Ayn Rand & William F. Buckley, Jr.

I’ve been slowly figuring out the relationship of William F. Buckley, Jr. and Ayn Rand in their influence on the conservative movement.  

The truly odd part is that Ayn Rand’s objectivism has been conflated with libertarianism and the ‘social liberal’/anarchist libertarians have been forgotten about (surviving only by the force of Chomsky’s intellect).  Then the confused mixing of ideologies was somehow used as rhetoric for the rising religious right which, in response to Cold War Imperialism, ended up as evangelical neoconservatism.  Sadly, Rand’s idealism of rational self-interest and individualism became the justification of the neocons and their imperialistic military-industrial complex. 

Bush jr’s administration saw the full flowering of this trend.  And, more recently, the paranoid religious fringe, by way of Glenn Beck, has attempted to coopt Ayn Rand into their patriotic moral conservatism… somehow attempting to fit rational self-interest into the frame of submission to ideological fundamentalism with it’s concept of the fallen self.  Buckley supposedly was responsible for kicking out of the libertarian movment the racists and conspiracy theorists, but I’m getting the sense they might be sneaking back in now that he isn’t on watch.

I don’t know what Ayn Rand would think of it all, but she would not be happy.  Despite her criticisms of liberals, it was the conservatives that she thought would destroy America and she might turn out to be correct.  She had such opposition to the idea of a ‘moral majority’ that she considered starting a party called the ‘immoral minority’.

I’m even more confused about Buckley.  He apparently was the major intellectual and political force in making the religious right respectable within the GOP, but he later on had reservations about this alliance.  He criticized the harsh rhetoric of the religious right, especially in relation to overt gay-bashing.  Supposedly, Buckley believed in separation of Church and State, but at the same time he thought Christian values should be incorporated into the government’s policies and forced on to the American public.  He didn’t like the harsh rhetoric because it undermined his plan to sneak religious beliefs into politics in a more covert manner. 

Compared to today’s ideologues, Buckley was fairly tame.  The only person comparable to Buckley is Robert George who is the new leader of intellectually respectable moral conservatism.

We need a new Ayn Rand if only to knock some commonsense back into the conservative mindset.  Until then, we’ll have to make do with the words of Rand which are rather prescient considering what has become of the conservative movement.

William F. Buckley, Jr.: The Witch-Doctor is Dead
By Harry Binswanger

William F. Buckley, Jr. is finally dead. Buckley was the man who initiated and sustained the movement to bring religion into the conservative movement. His first book was “God and Man at Yale,” which I haven’t read or looked at, but which is said to have criticized Yale education for being both leftist and anti-religious. He then founded the magazine National Review, which Ayn Rand in her Playboy interview of 1964 called “the worst and most dangerous magazine in America,” because of its crusade to tie capitalism to religion. Here is what she said of National Review in a letter to Barry Goldwater in 1960:

This leads me to the subject of the National Review. I am profoundly opposed to it–not because it is a religious magazine, but because it pretends that it is not. There are religious magazines which one can respect, even while disagreeing with their views. But the fact that the National Review poses as a secular political magazine, while following a strictly religious “party line,” can have but one purpose: to slip religious goals by stealth on those who would not accept them openly, to “bore from within,” to tie Conservatism to religion, and thus to take over the American Conservatives. This attempt comes from a pressure group wider than the National Review, but the National Review is one of its manifestations. . . .

The attempt to use religion as a moral justification of Conservatism began after World War II. Observe the growing apathy, lifelessness, ineffectuality and general feebleness of the so-called Conservative side, ever since. You are, at present, a rising exception in the Republican ranks. I do not believe that that pressure group could succeed in making you its tool. But a philosophical pressure group is very hard to detect, particularly at first. That is why I want to warn you against them now, and help you to identify the nature of their influence.

I am not certain that you understood my relationship to the National Review, when I spoke to you here. I thought that you knew the facts, but perhaps you do not. In brief, they printed a review of Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers, which I have not read, on principle; those who have read it, told me that this former Communist spy claimed that my book advocates dictatorship. Thereafter, the National Review printed two articles about me (which I did read), one of them allegedly friendly, both of them misrepresenting my position in a manner I have not seen outside The Daily Worker or The Nation. What was significant was their second article: it denounced me for advocating capitalism. [Letters of Ayn Rand, pp. 571-2]

Buckley’s Big Mistake
By Gregory Paul

William F. Buckley Jr. was, like most American conservatives, a traditionalist Christian who was appalled at the secularization of western culture. And like most who share his right wing world-view, he made a mistake that is astonishing in its naivety — a mistake that is helping wreck western religion while it promotes the very secularization of the population Buckley et al. decry. It is the Grand Alliance between the religious right and corporate capital.

The Bible was written by Bronze and Iron Age peoples who had little concept about modern free enterprise. Nor did Jesus talk about stock options or hedge funds. Many early Christians lived in communistic communities where property was considered sinful. The fundamentalist Protestant William Jennings Bryan used to rail against the secular forces of capital. The Roman Church Buckley belonged to has always looked askance at capitalism. Yet, especially since World War II, the bulk of the conservative Christian cause — mainly evangelical with a number of Catholics going along for the ride — have embraced free wheeling, deregulated, laissez-faire, corporate capitalism as though it is God’s way for his human creations to manage their large scale economics. [. . .]

One reason only a quarter of the public attends church on a given Sunday is because lots of busy shoppers prefer to hit the stores on Sunday — which became possible only after the retailers helped repeal the Puritanical Blue Laws. Bill O’Reilly targets secularists for waging war on Xmas in order to divert attention away from how the mercantile powers have remade the event into a shop-til-you drop secular holiday. The right once owned the culture via the oppressive Comstock Laws, and the Hayes Code that ruled Hollywood. Nowadays not a single conservative Christian themed program graces the corporate owned entertainment networks, whose programming is steeped in the salacious and irreligious. Such as FOX’s hypergraphic medical drama House which stars a proudly atheist MD. Rupert Murdoch’s entertainment empire is notorious for offering an array of irreligious TV and film product that feeds cultural secularization, while his FOX News presents conservative pundits such as O-Reilly are careful to charge the faithless liberals, not the capitalists, with coarsening the culture. Despite winning the occasional battle, the right has lost the culture war as the corporate world takes its putative religious allies for a ride. [. . .]

William Buckley was instrumental in shifting the American Christian right from William Bryan’s old fashioned anti-capitalism to its modern enthusiasm for mass consumerism. To be blunt about it, for all his erudite intellectualism Buckley was not socially astute; the populist Bryan had much better horse sense concerning the dangers that the capitalist world-view posed for popular piety. One has to wonder exactly how right-wingers think that they will get a traditionalist culture out of the rat-race that is the pursuit of wealth and pleasure. Instead, Buckley’s Grand Alliance has predictably backfired. The corporate-consumer culture has been a disaster for mass faith in every western democracy — that’s one reason the Vatican remains so skeptical about it. But to be fair, it is not like the religious right has much in the way of viable options. They are in a classic socio-political bind. If they break off their Republican collaboration with capital they will lose what political power they have, which is already sliding as the growing secularism favors the Democrats. Nor can the churches compete for cultural influence with commercial forces that enjoy a cash flow amounting to many trillions each year. It looks like there is little that the followers of Buckley can do to stem much less reverse the rise of popular secularism.

2 thoughts on “Ayn Rand & William F. Buckley, Jr.

  1. Is it self-centered greed or legitimate self-interest that is the main concern with those who do not understand Ayn Rand? Those who admire and criticize Ayn Rand’s beliefs about people who stand on their own feet often say she promoted selfishness, thereby greed, which is self-centered and anti-individual creativity. That is anti-Rand. Rand admired the creative individual, people like railroad builder James Jerome Hill, on whom she was reputed to have based her character Nathaniel Taggart in Atlas Shrugged. Independent “I’m OK, you’re OK” people are OK with Rand, not the criminal takers. If we look at Howard Roark’s summation to the jury, from Fountainhead, we do not see a self-centered individual destroying his work. If he was greedy he would have simply accepted his payment. We see an other- and outer-centered individual in love with his own dreams and creations, as one would love a spouse, child or family and refuse to allow them to be assaulted. That is the kind of self-interest that built America. Though love for anything spiritual may be missing, a great idea or vision also measures up to that which is spiritual, beyond self, and that view is not even inconsistent with Christianity. Claysamerica.com.

    • I first read Rand, like many people, in college. I first read some of her fiction which was what drew me in, but I was bothered by two things.

      1) Her characters seemed superficial or somehow embodiments of abstractions. They seemed like ideals rather than real people. Even so, they were very compelling ideals.

      2) There is a rape scene that she portrays in a romanticized way. It idealized the strong man who takes what he wants without asking. It seemed like a scene I’d expect from a trashy romance novel rather than from a novel of ideas.

      I only came to more fully understand my dissatisfaction with her ideas about and attitude towards life when I read some of her nonfiction. There are two things that I remember that bothered me:

      1) She described her ideal of self-interest with a concrete example. She said if your child had a friend over to play you shouldn’t let the other kid play with your child’s toys. The toys were your childs. I suppose she might’ve been find if the child willingly chose to share. But the point seemed to be that selfishness was primary in human nature or should be primary in human beharior, where as altruism and other-directed behavior was secondary.

      This intuitively made no sense to me at the time, and since then my research into psychology and sociology have provided ample evidence that humans are actually primarily social animals. Our individuality only emerges from our relationship with our mother and our sense of being a part of a group. Primates that are raised alone without socialization grow up to be aggressive and violent, and generally just plain deranged.

      2) I was reading an anecdote from her life. I can’t remember if she was writing about it or someone was writing about it in the introduction to the book. Anyways, it was about her relationship to other philosophers. She had an open challenge to any and all philosophers to debate her, but she had no takers or so that was her perception.

      There was something arrogant about this behavior. I would imagine that academic philosophers didn’t want to debate her because her behavior was irritating. Also, some of her ideas are rather simplistic. She took it that they refused to debate her as proving she was right when all it proved was no one wanted to debate her.

      However, I’ve been researching more about her and her ideas lately. I’m regaining some respect for her. You can’t doubt that she had major issues, but she did do a lot of good. I respect her for her fight against the problems of the religious right, and on this account she seems to have been correct.

      Self-interest built America? I understand that perspective, but I think it’s simplistic. Most of the first settlers were white slaves (indentured servants), and later on our countries greatness was built on the backs of black slaves and impoverished Chinese immigrants. Of course, the people who owned those slaves and took advantage of immigrants as cheap labor were doing so in their self-interest.

      Self-interest was a part of the ideology the Founding Fathers had, but it was just one part.

      They actually idealized the role of the ‘disinterested aristocracy’ in being the political leaders. The idea was that their should be people who are independently wealthy. What this meant is this person played no role in capitalism. Even if a politician owned a business, it was thought he shouldn’t involve himself in it but rather have others run it. This supposedly would give him the appropriate disinterest to make good descisions for the entire community.

      Of course, this was just an ideal. In practice, none of them were independently wealthy and so they were forced to deal with business transactions.

      I suppose the earliest person who believed in self achievement was Benjamin Franklin. He is America’s ideal of the inventor/entrepreneur. However, some think the library he founded was the first public library in America. Later on, Andrew Carnegie donated tons of money to start public libraries around the coutnry which have become central to our sense of local community. Public schools go back to the first Puritans.

      The US has always been a community-based society. In many ways, we’re more community-oriented than many other developed countries. Because everyone who came to America was an immigrant, the ability to develop communities became extremely important. Immigrants couldn’t simply rely on extended family as they did in the Old World, but had to rely on neighbors and friends. If you were too independent-minded, your chances of success and survival were extremely diminished.

      Our state and federal park systems were created because of socialist (i.e., community-oriented) tendencies in the American psyche. Many of the trail systems and structures in these parks were built by people put to work by socialist programs during the Depression. Even many public buildings and public works of art within these buildings were built by these same Depression era socialist programs.

      The very concept of our society is a balance between capitalism and socialism. The car you drive is capitalism, but the road you drive it on is socialism. The shower and the faucets in your house are capitalism, but the water that comes out of them are socialism. The examples are endless.

      To be fair to Rand, her ideal of self-interest was fairly complex as I understand it. She didn’t disavow the ideals of religion, but she thought they should be secularized. Her understanding of self-interest was that one person’s self-interest was on the personal level separate from another person’s self-interest, but she believed in being inspired by a higher vision. This higher vision was an extension of or somehow connected with self-interest, and so if a higher vision was shared then the respective self-interests would serve a greater good that indirectly would be shared by all.

      Of course, it’s by definition rather idealistic, but Rand no doubt believed in her ideals. She lived her own higher vision and apparently it has inspired some other people as well, but not as many as she would’ve hoped.

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