After President Barack Obama said in an interview with Rolling Stone that Ayn Rand's books are largely for teenagers who are "feeling misunderstood," the Ayn Rand Institute is questioning whether the president has done his reading.
"President Obama claims he has read Ayn Rand, but you wouldn’t know it from his recent comments," said Don Watkins, a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute and co-author of "Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand's Ideas Can End Big Government." "To be an individualist, Obama suggests, is to be concerned with yourself with no regard for other people -- indeed, at the expense of other people. That is a total distortion of Rand's individualism."
The president's comments were a jab at Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who, while he's disavowed many of her more social libertarian views, has credited Rand -- a fervently followed champion of radically limited government and "rational egoism" -- with inspiring him to lead a life of public service. Indeed it was reading Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," Ryan told FOX News’s Brit Hume back in August, that first “triggered my interest in economics."
When asked by historian Doulgas Brinkley and Rolling Stone executive editor Eric Bates what Ryan's "obsession" with Rand's work might mean if he were vice president, Obama offered this:
Well, you'd have to ask Paul Ryan what that means to him. 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. 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. It's not one that, I think, describes what's best in America. 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 answer didn't sit well over at the Ayn Rand Institute. Watkins full response is below.
To be an individualist, Rand holds, is to believe that you have a right to exist for your own sake, neither sacrificing yourself to others nor others to yourself. It means that you aren't a servant of the tribe, or the king, or the church, or society, but that morally and politically you have a right to pursue your own happiness.
But how do you achieve happiness? Part of Rand's argument is that other people are a tremendous value to an individualist: as teachers, friends, trading partners, lovers. But the key to successful human relationships, she argues, is that there should be no sacrifice of anyone to anyone. Whereas Obama advocates that we subordinate our 'self-development' in order to 'make sure everybody else has opportunity,' Rand says that we should all aim at our own rational self-interest, and deal with others as traders, offering value-for-value. Unlike the President, Rand doesn’t confuse ‘caring for others’ with having the government forcibly redistribute your wealth to others. She recognizes that our main obligation to other people is to respect their freedom.
The President is pulling the same old trick that collectivists have been pulling for the last hundred fifty years. Rather than openly defend the proposition that you have a duty to serve society, he misrepresents and smears individualism.
Contra Obama, what Ayn Rand appeals to is youthful idealism. We grow up being told that our duty in life is to surrender our happiness for the sake of others. Rand’s message is not ‘Forget other people and do whatever your feel like.’ No. Her message is that morality matters, truth matters, your life matters—and nothing is more noble than making the most of that life. That is why so many young people respond to her works.