Obama on Ayn Rand: The annotated version
In his recent Rolling Stone interview, President Obama was asked: “Have you ever read Ayn Rand?” His matter-of-fact answer: “Sure.”
It’s fascinating to read closely the key passages in Obama’s interview. I’ve reproduced his comments verbatim below, in the block indented sections (with italics for emphasis). Then I’ve interspersed links to Ayn Rand Institute articles that provide useful context for understanding what Obama said—and for identifying the falsehoods underlying his attacks on Ayn Rand.
[Q:] What do you think Paul Ryan’s obsession with her work would mean if he were vice president?
[A:] Well, you’d have to ask Paul Ryan what that means to him.
Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand (Ryan “clearly has been influenced by Ayn Rand, but he is not a devotee of her philosophy, nor does his nomination represent ‘Ayn Rand joining the ticket,’ to paraphrase the title of a recent article. Any fair account should take stock both of the areas where Rand has influenced him and those areas where they part ways.”)
Ryan, Rand, and Rights (“For anyone who believes in limited government, it is a positive sign that a leading politician talks seriously about individual rights, and this clearly is due in part to Rand’s influence. But to take rights seriously, as Rand advised? That will require a much more principled agenda.”)
Why Paul Ryan Is No Ayn Rand On Social Security (“On this issue, Ryan is worlds apart from Rand. Rand did not want to save Social Security; she wanted to end it.”)
Where Do Ryan and Rand Agree and Disagree? (“. . . when Ryan tackles issues such as entitlements, he often does so with a moral self-confidence that virtually no one else on the right has. I think that comes largely from Ayn Rand. Rand, more than anyone, taught how supporters of capitalism deserve the moral high ground.”)
Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick up.
Ayn Rand’s Appeal (“The key to Rand’s enduring popularity is that she appeals not to the immaturity but to the idealism of youth.”)
Happy Birthday, Ayn Rand—Why are you still so misunderstood? (“A political movement truly shaped by Rand’s ideas would not flinch, as Republicans and Tea Partiers do, from charges that it is the mouthpiece of the rich and the mean-spirited. It would declare that it is a movement for all producers, proudly embracing the innovative rich, the ambitious poor, and everyone in between. If you earn your wealth through production and voluntary trade, a Rand-inspired political movement would affirm that it is yours by right.”)
Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we’re only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we’re considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity – that that’s a pretty narrow vision.
The Dog-Eat-Dog Welfare State is Lose-Lose (“Capitalism—real capitalism, not the mixed economies that have existed for the past century—is the system based on private property, free production, and voluntary trade. It’s not a zero-sum game where people battle over a fixed pie. Each person is free to create wealth and to trade it with others, such that they all benefit. . . . That’s the beauty of capitalism. Because all economic relationships are voluntary, people only enter into them when each party thinks it’s to his advantage. . . . Capitalism isn’t dog-eat-dog: It’s win-win.”)
It’s not one that, I think, describes what’s best in America.
Atlas Shrugged: America’s Second Declaration of Independence (“ . . . to restore America to her greatness as the country dedicated to the individual, we must be willing to challenge moral ideas inculcated since childhood. . . . We must recognize that a moral code of individualism is the only code compatible with America’s uniqueness. Atlas Shrugged is America’s second Declaration of Independence.”)
Why Ayn Rand Is Still Relevant (“The only way to stop the growth of the state and return to the Founding Fathers’ ideal of limited government is to recognize that individuals not only have a political right to pursue their own happiness, but a moral right to pursue their own happiness. This is what Ayn Rand called a morality of rational self-interest. It is a selfishness that consists, not of doing whatever you feel like, but of using your mind to discover what will truly make you happy and successful. It is a selfishness that consists, not of sacrificing others in the manner of a Bernie Madoff, but of producing the values your life requires and dealing with others through mutually advantageous, voluntary trade.”)
Man’s Rights (“The Declaration of Independence laid down the principle that ‘to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.’ This provided the only valid justification of a government and defined its only proper purpose: to protect man’s rights by protecting him from physical violence.”)
Unfortunately, it does seem as if sometimes that vision of a “you’re on your own” society has consumed a big chunk of the Republican Party.
The “On Your Own” Economy (“The Founding Fathers took a crucial leap forward . . . , declaring that the collective has no claim on you; that the government exists only to protect your right to live your own life, earn your own wealth, and seek your own happiness. Other people’s wants and needs are not your responsibility.”)
We’re Not in This Together (“When I hear the phrase ‘We’re all in this together’ I think back to high school. Were the straight-A students ‘in this together’ with the stoners who cut class? Were the band students ‘in this together’ with the jocks who beat them up? Was the teenage Woz ‘in this together’ with the rabble who spent their nights partying while he spent his nights designing computers in his bedroom?”)
Time to Read Ayn Rand? (“Not surprisingly, with all the attention, the culture is suddenly full of pundits and instant Rand experts eager to describe her ideas in a nutshell. And it’s natural to consider all this commentary in deciding whether Rand’s novels and essays are worth reading for yourself. But be careful; unfortunately, much of the commentary on Rand gets her badly wrong.”)
Of course, that’s not the Republican tradition. I made this point in the first debate. You look at Abraham Lincoln: He very much believed in self-sufficiency and self-reliance. He embodied it—that you work hard and you make it, that your efforts should take you as far as your dreams can take you. But he also understood that there’s some things we do better together. That we make investments in our infrastructure and railroads and canals and land-grant colleges and the National Academy of Sciences, because that provides us all with an opportunity to fulfill our potential, and we’ll all be better off as a consequence. He also had a sense of deep, profound empathy, a sense of the intrinsic worth of every individual, which led him to his opposition to slavery and ultimately to signing the Emancipation Proclamation. That view of life—as one in which we’re all connected, as opposed to all isolated and looking out only for ourselves—that’s a view that has made America great and allowed us to stitch together a sense of national identity out of all these different immigrant groups who have come here in waves throughout our history.
President Obama vs. My Grandfather (“One of the greatest things about freedom is the extent to which we can profit from collaborating with other people. As Ayn Rand points out, ‘Men can derive enormous benefits from dealing with one another. . . . The two great values to be gained from social existence are: knowledge and trade. But knowledge and trade are not gifts from the collective—let alone gifts that come with undefined strings attached. They come from the past and present achievements of other individuals.”)
Why Ayn Rand’s Absence from Last Thursday’s Debate Benefits Big Government (“Your life belongs to you, not to others. That is the root of Rand’s opposition to the entitlement state. It’s not because, as she is often accused, Rand hates poor people. It’s that she deeply respects the sanctity of the individual. Morally, no individual, no matter how poor or how rich, exists to serve others.”)
Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government (“Rand, however, is not primarily a critic. She does not simply censure the mainstream—she defines and fights for a revolutionary ideal to replace it: a new philosophy of individualism. ‘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 achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.’”)