Wednesday, June 27, 2012

William F. Buckley, Jr.: Beware of Ayn Rand

I was an avid reader of the National Review for about 15 years in the 80s and 90s.  For those of you not familar with this magazine, it was THE flagship conservative magazine for decades after its founding by William F. Buckley in 1955.  In the editorial staff and content of National Review, Buckley did his best to hold together a very fractious conservative movement, made up of anti-Communist hawks, conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants, libertarians, and free-market business types. 

But there were certain 'conservatives' who Buckley did not try to hold within his coalition.  To the contrary, he saw certain groups on the Right as so radical and extreme in their ideological leanings as to be dangerous to true conservatism.  Two of those groups were the John Birch Society and the devotees centered about Ayn Rand.

Reading through a biography of William F. Buckley that I picked up recently at the wonderful St. Francis Episcopal Church booksale, I found the following description of his encounter with the Randians.  (This is particularly helpful, given the influence of Ayn Rand among today's conservative movement and Republican Party.)

[Whittaker] Chambers wrote irregularly for National Review, starting but not finishing many articles.  His columns on foreign policy were mediocre.  He was not so much interested in reiterating the threat of communism as in examining what he believed to be the spiritual crisis of the West.  His most impressive articles were a critique of Ayn Rand's didactic novel Atlas Shrugged and a defense of Alger Hiss' right to travel.  In both cases, he was trying to challenge the assumptions of his readers and fellow editors about the nature of conservatism.

Rand, a Russian émigré, had used her novels to proselytize for a philosophy of economic individualism that she called "objectivism," and she had assembled a devoted intellectual following.  On purely economic issues, she differed little from National Review, but unlike National Review's editors, who tried to balance their economic individualism with a traditional conservatism, she made her economic views the basis of a psychology and politics that extolled selfishness and damned religion.  Her movement's emblem was a gold brooch with a dollar sign, rather than a cross, dangling from it.  (The first time she had met Buckley, she had not edeared herself to him by remarking, "You are too intelligent to believe in God!")

Chambers, like the other National Review editors, had come to the Right as a counterrevolutionary idealist.  Like Schlamm and Burhnham he had no particular fondness for the rich.  He saw economic freedom and capitalist individualism not as a path to wealth, but as the antithesis of Communist totalitarianism.  Individualism was not good in itself, but only as a means to civic and religious virtue.  Chambers condemned objectivism as a cousin of Marxism.  "Randian man, like Marxian man, is made the center of a Godless world," Chambers wrote.

Rand and her followers were stung by Chambers' attack.  Rand's young disciple, economist Alan Greenspan, who later became President Gerlad Ford's chief economist [and the Fed chair under Bush, Clinton, and Bush], wrote Buckley, "This man is beneath contempt and I would not honor his 'review' of Ayn Rand's magnificent masterpiece by even commenting on it."  Rand herself complained aloud, "What would you expect from an ex-Communist writing in Buckley's Catholic magazine?"  She never talked to Buckley again and refused to enter any room in which he was present.

But Buckley was not moved by their protests.  For Buckley, Chambers' essay revealed a way to reconcile conservatism with the Catholic critique of laissez-faire capitalism.  Chambers had not demonstrated that individualism was wrong, but only that it was wrong if taken as an end in itself.  He applauded Chambers' attempt to "read Miss Rand right out of the conservative movement."  "Her exclusion from the conservative movement," he wrote later, "was, I am sure, in part the result of her desiccated philosophy's conclusive incompatibility with the conservative's emphasis on transcendence, intellectual and moral."
My thoughts exactly.  Wish you were still around, Mr. Buckley.


  1. First off, really Carl, watch the movie. Second of all, as I and others I know who mention Ayn Rand have said to you, her personal belief that God is a fabrication of a weak mind is not something most of us who acknowledge her contributions to the conservative cause agree with.

    Ayn Rand is one of many who contribute to the idea of self-determination; that it is most important to take care of ourselves. She is not our God. She believes that Carl Lindquist can take care of himself way better than Uncle Sam can, or even wants to. She believes that if Carl Lindquist wants to make something of himself, HE is going to have to put one foot in front of the other and pursue his goal or he will remain right where he now finds himself, wherever that is, the Ghetto, depending on handouts for votes, in the union with no say on what his value is since it is determined by the group. You get the picture. Most of us agree with her on these points as well as her position that the government, with it’s rules and regulations in place crippling ingenuity and reward for taking chances, is out of control.

    No Carl, there is no infatuation with Ayn Rand. It, (not she, because it is no longer a person but an idea) is simply a basic platform that has the attention of a growing movement of people feeling disenfranchised by their government eager to make life harder for those pursuing happiness. We point to it, we don't worship it.

  2. If Ayn Rand believed that she could take care of herself better than Uncle Sam, why did she cash all those Social Security checks? Here is a link to another view and an insight into her myopic view of her own "objectivism" philosophy. "Ayn Rand Was Wrong" ~ By Nathaniel Downes She simply didn't do enough research or think it all the way through. And yes I have read Atlas Shrugged, Anthem, and The Fountainhead.

    1. LoL, cashing her SS checks was the selfish thing to do, so she did it, of course. it'd be altruistic to not do it merely to make a point to others, after all.


      Except that you are repeating a liberal lie.

    3. Simple to answer: Rand took social security cheques as partial recovery of her stolen property.

      She walked on government sidewalks that she was force to pay for too. When armed people appropriate property like that, what would you have suggested she do?

  3. Buckley said that she told him that he was "too intelligent to believe in Gott," using the German word instead of the English one.

  4. "Chambers condemned objectivism as a cousin of Marxism. "Randian man, like Marxian man, is made the center of a Godless world," Chambers wrote."

    Except that Marxism believes that man does not have a mind and that reality is contradictory while Objectivism believes that man's faculty of reason is his means of survival while contradictions do not exist in reality.

    Buckley basically hired a communist, in essence, to smear a capitalist as a national socialist.

    Chambers implicitly denied that man had even the capacity for reason. It is not true of man but it was true of him.

    Chambers never rejected communism in essence.

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  6. If every soul obeyed the altruist ethic perfectly, no one would consume anything, and all would die. It is by 'sinning' against the supposed idea of self sacrifice that any can live at all - IN GUILT, and thus, in chains.

    If a God created the universe and rational men, cares about them, and treats them as ends in themselves (leave the flock for the lost sheep,) then the most rationally self interested thing a person could do is pursue a right relationship with God. When you churn through all this: man's life is his time, thought, and effort; man's source of life and all values ultimately is from the creative deity; the deity gave man's life to him and treats him as an end in himself, desiring a son or daughter, rather than a slave or enslaved mercenary; man's highest present value is his particularly HUMAN life, that is life WITH real freedom to pursue true values TO HIMSELF; Other men and their true prosperity, their true good, IS A VALUE to one's self; The trade of material, intellectual, and spiritual values can be self interested and good, when rational and in full context of the reality of the nature of man and the nature of God;
    You will find that Buckley was very wrong. Man was not created to be and can not be a sacrificial animal. Altruism is evil - it is a colossal lie that teaches a man to disrespect, himself, his own status as a valuable being - an end in himself, NOT a means, and this by the creative choice of the Deity. Justice and mercy find common ground ONLY in right self interest in FULL context.

  7. I see Rand as wrong mostly because she confused "altruism" with communal effort for pragmatic purposes. Consider the many sorts of public services that taxpayers contribute to: Military, post-office, food inspection etc. How could some objectivist philosophy debunk these very valid services and if it doesn't debunk the post office etc. then what use is it?