Obama and Ayn Rand

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent interview in Rolling Stone (November 8th, 2012) magazine President Obama was asked about what he thinks of Republican VP Candidate Paul Ryan’s (admittedly limited) respect for Russian-American novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. (It is limited because when Mr. Ryan discovered that Rand was an atheist, he, as a supposedly devout Roman Catholic, quickly distanced himself from her.)

Mr. Obama responded to the interviewer’s question as follows:

“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.”

Never mind for now that Obama misrepresents Rand idea of ethical egoism–she never advocated “only thinking about ourselves.” And the pursuit of one’s own happiness does take a prominent position at least among the universal, unalienable rights everyone has. Just how sloppy the thinking is that’s revealed in Mr. Obama’s answer can be appreciated from considering a few facts that Mr. Obama ought to have found out before he gave chose to chime in on Rand.

To begin with the millions and millions who have read Rand’s novels and found them serious and very insightful, if not out and out brilliant, certainly were not all 17 and 18 years of age and felt misunderstood. Then, also, among those millions of adults who found Rand’s work worthwhile there were at least half a dozen major contemporary philosophers, such as the late John Nelson, John Hospers, and George Walsh. The late Robert Nozick, who taught at Harvard University and used Atlas Shrugged in his classes to stimulate students’ thinking about political philosophy, didn’t agree with Rand but clearly respected her works. A good many others could be mentioned, not just in philosophy but also in psychology, economics, and even history. (Rand’s novel We The Living is a fine work of fiction that incorporates themes bearing on the Russian [Bolshevik] revolution in very enlightening ways.)

Several textbooks on moral philosophy have included Rand’s ideas on ethical egoism, drawn from her short but powerful book, The Virtue of Selfishness, A New Concept of Egoism (1964). Interestingly enough and instructive for anyone who would take efforts to belittle Rand seriously, this work’s treatment of ethics is quite similar to how two or three major contemporary philosophers, such as Martha Nussbaum, Philippa Foot, and Hazel Barnes (all women, by the way), have approached philosophical ethics. A couple of major books have also been written about Rand, for example Christopher Sciabarra’s The Russian Radical (Penn State University Press, 1995, not a fly by night press, by the way).

OK, enough of this. Suffice it to add that Mr. Obama, himself an ex-part-time university law professor (at the University of Chicago), may be expected to be at least something of a scholar, with the ethics of scholarship being of some importance as he confronts topics like who reads and takes seriously someone whose views he finds disagreeable. Instead, Mr. Obama chimes in like some two bit hack commentator with misinformation and misassessment rampant in his comments.

Too bad. Had he taken the trouble to offer some reasonably serious comments on Rand’s ideas, some of those 17 and 18 year olds who may just now be getting interested in Rand’s ideas might have been helped in how they could approach the views of the Russian radical Obama finds so disagreeable. But by trying to besmirch the lady instead of arguing with her, Mr. Obama has demonstrated how shallows his own thinking is, not to mention how badly he has misunderstood Ayn Rand and her viewpoint.

Let me end with a biographical note. I became interested in Rand when I was 21 years old, based, initially, on being a cast member of a play Rand wrote, one that was performed at Andrews Air Force Base, the presidential airport (from which Air Force One flies out). This was back in 1961 and Rand’s novels were beginning to climb the charts. In time I myself came to write a little book on Rand’s ideas, titled Ayn Rand, which was brought out by Peter Lang Publishers in their Masterworks in the Western Tradition Series in 2001 and has since been translated into German and could soon come out in Russian and Italian.

With these points made, is there any wonder that I have zero respect for our current US President? If he is going to lend his name and the power of his office to an attack on a pretty widely championed intellectual in our culture, surely one may expect him to abide by the elementary ethics of such criticism.