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Many have asked me to listen to an example of a Great Connections seminar discussion. Here is a recording of a discussion about Ayn Rand’s article “Altruism As Appeasement.“
Written by Ronald Merrill and Marsha Familaro Enright, and edited by Enright, Ayn Rand Explained is now available at Open Court Books, Amazon, on Kindle, and in bookstores everywhere.
Ayn Rand and her ideas are in the news more than ever – 50+ years after her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, was published. What’s driving this rising interest and influence – even politicians like Paul Ryan and Barack Obama talk about her?
Who was this Russian fireball? Why do her ideas speak to the hearts of Americans generation after generation? How are her ideas giving courage to people of all walks of life, from business to art?
Ayn Rand Explained is an engrossing account of the life, work, and influence of Ayn Rand: her career, from youth in Soviet Russia to Hollywood screenwriter and then to ideological guru; her novels and other fiction writings, including the perennial best-sellers, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged; her work in ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics; her influence on—and personal animosity toward—both conservatism and libertarianism.
Merrill and Enright describe Rand’s early infatuation with Nietzsche, her first fiction writings, the developments behind her record-breaking blockbuster novels of 1943 and 1957, her increasing involvement in politics in the 1950s and 1960s, including her support for the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater.
Rand’s Objectivist movement was first promoted through the Nathaniel Branden Institute, headed by her young protégé and designated heir. The Institute advocated a complete worldview on politics, economics, religion, art, music, epistemology, ethics (“The Virtue of Selfishness”), and sexual relationships. For several years the Institute grew rapidly, though there were ominous signs as some leading members were ‘put on trial’ for their heretical ideas, and ignominiously drummed out of the movement.
In 1969, Branden himself was expelled by Rand, the Institute was shut down, and all members who questioned this ruling were themselves excommunicated and shunned by Rand and her disciples. Branden became a best-selling author of psychotherapy books, with a following of Objectivists who had dissociated from the official organization headed by Rand, and after her death in 1982, by Leonard Peikoff. One of Rand’s inner circle, Alan Greenspan, later went on to get his hands on the steering wheel of the American economy.
Objectivism offers a comprehensive package of beliefs encompassing the ethics of rational egoism and dedication to a consistently rational method of thinking and acting. This includes a rejection of all religion and outright atheism and a view of the arts as expressions of deeply held, mostly subconscious, philosophical views of the world. It also advocates personal freedom from political interference, a moral defense of laissez-faire capitalism, and radically limited government as a protection of the individual, positions deeply aligned with the project of the American Founders.
The last few years have witnessed a resurgence of Objectivism, with a jump in sales of Rand’s novels and the influence of Rand’s ideas in the Tea Party movement and the Republican party. While gaining membership, the Objectivist movement continues to be divided into warring factions, the two major groupings led by the Ayn Rand Institute (Yaron Brook) and the Atlas Society (David Kelley).
Ayn Rand Explained is a completely revised and updated edition of The Ideas of Ayn Rand, by the late Ronald E. Merrill, first published by Open Court in 1991. It includes not only new information about Rand’s rocketing influence, but new stories about her personal relationships, and new analysis of her life and ideas.
Here’s what people are saying about it:
“Ayn Rand is in the news now more than ever—but the media consistently misunderstands her. Read Ayn Rand Explained for a thorough and clear introduction to her ideas!”—JIMMY WALES, founder of Wikipedia
“Ayn Rand Explained takes us on an exciting exploration of Rand’s provocative worldview and expertly traces its huge contemporary impact on politics, economics, art, and culture. Marsha Familaro Enright provides much new information and probing, in-depth analysis. A surprising, intriguing take on a controversial writer.”—CHRIS MATTHEW SCIABARRA, author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical
“I immensely enjoyed reading Ayn Rand Explained. Packed with fascinating information, much of it new, the book is a real page turner—and a reminder of why Rand’s novels are continuously making their way onto best-seller lists.”—VERONIQUE DE RUGY, Senior Research Fellow, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University
“Co-authored by two thoughtful admirers of Rand’s, Ronald Merrill and Marsha Familaro Enright, this modest volume is full of new tidbits about her life, the evolution of her thought, under-recognized aspects of her ideas, the ongoing development of the Objectivist movement, and Rand’s influence on society. An updated revision of late entrepreneur Merrill’s “The Ideas of Ayn Rand”, educator-author Enright adds biographical details, sociological updating, and thoughtful summaries of Rand’s ideas to this little gem.
“Ayn Rand has penetrated our societal conscience. Deceased since 1982, her books continue to be best-sellers, decades after their original appearance. She is known to have inspired VP candidate Paul Ryan; a second movie based on her 1,000+ page magnum opus is currently in theaters; and she is even discussed in a current Rolling Stone magazine interview with the President. Her cultural presence is remarkably polarizing – she seems to inspire either deep-seated admiration or equally passionate resentment. The opinion-less commentator is as rare as the proverbial black swan or an independent voter. Love her or hate her, Rand continues to draw widespread attention for her passionate defense of rationality, self-interest, capitalism and atheism.
“For those interested in what “all the fuss is” about Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism — especially those afraid to commit to her ultralong novels — will find this concise summary of her life, ideas, and influence a godsend. Those who are already familiar with her life and work, but who are looking for a fresh perspective, will find that here, too.
“Enright is responsible for bringing novel material with the brand new first three chapters. They add excellent material on Rand’s life, her thought, and her impact on our society. This is especially helpful given that Merrill’s original book was published in 1991, so updating is welcomed. Also, Enright’s own experiences with the Objectivist movement from the beginning, including personal interactions with Rand herself, add intriguing material, interweaving these up-close observations with the development of the wider movement. The remainder of the book is a thoughtfully edited version of Merrill’s thoughts, intertwined clearly with Enright’s own insights, especially at points of disagreement, which are clearly delineated. It is a model of even-handedness.
“One welcomed aspect of this book, given the subject matter, is its consistent tone of critical admiration of Rand, her life, and her ideas. Too many books are either fawning, sycophantic cheerleading for Rand or harsh, condemning diatribes against her. This supportive volume, with a critical, independent touch where needed, is a welcome addition to the growing literature surrounding this unique Russian immigrant to America.” — William Dale, M.D., Ph.D.
It’s been a year since Stephen Moore’s article, “Atlas Shrugged: from Fiction to Fact in 52 Years,”seemed to ignite an explosion of interest in Ayn Rand. Sales of this prescient novel tripled; two Rand biographies have been selling like hotcakes; and references to her in the media have skyrocketed.
Yet, some free-market defenders continue to repudiate her and her ideas, as they have for decades. It used to be conservatives such as William F. Buckley of National Review trashing “Atlas Shrugged;” now the critics include libertarians, such as Heather Wilhelm of the Illinois Public Policy Institute, who penned “Is Ayn Rand Bad for the Market?”.
But in their rush to distance themselves from Rand, they succumb to a deadly philosophic trap. It results from their anxious desire to apologize for the individualistic, self-interested motives that actually drive free markets. This anxiety prompts them to defend capitalism on the opposite premise: that capitalism is good only because it is “other-directed”—i.e., that it grants certain groups, such as the poor, opportunities to acquire wealth and power.
Over the decades, this has led such apologists to launch unpersuasive and futile crusades, such as “compassionate conservatism” and “bleeding-heart libertarianism,” which are not defenses of capitalism, but embodiments of its opposite. For example, conservatives and some libertarians plunged headlong into the moral and logical pitfalls of collectivism when, led by “compassionate conservative” Republican president George W. Bush, they created Medicare Part D, then the biggest-ever addition to welfare entitlements.
Likewise, Wilhelm summed up what too many on the right think, when she writes that free markets are best “sold” on the premise that, above all else, they help society’s neediest. She adds that “Rand’s insistence on the folly of altruism, however, tends to overshadow and even invalidate this message.”
You bet it does—and with good reason. That’s because no one can defend capitalism and free markets logically and consistently without a moral validation of enlightened self-interest as the highest good.
After all, the left didn’t rise to power because they had facts and rational arguments on their side. The empirical case for the superiority of capitalism in bringing a better life to the poor is overwhelming, whether we compare Chile to Cuba, Hong Kong to communist China, or the fully communist China of the past to itself today. So, one has to ask: Why haven’t these arguments won over all those who claim to want to help the poor?
The answer is that the left’s ascendance to power wasn’t driven by economic fact but by a moral vision thinly covered with economic claims. This vision was accepted by millions only because of the moral philosophy of self-sacrifice that dominates our culture.
That morality claims that the highest good for each individual is to live for the sake of others—for society or the collective. Ultimately, it implies that each of us is a moral slave to someone else. Whether it’s Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” or Hitler’s admonition to live for the German Volk, or Pol Pot’s belief that “since he [the individual] is of no use anymore, there is no gain if he lives and no loss if he dies,” the morality of self-sacrifice kills liberty because it subordinates the individual’s life to the group.
This is the morality that brought us the carnage of the 20th century.
The arguments of “compassionate” libertarians and “bleeding-heart” conservatives do nothing to challenge this ethic. They merely try to slip capitalism in under the tent of collectivist moral philosophy, telling everybody, in effect: “Don’t worry; even though sinful, individualistic self-interest drives capitalism, it is good because it can be harnessed to serve groups, such as the poor.”
In other words, these would-be defenders of capitalism merely “me-too” the collectivist moral claim that our primary ethical responsibility should be the welfare of other people. In this view, they march lockstep with those on the left who revile individualism and capitalism as being anti-poor, anti-caring.
Their view couldn’t be further from the truth. Free-market capitalism arises from a social vision that cares about the smallest minority of all: the individual. That vision recognizes the moral superiority of the right of the individual to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—the very vision identified by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and fought for by the Founding Fathers.
What is this right, if not the right of each person to pursue his or her own highest self-interest? Remember, the slogan of the American Revolution was “Don’t tread on me.”
Yet, that “selfish” American Revolution established a social system that created the most productive nation the world has ever seen, with the highest level and broadest distribution of wealth. It was a system based on individual rights, limited government, and equal justice under the law, in which everyone could keep and enjoy the fruits of his or her own efforts.
This system was fair because it gave each person the equal opportunity—and the pride-enhancing challenge—to make the most of his or her life, poor and rich alike. In fact, only a capitalist society can truly serve the interests of the poor and the disadvantaged, as well as the rich and the capable, because it is at root based on justice for the individual. And justice for the individual is justice for all.
This is what makes capitalism morally superior to collectivism.
Ironically, given the prevailing presumptions about self-interest, capitalist societies such as the U.S. are also the most charitable. Our individualistic system created a nation of magnanimity due to our unimpeded productivity, overflowing abundance, and benevolent sympathy for other individuals struggling for their own lives, liberty, and happiness.
It’s amazing that in all their talk of Rand’s “harsh message” and “confrontational language,” many free-market defenders haven’t asked themselves why her writings have inspired millions to become advocates of capitalism. They don’t understand that she completes the 18th century vision of the American Revolution by presenting a morality that fully justifies capitalism and individual freedom.
Rand’s morality of rational, enlightened self-interest defends the individual’s right to his own life, the power of his own liberty, and the glory of his pursuit of his own happiness. She said: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive work as his noblest achievement, and reason as his only absolute.” Her message—that “man’s proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads”—is a message of the glory of the individual, unshackled and free.
We urgently need Rand’s vision of the moral nobility and greatness of a social system based on enlightened self-interest if we, the 21st century advocates of freedom, are to finally free the world from the death grip of collectivism. And that is a vision we must defend with “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Marsha Familaro Enright is president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, the Foundation for the College of the United States. Gen LaGreca is the author of Noble Vision, an award-winning novel about the struggle for liberty in health care today.
Copyright © 2010 by Marsha Familaro Enright and Gen LaGreca. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the authors and inclusion of their byline.
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