Ayn Rand: A Leading Lady of Classical Liberalism

Jennifer Burns,

Release Date
April 18, 2011


Role of Government

How should we understand Ayn Rand’s political thought?  Prof. Jennifer Burns argues that Rand was a part of the broad classical liberal tradition. Rand’s novels, including Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, emphasize individualism, a fundamental theme in classical liberal/libertarian thought. Rand also contributed to that tradition by modernizing and popularizing the ideas, which led to the creation of new social movements for freedom in the 20th century.

Jennifer Burns is an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia and author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.

Ayn Rand: A Leading Lady of Classical Liberalism
Rand was a really independent thinker. She didn’t want to be affiliated with any movement during her lifetime. So, for example, libertarians loved Rand–they read her, they were inspired by her, she was central to the first moment of organizing a libertarian party and a libertarian movement–but Rand hated libertarians. She called them “plagiarists” and “hippies of the right.” She thought that they used her ideas without proper attribution. So, she didn’t want to be associated with libertarianism, and she only wanted to be associated with objectivism, the movement that she created. But, as a historian, as someone who studies the history of American thought and intellectual thought, I can really take her and put her in the classical liberal tradition.
When you look at the overall impact of her thought in American history and in Western thought, she really does belong in this classical liberal tradition. And the reason is her focus on the individual. Rand called individualism the theme of all her writing. It was really the motive power, the goal of all that she did as a novelist and as a philosopher. So it began with the individual, and it moved out from there.
Now Rand knew in her own life what could happen when the collective was placed above the individual. So, she grew up in communist Russia: When she was a young girl, 12 years old, her father’s chemistry shop was seized by the Bolshevik revolutionaries. It was seized in the name of the common good, in the name of the people. And it meant the loss of her father’s business he had worked his whole life to build. It meant that her family went from being a prosperous and successful family to being poor and almost on the edge of starvation. The minute this happened, she knew it was fundamentally unjust because the individual, the hard work her family had put in, it meant nothing, and it was all swept away in the name of the greater good. So she started from this moment, this insight, and then, as a novelist, as a thinker, she took this and writ it large in her novels. It was this fundamental theme that comes out in all her novels.
So for instance, “We the Living” plays this history of Russia, shows the fate of individuals in a socialist or communist state when individuals are not valued. The “Fountainhead,” her first breakthrough novel–one of her major works, shows on a psychological level what it means to be a true individualist, to be motivated by your own goals and ambitions rather than those of other people. And then “Atlas Shrugged” takes this theme of individualism and writes it large on a social canvass and says, “What happens to society when individuals are not given the liberty they need to flourish and to create?” And “Atlas Shrugged” takes that question, “What happens to society when individuals are inhibited from living their fullest potential?” and shows all the consequences that follow from that. So it’s this theme of individualism that’s really powerful throughout all her work.
Now, in terms of what did Rand bring to the classical liberal tradition, what’s her contribution? Well, in a lot of ways what she did is she modernized this set of ideas that had been around for centuries. She wrote fun, catchy novels that were widely read. She brought a dose of glamour and sex to the presentation of these ideas. And this was really important because, when she started writing and publishing in the 1930s and 1940s, classical liberal ideas had very limited circulation, particularly in the United States. They were considered old-fashioned, out-of-date, no longer important, and to have a young, dynamic, popular writer working with these ideas and spreading these ideas was really important. So that’s part of what she brought to the classical liberal tradition.
The other thing I would say is the real emphasis on production rather than consumption or distribution. So, what does it take to produce goods in the economy? Whether it’s, what does it take to run a railroad, what does it take to design a new motor, to create a new steel alloy, or to write a new symphony, or to write a new novel, she really focused on that process and how that worked on an individual level and also a social level. So there’s that focus; instead of worrying about how do we distribute or how do we consume enough, was this real focus on production; how do we produce? And I think, in her novel, she translated what a lot of economists have since come to understand about production–how fundamental production is– translated that into very simple human terms that anyone could understand.
So the other thing that’s really important about Rand’s contribution to classical liberalism is she really emphasized that economic activity was creative. Business was creative. This was not a common idea. It was not a popular idea when she was writing. Business was for drones.It was boring. There was nothing artistic or creative about it. And she really showed that almost any type of work, from running a major corporation to driving a bus, could be a creative act that you brought your best self to. So in one of the opening scenes of “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand has a character notice a bus coming around the corner, expertly steered. And this might seem like a throw-away line, but it’s very significant, and it goes to the heart of her philosophy. What she’s saying here is that any type of work you do, be it running a huge industrial corporation or as humble as driving a bus, that can be a creative and even a moral act if you bring your best effort and your best self to that. So even being a bus driver–complicated thing when you break it down–may be a profession not given a lot of attention in our society, but she’s saying her ideas, her philosophy, applied just as much to the bus driver as to the industrial tycoon, the genius, the creator of a new metal. So this is another thing; she brings this sense that her ideas about capitalism and free markets and individualism are not just for the elite. They’re not just for the privileged few. They work for everybody, and they apply to everybody.
Rand had the ability to inspire a social movement around her ideas. This is something that no other author in her time or since has been able to do as effectively and as significantly. “Atlas Shrugged” came out; it was panned by critics–it got absolutely terrible reviews from left, right, and center–but it had an incredible impact on readers. They loved the book. And many of these readers came to Rand asking for more education in objectivist philosophy. They formed objectivist clubs on college campuses. They subscribed to her newsletter. They came to see her talk. And they really began a very important social movement of the 1960s; not the kind we usually associate with the 1960s, but one that we’re beginning to recognize is really one of the more important historical stories of the 60s. And this group of young people, who came together around her ideas, really form the core of the later conservative movement and the core of today’s classical liberal and libertarian movements. So it’s a tremendous irony; Rand was an independent thinker–she didn’t want to be connected to any movement–but she actually created multiple movements, and she had an impact on multiple movements.
In 2009, “Atlas Shrugged” sold over half a million copies, so we can see that what Rand started is still happening today, and it will be happening far into the future as well.