There has been a lot of talk about Ayn Rand lately. I made my own little contribution to the discourse last week. I tried to read her books when I was in high school but found them too awful to finish. So I don’t claim to be an expert on her work.
One show covering Rand this past week was On the Media on WNYC. They did a segment on the media coverage of Rand vis-a-vis Paul Ryan. They ended the program with a re-run of an older segment they produced some time ago about her.
It wrapped up with this quote.
What I’ve always thought was a sadness from some big philosopher I don’t, unfortunately, remember who it was, that I read at 16, and it’s affected me all my life. I will not die, it’s the world that will end, and that’s absolutely true, and you know for me, now, it’s a serious question, because my time is fairly limited. And I have the same feeling, that I will enjoy life to the last moment and once the end I don’t have to worry about it. I’m not there. It’s too bad that the world will end and I think a very wonderful world will end with me.
This is why I find Ayn Rand’s philosophy so distasteful. It’s not that I’m some evil collectivist out to destroy all individuality. It’s that she seems to have taken individuality to an absurd level.
I looked up this quote to see what was out there on it and found two possible interpretations.
First, the way I read it, is that she is literally saying the world exists because she is conscious of it.
Second, is that she is saying it won’t matter when she dies because she won’t be conscious of anything. She’ll just be gone, “a very wonderful world will end with [her],” so it doesn’t matter.
Either way it reiterates her philosophy as one of self-centeredness.
The most important point, for the purposes of how Rand matters to the politics of 2012, is her negative take on altruism. At one point she is quoted as equating altruism to suicide; the point of her philosophy is that any time any person puts someone else’s interests above their own they are subordinating their desires.
I think this says more about modern conservatism, and how Rand’s ideas have filtered into it, than anything else. Ayn Rand is present every time a conservative characterizes taxation as “punishing success.” It is in Romney’s recent statement where he connected his taxes to charitable giving.
It amounts to saying, “when I pay my taxes I’m doing someone a favor;” rather than understanding taxation as your contribution to society.
What makes this problematic is that there once was a braoder consensus around the idea that “taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” This is why Rand’s influence on Paul Ryan, and conservtism generally, is problematic. If taxation is seen broadly, or even just by half of the nation, as inherently punitive, it makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to build any kind of political consensus, let alone a consensus around taxation.
Which means Ayn Rand’s influence has made it quite difficult to govern.