The presidential election may mark the beginning of the end of Ayn Rand's renaissance. Or could it be the beginning of something even bigger?
Whatever the case, one thing is certain: Rand's never played a larger role in national politics than during this year, when her ideas about personal liberty and limited government became major players in the presidential campaign.
This week, I asked biographer Anne C. Heller, author of 2009's "Ayn Rand and the World She Made," about the ever-present power of the Russian-American philosopher. Heller dips into Rand's psyche, explores her antipathy toward politicians and reveals how her followers ignore many of her lessons.
Q: I'll start with the most vital question of all. How on earth do you pronounce Ayn Rand's first name?
A: In the early 1960s, a young engineer worked at a radio station when Ayn Rand recorded half-hour shows. He tells a story about her calling up after he'd announced her broadcast and called her "Ann."
"My name is Ayn," she said. "It rhymes with swine."
I don't know if it's true, and I rather doubt it. But it does tell you how to pronounce her name.
Q: My impression of Rand's philosophy is this: Our first priority is our individual selves. As for the second priority: Please see first priority. Is that correct?
A: That's exactly right. The preservation of individual rights was her first concern and her last concern.
By individual rights, she meant those rights that can be exercised without trampling on anyone else's rights. The minute you cross that line, she was against you.
That's one of the reasons why she was terribly suspicious of government. She thought its only function was to protect and preserve the right of the individual to do as he chose, as long as he didn't harm anyone else. Once he did, it became an issue of crime or breach of contract.
That was government's role was far as she was concerned: Punish crime, enforce contracts, and defend the national borders.
The Paul Ryans of the world, however her writing appeals to them, would never the limit the government that way.
Q: How else would she differ from her followers today?
A: The idea of putting armies around the world, not only to protect American vital interests but to promote other kinds of things, was anathema to her. And she wanted to privatize the roads. She thought we should go back to the old English system.
I remember interviewing her physician, who loved to quiz her: What would you do about this street right out front, East 71st Street? If someone wanted to buy this street, and someone else owned Broadway and another owned 72nd Street, would you have to pay a toll every time you turned the corner?
She said yes, that would be fine. She supports a free market to an extreme degree, and very few politicians do.
Q: What did she think about politics?
A: She was a person who didn't have a politics. She had what she thought of as a philosophy. How it all played out on a stage that she had little respect for, in Washington, wasn't of much interest to her.
Q: Did she like any politicians?
A: She supported Barry Goldwater, whom she thought was the best embodiment of her principles, but he disappointed her thoroughly.
He was religious and unable to, as she felt, speak about conservative principles in their purest sense. In some ways, he was like Paul Ryan – unable to divorce his conservative ideas from his religion and sense of a kind of Christian morality.
That annoyed her thoroughly. She was an atheist and believed that God, if he existed at all, would be a dictator.
Q: She's known for being sexually free. Would you say she was not only an atheist but a hedonist too?
A: She was a Russian to a core. She grew up in a time of free love in Russia, and she felt that was everybody's right, as long as they weren't hurting anybody else.
But I don't know that you'd call it hedonism. She wasn't a person for whom fine clothes, good food and living well were important.
Q: Why is she so popular among politicians who don't fully embrace what she believed?
A: A lot of them – Paul Ryan is an example – read her when they're quite young, the way most people do, at 13, 14, 15 or even 18.
They identify with her characters, who are heroes and create all sorts of new inventions and prosperity. But they really don't think them through to the degree that Ayn Rand did.
Q: Why did she speak through fiction?
A: When she first came to America, she understood that the Communists were the screenwriters, the playwriters and the novelists. Using the power of fiction, she consciously set out to answer them, to outdo them, in creating a fiction of free markets and individual rights.
She did quite a good job of it. She knew that was where the power lay.
Q: I know a young woman named Dagny whose mother who was impressed by Dagny Taggart, a strong female character in "Atlas Shrugged." Do you think Rand has inspired women?
A: I've never met a Dagny, Dominique or Kira who wasn't the daughter of someone who believed that Ayn Rand's point of view about the world was right.
Usually, Dagny is seen as a strong woman in a context of being a capitalist hero, someone who's not going to knuckle under to the looters and the moochers of the government bureaucracy
Feminists, however, do not embrace Ayn Rand or Dagny Taggart.
Q: But aren't these strong women characters?
A: They are strong women in the context in which you find them.
Dominique (Francon, of "The Fountainhead") is a perverse but fierce defender of the individual's right to do absolutely what he likes with his creativity and own the product of his activity. And Dagny is a fierce proponent of no government interference in private enterprise and a great exponent of why that helps everyone in the end.
Q: Ayn Rand's books have been top sellers for decades, but she suddenly shot into prominence within the last few years. How did that happen?
A: When I began writing my biography, she was under the radar. Then it began with a column by Stephen Moore in the Wall Street Journal just after Obama was elected, talking about how the world has become the world of "Atlas Shrugged."
That caught fire among conservative thinkers and writers and brought her to the fore. That gave rise to all the signs by Tea Party people: "John Galt lives." "Who is John Galt?" "I am John Galt."
The "We Built It" slogan might as well be right out of her pages: the idea that we do it all ourselves, we who open a hardware store in Abilene, Texas. "We're doing everything ourselves to your benefit, and you don't appreciate it."
Q: That carries on to Romney's comment about the 47 percent, right?
A: Exactly. That's straight out of Ayn Rand.
But that's not Mitt Romney, he's not a Randian. Someone told him that. I'll bet anyone that it's a fan of Ayn Rand.
Q: What does the future hold for the Rand philosophy?
A: I think we'll see it die down again, because there seems to be a sheepish quality among those who are speaking about her most loudly.
Senator Rand Paul was talking about how he wants to compromise. No one standing by the side of Ayn Rand is going to talk about compromise.
She wrote an essay about how compromise wasn't just weak, it's evil. That's purely Russian. She said there's right and wrong, but the middle is always evil.
Q: So she'd be disappointed if her followers tried to find a middle ground?
A: She wouldn't be disappointed. By the late '50s and early '60s, she was so jaded that she didn't expect much of anybody, especially her followers.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.