TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

Obama, Unsurprisingly, Gets Ayn Rand Wrong

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.

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Posted in: Ayn Rand and Objectivism, Politicians and Candidates

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • Dusquene Whistler

    For the thousandth time, the Emancipation Proclamation is useless nonsense. Did Lincoln free the slaves in Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia or Maryland? States where he conceivably might have such powers? No he didn’t, he might as well have written a proclamation bossing around France. The EP also did not apply to any state rejoining the Union in 100 days. It’s not some great leap forward.

  • Walter Sobchak

    “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.”

    I doubt he’s read Ayn Rand. I doubt he’s even read the two books Bill Ayers ghost-wrote for him. I’m sure the bulk of his reading consists of Friedrich Engles, Karl Marx, and Saul Alinski.

  • Steve Hathway

    Objectivism teaches that you are responsible for your own life. The only way to sustain your life and attain happiness is to develop and use your rational faculty. Further, this effort is required of each individual and can not be performed for you by someone else. Just as someone can not digest your food for you, no one else can think for you.

    These simple ideas are often warped by opponents of Ayn Rand. From these simple notions, they conclude that Objectivism advocates a type of dog-eat-dog world. Critics often link ’social Darwinism’ to Objectivist ethics. Critics claim that anyone who follows this philosophy must not care for or require any other person.

    From my own personal experience, nothing could be further from the truth. I want to be surrounded by other strong, rational individuals. I seek them out. I founded the Fox Valley Objectivists to attract others interested in learning more about Ayn Rand and her ideas. Our monthly meetings satisfy a deep psychological need for me. I go out of my way to have lunch or dinner with other Objectivists.

    In my job, I relish working with competent professionals, whether or not they can even spell Objectivism. I admire their work and ability. I see their strength in an area I am weak, not as a threat, but as a benefit to me. I am thrilled to find an intern who shows a willingness to learn new things and an aptitude to solve problems. Their willingness to accept new responsibilities frees my time to concentrate on other matters of more value to the company.

    In both instances (personal and professional), my life is enriched by others and would be diminished had I not known them. But it is important to point out that I value these people for their strengths, not their weaknesses. And this is what Obama hates.

  • Anonymous

    Engels, Alinsky, maybe. *Nobody* has read Marx.

    It’s too long, his style is impenetrable, and you can’t believe his characters. Lousy movie, too. Oops, wrong stock criticism…I think you see my point.

  • Roark

    Obama has probably never even read one book of Ayn’s. He is merely spouting talking points he got from his socialist college professors. POS.

  • Teresa Koch

    I’ve just started re-reading “Atlas Shrugged” (it’s been 35 years…..), and I can see how someone who thinks like Obama (and his ilk) could misinterpret Rand’s writing.

    He identifies with the takers.

    Everything that the antagonists say in that book is what takers have always said – and since takers will never see the world as the makers see it, they will ALWAYS believe that.

    Eye of the beholder, and all that…..

    What amazes me is how timeless Rand’s book is – the same things are still happening. The difference is that I, myself, can appreciate her works even more today than I did as a 17-year-old, because I now have a more experienced understanding of the world.

  • zigory

    It is still mind-boggling to me how much things have changed–exactly the way some of us dreamed and predicted. Would this writer, Ayn Rand, whose works people only discovered by word of mouth or via one Gary Cooper movie, who bravely expressed the real truth unlike literally everyone else, become known to the culture at large? Would naming her to a stranger ever get a response of recognition instead of “You mean Anne Rice?” Would her unique ideas ever be common topics of discussion? She has gone from barely known, to having her name spoken by both a Vice Presidential candidate and a President thirty years after her death. Although her ideas are usually misrepresented, people can read her own words to find out the truth.

  • jones.barry

    Obama is just regurgitating something he heard a supposedly smart person say.
    I enjoyed both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged but I don’t see myself re-reading either. Life is too short and those are some thick tomes.

  • Lisa Liel

    The thing is, while Anthem may be good for younger readers, teens should *not* read Atlas Shrugged. The odds of them holding onto Objectivism as adults are much lower if they get into it as an adolescent.

  • Kurt Engelhart

    What does Armstrong seek in maligning Obama and misrepresenting his views?

  • Kurt Engelhart

    Yes, but the most important contribution of our “rational facility” is noticing that we only exist by virtue of working together with others.

  • Martin Lundqvist

    Sure, Anthem might be a bit lighter read than Atlas, but both books handle many of the same topics. If a teenager, having read Anthem, is eager to digest Atlas, then why on Earth would one stop him? It makes no sense…

  • David Blankenau

    What views of Obama’s are being misrepresented in this post? Do you mean Ari’s characterization of Obama’s “collectivist vision of forced wealth transfers, government-run
    industries, massive doses of corporate welfare, and an ever-expanding
    entitlement state” is NOT accurate?

    Obama CLEARLY has no interest in engaging in honest discussion of Rand’s ideas. He has NO intellectual ammunition to use, so he does what all other statists and their sympathizers do: attempt a smear campaign.

  • Anton Olff

    Obama got it wrong. Marx is what you read when you are young and feeling misunderstood. Rand is what you read and misunderstand, as he obviously does.

  • David DeZan

    Obama’s objective is to downplay Rand’s influence by portraying it as (I don’t want to say obsolete) out-of-touch, juvenile, part of a phase that “real” adults and intellectuals grow out of after their teen years. It doesn’t really matter whether he has read any of Ayn Rand or not, he understands that the general public understand this very shallow view of her work and that he can utilize that view to downplay it effectively without getting into the nitty gritty. It’s a typically brilliant Obama strategy and is why he was able to pass off his opponent in this election as a woman hating, out of touch guy who hates poor people. You’ve got to hand it to the guy, he is effective…

  • L. Kurt Engelhart

    “voluntary division of labor” This can have an innocuous meaning if pointing out that different people on a team have different roles. However, the term is frequently used by tyrants to assert the natural law that some are born to rule over others.