help me.” But this was false.

In fact, Rand lived on loans from relatives when she first arrived in the US (which she never repaid), and a series of lucky breaks made her independent. This reminds me very much of my own father, who parroted right-wing views straight from the radio and TV, and always insisted that he only had himself to thank for his successes — completely ignoring the significant role that luck and family connections had played in putting him into the good position he occupied.

At the very end of the piece — which is also full of fascinating and creepy detail about Rand herself — he spells out exactly why measuring an individual’s worth by his or her income is absurd:

Assume that this principle were to apply not only within a profession — that a dentist earning $200,000 a year must be contributing exactly twice as much to society as a dentist earning $100,000 a year — but also between professions. Then you are left with the assertion that Donald Trump contributes more to society than a thousand teachers, nurses, or police officers. It is Wall Street, of course, that offers the ultimate rebuttal of the assumption that the market determines social value. An enormous proportion of upper-income growth over the last twenty-five years accrued to an industry that created massive negative social value–enriching itself through the creation of a massive bubble, the deflation of which has brought about worldwide suffering.

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →