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I Was a Teenage Objectivist

Though the stories are out in force now that he is the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, I could already tell that Paul Ryan was an admirer of Objectivism (though recently renounced). After all, his signature budget proposal is, per the title of one Krugman column, “ludicrous and cruel.” From personal experience, I can attest that ludicrousness and cruelty are two of the very hallmarks of Objectivism. 

Of course, I didn’t know that when I first picked up Ayn Rand’s books—her most popular novel, The Fountainhead, and her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged—as a misguided high school kid.Indeed, I was the type of young person for whom Rand’s wacky gumbo of libertarianism, anti-communism, atheism, self-help and trickle-down economics makes a lot of sense. I was the poster child for Nora Ephron’s maxim about The Fountainhead—that “it is better read when one is young enough to miss the point.”

In my case, I was an introverted only child of a military family who had moved to Northern Virginia from a base in rural England in the middle of eighth grade. So, at one of the more vulnerable times for a young man’s ego, I ended up in a new place, with a new school, no friends and a wardrobe full of massively outdated early 90s fashions. The stage was set for my later foray into Objectivism. Like many others, I got sucked in by the Ayn Rand Institute’s annual Fountainhead essay contest when I was 17. I didn’t win, but I did go on to read Atlas Shrugged. I wasn’t completely unfortunate by then—I was a varsity athlete, and I had a handful of good friends, though not many. But I was still mostly an outsider and a loner.

Rand’s tale of Howard Roark—the brazen young architect, bastion of rationality, and stalwart of artistic integrity, who would rather dynamite his own building than compromise his vision—recast my experience in a new light. I could see myself not as a bookish and slightly weird young man but as a self-directed genius, who would one day be recognized and adored. 

So, my football teammates weren’t out drinking beers without me on Friday and Saturday nights because I was a walking, talking contraceptive—it was because they were nothing more than sheep, victims of groupthink and collectivism. The two girls in my AP English class who tormented me to no end? Second-rate intellects and future “second-handers” as Rand branded anyone (journalists, ministers, union workers and, ironically for Ryan, politicians) who wasn’t an industrialist or “creator”. My two-page Beat-esque poem about Roark alone qualified me for the latter category, I was sure. 

In Rand’s stories, the individual is the absolute sovereign. This makes sense in the high school context for a couple of reasons. First, many of Rand’s maxims—including “[Y]our body is a machine, but your mind is its driver, and you must drive as far as your mind will take you, with achievement as the goal of that road” and “to live requires a sense of self-value” (each taken from the most famous chapter of Atlas Shrugged, the turgid, rambling and mostly incoherent radio address by the character John Galt)—actually are useful advice for a high school kid. An awful lot of high school kids are conformists and are doing a lot of really dumb things—and a lot of perfectly good, albeit different high school kids betray themselves because of it. One truly appealing quality of Howard Roark, besides his integrity, is that he is, in fact, talented, and he never apologizes for it or compromises it.  

But besides giving nerds everywhere a reason to buck up, Rand’s inward-looking theory of “rational selfishness” carries considerable appeal (and risk) to those high schoolers who are irrationally selfish. If you’re a navel-gazing, self-directed, somewhat academically talented nerd, of course Rand’s characters are your heroes—their lives may be the only possible future you can imagine for yourself.

When I arrived at college, however, my relationship with Objectivism began to unravel. Interested in law, I took a part-time job at a small criminal law firm. There, I met the kind of people Objectivism doesn’t have answers for: people who had done dumb things for dumb reasons, people who had done dumb things for noble reasons, people who had screwed up, people who hadn’t done a damn thing but got accused of it anyway. I also met the people they left behind, like the daughter of an accused death row murderer. Or the parents of the accused, who thought they’d raised him right, but who would now be raising his daughter on their own dime. There were many kinds of people who came to that office, but for all of them, life was not clean and neat and linear, at least not anymore. Some of them had been their own undoing, but many were the victims of dumb, bad luck. 

Over on campus, the burgeoning Objectivist Club (I wasn’t a member) was busy railing against “multiculturalism”, mostly by writing provocative letters to the editor of the campus newspaper. In one of their more famous accomplishments, the Objectivists managed to, in what I think was a first, goad Indian students into physically threatening them after a letter to the editor said, in essence, that the university should not have a Hindi major because India was a “Third World country overwrought by disease and poverty.” Luckily, the assassination attempts never materialized. 

The more I grew into my own skin, the less thought I gave to Objectivism. Until, that is, Ryan and the Tea Party came along. Not only is Ryan widely reported to require his staff to read Atlas Shrugged,but the modern GOP’s rhetoric that modest Democratic proposals are an assault on “job creators”—who presumably will sit on their hands and do nothing if forced to pay modestly higher taxes—could be ripped from the pages of Atlas Shrugged, whose “job creators” retreat to Galt’s Gulch, depriving the corrupt world of their brilliance. In their no-compromise tactics, the Tea Party GOP seems to have taken a page from Atlas Shrugged, where Galt claims in his speech that “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” Would that Ayn Rand had known the perils of the debt ceiling. 

In graduation speeches or self-help books, never compromising, following your own moral compass, and pushing as hard as you can to succeed are fine advice. Any smart and talented person should not apologize for being either; many of such people are heroes and do deserve our respect.

But the heart of Rand’s vision—and Ryan’s vision—is something that’s best left contemplated in high school bedrooms and debates late at night in college dorm rooms, places where ideas are fodder for personal identity and don’t have real world consequences. For the folks in that law office, and anyone else harmed by factors beyond their control, Objectivism has no answer, and no concern. For that matter, Objectivism has no answer for the seniors from my college who’ve been graduating for the last few years into a job market that has no place for their parents, let alone for them. 

Real “second-handers” like Ryan would like us to believe the Randian myth, that like the fictional United States of Atlas Shrugged, our country is suffering because the unwashed masses (and their leader, Barack Obama) are holding CEOs like Mitt Romney back. But that is what makes Objectivism better as fiction than policy; as Elizabeth Warren put it, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own.” That is objective reality, whether the Ryans of the world admit it or not. For the good of the rest of us, I hope they outgrow Objectivism, too.

Jonas Blank is a writer living in New York