In his libertarian manifesto For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard accused Ayn Rand of being a pawn of corporate people profiting from the welfare state. As evidence that she was out of touch with reality, he cited her famous statement that the businessman is America’s most persecuted minority (Mises Institute edition , quoting Rand, “America’s Most Persecuted Minority: Big Business” ; reprinted in Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal).
Objectivism, to the extent that the general public knows anything about it, is often regarded as a rightwing position and can be seen as a boon to efforts to push libertarians into the hand of the Tea Party Right. While this belief is ignorant, the masses do not have a detailed and nuanced grasp of the details of libertarian doctrine, nor should we expect them to. Many people merely adopt a false and shallow impression that libertarians are some type of conservatives who are on the far Right, compared to moderate Republicans. Some left-libertarians, such as I, are very frustrated with the tendency of Objectivism to be classified in this way. The truth about Rand (like the truth about all things) is deeper and more surprising than a first impression would allow. Rand should not be considered a member of the Right. In several important ways, indeed, she resembled a populist leftist.
The middle-aged Rand, still fresh from her own experience of poverty, tended to respect working-class folk more than rich people.
To examine the sense in which she was, historically, a friend of the working class and an enemy of the conservative Right, several things come into focus. First, let us consider Rand herself. She was a working-class woman, and quite poor during much of her adult life. It was only with the sale of the movie rights to The Fountainhead, when she was almost 40 years old, that she achieved significant self-made wealth, which was to last and grow for the rest of her life. To say, then, that Ayn Rand hated the working class and loved the rich would be to assume that she hated herself for many years — something absurdly contrary to her fundamentally self-loving and perhaps narcissistic personality.
Second, Rand always had a particular affinity for working-class people who want to earn their wages instead of relying on the welfare state. For example, Rand pushed to have The Fountainhead movie premiere in a working-class area, saying that she knew her “real audience” was there (Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Anchor Books edition, 212). When the audience in working-class Southern California applauded the movie at its premier, Rand said, “That’s why I like the common man.” The middle-aged Rand, still fresh from her own experience of poverty, tended to respect working-class folk more than rich people.
Third, and perhaps most obvious and also most extremely inconvenient for rightwing libertarians, is the conservative movement’s frequent hatred of Rand, and her counterattacks against that movement during the 1960s. Any disciple of Rand knows what the hateful, anti-Randian sentence “To a gas chamber, go!” means and embodies; for those who don’t, a more extensive knowledge of the history of the libertarian movement is required (for which I recommend Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, one of the best works on the subject). Rand’s hatred of conservatives is undeniable. The title of her essay “Conservatism: An Obituary” (1962, reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal) is self-explanatory. If one goes beyond the title to read the text, one sees that Rand held nothing back. She was full of anger. She once said that liberals seek to enslave the body and conservatives seek to enslave the mind, both conceding freedom to that part of human existence which they care about least. This comment is hardly flattering to the Right.
Fourth, and finally, consider Rand’s signature novels themselves. Of course, all her fans have read them, but few have read carefully. In The Fountainhead, Gale Wynand gets rich by pandering to the stupid masses in his newspapers. In Atlas Shrugged, James Taggart, the major villain, is, among many other things, a rich white male businessman who inherited vast wealth and is the CEO of a major railroad. Is this a character created to praise the rich, a character that rich people should love?
Rand would have seen the working class as a place where many potential John Galts exist.
Or did Rand seek to praise productivity and intellect, not the rich as such? Compare James Taggart to his sister Dagny, a hero of the novel. Dagny is a woman who actually runs, not simply pretends to run, a great railroad. Her role in the novel makes it years ahead of its time in terms of gender equality. Let us not forget that Rand was a woman, and, as such, a living embodiment of the freedom of women to pursue careers, a freedom by no means certain for most women in America during Rand’s lifetime. Most people would regard progressive feminism as a leftist element in Rand. The creator of Galt’s Gulch, the Utopia in Atlas Shrugged, is fairly prosperous in the Gulch itself, but in “our world” he is a mere day laborer who lives in poverty — and that’s where he lives during most of the book. It is easy to connect the dots and assume that Rand would have seen the working class as a place where many potential John Galts exist. One of the basic messages of the novel is that our world would condemn all such people to a meager existence.
Murray Rothbard despised the big business Right (at least before his “paleolibertarian” phase); I believe that Rand did as well. Contemporary conservatives may exploit Rand’s ideas, just as they exploit so many other ideas, both economic and philosophical; but that’s no reason for working-class libertarians and left-libertarians not to embrace Rand as one of their own.