The Rand Renaissance?
A new group of young people are inspired by Ayn Rand’s free-market objectivism, but is it a lasting ideology or just a trend?
Crowds gathered for Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul last year included quite a few young people. (AP/David J. Phillip)
Last October, in what should have been one of the last nails in the coffin of Ayn Rand’s cultural legacy, Rand’s most famous pupil and former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan admitted he’d “found a flaw” in laissez-faire capitalism. “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity—myself especially—are in a state of shocked disbelief,” Greenspan confessed to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
One year later, Greenspan’s concession—that deregulation may not be the way toward a fairer, better America—seems to be nothing more than an anomaly. Instead of inspiring his minions to follow his lead, the economic giant’s words seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Against all odds, Randian free-market theory is experiencing a modern renaissance amongst nascent political thinkers. Jennifer Burns, author of the new book Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, likes to say, “Ayn Rand is the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right.” But will experimentation lead to a true Rand resurgence?
In November 2008, young people came out to the polls in record numbers and voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, but the other candidate who captured the hearts and minds of youth voters was Ron Paul, hardly a GOP stalwart. The candidate who built his campaign on an opposition to war and a libertarian ideology earned 10 percent* of the vote in Iowa’s caucuses in 2008, thanks mostly to young people who turned out for him. Paul said Rand influenced him greatly when he was younger.
It is impossible to discuss the influence of Randian thought without first discussing the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, when, as Burns argues in Goddess, Rand’s insistence on laissez-faire capitalism kept a burgeoning libertarian youth movement firmly moored to the political right.
Beginning in the 1950s, Rand, then the well-known author of The Fountainhead, built up a sizeable following of young people, New York college students who called themselves the “Class of ‘43,” a reference to the year The Fountainhead was published. Rand shaped her “cadre of thinkers” in her objectivist world view, which anchored itself on an absolute adherence to rationality, individualism, and free-market capitalism.
The 1960s were Rand’s heyday, and nowhere were her ideas more popular than on college campuses nationwide. While Rand’s atheism evoked the ire of top conservatives like William F. Buckley, students were willing to overlook her hostile attitude toward religion. Randian libertarianism began to grow in influence, even within Buckley’s own youth organization, Young Americans for Freedom, until splitting from YAF in 1969. Rand never endorsed the Libertarian Party (founded in 1971) but her work inspired it.
Four decades later, Randian theories are once again inspiring musings on campus. In 2007, libertarian think tank the Cato Institute created Cato on Campus to deal with the increased student traffic on Cato.org, with 2,000 students reportedly applying for internships at Cato annually. And the New York Times recently ran a piece on John Allison, CEO of BB&T bank, who has spent millions working to bring Rand into college classrooms.
Alexander McCobin, founder and Executive Director of Students for Liberty, asserts that, contrary to what you may think, the economic crisis has drawn young people to laissez-faire thinking, not repelled them. In a phone interview, McCobin tells me that, along with the Fed, “it was government intervention, not capitalism” that caused the financial crisis.
Students for Liberty is the fastest growing libertarian student organization in America. Instead of operating on a chapter model, SFL provides a network of support for “pro-liberty student organizations” from the College Libertarians to the Austrian Economics and Objectivists. When SFL held its first conference in February 2008, about 100 students from 42 “pro-liberty student groups” showed up. Today, SFL says that it supports over 200 organizations. This rapid growth has been “astonishing and inspiring,” McCobin says. “There are literally hundreds out their now … making a difference on their campuses.” Founded months before the financial collapse, McCobin feels the financial crisis actually helped SFL get off the ground. “Libertarianism gave them something to latch onto.”
Like their ancestor, the student libertarian movement of the late 1960s, SFL and similar organizations do not fit into either the liberal or conservative category. Instead, they seek to reside in a separate space entirely, loyal to the ideals of free markets, limited government, and individual liberties. To McCobin, the big government of the Democrats is just as alienating as current Republicanism. About Obama and Bush, he casually tosses off, “Same guy, same problems.”
Rand’s extreme capitalism may have led libertarians into a “marriage of convenience” with Republicans in the 1970s, but this new generation of libertarians won’t be taken for granted by the right. The newly formed Year of Youth organization seeks to elect libertarian politicians in 2012. If conservatives want to keep young libertarians as electoral allies, they will have to reassess their values and priorities.
Paul Courtney, chair of the College Republicans chapter at Georgetown University, hopes that the Republican Party moves in this direction, emphasizing fiscal responsibility over wedge issues like gay marriage. Regardless of the recent wins in Virginia and New Jersey, Courtney feels that the GOP lacks an overarching national direction. “Michael Steele and Sarah Palin are kind of a joke,” he admits, adding that, despite his university’s Jesuit affiliation, “[the Georgetown College Republicans] are more concerned with economics than social issues.”
In the modern age of social media, McCobin’s Facebook profile would make Rand proud. Under favorite books, he lists Atlas Shrugged; under religious views it reads, “Half Irish, Half Athiest.” McCobin explains that this is a joke; he’s actually more agnostic than atheist. But the joke hits close to home. Within libertarianism, religion is sometimes a source of tension. But according to the Pew Research Center, young people today are the most socially tolerant generation. “We want to get over past divides and religion just isn’t a big concern,” he says.
Libertarianism today is diverse, he continues. While Rand’s rational objectivism leads to atheism, libertarianism today is much broader than Rand. McCobin himself may be one of those guys who read Atlas Shrugged in high school and never went back, but he emphasizes the centrality of other figures such as F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman to the libertarian outlook.
When asked about his ideological leanings, McCobin says, " I feel as close to the left as I do to the right.” Regardless of what he calls it, McCobin is part of a conservative movement—it just doesn’t resemble the current Republican Party. As surveys suggest, young Americans do not identify with the culture wars that define the GOP, and many right-wing youth are as disillusioned with Iraq as the rest of us. It’s for these people that Rand’s ideas provide an ideological framework to condemn Bush’s extravagant spending while heralding the greed that defines an unregulated free market. Despite the deep flaws in libertarianism, it seems as if young conservatives have found a new approach to politics. Whether the “pro-liberty” youth will reinvent the right, or simply estrange themselves from an outdated GOP, only time will tell.
Pema Levy is an editorial intern at The American Prospect. She graduated from Georgetown University in 2009.
- This number has been corrected from the original. We regret the error.