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Ayn Rand's Conservative Call Echoes Today

Nov 1, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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'Ayn Rand and the World She Made' by Anne Heller

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In Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal policies, Ayn Rand saw the makings of a fascist nation. The author of a new biography of the conservative icon says Rand would have seen Obama's stimulus plan, bank bailout program and health care initiative as "a gigantic power grab."

"She would have been horrified," Anne Heller tells All Things Considered host Guy Raz. Heller's new book is titled Ayn Rand and the World She Made.

Heller calls Rand "perhaps the most important communicator of conservative ideas to the America people." Rand believed the dollar sign "was a better symbol than the cross, because it didn't require the sacrifice of anybody."

Rand parodied Roosevelt's support for things like collective bargaining and wage and price controls during the Great Depression in her famous book, Atlas Shrugged.

That 1957 novel, a dystopian tale of how entrepreneurs, industrialists and innovators all go on strike to protest excessive government interference in the marketplace, has sold more than 6 million copies since its publication.

Over the past year, Rand's books have reappeared on the bestseller lists. Heller says that makes perfect sense.

"When there are periods of economic decline," she says, "people are more likely to absorb [Rand's] message."

At last summer's tea-party rallies, some people held signs with the famous first line from Atlas Shrugged, "Who is John Galt?" Galt is the character who personifies capitalist idealism.

Critics of the Obama administration, like Fox's Glenn Beck and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), count themselves among Rand's devotees. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was a member of her inner circle.

Heller says Rand "wouldn't have liked Glenn Beck, but she would have been shouting some of the same things he was shouting."

In Rand's view, government had three specific and limited tasks: to defend the nation from foreign enemies, to police the nation against crime, and to enforce voluntary contracts between free parties. And that's it.

But Rand, who preached the notion of absolute personal freedom and individualism, was a study in contradictions.

Among her acolytes, she did not tolerate dissent.

"What she would tell you, basically, is that she was right and you were not thinking properly if you did not agree with her," Heller says.

Rand's longtime lover and student Nathaniel Branden circulated a list of rules for her followers to absorb. One read: "Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational or moral."

Rand was born Alissa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and fled to the United States after the Russian Revolution at the age of 21.

She witnessed her father's pharmacy and property expropriated by Red Army soldiers. The experience made her a fierce skeptic of government for the rest of her life.

"It made her very wary of any authoritarian entity," Heller says.

Rand eventually worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter, where she encountered a prevailing political outlook that she treated with contempt. "It drove her crazy to hear the romanticization of communism [in Hollywood]," Heller says.

As her writings became more popular, her circle of devoted followers, mostly young men, grew. Their loyalty to Rand was cult-like.

"In her later years, when she wasn't writing," Heller says, "her temper, her demands for loyalty, her self-absorption drove people away."

Heller spent years researching Rand's life. In the end, she admits, "I didn't like her at all, but I empathized with her just a little bit."

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