Who is Ayn Rand? And Why is She So Damn Controversial?

This post is the SIXTH in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a Russian-born immigrant to the U.S. and subsequently, an accomplished American author and screenwriter. She is perhaps best-known for her seminal work of fiction Atlas Shrugged, the characters of which embody in word and action Rand’s own branch of philosophy known as Objectivism.

In recent years, the Tea Party movement has coopted Rand’s language in support of their campaign. There is little evidence, however, to suggest that were Rand still alive, she would have lent her voice to the libertarian cause, uncomfortable as she was with any political party or model other than that which espoused pure laissez-faire capitalism.

To clear up the many misconceptions, here’s how Rand *actually* felt about a wide variety of topics. Quotes have been sourced from the anthology entitled Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed (edited 2009).

Definition of Objectivism

How Objectivism Differs from Conservatism

Objectivists are fundamental capitalists, a notion diametrically opposed to today’s conservatives.

Taxes and Federal Government

Rand objected to the income tax, believing that mankind was entitled to profit from business to the utmost extent that his mental faculties afforded him. Recognizing that government still needed to be funded in some way, Rand advocated for an optional contract tax. In this scenario, any business transaction conducted contractually could be subject to an insurance fee (a set percentage of the transaction) at the signers’ discretion. If they chose not to pay the fee, they could not seek legal arbitration from the government in the event of a party’s non-compliance—which Rand further saw as the federal government’s only acceptable role: a police force meant to uphold the law.

Women’s Rights

Rand hoped all women everywhere could one day be the masters of their own destinies, choosing to work (or not), to marry (or not), to have kids (or not), to in all ways create and prosper … recognizing, as she did coming from a Communist state, that only in America were such dreams possible, as women here “have the opportunity to live happier lives than anywhere else in the world.” (7)

Media

“The culture of a country is influenced by its predominant philosophy.” In this country, the culture “tends toward the gray, the timid, the non-committal, the middle-of-the-road,” with the effect that “television [and the news] is a vast wasteland.” (77)

The Death Penalty

“Capital punishment should be outlawed—not out of moral consideration for the murderer, but to prevent the rare instance of an innocent man’s being convicted. It is better to sentence nine actual murderers to life imprisonment than to execute one innocent man.” (64)

Education

“As a system, public education instills social conformity and obedience, not independence. If education is in the hands of the state, then the teachers, in order to be honest, will tend to support the system in which they work. They will tend to endorse the ideas of statism … In private schools, self-reliance and rationality are stressed. If it weren’t for the public school system, private education wouldn’t be an expensive as it is today. Competition in private schools would have the same beneficent effect that it has in all other activities … furthermore, it is in the interest of the industrialists to have an educated work force.” (82-83)

Civil Rights

“The cause of civil rights has to start at the level of defining, protecting and fighting for the individual rights of all men, which of course includes minorities. The smallest minority on earth is the individual. If a man wants to be segregationist, he is evil and we have to fight him, but we have to do so by moral means. We cannot violate his rights. We don’t have to deal with him, but we have to protect his right to be wrong on his own property.” (88)

Raising children

“consists of one simple principle: never deliver moral ultimatums to a child. Never tell a child: ‘This is good because I say so.’ Instead, always say, ‘This is good because …’ Give the child a reason he can understand.” (91)

Joy

“The two great values in life [are] career and romantic love.” (231)

Sex

“It is a main source of happiness. If you regard sex as a value … then you carry on only one affair at a time and only very serious ones, not casual, one-night stands. If on the other hand you regard sex as evil, you either forbid it, as the religionists do, or you consider it so unimportant that you go around having sex like animals, as the hippies do.” (236)

Purpose of Life

“Life is the purpose of life. And nature has given us a very good way of knowing whether we are spending our lives properly or not: namely, whether we are happy or not.” (247)

Age of Envy

Today, the subconscious philosophical force driving our culture is envy. The actual feeling is: hatred of the good for being the good.” (207)

Drugs

“I am against all controls on drugs—except insofar as sale to minors is concerned. The government has no right to protect a man from himself.” (221) 

Guns

“If this country falls apart or the government collapses in bankruptcy, having a handgun in your pocket isn’t going to save your life. What you need in order to fight for a proper system of government are the right ideas.” (249)