In 1957, a Russian immigrant burst onto the scene with a novel and philosophy that today remains one of the most influential, and controversial, works in American culture.
The book was Atlas Shrugged, and the author was Ayn Rand.
Born in Russia in 1905, Ayn (rhymes with “mine”) Rand emigrated to the United States at age 20. Rand penned her first major work, The Fountainhead, in 1943, but it wasn’t until the debut of Atlas Shrugged that her philosophy called objectivism — with an emphasis on self-interest, small government and capitalism — began to gain a major following.
Rand’s philosophy stemmed from her upbringing under a Communist regime. The daily horrors she witnessed, including mass starvation and death, would forever change the way she saw the world.
“Rand was deeply affected by her life under a totalitarian socialist regime before she fled the USSR, and she believed at the root of that ‘evil empire’ was the philosophy of self-sacrifice and service to the greater good,” said Stephen Miller, a Western Carolina University economics professor, in an email to university officials.
Rand was in awe at the capitalist system in place in the United States and the opportunities it afforded, and became a devout believer in capitalism as the sole successful system of government. In her works, Rand rails against altruism, or the belief that acting for the benefit of others is right and good.
“Every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life,” was the essence of Rand’s philosophy, according to the Ayn Rand Institute.
Critics call the ideas that Rand espoused selfish.
“Rand’s own writings are filled with tirades against altruism, especially to distant global strangers; and philosophically, that is quite opposite to the moral concern for the stranger or the ‘other’ person that is stressed in most moral and religious ideals,” says Darryl Hale, a professor of philosophy at WCU. Hale argues that Rand doesn’t carry much “clout” among philosophers, who generally regard her as an intellectual lightweight.
Of course, not all agree that Rand’s ideas are without merit. Although controversial, they’re at least worth studying, says Miller.
“It is not hard to argue that she carried her ideas too far, but it is hard to argue that she was wrong about the dangers of basing social organization on the principles of altruism and self-sacrifice,” Miller said. “It is a fundamentally interesting question: ‘If altruism can lead to horrible consequences, is it such a good thing?’”
Regardless of whether one agrees with Rand, the fact that her ideas continue to generate debate after half a century is noteworthy.