Ayn Rand (1905-1982), née Alissa Rosenbaum, was a Jewish immigrant to America, who extolled what she called 'the virtue of selfishness'. In perhaps her best known novel, Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, the main protagonist of the novel, persuades America’s 'prime movers' to go on strike, 'to stop the motor of the world,' thus proving how indispensable they are to the millions of leeches who thrive off their work and ingenuity. ‘We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who have always been the givers,’ Galt complains. ‘We have no demands to present you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you'. The novel ends with Galt’s 60-page paean to capitalism and tirade against collectivism. When Rand’s publisher suggested she cut the speech, she replied, ‘Would you cut the Bible? Indeed. A 1991 survey for the Library of Congress found Atlas Shrugged to be the second most influential book in the US, after the Bible. Tens of millions of copies have sold throughout the world since 1957, and several hundred thousand still sell annually in the US.
Rand called her philosophy ‘Objectivism’ and in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism, she details the essence of her ‘virtue of selfishness’ by quoting from John Galt’s speech in the above mentioned novel when she says:
There is only one fundamental alternative in the universes existence or nonexistence – and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative; the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.
According to Rand’s ‘Objectivist Ethics’ the actor must always be the beneficiary of his actions and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But his right to so do is derived from his nature as man, and from the function of moral values in human life – and therefore is applicable only in the context of a rational objectively demonstrated and valdated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest. It is not a licence to ‘do as he please’ and it is not applicable to the altruists image of a ‘selfish’ brute nor any man motivated by irrational emotions, feeling urges, wishes or whims.
According to Rand, man – every man – is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others, nor others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and his own happiness is the highest moral purpose in his life.
Rand’s philosophy, ‘Objectivism’, centers on four principal tenets: The first is that everything that exists has an identity. This identity does not depend on how people think about it or talk about it. This is also true for things like feelings or ideas. It says that a thing is the thing which it is perceived to be. What people learn about the things that exist comes both from the identity of the things themselves and from the way that people observe (see) and think about what they have observed. The second is that reason is how a person knows that what he thinks or believes is true. A person cannot make something true just by wanting it to be true or by mysticism. Only rational, logical thinking can produce the best outcome. This means recognizing that a thing is the thing it is, and to not confuse it with things which it is not. The third concept is that it is good to be happy, and it is good for a person to try to be happy. People should always try to improve their lives and be happy in the long term, so that they are happy now and in the future. People should not hurt others to try to be happy, but they also should not hurt themselves to try to make other people happy. People should also not make themselves less happy to help something like God. Ayn Rand called this ‘rational self-interest’. Finally, the fourth concept holds that if governments or criminals take things away from people, or try to make people do things they do not want to do, it does damage to everybody. Rand thought that governments should only be able to protect people from violence, theft, fraud, and other actions that go against people's rights. This includes laissez- faire capitalism and is sometimes called libertarianism.
Generations of American youths have devoured Rand’s books, which cloak a philosophy of self-reliance in steamy romance. A 1991 survey for the Library of Congress found Atlas Shrugged to be the second most influential book in the US, after the Bible. Tens of millions of copies have sold throughout the world since 1957, and several hundred thousand still sell annually in the US. Rand followers are deemed to be something of a cult, which worships the almighty dollar. In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt makes the sign of the dollar ‘over the desolate earth’ from his mountain top in Colorado. Ayn Rand wore a gold dollar sign as a brooch, and when she died, a six-foot floral dollar sign was placed beside her casket.
However, as history shows, this type of rationality has the tendency to turn one's focus inwards, leading to the individual becoming little more than a reasoning solipsist homunculus detached from the real world. Ayn Rand herself became such a person when she attempted to justify her affair with her colleague, Nataniel Branden, husband of one of her disciples, as being 'rational behaviour' – rational behaviour, it should be pointed out, that made a cuckold of her own husband and, in turn, destroyed both her own and Branden’s marriage. Not surprisingly, Rand's small band of devotees, including Branden, eventually abandoned her and her objectivist philosophy leaving her to end her days isolated and lonely and yet, at the same time, still holding frim to her Objectivist ideals. Indeed, as we see, in an interview given towards the end of her life, Rand, in a somewhat Cartesian fashion, held that not only was her existence was the only thing of which she could be absolutely certain, but it was also the only thing that mattered, leading to the most extraordinary statement that rather than dying, she would live on and the world would end.