If you read her comments about libertarians — at the website of the Ayn Rand Institute — you quickly see that Rand didn’t understand any system that could do away with the coercive state. You also suspect that she was a bit jealous that libertarians were getting too much publicity, as she sniffed that they were “stealing” and “plagiarizing” some of her ideas.
I read several of Rand’s books before I ever heard the word “libertarian.” When I was about 14 or 15 years old, my father’s boss gave me a copy of “Anthem.” When I liked that, he recommended “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.” Her books introduced me to many new ideas, some of which I accepted and some of which I rejected. I consider reading those books important in my later political development, even though I reject the core of her philosophy.
And that’s one of the most interesting and complicated things about Rand. Almost everybody I know who has read her books has rejected her philosophy — which she called objectivism — but most of the readers of those books who went on to become libertarians or anarchists consider her work to have been an important step along the way, even though they did reject what was most important to her. How do we reconcile this seeming contradiction?
I think it’s simply that Rand is about the only well-known writer who wrote passionately and clearly about the value of individuals who stand up against the collective. She recognized the same problems in society that I do (and that other libertarians and anarcho-capitalists do), but her analysis and conclusions differ radically from ours.
Rand believed that a strong central government was necessary to guarantee capitalism. She argued — as her ardent followers today will argue — that there’s no such thing as anarcho-capitalism, because she claimed that the two were completely at odds. (Roy Childs wrote an open letter to Rand in 1969 in which he explained the errors that she was making which led her to this wrong conclusion, but as far as I can tell, she never bothered to respond.)
I’m not even going to try to cover the core of obectivism here, partly because it’s not terribly relevant to this discussion and partly because there are so few people who take it seriously today. I have friends who consider themselves objectivists, but I find that most people eventually discard the label (and much of her core ideas) as they get older. Rand saw the world in black and white. There’s a lot of gray in the world, and her thinking doesn’t allow for that. It also didn’t allow for taking the time to understand an opponent’s ideas before rejecting them. And in the personal life of the group she surrounded herself with, she was a dictator who terrorized weaker people into obeying her. There’s little or nothing to admire about her personally, as far as I can tell.
Murray Rothbard rightly characterized the circle of people around Rand as being like a religious cult when he wrote “The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult” in 1972. It’s a devastating critique. If you look at many (though not all) of her remaining objectivist followers today, you find them quoting her words as though they’re scripture — something to be accepted as the final authority on all subjects. And if you want to see something really entertaining, watch two objectivists argue. Neither can conceive of someone else who’s honest and rational coming to any other conclusion but the one he’s come to. If you judge her ideas by the results they ultimately bring for most people, it’s not a pretty picture.
So, no, I wouldn’t consider Rand a great libertarian, because she’s not really a libertarian at all. She’s simply someone who saw (and wrote about) some of the same things that lead people to become libertarians. Her own ideas go off in entirely different directions and lead to entirely different conclusions. Those of us who want to throw off the shackles of the coercive state can be thankful for some of her insights and for her writing so passionately about things we see as problems in the world. But when it’s time to draw conclusions, those of the libertarian or anarcho-capitalist persuasion part ways with Rand.
I appreciate some of the fiction she wrote. I appreciate the influence that those novels have had in causing some people to doubt government control and eventually decide they’re in favor of individual freedom. But I ultimately reject the core of what she considered most important, so she will remain an important influence for me along the way to something else. Nothing more.