Who is John Galt? And Why Does Ayn Rand Still Fascinate The Young?

Paul Greenberg

8/22/2012 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

Ayn Rand is back in the news, as she always is in the subconscious of healthy American males. Reading her is as much a developmental stage as puberty. Most grow out of it, but that doesn't mean it leaves them, it just becomes part of their make-up somewhere back there. Like old girlfriends or nights on the town fondly remembered, but not something they'd want to go through again, please God.

For a brief bright period, as with all forms of intoxication, the subject is convinced he's discovered the secret of the universe, the essence of existence, his purpose in life . . . but in most cases such feelings pass, like adolescence itself. When they don't, it's called arrested development or, in the case of Ayn Rand, objectivism. That's what she dubbed her "philosophy," though subjectivism would be more appropriate, for essentially her "philosophy" was her own egoism expanded into endless manifestos. All of which might be summed up in two words: greed glorified.

Of course Randism would appeal to young men -- well, boys -- eager to swallow life whole and be recognized for the brilliant leaders and thinkers they really are behind that mask of pimply nerdom.

You can see why this Nietzschean version of economic history would appeal to the young and striving -- and no society that wants to thrive from generation to generation can survive without such youngbloods. It was only natural that so heroic a myth would appeal to spirited young Americans of imagination and ambition. Like a young man named Paul Ryan, who is about to be nominated for vice president of the United States.

Here is Congressman Ryan speaking to the Atlas Society, the official name of the Ayn Rand fan club, back in 2005: "I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are and what my beliefs are. It's inspired me so much that it's required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff." And what's more, "the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism."

Hear, hear, cheers and applause, alarums and excursions and all that. It's hard to imagine words from a young congressman more likely to get Ayn Rand fans, rugged individuals all, on their feet and expressing their approval in unison, their enthusiasm as well orchestrated as a Red Army chorus. Everyman a John Galt!

It would take a more thoughtful, or at least more experienced, conservative like Whittaker Chambers to get Ayn Rand's number. "Randian man," he once noted, "like Marxian man, is made the center of a godless world." Mr. Chambers was living proof that ex-Communists make the best conservatives. They've been through that hell and they haven't come back with empty hands, but bearing hard-earned lessons, among them a very old one: Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it. Godless capitalism, if turns out, can be as ruthless as godless communism.

One can understand Miss Rand's appeal to the young, and may it never diminish, but it's hard to understand why adults should think she was any better a thinker than she was a writer. As the critic Granville Hicks said of her second novel/manifesto, it had "only two moods, the melodramatic and the didactic, and in both it knows no bounds."

If you're not an Ayn Rand fan at 21, you have no youthful spirit. If you're still a fan at 42, you have no common sense. Paul Ryan, no longer a young firebrand but a husband, father, and family man (and good Catholic), stopped taking Miss Rand's libertarian ideology straight some time ago. Which means he passes both tests. That is, he's perfectly normal.