In Radicals for Capitalism, Brian Doherty credits three women with spearheading the limited government movement in the twentieth century: Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and probably most famously, Ayn Rand. As public confidence in free markets dwindles, Ayn Rand’s influence on deregulation and laissez-fairre capitalism has simultaneously come under heavy scrutiny and received renewed interest in America and bizarre places abroad.

A couple major biographies have recently come out about Rand. Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy weighed in on Rand’s influence on his own life and views:

I was never much influenced by Rand or impressed by her writings. I became a libertarian in high school primarily as a result of reading Friedman, Hayek, Nozick, and Thomas Sowell – and because being a refugee from communism prevented me from becoming a left-liberal, as would otherwise have been likely. I also read some of Rand’s books at that time. But I wasn’t impressed with her effort to defend free markets based on her theory of the “virtue of selfishness,” or her “Objectivist” philosophy. Many of her ideas seemed poorly developed or superficial. I was also turned off by her intolerance for disagreement and her lack of serious effort to engage with opposing points of view.

…There was, however, one important point that I underrated: Ayn Rand was the greatest popularizer of libertarian ideas of the last 100 years. Many more people have read Rand’s books than have read all the works of Friedman, Hayek, Mises, Nozick, and all the other modern libertarian thinkers combined. In becoming a libertarian without any influence from Rand, I was actually unusual. Over the last 15 years, I have met a large number of libertarian intellectuals and activists of the last two generations, including some of the most famous. More often than not, reading Rand influenced their conversion to libertarianism, even though very few fully endorse her theories or consider themselves Objectivists.

I come from the same camp as Ilya. My thoughts on Rand’s exact moral philosophy are less than lukewarm but I think any libertarian would be hardpressed to deny the tremendous influence she has had on the American public (Atlas Shrugged was rated the most influential book in a 1991 poll by the American Library of Congress after the Bible). Though I don’t completely understand Objectivism, I also stand aghast at its implications of completely mechanical lifestyles and selfishness as a “virtue”. On the other hand, I was pretty inspired, and still am, by The Fountainhead. I am uncertain as to whether I think it is legitimately a solid book or whether the context I read it in in high school – in the midst of very anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-individualist literature – made me appreciate it as much as I did.

Ilya might have more experience than I in the libertarian subculture, but I question his belief that those not influenced by Rand are the exception. To give one example, Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine has spoken many times of his disdain for the association between Ayn Rand and Reason.

Also, despite my position as a non-religious person, I still find it troubling that Rand militantly believed capitalism/individualism to be incompatible with religion (she once told Bill Buckley he was too smart to believe in God).

Either way, I agree with Milton Friedman when he described Rand as “an utterly intolerant and dogmatic person who did a great deal of good.”

With the financial meltdown of the last couple or so years, the world seems to be turning to a populist mentality of blaming bankers and businessmen for the world’s ills. Often people forget the tremendous good that entrepreneurs, capitalists, and profit-seeking individuals have done for society.

I loved The Fountainhead. It was a refreshing break from most of the books I was reading in high school in that it celebrated the potential of mankind. I see Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, on the other hand, as a bit ‘out there’ for me. Nonetheless, I think this is a great quote from Ms. Rand, conveying the often overlooked fact that businesses/corporations can actually have a net social gain for society:

The American businessmen, as a class, have demonstrated the greatest productive genius and the most spectaular achievements ever recorded in the economic history of mankind. What reward did they receive from our culture and its intellectuals? The position of a hated, persecuted minority. The position of a scapegoat for the evils of the bureaucrats.