Ayn Rand was not a defender of the rich

May 13

Ayn Rand, the famous novelist and free market advocate, is often caricatured as a defender of the rich or big business. But, as Steve Horwitz explains at the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog, there are more wealthy villains in her books than wealthy heroes. And many of her heroes – including John Galt, whom Rand portrayed as the person best exemplifying her philosophy – are not particularly wealthy. Ultimately, Rand’s work praises producers, not wealthy people as such:

One of the other valuable pieces of Rand’s work is also one of the most frequently misunderstood by her critics….

[T]he view [of many critics] is that Rand supposedly loved the rich and hated the poor, and that Atlas Shrugged is a story of the rich as Nietzschean heroes who should be freed to save the world from the mooching poor and middle class.

This, of course, is simply wrong. It’s not “the rich” who go on strike, but the producers. The good and evil divide for Rand is not between rich and poor, but between producers and takers. There is no remotely plausible reading of Atlas Shrugged where the “1%” are unambiguously heroes and where everyone else is a “moocher.” One can simply list off various characters who don’t fit this reading. Most obvious is John Galt himself. None of the descriptions of him that Rand offers suggest that he is rich. Comfortable? Yes. But rich? Nope. Francisco D’Anconia and Hank Rearden are arguably rich, but Hugh Akston? He doesn’t seem to be particularly so. On the other side of the ledger we have Jim Taggart. Clearly rich, but clearly a villain. Wesley Mouch has clearly done well for himself and is arguably rich, as are many of the other villains who associate with him. They are the ones attending the fancy parties and living the high life while the producers are, for the most part, out running railroads, extracting oil, and inventing new useful metals.

Horwitz offers more examples in the rest of his post, as did Will Thomas here.

I have substantial reservations about both Rand and her philosophy. But it simply isn’t accurate to paint her as an uncritical defender of either the rich in general or big business specifically. She viewed many of both with great suspicion because of, among other things, their lobbying for subsidies and favorable regulations from the state.

It’s worth noting that many prominent libertarian thinkers were still more suspicious of business than Rand was. From Adam Smith to Milton Friedman, they worried that organized commercial interests would use their political influence to undermine free markets and promote special interest legislation that benefits themselves at the expense of the general public. Where libertarians differ from left-wing critics of business interest is in their view that the best way to control their abuses is to limit the power of government rather than to concentrate even greater power in its hands than already exists.

While Ayn Rand cannot plausibly be described as an uncritical admirer of businessmen or the wealthy, her portrayal of these groups in her novels does often suffer from a different flaw. Nearly all the business leaders and wealthy people in her book are either virtuous producers like Hank Rearden and Dagney Taggart, or useless “moochers,” who produce virtually nothing of value and get their wealth largely from government favoritism, or sometimes from inheritance. In reality, of course, there are many businesses that both produce genuinely valuable products and innovations, and use government to enrich themselves at the expense of the public. To take just one recent example, the producers of “House of Cards” have both created a wonderful show and shamelessly lobbied for corporate welfare similar to the kind that is condemned in the show itself.

As Sirius Black put it, “the world isn’t just split into good people and Death Eaters.” Similarly, the business community isn’t just split into the producers and the moochers. Many business interests are both. Ayn Rand likely realized this at some level. But her books usually don’t reflect it, perhaps because she was often trying to portray ideal types rather than nuanced characters. To my mind, her focus on such ideal types was excessive. On the other hand, there is a reason why Ayn Rand was a bestselling novelist, and the most successful modern popularizer of libertarian ideas. Her use of sharply drawn ideal-type characters might well have been a factor in that success.

UPDATE: I previously discussed the distinction between being pro-business and being pro-free market here.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and the study of popular political participation and its implications for constitutional democracy. "He is the author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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