Barack Obama claims to have read Ayn Rand, which is hard to believe given how completely he misrepresents her views. Of course, Obama’s distortions of Rand’s ideas feed his political agenda of forcing wealth transfers and shackling producers, policies Rand certainly would have rejected as immoral and destructive.
In a Rolling Stone interview with Douglas Brinkley published today, Obama criticized his distorted, straw-man version of Rand’s ideas at length:
Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we'd pick up. Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we're only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we're considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity—that that's a pretty narrow vision. . . . Unfortunately, it does seem as if sometimes that vision of a "you're on your own" society has consumed a big chunk of the Republican Party.
Of course, that's not the Republican tradition. . . . You look at Abraham Lincoln: He very much believed in self-sufficiency and self-reliance. He embodied it—that you work hard and you make it, that your efforts should take you as far as your dreams can take you. But he also understood that there's some things we do better together. That we make investments in our infrastructure and railroads and canals and land-grant colleges and the National Academy of Sciences, because that provides us all with an opportunity to fulfill our potential, and we'll all be better off as a consequence. He also had a sense of deep, profound empathy, a sense of the intrinsic worth of every individual, which led him to his opposition to slavery and ultimately to signing the Emancipation Proclamation. That view of life—as one in which we're all connected, as opposed to all isolated and looking out only for ourselves—that's a view that has made America great. . . .
Although in a few details Obama accurately indicates the gist of Rand’s positions (e.g., Rand held we should develop ourselves, work hard, and expend effort to achieve our goals in life) for the most part he grotesquely distorts Rand’s ideas.
Rand was expert at spotting and debunking “false dichotomies”—false alternatives that exclude a valid option—and, had Obama read and understood Rand’s works he would have realized he is offering the false alternative between isolation and collectivism.
Rand utterly rejected the notion that one should live an isolated life. She recognized that a crucial way we “develop ourselves” and pursue our rational self-interest is by building strong relationships with other people, whether in business, friendship, romance, or any other kind of life-serving relationship. Rand wrote hundreds of pages about the virtues and benefits of collaborating with others to mutual advantage. She also recognized that, as participants in capitalism (to the extent such exists), “we’re all connected” through the voluntary division of labor in the free market, where value is exchanged always for value. In presenting her theory of rational egoism, Rand explained why acting in one’s self-interests often entails “looking out” for others to protect the innocent from injustice, to aid our friends and allies, and to protect and support our friends and loved ones. It is simply impossible to actually read Rand’s works, as Obama claims to have done, and miss these ubiquitous themes.
Obama points out that Lincoln saw the “intrinsic worth of every individual” and opposed slavery, implying that Rand somehow did not share Lincoln’s view. In fact, Rand wrote passionately against the evils of racism and involuntary servitude, and (although she offered a technical critique of intrinsicism as a philosophical doctrine) she held that each individual properly lives his own life in pursuit of his own values. Rand famously identified the fact: "The smallest minority on earth is the individual." Again, it is impossible to have read Rand and not seen these themes.
What does Obama seek in maligning Rand and misrepresenting her views? Obama wishes to perpetrate the fraud that, in order to collaborate with and care for other people, we must buy into Obama’s collectivist vision of forced wealth transfers, government-run industries, massives doses of corporate welfare, and an ever-expanding entitlement state.
Because Rand recognized the right of each individual to live for his own sake—free from involuntary servitude of any kind or degree—Rand rejected the use of force against individuals. Individuals are not properly the playthings of politicians, to be looted, cajoled, and coerced at whim, Rand held. Rand stated emphatically and repeatedly that each individual's life belongs to him, and that the good is to act on his own rational judgment in pursuit of his own life-serving values. Thus, Rand utterly rejected Obama’s anti-individualist, collectivist policies that violate the rights of individuals to act on their own judgment and keep and use the product of their effort.
Why, if Obama has read Rand, does he refuse to acknowledge her actual views? The clear answer is that Obama sees in Rand a threat to his collectivist vision.
Thankfully, although Rand is not around to defend herself from Obama’s smears, her works beckon any honest reader to learn what it means to live a life devoted to the rational pursuit of one’s values and respect for individual rights.
Prints of Ifat Glassman's Ayn Rand are available through Fine Art America.