Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a Russian-American novelist, playwright, and philosopher who has a lasting legacy as one of the foremost thinkers of the twentieth century. Her philosophy of Objectivism, presented throughout both her works of fiction and nonfiction, is groundbreaking and unique.
Objectivism is consistently mischaracterized and stereotyped in popular media, and is blamed as responsible for any right-leaning political development. Here are five common myths that you may have heard about Ayn Rand.
Myth #1: Ayn Rand was against charitable giving
A cornerstone of Ayn Rand’s philosophy was her opposition to altruism and her support of selfishness. Naturally, in common language this would imply she was fundamentally opposed to any and all forms of charity.
Charitable giving under the guise of altruism is contrary to the principles of Objectivism. However, giving can be fully consistent with rational self-interest. Giving money to specific individuals or causes actually has an important role to play in a nightwatchman state.
Rand held that some individuals are unable as opposed to unwilling to provide for themselves, and thus voluntary charity would be the only legitimate means of survival for some. However, it is of crucial importance that such giving remains motivated by reason rather than a sense of altruism.
In her article “The Ethics of Emergencies,” Rand stated:
“By elevating the issue of helping others into the central and primary issue of ethics, altruism has destroyed the concept of any authentic benevolence or good will among men.“¹
Myth #2: Receiving any “government money” is unacceptable
Objectivism holds that government should not be in the business of redistributing money. Critics of Ayn Rand would point to her eventual collecting of Social Security money as a point of hypocrisy.
In Letters of Ayn Rand (letter 524, to Mrs. Milton W. Broberg), she addressed a fan whose husband had become unemployed and was receiving money from the government. Rand asserted that the man should not be ashamed to receive this assistance.
This was on the grounds that he had earned money that the state had plundered from him while he was working, and that he was merely getting back some of what was already his. It is precisely because Rand opposed collectivist wealth redistribution that she viewed collecting Social Security as restitution for what had been taken.
Furthermore, one of the characters in Atlas Shrugged, Ragnar Danneskjöld, would rob US merchant ships, convert the loot into gold, and return it to the people in Galt’s Gulch whose earnings had been taken by the state.
Myth #3: Ayn Rand did not tolerate religious people
Objectivism is a philosophy fundamentally at odds with religion, where there is no room for metaphysical mysticism. This does not mean, however, that Ayn Rand was intolerant of religious people. On the contrary, Ayn Rand is known to have held certain religious people in high regard and, while disagreeing, would gladly listen to their ideas and engage in debate.
Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century priest, was one of two philosophers that Rand drew significant influence from, alongside Aristotle. Rand’s appreciation of Aquinas stems from the latter’s attempts to apply Aristotelian logic to his own beliefs. Reason was important to Aquinas, even though he ultimately did not reach the same conclusion as Rand.
Moreover, when writing her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand had initially intended to include a priest in the story, a character who would be a “most glamorized projection of a Thomist philosopher, of a man who thought he could combine reason with religion.”²
Myth #4: Objectivism means our ultimate aim must be to make lots of money
Objectivism does not condemn the pursuit of money – something that makes it stand out from other philosophies. However, money is not one of the cardinal values of Objectivism.
Instead, these are reason, purpose, and self-esteem. The means of reaching these values are rationality, productivity, and pride. As such, money is not a goal in and of itself but is rather the outcome (in a capitalist society) of productivity, which is the central purpose of a rational man’s life.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand presents heroes and villains at both ends of the wealth spectrum. Indeed, many antagonists in the story, such as James Taggart and Orren Boyle, are wealthy characters, while Galt’s Gulch has a place for productive people in all lines of work.
Myth #5: Ayn Rand was a conservative
Due to a number of conservative figures crediting Ayn Rand as an influence, a pervasive myth has arisen, claiming her as a conservative. Rand, however, would have categorically rejected this idea. Indeed, she was known to be fiercely critical of conservatives, disliking conservative figures such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Ayn Rand disagreed with conservatives on religion and religious morality. She also disagreed with them on policy. But, importantly, she also staunchly disagreed with the conservative approach to defending capitalism.
When conservatives defend capitalism, it is usually approached from an altruistic or utilitarian angle, i.e. it produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Conservatives may also defend capitalism on the grounds of tradition, rejecting the disruption of socialism. However, conservatism does not defend capitalism for the sake of capitalism.
In her essay “Conservatism: An Obituary,” Ayn Rand characterizes conservatives as follows, “They declare that we must defend the American political system not because it is right, but because our ancestors chose it, not because it is good, but because it is old.“³
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¹ Rand, Ayn. “The Ethics of Emergencies.” The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. Fiftieth anniversary edition. New York: Signet, 1964, 49.
² Rand, Ayn. The Journals of Ayn Rand. Ed. David Harriman. New York: Plume,  1999. 540-541.
³ Rand, Ayn. “Conservatism: An Obituary.” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. 2nd ed. New York: Signet,  1967, 221.
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