The 75-Year-Old Book That Drives Our Politics

Why The Fountainhead Has Become a Public Policy Blueprint Today

Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

Be it privatizing the Veterans Administration, railing against “socialized medicine,” gutting the Environmental Protection Agency, or trying to starve public education, the proponents of these ideas all seem to be beholden to the work of Ayn Rand.

Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, was published 75 years ago this month, after being turned down by 12 publishers. Yet for people like Paul Ryan, Stephen Miller, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Peter Thiel, it might as well have been a briefing paper published this morning.

Even though Bill Buckley kicked Rand out of the conservative movement in the late 1950s, at a 2005 gathering to honor her memory, Paul Ryan declared, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”

Yaron Brook, the president and executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, and Jeff Schechtman’s guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, thinks that The Fountainhead is the classic American novel and that Rand’s ideas are at the core of American and Western civilization.

Opposition to her is just as contemporary, as people like Robert Reich and Paul Krugman devote significant efforts to trying to discredit her.

In his conversation with Schechtman, Brook talks about Silicon Valley and how, in his view, it’s wrong for leaders and inventors to share credit. He argues that they need not apologize or share their success, but instead bask shamelessly in their accomplishments.

He criticizes Bill Gates for focusing on philanthropy and giving his money away, when he could still be doing more to achieve greater success and make more money.

Originally published in 1943, The Fountainhead, Brook claims, was intended not as a political manifesto, but to put forward a way of seeing the world devoid of what he says is today’s tribalism and groupthink.


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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
The legendary studio head Harry Cohn once said to one of his writers that if you want to send a political message, use Western Union. The point was that movies were for entertainment, and some have even tried to make that argument with respect to novels. Over the years, this has hardly been the case.
One of the great examples of this is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, released 75 years ago this month. This story of ambition, love, and architecture reverberates through our political discourse today, both in middle America and in the halls of Congress. What other 75-year-old novel can spark a heated debate between Paul Ryan and Paul Krugman?
We’re going to talk about this today with my guest, Yaron Brook. He’s an Israeli American entrepreneur and writer. He’s the current chairman of the board of the Ayn Rand Institute where he was its executive director from 2000 to 2017. He’s also the co-founder of BH Equity Research and the author of several books.
It is my pleasure to welcome Yaron Brook here to talk about the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Fountainhead. Yaron, thanks so much for joining us on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Yaron Brook: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
Jeff Schechtman: Great to have you here. Talk a little bit about how the book was originally received, what the reaction to it was 75 years ago when it came out.
Yaron Brook: Well, the first thing to mention about is that 12 publishers turned it down. They thought the book was too philosophical, too many speeches, and that it would be too controversial, that the philosophy presented in it was too outside of the mainstream, and they turned it down. The 13th publisher luckily published it, but it too did not believe too much in the novel and they didn’t print too many copies. But, it became kind of a word of mouth bestseller, so they had to run back to the presses and print many copies.
The book was actually received quite well by the critics and by the publishing world, and even places like The New York Times wrote positive reviews of the book. Very different than the reception of the later book, Atlas Shrugged, would get. Again, it became a cultural phenomenon. People bought it. People read it. People discussed it. It created movements of students from campuses. Indeed, to this day, the book sells just about as many copies as it did back when it was first a bestseller in the 1940s. So, it’s one of these… really a publishing phenomenon of a book that sells as well 75 years after it was published as it did when it was originally a bestseller.
Jeff Schechtman: When it was originally published and it became kind of this cult classic and people, as you say, talked about it, students got on the bandwagon, what were the political and cultural touchstones that people latched onto then? What were the things that captured the imagination at that point?
Yaron Brook: Sure. I mean, remember, this is 1943, so this is a period where collectivism, political collectivism, both in the form of fascism in Germany and in the form of communism in the Soviet Union, were at the heyday. They seemingly were victorious, and here comes a book that challenges all of that. Not in a political drama. The book indeed doesn’t really talk about politics and doesn’t really address the issue of politics.
The book is about an architect and about his struggle to remain independent, to remain an independent thinker, to see his artistic vision become a reality. But, he is challenged by the forces of conformity, by the forces of collectivism, by the forces of groupthink and tribalism. The same forces that politically, in the world out there, seemed to be winning.
So, it was very much, I think, seen as massive political implications, as kind of America still representing the spirit of individualism, the spirit of independence, and the rest of the world really embracing collectivism. In that sense, I think it was viewed, and it is still viewed today, as the classic American novel. This is a novel about America, about the fundamental struggle at the heart and at the core of America and at the core of Western civilization.
Jeff Schechtman: During the 75 year period … Certainly it has gotten a lot of attention now, and we’ll talk more about that. But, during the 75 year arc of its publishing history, what were the periods when it didn’t sell as well? What were the periods when there wasn’t as much attention focused on it?
Yaron Brook: So, from what I can tell from the history, probably the 70s and the early 80s were periods where it sold less. I don’t really know before that, but my guess is it sold very well in the 40s, and then right after the publication Atlas Shrugged, I’m sure it sold very well because Atlas Shrugged was such a big hit. Then I’d say since the early 80s, where we have good publishing data, it’s seen a steady rise. Every decade it has sold more.
Of course, the best period for sales of all of Ayn Rand’s books was around 2009. I’d say the second half of 2008, 2009, and into 2010. So, the great recession, the election of Barack Obama, Obama Care, the notion that people had that Atlas Shrugged is really happening right before their eyes I think led to rise in sales across the board.
I’d say declined since then, but still at a higher level than 20 years ago. So, still on a general upward sales track.
Jeff Schechtman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). When people talk about it today, and you’ve been involved with Ayn Rand’s work and obviously with this book for quite some time, is there a difference in the way people perceive it today and the issues that they focus on, the parts of it that they focus on, in terms of the book and in terms of her broader Objectivist philosophy, different today than in the 60s or 70s or 80s?
Yaron Brook: I don’t think so in terms of the book because I think the book is quite clear. The book is really about this individualist who is willing to struggle and to succumb to anything to see his vision become a reality, and he sticks to his principles and has integrity as opposed to the compromiser, the appeaser, the conformist who is [inaudible? 6:59] nominally in the novel and represents the exact opposite of him. Then, of course, the manipulator, the critic who is trying to gain power through destroying the individualistic spirits and perpetuating the idea of conformity.
I think people see that conformity and that collectivism more today. They identify in a sense with the negative. They see the negative more prevalent in society today. I mean, there used to be this thing that people used to say about Ayn Rand. “Oh, nobody is quite that bad. Nobody is quite that evil. Her villains are all caricatures.” I think the difference is that, today, people read her novels and say, “Yeah. I know a politician like this. I know an intellectual like this. I know one of those talking heads on TV who says exactly what these villains of Ayn Rand said.” So, reality is catching up to her novels, and I think that’s the one difference.
With regard to broadly her philosophy, what I’m finding is that more and more people feel like they have to create straw men to attack. Now, that existed to some extent going way back to William F. Buckley’s decision to kick Ayn Rand out of the conservative movement, and write a horrible review of Atlas Shrugged in order to achieve that, all the way to today with Robert Reich just a few days ago putting out a video that presents a straw man of her views and then links her ideas with Donald Trump, where nothing could be further from the truth.
For the last 50, 60 years, people have had to create things, make up things that she never said in order to attack her, and maybe that is the greatest compliment that anybody gives her, is the fact that they can’t argue with what she actually said, they have to make stuff up, and that they feel it necessary in the world we live in today to constantly attack her, both on the left and on the right.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s interesting though in the way the complexity of the world has changed. I was thinking about this in the context, particularly of Silicon Valley, where there is more of a libertarian streak, where you will find people, as you know best, that have an affinity for her and her work, and yet the focus in Silicon Valley is much more collectivist, much more team oriented than Howard Roark could ever imagine.
Yaron Brook: I don’t agree with you. So, first of all, I don’t think that Ayn Rand was against teamwork. Even in The Fountainhead, Howard Roark collects around him a collection of people who were very talented and who he respects and who work with him on the projects. But, what is more like a Howard Roark character than somebody like Steve Jobs, who creates an iPhone out of his own imagination and doesn’t do any focus groups or surveys or anything like that, presents us with, in a sense, a finished product for us to reject or to accept.
I think that the mythology of Silicon Valley as being some kind of collectivistic place is not at all true. It is driven by visionaries. It is driven by the Howard Roarks of the world, whether they know it or not. I think the tragedy of Silicon Valley is that they don’t know it. The tragedy of Silicon Valley is that they feel like they have to play into the collectivistic hand. Even though many of them are true inspired geniuses who drive their companies and who really are the key behind the success of those companies, looking at Jeff Bezos would be another example, they feel like they need to apologize for that or they feel like they need to put on a pretense of, “Oh, no, no. This is all kind of a groupthink.” It’s not.
It’s driven by certain individuals who work with other people, as everybody does who is successful, in order to achieve their aims, but where they control a disproportionate part of the destiny of the company.
Jeff Schechtman: Why do you think that is? If you believe that, why do you think that those individuals need to put on that more groupthink patina?
Yaron Brook: Well, because I think that’s what the culture demands. I think we live in a collectivistic culture. We live in a culture that expects you to be altruistic, to sacrifice, to care more about other people than yourself. All these people put on that, I think to some extent it’s a façade, to some extent they believe it. But, I think to a large extent it’s what they think they should believe, whether they believe it or not.
So, Bill Gates has to leave Microsoft and start a foundation, start giving his money away. You can see when he talks that his passion is technology, that his passion is startups, that his passion is business, but he is… It’s what the culture expects, and unfortunately in this realm, they’re not as individualistic as Howard Roark. They’ve succumbed, and I think that’s true broadly in our politics and broadly in our culture. The collectivistic philosophy, the altruistic philosophy is the explicit philosophy everybody holds, and when they don’t live it, they feel guilty and they need later in life to find a way to compensate for it.
I think a lot of what you hear coming out of Silicon Valley is their attempt to compensate for the fact that they’re actually pretty self-interested individualists who drive their companies and who have vision, but they feel guilty about all that because that’s what the culture has taught them. That, I think, is a great tragedy of the 21st century.
Jeff Schechtman: Which gets to really my next question. Why do you think that that’s a tragedy? Why do you think that there’s something negative about having to apologize for that, or to function within a culture that is more accepting of a collectivist vision?
Yaron Brook: Well, because I think that collectivism is very dangerous and very bad for the individuals, and I think these individuals in particular have nothing to apologize. They are incredibly successful, and they’ve been successful by making all of our lives better already. You don’t make $100 billion, as Jeff Bezos did, without changing the world for the better, without making the world a better place to live.
My life is certainly much, much better because of Amazon and because of Apple and because of Google and because of… What do they have to apologize for? They should be proud of their achievements. They should walk around with a sense of wow, and we should thank them rather than demand their apology.
Jeff Schechtman: Don’t we also have to look at the big picture? I mean, all of them are incredibly successful and incredibly talented, and I agree with everything you say, except that none of them exist without the internet, the internet doesn’t exist without ARPANET, and ARPANET doesn’t exist without the government.
Yaron Brook: Well, that is speculation at best, right?
Jeff Schechtman: That is fact.
Yaron Brook: Because… No, it’s not. Because the fact is that much of the internet was created by universities. The idea that universities wouldn’t created it if they had been private is wrong.
Jeff Schechtman: It only created it with government funding.
Yaron Brook: Even a laissez-faire government would have a defense department, so much of ARPANET would exist no matter what. Of course, the internet was nothing, literally nothing, until a group of entrepreneurs figured out how to use it in a constructive, productive, creative way. Those were entrepreneurs. That was not the government.
The funding the university gets does not necessarily have to come from government. In a truly free market, universities would get just as much funding, if not more, to do basic research from these entrepreneurs who would make even more money in a completely free market. So, I mean, that’s where the money comes from anyway because the government has to take it from the wealth that people create.
So, the idea that the universe we live in today is the only path to get at the internet, and even the best path to get on the internet or anything else, is I think just wrong. I think we’d be richer, we’d have greater technology if the government had never entered this space, other than the necessity to do so for national defense.
Jeff Schechtman: How was the view of The Fountainhead, how was that shaped or changed by Atlas Shrugged that came several years later?
Yaron Brook: Well, I think Atlas Shrugged sharpens the philosophical view. I think by the time Fountainhead is written, I mean, Ayn Rand has a general knowledge of what her philosophy is, but she hasn’t worked out all the details. I think by the time Atlas Shrugged is finished, Ayn Rand has her philosophy down in her mind and to a large extent on paper. She knows what she thinks about every last detail of that philosophy. She’s got still things to work out, which she does in the 60s and 70s, but…
So, I think Atlas Shrugged is a more complete philosophical novel. In The Fountainhead, we’re getting a big part of that philosophy, but it’s not completely worked out yet in its details. But, essentially, it’s the same. It’s this idea that she always had, of man as a heroic being, of man as using his reason and using his mind to live the best life that he can live and to make the most of it, to make the most of the opportunities you have. You only live once, and she believed your moral responsibility was to pursue happiness, pursue flourishing, and do it by using your mind, by using your rational faculty to discover the values that make life good and make life worth living.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you think that that philosophy is more accepted, more pervasive today?
Yaron Brook: At the same time as it’s more rejected today. I think that more people have embraced the philosophy today than ever before, but I also think she’s hated by more people than ever before. I think her popularity and people who have embraced the philosophy, that number keeps growing from decade to decade, and I think that’s correlated to some extent with the decline in the culture. Our culture becomes more collectivist, more intolerant of different ideas, and more irrational, more…
I think the culture today is dominated, again both left and right, by a reverence for emotion over reason, and the prevalence of emotion over reason, whether it’s FaceSpace or whether it’s Twitter. What you see is people spewing emotions rather than people presenting rational arguments, and that would have I think horrified Ayn Rand, and to some extent that’s what’s preventing her ideas from having even a greater following.
Jeff Schechtman: What do you think is the greatest misconception about her work today?
Yaron Brook: I think the greatest misconception is about her idea of self-interest, her idea of selfishness. She wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness. I think that what you see in the straw man in her ideas is the idea that being selfish means lying, cheating, stealing, exploiting other people, following your emotions, doing whatever you feel like doing, and putting down other people for your own success, and that is exactly the opposite of what she believed in terms of what self-interest means.
She believed in rational, long-term self-interest, guided by moral values that led to a prosperous and successful life, neither sacrificing yourself to other people or asking anybody to sacrifice for you or demanding anybody to be sacrificed for you. It’s about Howard Roark. It’s about an independent thinker living his life by his own standard, not exploiting people, but living and making the most of life.
So, unfortunately, I think that’s the idea that most of the critics jump on and misrepresent her and create straw men about.
Jeff Schechtman: How do you think, finally, her views would have changed over time, as they moved into contemporary times?
Yaron Brook: You know, it’s really hard to tell. I mean, I think she was a genius and it’s hard for me to put myself in her views. I mean, I think that she was already opposed to the Republican party politically, with Reagan. I mean, she did not vote for Ronald Reagan because she feared the encroachment of the religious rights into the Republican party. I think all of her fears were confirmed by the dominance of the religious right in the Republican party over the last few decades.
I think she would have felt more and more isolated, mainly politically. But, I don’t know that her views would have changed dramatically. I don’t know that anything’s happened over the last 30 years to say there’s some big flaw or something that really needs to change about Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I really do think that the principles she articulated are as true today, even if its application today would be different. She would view different threats today. She would have a lot to say about our foreign policy. She would have a lot to say about a lot of things that are happening today that I don’t think were that concerning in the 1970s.
Jeff Schechtman: Yaron Brook is the president of the Ayn Rand Institute, and he speaks to us today marking the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Fountainhead. Yaron, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Yaron Brook: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Ayn Rand (Library of Congress / Wikimedia), Paul Ryan (U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr ), Ted Cruz (Gage Skidmore / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0), Rand Paul (Matt Johnson / Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0), Atlas (Casey Eisenreich / Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0), and Peter Thiel (DLD Conference / Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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4 responses to “The 75-Year-Old Book That Drives Our Politics”

  1. seco says:

    According to Ayn Rand, Africans deserved to be enslaved because they had a 1000 years to invent capitalism but they didn’t;

    so according to Ayn Rand, unless you invented capitalism first, then you are basically property of the capitalists since they are the fount of everything that exists;

    they “create” and “produce” everything…and this lame argument is seen as “rationality” and “objective reality” and “connecting” maths to “objectivity” (which is an absurd bizarre asinine redundant oxymoron tautology)…

    It gets to be exhausting after a while.

  2. Feliz Navidad says:

    Our high school literature teacher, Sister M. Kathleen, RSM, summed it all up succinctly:

    ‘You have to read one Any Rand book to know what she’s about. But reading her is a waste of time, so just read the one.’

    • Vegard O. says:

      Why does she claim it is a waste of time to read Ayn Rand? Is it because of Rand’s theory of concepts? Her tying the objectivity of concepts to a mathematical process? Her view on tying concepts to reality by hierarchical tracing? Her view on knowledge and integration with respect to context in concepts? Her view on the essence of definitions? Her reinforcing of the three metaphysical axioms of existence, consciousness, and identity? Her discovery of the metaphysical initial setups of the primacy of consciousness and the primacy of existence? Her discovery of what values are and why Man needs values? Her view on the major importance of art in Man’s life? And so on …

    • seco says:

      The issue with Rand is that people like Trump, Mike Pence and Paul Ryan and others(ALEC, AEI), use her to push an elite, anti-worker, anti-middle class, policy agenda that is couched as rugged individualism, as “objective” and rational and this is very effective in getting people to vote against their self-interest, especially when mixed with racial and ethnic demagoguery.

      Ayn Rand stated that,

      – Native Americans had their chance to create capitalism but did not, therefore they deserved to be stripped of their land.

      – Women are ideally “hero worshippers” who should submit themselves, body and soul, to great men.

      – homosexuality is “disgusting”.

      – “I think I represent the proper integration of a complete human being”.

      Ayn Rand’s rejection of modernity and complexity is tailor-made for the raw power of American politics on the Right.

      In effect, Randian pseudo-philosophy and her cult-like popular following gives elites cover to enact their preferred right-wing social and policy agenda.