Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Great Recession
"Whereas traditional conservatism emphasized duties, responsibilities, and social interconnectedness, at the core of the right-wing ideology that Rand spearheaded was a rejection of moral obligations to others."
—Jennifer Burns, in Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right
This past spring, the Financial Industry Inquiry Commission held hearings on the world's recent financial crisis. The star witness was Alan Greenspan. The Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan translated Greenspan's typically elusive testimony this way: "I didn't do anything wrong, and neither did Ayn Rand by the way, but next time you might try more regulation."
There were obviously many reasons for the Great Recession. But I believe Noonan got to the root of one particular evil.
Fortune magazine once labeled Greenspan "America's most famous libertarian, an Ayn Rand acolyte." (While Rand formally rejected libertarianism, libertarians nonetheless admire her.) But today, both libertarians and Randians are disassociating themselves from Greenspan as quickly as Wall Street. This is the Wall Street that worshiped the former Federal Reserve chairman when Worth ran a cover story describing how he was "playing God at the Fed." Fortune detailed Greenspan's "love of free markets, suspicion of do-gooders, and righteous hatred of the state apparatus," evidenced by his previous deregulation of the savings and loan industry for Charles Keating and such. Few of us Reaganomics supporters understood his role in that fiasco, so history was bound to repeat itself with the recent subprime mortgage scandal.
About the time Fortune was extolling Greenspan, I was putting the finishing touches on a book about finances for a major evangelical publisher. I included a chapter on Rand's quasi-religious philosophies, and another that encouraged Wall Street to embrace a traditional Judeo-Christian ethic. I wrote, "Ayn Rand, like Karl Marx, was one more self-proclaimed prophet who denied the existence of a loving God." I added this comment from a leading political commentator: "Libertarians have replaced Marxists as the world's leading utopia builders." I concluded that we would one day apologize to our children for what Rand had done to our souls, as well as to the political economy.
My junior editor removed the chapter on Rand. "No one has heard of Ayn Rand," she said. But my senior editor reinserted it. He said he had never understood his family until reading it. It made him realize that they had mixed Rand's strongly anti-government, unquestioningly pro-business, and individualistic worldview with biblical Christianity. Theologians call this "syncretism"—which George Barna calls America's favorite religion. It's a religion too many Christians have bent the knee to.
By the end of 2008, "Maestro" Greenspan was booed off the stage. Yet there are at least three reasons we should stay aware of Rand and her remaining disciples.
In 1998, the Modern Library and Random House each conducted surveys to determine the "top" or "best" books of the 20th century. The top book on both popular lists was Atlas Shrugged. In the wake of the recent recession, The Economist reported that sales of the 52-year-old novel had sharply increased.
Second, Rand still has influential financial disciples like junk-bond king Michael Milken, Chris Cox, head of the Securities and Exchange Commission for the Bush administration leading up to the crash, as well as cultural influencers like Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, media mogul Ted Turner, and pundits John Stossel, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck, who recently advised Christians to leave any church that speaks of social justice.