What Would Ayn Rand Think About Americanism Today?
June 30, 2016
Seventy years ago Ayn Rand, thankful for finding refuge in the United States from the totalitarian Soviet Union, wrote a short essay series entitled “Textbook of Americanism.” As we mark the 240th anniversary of this country’s birth, we can ask, “What would Ayn Rand think about Americanism today?” and “What lessons can her work offer us?”
1940s Hollywood in love with communism
“Textbook” first appeared in 1946 in The Vigil, which was published by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. At the time, Rand was becoming well-known for her novel The Fountainhead. But Hollywood was becoming well-known for its Communist sympathies.
Rand’s novel from 1937, We the Living, was set against the backdrop of the horrors of communism. It was not well received in Hollywood where she returned to work in the mid-1940s. So she saw a need to define exactly the principles on which America was founded and that made it a great country.
Individualism vs. collectivism
Her “Textbook” essays focused mainly on politics, so to the question of what she would think of the political situation in America today, a thesaurus would be necessary to extend the equivalents of “disgust” and “horror.” But her “Textbook” also helps us understand the sad nature of our political situation and points to a positive road ahead.
The “Textbook” is organized around a dozen questions. To the first, “What Is the Basic Issue in the World Today?” Rand answers that it is “between two principles: Individualism and Collective.” It was then and it remains so now.
Individualism, she tells us, holds that “each man exists by his own right and for his own sake, not for the sake of the group.” Collectivism, by contrast, holds that “each man exists only by permission of the group and for the sake of the group.” The first holds that all individuals are should be free, the latter that all individuals should be slaves of one kind or another.
She argues, “The basic principle of the United States is Individualism.” This is clearly seen in the Declaration of Independence, which acknowledges the right of each individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Individualism means that “The proper function of government is to protect the individual rights of man; this means—to protect man against brute force.” And Rand gives us in her essays the now-familiar—at least to libertarians and friends of freedom—definition of rights as based in the prohibition on initiating the use of force against others.
The need for moral principles
Most instructive for us today is her answer to the question, “Can a Society Exist Without a Moral Principle?” She answers that “society can abandon moral principles and turn itself into a herd running amuck to destruction. Just as a man can cut his own throat any time he chooses.” But “society cannot abandon moral principles if it expects to exist.”
Rand observes, for example, that only because enough people accept the principle of individual liberty does a functioning society exist. In a crowded department store, if enough people did not accept liberty, they could act as a mob and loot the store. She notes that protection would be impossible because “There could not be enough policemen in the world if men believed that it is proper and practical to loot.” Soon, there would be no stores, only looting mobs with nothing to loot. (Here we see the germ of Atlas Shrugged!)
What should we do?
So what would Ayn Rand think about Americanism today? Obviously, she’d think the country is in deadly peril as the commitment to the country’s founding principles erodes, as government restrictions on individuals’ liberty continue to grow, and as political thugs hardly bother even to give lip service to freedom and the rule of law.
Rand would no doubt think that Americans can only reclaim their liberty and the country reclaim its soul by fighting on moral grounds for the individualist principles. Arguing that eliminating this or that government restriction on commerce will increase overall prosperity is certainly true and necessary. But the pragmatic argument is not sufficient. Ultimately, we need the wide acceptance in our society that individuals have an inalienable right to their own lives and, thus, the liberty to pursue their happiness.
One might add that we must look for the most effective ways to challenge and change the current corrupt statist system and culture. Making principled arguments is necessary but will not be sufficient. President Obama is not the only statist who looks to Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals as a textbook for subverting a free society. We need to counter the Marxists in a good way, to think of our enterprise as a “long march through the institutions.” We need to promote and celebrate the values that constitute ethical individualism, such as individual achievement and entrepreneurship.
And Rand would likely urge us to look back to our Founders to understand that it is possible to recover the revolution they made. We must not acquiesce as one drop after another of the blood of liberty drains from our veins; that way lies cultural anemia and, eventually, political death.
As we celebrate Independence Day, let’s celebrate the Declaration of Independence. But celebrate, too, this Rand quote: “The world you desire can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.” Rand’s ideal of Americanism is needed now more than ever.