[Crossposted from New Books in History] When I was in high school I had several friends who went to Wichita’s only prep school. They were nice guys, played D&D, and said they were “Libertarians.” I thought that “Libertarian” might have something to do with the library, so I wanted to have nothing to do with it. But they really wanted to spread the Gospel. So I listened. What they said made sense. We’re born free. We should be able to do whatever we want so long as we don’t hurt anyone. The authorities should get off our backs. Now this, I thought, was philosophy for a 16-year old.
They told me to read Ayn Rand. I didn’t. Her books had too many pages. But my mother did, and I noticed a lot of other folks I knew did to. Rand, I was told, was a genius. I never really understood the Rand phenomenon until I read Jennifer Burns‘ page-turning biography Goddess of the Market. Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford, 2009). Almost by accident, the foreigner Rand tapped into a deeply-rooted American desire to be LEFT ALONE. All teenagers want to be left alone, but America is the only country in world history to have a political culture built on the idea. Rand’s radical, romantic individualism was the pitch-perfect echo of Americans’ frustration with the growth of the modern state (and teenagers’ frustration with the stupidity of their parents). That and she was really entertaining. She wrote, said, and did outrageous things. She said they were all consistent with her philosophy, “Objectivism.” Maybe. But they were also consistent with amphetamine addiction. It goes without saying that her personal life was a train-wreck, though a very interesting one given that it was informed by a philosophical system (and drug abuse). The American desire to be LEFT ALONE has not vanished (cf. Ron Paul), and neither has America’s fascination with Rand’s remarkable life. We should thank Jennifer for telling us about it.
Thanks to Anne is a Man! for suggesting this book. If you like podcasts, you should visit his site.
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