In "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", the two are being tracked by a posse and Paul Newman asks Robert Redford: "Who are these guys?" The answer: a very formidable group whom they had fatally underestimated. Gary Weiss asks the same question about readers of Ayn Rand - and comes up with the same answer that is given in the movie.
Nearly 55 years after it first appeared, more than a half million new copies of Atlas Shrugged are being printed every year. A lot of these are freebies from the Ayn Rand Institute, but hundreds of thousands of them are not. Weiss asks the question: who are the men and women who are enthusiastic about Ayn Rand? And why?
Weiss seeks an answer by interviewing or writing about a very broad cross-section of Ayn Rand's admirers. He spoke to both Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute and David Kelley of the Atlas Society (given their mutual enmity, that's quite an achievement in itself). He also spoke to old guard Objectivists from the '50's and '60's, including well known figures like Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. Given Weiss's book on the 2008 economic meltdown, it is not surprising that he also gives considerable and highly critical attention to Alan Greenspan. Alan Greenspan's 50 year commitment to Rand's moral and economic precepts is by no means as well known as it should be; nor is it well known that Ayn Rand encouraged him to move into a position of power in government.
We also have a profile in Chapter 2 of Iris Belle, a lesser known figure from the 1960's. This chapter is required reading for anyone who follows the controversies surrounding the picture of Ayn Rand that emerges from the best known biographies. It provides further documentation of the ridiculous attempts by the Ayn Rand Institute to airbrush evidence regarding the near-totalitarian bent of Rand and her first adherents during the early 1960's.
However, Weiss's book is no historical study. His primary focus is on admirers of Ayn Rand from this generation - many of whom played a key role in the Republican landslide of 2010. Some are convinced Objectivists: people whose frame of reference is fully provided by Ayn Rand's novels and by her philosophy. But Weiss doesn't stop there. He also spoke to many people who wouldn't consider themselves Objectivists by any means, but who have been heavily influenced by Atlas Shrugged and to a lesser extent by Rand's other writings. And in Chapter 17, he interviews Oliver Stone (no kidding), who for years was planning a remake of The Fountainhead. (Warning to Objectivists: take a couple of tranquilizers before you read this chapter.)
Both the positive and negative reviews I have seen so far seem to me to give a quite erroneous impression of how Weiss profiles all of these people. He's a liberal and makes no bones about it; he's strongly opposed to Randian politics, ethics and philosophy; and he isn't shy about letting you know it. But he respects his interviewees and gives a good sense of why Rand has been such a huge influence in their lives. He says that he enjoys the company of Objectivists and I believe him. He's not presenting a gallery of caricatures: these are real and often extremely successful people. If you're looking for the frequently seen stereotype of the Ayn Rand fan - a teenage loner who becomes a fanatical Objectivist for ten years before finding a new fad - you're reading the wrong book.
Behind all these profiles are a few over-arching themes. First, Weiss shows that Atlas Shrugged exerts an influence over people who aren't Objectivist. Rand was an atheist who considered religious belief at least as dangerous and irrational as a commitment to Socialism: she would have been appalled to be linked in any way to someone like Glenn Beck. Yet Weiss spoke to lots of folk who had no hesitation about holding the Bible in one hand and Atlas Shrugged in the other. The answer he offers is that Ayn Rand's novels dramatically affirm a number of keystone American values: independence, creativity, self-reliance, and above all a permanent distrust of government and all its works. Many look no further - and don't check what else is in the package.
That leads to a second Weiss theme: that huge numbers of Tea Party adherents are angry at the way things are, but have no coherent intellectual framework to help them focus and justify their reactions. Objectivists do. They are the ideological part of the right wing and their clarity about what they believe gives them a power far out of proportion to their numbers. This approach is of course a right wing mirror image of the tactics used by Communists against Socialists in the 1920's and 1930's. In the 1936 edition of We the Living, a novel set in Soviet Russia, Ayn Rand's heroine says to a Communist: "I loathe your ideals; I admire your methods." Those at the cutting edge of Objectivism might claim to disagree with this; their actions say otherwise.
Finally and most importantly, Weiss makes clear what every Objectivist knows, but which few others seem to care about - that Rand is presenting a moral argument for laissez-faire capitalism: no Social Security or Medicare, no public road system, no fire departments, no parks, no building codes, no financial regulation - a government consisting of nothing but police, armies and law courts. Rand believes that a government which does more than these three functions is not simply impractical or too expensive: to use her exact word, it is evil. Weiss maintains that this moral argument has to be directly confronted - and defeated. It will be exhilarating to watch this moral debate if it ever takes place. But given the current state of political discussion in America, my answer would have to be: don't hang from a rope waiting for it to happen.