Ayn Rand and the limits of individualism

Conservatives have long loved the image of the lone, individualist hero.

As David Brooks has written, the reassuring Western hero — craggy, stalwart, self-sufficient — has a particular resonance for conservatives. Republican leaders from Barry Goldwater to George W. Bush have filled the same space in the public consciousness, and conservatives even now look for the next cowboy hero, the next rogue leader.

Given this predilection, that the Objectivist, free-market philosophy of Ayn Rand would make a resurgence was perhaps inevitable. Rand’s gift was always in the conjuring of sinless worlds and flawless heroes.

In this political moment, when government seems on the march, and when free enterprise is disparaged and regulated, Rand seems to many a prophetess of individualism in a reckless age.

The Randian ethos is particularly invigorating to college students. As Adam Kirsch pointed out in a review of a Rand biography, Rand’s appeal often stems from the sense that the reader is given entrée to a secret world, a sort of initiation to a more enlightened state.

For young people, Kirsch writes, reading her works promises “that they could distinguish themselves by the ardor of their commitment to Rand’s teaching.”

While Rand’s philosophy is in the end a cold and lifeless one, her supporters are right to oppose the ravening leviathan of statism that she saw as the inevitable end of modern liberalism.

To the extent that Rand’s writings open the minds of young people to a worldview outside of the predominant leftism of the campus, they are valuable.

But hers is not a philosophy to build a political movement around, or to build a life around.

The Randian, individualist myth rests on a fundamental mistake. Markets without morality, individuals without community, liberty without order — none of these are enough.

The project of conservatism should be the nurturing of an authentic community. Capitalism, as Brooks writes, is simply a means to the good life, which is the neglected end.

The good life, or in the larger sense, the good society, depends on individuals, certainly. But more precisely, it depends on individuals willingly giving of themselves for the common good. The common good, in turn, depends on cultural memory of common virtue, the kind that can’t genuinely exist in a world where each man is an island.

As the conservative thinker Robert Nisbet (a far better influence for young conservatives than Rand) often argued, liberty is only liberty within a social and ethical context.

“The individual alone is powerless,” he argued, and it is the reinforcing power of a shared tradition that gives individuals the ability to make something of their lives.

A human life has dignity wherever and however it appears, but it is only in community that it can fully mature. A life without friends, neighbors, and family is empty, no matter how enlightened an individual feels.

The real hero of the American story is the individual who, despite the power and wealth his or her gifts bring, chooses community both in large ways and small, and chooses to give freely of those gifts to bring order, virtue, and relationship out of the wilderness.

Reach Will at wmunsil@asu.edu


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