I’ve written previously about the opportunity that the Democratic Party seemed to have in recent years to woo libertarians into their camp. Even right-leaning libertarians were frustrated by the Bush administration’s spending and some of the national security infrastructure put in place after September 11. In addition, the surging support on the left for gay marriage and other social issues seemed to present an opening if the Democrats nominated in 2008 an even modestly pro-market candidate.
They didn’t, and instead nominated Barack Obama, who promised to increase the federal government’s reach into private life, enact a top-town government-run health care system (he was a vocal supporter of the single-payer system), and spread the wealth around. So it was strange to watch libertarians vote for Obama in reasonably large numbers. Reason magazine’s 2008 list of their editors and contributors’ vote preferences makes for sobering reading to any libertarian-leaning voter. And so does part of President Obama’s Rolling Stone interview with historian Douglas Brinkley.
Obama is asked at one point if he has ever read Ayn Rand. He responds “sure,” though it soon becomes clear that this is highly unlikely. Brinkley asks Obama about what he terms Paul Ryan’s “obsession with her work,” and how Obama thinks it would be relevant should Ryan become vice president. Since a silly question deserves only a silly answer, Obama gleefully provides the silliest he could come up with:
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. It’s not one that, I think, describes what’s best in America. 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.
Those who follow politics will recognize immediately the president’s signature on this answer. Clutching mightily to any straw man Obama can find rather than grapple honestly with, or seek to begin to understand, any political philosophy that stands in the way of his own political agenda, is classic Obama. But it also makes clear, as Hans Schulzke at United Liberty suggests, that the president hasn’t actually read Rand. Schulzke writes:
If President Obama had read Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, or We the Living, he’d know that Rand’s characters often undergo pain, difficulty, or danger for the sake of their friends. This isn’t sacrifice; Rand rejected sacrifice saying, “‘Sacrifice’ is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.”[sic] In the Objectivist ethos, a man’s physical security or well-being could be valued less highly than his integrity, his love for friends, or his compassion for the poor. The distinction lies in it being a conscious choice between values….
Put in simplest terms, the success of the free market relies on cooperation and trade. You can be free and isolated, but you cannot have a market without society. That’s a basic definitional distinction that the President fails to grasp.
Schulzke’s whole post is worth a read. I am not a fan of Ayn Rand or her philosophy, and I tend to think that conservatism as I envision it could not credibly thrive in a Randian Objectivist world, and that neither could religion in the organized way nor even faith as a private common value. Nonetheless, there are two points worth making here.
First, I don’t know where Obama gets his idea of Rand being the province of brooding 18-year-olds, but most people come into contact with Rand’s work because they went to high school. (I was a freshman in high school when first assigned Rand.) That is, Rand’s work is interesting and worthwhile even if you don’t agree with the philosophy behind it, just like many of the other authors commonly assigned to high school students. I don’t know much about the president’s education, but it does not seem to have produced a particularly well-rounded or open-minded attitude toward fiction and literature, and that goes double for political philosophy.
And second, neither Brinkley nor Obama seem to be paying much attention to the current presidential race, which is a shame in Brinkley’s case because he is a historian and in Obama’s case because he is one of the candidates running. As I wrote last week, Ryan believes the strength of the polity lies in part in volunteer organizations and a community-minded ethos that holds charity and personal sacrifice in fairly high regard. The president’s hostility to these and to the role of faith groups in American society is closer to Rand than to Ryan. Which he would know, if he were even superficially familiar with either of them.