The unexpected evolution of a former radical

February 01, 2005|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- Has Ayn Rand gone mainstream?

The radical champion of individualism and capitalism, who died in 1982, is no longer an exotic taste.

Her image has adorned a U.S. postage stamp. Her ideas have been detected in a new mass-market animated comedy film, The Incredibles. And tomorrow, on the 100th anniversary of her birth, there will be a Rand commemoration at the Library of Congress -- an odd site for a ceremony honoring a fierce anti-statist.

In her day, Ms. Rand was at odds with almost every prevailing attitude in American society. She infuriated liberals by preaching economic laissez-faire and lionizing titans of business. She appalled conservatives by rejecting religion in any form while celebrating, in her words, "sexual enjoyment as an end in itself."

But her novels found countless readers. The Fountainhead, published in 1943, and Atlas Shrugged, which followed in 1957, are still in print. In 1991, when the Book-of-the-Month Club polled Americans asking what book had most influenced their lives, Atlas Shrugged finished second only to the Bible. In all, Ms. Rand's books have sold some 22 million copies and continue to sell at the rate of more than half a million a year.

Ms. Rand emerged in the aftermath of the Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II -- which were taken as proof that the free market was obsolete, that prosperity required an all-intrusive government and that national success demanded the subordination of the individual to collective purposes. After the traumas of the 1930s and '40s, America was intent on building a well-ordered welfare state based on compromise and consensus.

Ms. Rand, a Russian immigrant, saw herself as harking back to the Enlightenment values of reason, limited government and personal liberty that fueled the American Revolution. "The United States," she declared, "was the first moral society in history."

Her novels were derided by critics, who saw them as interminable philosophical diatribes disguised as melodrama. What she regarded as thoroughgoing consistency struck many readers as overbearing dogmatism. Her political ideas attracted only a fringe following.

In time, her work bore fruit. By the mid-1970s, wage and price controls had wrecked the economy, in perfect accord with Ms. Rand's predictions. Her willingness to treat capitalism not as a necessary evil but a moral good helped turn public opinion toward free markets, opening the way for the Reagan Revolution.

That's just one illustration of how her influence went beyond economics and political theory. In her eyes, there was no greater good than the integrity and self-fulfillment of each person. One of her essay collections had the surprising title, "The Virtue of Selfishness."

Looking back, it's hard to recapture how jarring that phrase was a generation ago, when altruism and self-sacrifice were seen as the central elements of an exemplary life. Today, Americans take it for granted that they are entitled to live for their own happiness, without apology.

It may seem curious to honor a writer who merely defended free markets, preached the superiority of reason over blind faith and extolled the American ideal of the pursuit of happiness. David Kelley, head of the Rand-oriented Objectivist Center, jokes that he's reminded of the theatergoer who complained that Hamlet was full of cliches. Ms. Rand's beliefs have been so widely disseminated and absorbed that we have forgotten where they originated.

The truth is that for all she did, they are no longer her ideas. To a large extent, they are ours.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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