Thursday, July 30, 2009

Another Rave Review for "Goddess of the Market"

Richard Baehr over at has given Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right yet another rave review. Baehr's review is interesting as an example of an attempt to co-opt Rand as a "conservative." "Burns describes these books [The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged] as the 'gateway drug to life on the right"' for young conservatives for decades," writes Baehr. "This is not meant as an attack, but to describe the power of Rand's ideas..." And: "Rand's arguments and beliefs, in particular her defense of capitalism and the free enterprise system ... can be used to shape the political debate for conservatives in the next few years." While it may be true some conservatives were influenced by these novels, it would be an error to regard Rand as a conservative. She was nothing of the sort, as her (and her orthodox followers') hostility toward conservatism easily demonstrates. Whether Rand's arguments for capitalism can be used effectively by conservatives is also debatable. I will have more to say on this subject in later posts, but I suspect Rand over-rated the importance of purely "moral" arguments based on the "evil" of altruism and the virtue of selfishness. These arguments may seem great to Rand's disciples and admirers, but many others find them merely strange and over-the-top. Most people are not very ideologically motivated and tend to be more impressed with pragmatic arguments. They are interested, not in what some philosopher claims is right and good, but with what political policies will work for them and their families.

Baehr's review also criticizes Rand's "purism," which, he says, "brooked no moderation around the edges of the philosophy she developed."

Ayn Rand trusted ideas more than political parties. But for ideas to have impact, movements need to have political power. The Democrats have been better than the Republicans in recent years at selling their message and disguising their identity (Obama as the moderate post-racial candidate who would end the partisan wars in Washington) and expanding their tent, in order to win elections. They have run pro-life candidates, military veterans, and small government types in conservative leaning areas, so as to make characterizations of the statist nature of the Party more difficult. In the debate within the conservative movement, at the moment the purists seem to be winning, driving out those who cannot check off all the ideological boxes. It is, I think, a recipe for intellectual coherence, and continued electoral defeat.

I believe Baehr is largely correct in his criticism. Intellectual purism doesn't work in a democracy, because the voters who decide elections tend to non-ideological and pragmatic in their orientation. Moreover, under a democratic system, compromises must be made in order to reach the consensus necessary to get things done in legislative bodies. Purism, when taken too far, serves merely to insulate and remove its proponents from the political process.


Neil Parille said...

Here is another review of Goddess of the Market:

Xtra Laj said...

What I find interesting is how seriously some Conservatives like to take individualism and freedom as conservative ideas. In fact, I'm not so sure that these ideas are conservative any more than liberal (the ideas definitely are libertarian).

Jay said...


I think it all comes down to how freedom is defined. The left sees freedom in terms of options, whether each individual is "free" to have what anyone else has...houses, cars, status, occupations, etc. I believe Chomsky said something like "no one is free if he is also forced to work for a living."

The right tends to see freedom as simply absence of coercion...the literal right to live as you see fit and pursue what you want.

Xtra Laj said...


Consider "gay marriage" or "gender roles". Is the opposition to either strictly a function of Christianity? Or is it to some degree a function of conservatism and preserving that social status quo?

The right and the left have serious differences on the causes of social inequality (and usually, human nature), and that, for the most part, is how I like to think about the two positions. But the individualism and freedom that libertarians support is not a conservative idea (as libertarians, especially those who are not socially conservative, will acknowledge quickly). That does not make these ideas wrong or right, by the way. It's just that I'm not always clear on why some conservatives are so eager to embrace them.

Individualism and freedom as a defence of moral responsibility is one thing (and in a limited form is line with a kind of conservatism). But the freedom as "absence of coercion" or " the right to live as you see fit" doesn't quite jive with the social constraints that conservatism requires to support such freedom.

gregnyquist said...

Laj: "What I find interesting is how seriously some Conservatives like to take individualism and freedom as conservative ideas."

If you mean individualism as defined by libertarians, then it certainly is not true that individualism is a conservative idea. Conservatism tends to be more of family-centered then individual centered. When traditional conservatism supports individualism, it tends to be a modified form of it—what Richard Weaver called "social bond" individualism, which he contrasted with the "anarchic" individualism of Thoreau and other free spirits.

Xtra Laj said...

Jay, Greg,

Thanks - your comments sent me back to Sowell's "A Conflict of Visions" where he wrote about the different strains of "individualism" in both visions.

I think that in general, conservatives should be wary of using the term because its meaning is more easily co-opted for liberal and libertarian ideals. That was my general point. The "social bond" individualism doesn't quite resonate as well with the term in most usage I see these days, but that might be because I was mostly exposed to libertarianism during my intellectual development, though I think it is more than that, because social conservatism is increasingly losing ground amongst intellectuals on both the left and the right.