My item on Rand Paul the other day, predictably, went over quite badly in the libertarian community. The Insomniac Libertarian, in an item wonderfully headlined “Obama Quisling Jonathan Chait Smears Rand Paul,” complains that my Paul piece “never discloses that [my] wife is an Obama campaign operative.” A brief annotated response:
1. I question the relevance of the charge, since Rand Paul is not running against Obama.
2. In point of fact, my wife is not an Obama campaign operative and has never worked for Obama’s campaign, or his administration, or volunteered for his campaign, or any campaign, and does not work in politics at all.
3. I question the headline labeling me an “Obama quisling,” a construction that implies that I have betrayed Obama, which seems to be the opposite of the Insomniac Libertarian’s meaning.
4. For reasons implied by points one through three, I urge the Insomniac Libertarian to familiarize himself with some of the science linking sleep deprivation to impaired brain function.
A more substantive, though still puzzling, retort comes from the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, a frequent bête noire of mine on subjects relating to Ayn Rand and Ron or Rand Paul. Friedersdorf raises two objections to my piece, which traced Rand Paul’s odd admission that he is “not a firm believer in democracy” to his advocacy of Randian thought. Friedersdorf first charges that the intellectual connection between Paul and Rand is sheer paranoia:
Chait takes the quote and turns it into a conspiracy … As I read this, I couldn't help but think of Chait as a left-leaning analog to the character in Bob Dylan's "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues." Those Objectivists were coming around/They were in the air / They were on the Ground/ They wouldn't give me no peace. For two thousand years, critics of unmediated democracy have warned about the masses abusing individuals and minorities. The American system was built from the very beginning to check democratic excesses.
But if Rand Paul distrusts democracy he must've gotten it from Ayn Rand.
A conspiracy? Am I imagining that Rand Paul has been deeply influenced by Ayn Rand? Paul himself has discussed the deep influence her work had on his own thinking. In college he wrote a series of letters and columns either quoting Rand or knocking off her theories. He used a congressional hearing to describe one of her novels at tedious length. How is this a conspiracy?
Friedersdorf proceeds to argue that Rand is not really very militant anyway:
It's also interesting that Chait regards Rand's formulation as "militant." Let's look at it again. "I do not believe that a majority can vote a man's life, or property, or freedom away from him." Does Chait believe that a democratic majority should be able to vote a man's life or freedom away? …
In the political press, it happens again and again: libertarian leaning folks are portrayed as if they're radical, extremist ideologues, even when they're expressing ideas that are widely held by Americans across the political spectrum.
Well, here we come to a deeper disagreement about Ayn Rand. My view of her work is pretty well summarized in a review-essay I wrote in 2009, tying together two new biographies of Rand with some of the Randian strains that were gaining new currency in the GOP. My agenda here is not remotely hidden, but maybe I need to put more cards on the table. I've described her worldview as inverted Marxism — a conception of politics as a fundamental struggle between a producer class and a parasite class.
What I really mean is, I find Rand evil. Friedersdorf’s view is certainly far more nuanced and considerably more positive than mine. He’s a nice, intelligent person and a good writer, but we’re not going to agree on this.
Friedersdorf waves away Rand’s (and Rand Paul’s) distrust of democracy as the same fears everybody has about democracy. Well, no. Lots of us consider democracy imperfect or vulnerable, but most of us are very firm believers in democracy. Rand viewed the average person with undisguised contempt, and her theories pointed clearly in the direction of cruelty in the pursuit of its fanatical analysis. A seminal scene in Atlas Shrugged described the ideological errors of a series of characters leading up to their violent deaths, epitomizing the fanatical class warfare hatred it's embodied and which inspired Whitaker Chambers to observe, “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To the gas chambers — go!'”
Randism has never been tried as the governing philosophy of a country, so it remains conjecture that her theories would inevitably lead to repression if put into practice at a national level. But we do have a record of the extreme repression with which she ran her own cult, which at its height was a kind of totalitarian ministate. You can read her biographies, or at least my review, to get a sense of the mind-blowing repression, abuse, and corruption with which she terrorized her followers.
But the upshot is that I strongly dispute Friedersdorf’s premise that Rand’s theories are a variant of democracy, any more than Marx’s are. In fact, I find the existence of powerful elected officials who praise her theories every bit as disturbing to contemplate as elected officials who praise Marxism. Even if you take care to note some doctrinal differences with Rand, in my view we are talking about a demented, hateful cult leader and intellectual fraud. People who think she had a lot of really good ideas should not be anywhere near power.