The evolution of Ayn Rand

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Has Ayn Rand gone mainstream? The radical champion of individualism and capitalism, who died in 1982, is no longer an exotic taste. Her image has adorned a U.S. postage stamp. Her ideas have been detected in a new mass-market animated comedy film, “The Incredibles.”

And today on the 100th anniversary of her birth, there will be a Rand commemoration at the Library of Congress — an odd site for a ceremony honoring a fierce anti-statist.

In her day, Miss Rand was at odds with almost every prevailing American social attitude. She infuriated liberals by preaching economic laissez-faire and lionizing titans of business. She appalled conservatives by rejecting religion in any form while celebrating, she said, “sexual enjoyment as an end in itself.”

But her novels found countless readers. “The Fountainhead,” published in 1943, and “Atlas Shrugged,” which followed in 1957, are still in print. In 1991, when the Book of the Month Club polled Americans asking what book had most influenced their lives, “Atlas Shrugged” finished second only to the Bible. In all, Miss Rand’s books have sold some 22 million copies and continue selling more than half a million a year.

Miss Rand emerged in the aftermath of the Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II — which were taken as proving the obsolescence of the free market, that prosperity required an all-intrusive government, and that national success demanded subordination of the individual to collective purposes. After the traumas of the 1930s and ‘40s, America was intent on building a well-ordered welfare state by compromise and consensus.

In that setting, Ayn Rand resembled the female athlete in Apple Computer’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial, who sprinted into a mass assembly of oppressed drones to hurl a sledgehammer at the Big Brother orating from a giant TV screen — smashing it and bathing the audience in dazzling light.

Miss Rand, a Russian immigrant, saw herself harking back to the Enlightenment values of reason, limited government and personal liberty that fueled the American Revolution. “The United States,” she declared, “was the first moral society in history.”

Her novels were derided by critics, who saw them as interminable philosophical diatribes disguised as melodrama. What she regarded as thoroughgoing consistency struck many readers as overbearing dogmatism. Her political ideas attracted only a fringe following. Outside a tiny band of true believers, few people counted themselves as disciples of Ayn Rand.

But many people absorbed much of her thinking and incorporated it into their worldviews. Public figures as diverse as Hillary Clinton, Clarence Thomas and Cal Ripken have cited her influence, on top of millions of other unfamous people.

In time, her work bore fruit. By the mid-1970s, wage-and-price controls had wrecked the economy, in perfect accord with Miss Rand’s predictions. Her view of capitalism not as a necessary evil but a moral good helped turn public opinion toward free markets, opening the way for the Reagan Revolution.

Her celebration of individual joy also echoed in the leftist counterculture of the 1960s, which rebelled against the sterile conformity of the Eisenhower era. However, Ayn Rand had no use for the irresponsible hedonism that spawned the saying, “If it feels good, do it.” That was a perversion of her insight that pleasure is not cause for guilt. You can hear Miss Rand even in Bruce Springsteen: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

That’s just one illustration of how her influence went beyond economics and political theory. In her eyes, there was no greater good than each person’s integrity and self-fulfillment. One of her essay collections had the surprising title, “The Virtue of Selfishness.”

Looking back, it’s hard to recapture how jarring that phrase was a generation ago, when altruism and self-sacrifice were seen as the central elements of an exemplary life. Today, Americans take it for granted that they are entitled to live for their own happiness, without apology.

It may seem curious to honor a writer who merely defended free markets, preached the superiority of reason over blind faith and extolled the American ideal of the pursuit of happiness. David Kelley, head of the Rand-oriented Objectivist Center, jokes that he’s reminded of the theatergoer who complained that “Hamlet” was full of cliches. Miss Rand’s beliefs have been so widely disseminated and absorbed that we have forgotten where they originated.

The truth is that for all she did, they are no longer her ideas. To a large extent, they are ours.

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