Intro. [Recording date: October 2, 2017.]
Russ Roberts: Jennifer Burns's... first book, which is the topic of today's conversation, is Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.... So, on the surface, a biography of Ayn Rand seems like an unusual topic for an historian. What drew you to her? And, why is she important in history?
Jennifer Burns: That's a great question. And, I started graduate school in the year 2000, and I was interested in intellectual history. I was interested in religious history. I was sort of exploring. And it just so happened that I kept coming across Ayn Rand. It was like this weird thing where, you know, I might get on the bus and see someone buried in Atlas Shrugged. Or, I might go to a friend's house who never, ever reads; and there she's got Atlas Shrugged by her bedside. And I started thinking, 'What's up with Ayn Rand? She's a historical figure. She existed in history.' Like, 'I should learn about her.' And so, I went to the library and I looked at the shelf of books on Rand. And I noticed a couple of things. First of all, it was a much smaller shelf than you may find for any other author as widely read as her. And, secondly, I could divide that shelf in half. Basically, into books that said, 'Ayn Rand is a terrible person who ruined my life and whose philosophy is the root of all evil,' to, 'Ayn Rand is the most brilliant thinker since Aristotle.' And, it sort of occurred to me there had to be a middle story between these two poles. And, at the same time, I was in graduate school in American History, and historians, you know, working in the academy, were starting to think about conservatism more seriously. Starting to write about it, starting to wonder about it. And so, these two things sort of came together--this sort of growing interest I had in this curious figure I just wanted to learn more about. And then this realization she'd actually been quite influential in the conservative movement. And that was this growing area of scholarship. And maybe I could put these together and come up with a suitable topic for a dissertation.
Russ Roberts: Had you read much, or any, of her work at that point?
Jennifer Burns: You know, I had. I'd read The Fountainhead in college. It was given to me by a family member who said, 'You're at a point in life where you should read The Fountainhead.' And, you know, it took a little bit, in sort of a curious way. I read the whole book. I didn't love it. I felt like I didn't get it, though. And so I think that part of that stuck with me: like, she's making references, she's making allusions, she's doing something here that I'm not quite getting. And so, I actually felt a little resentful that this book had gone over my head. [?] it was so long; I made myself read it. So I think that's part of why I came back to it. And I had, you know, dipped a little bit into the virtue of selfishness, which, you know, talked a lot about this revolutionary new morality, kind of seemed intriguing to me as a college student; but, again, I didn't--I didn't click or gel with it that way. And so, you know, I think, for me as a historian, someone who is always interested in the broader context or the longer story, I found a way to approach Rand for me is by looking at her life and how it kind of interweaves with the lives of other people that she met and she encountered. And that's what I ended up writing about in the book.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; it's a really--it's a fascinating book that I learnt a lot from. And, I should put my historical cards on the table. I read--I think I probably read Atlas Shrugged, or my first Rand, when I was in high school. Again, like you, a family friend gave me this book and said, 'You're going to find this interesting.' And I certainly did. And somewhere--you know, through my college years, I read--most of her books. Maybe close to all of them. And I remember my--that culminated, in some sense of culmination, with Anarchy, State, and Utopiaby Robert Nozick when I was a senior in college I read that. And those books had a huge impact on me. Along with Milton Friedman. Nozick, Friedman, and Rand had a huge impact on me. And I've mentioned Ayn Rand's name--I would say 10, maybe 10 times on this program, for this almost 600 episodes we've done. We've never done an episode on her work, so I'm excited to talk about that with you. But, at some point in my life, I got disenchanted with Rand's--with the virtue of selfishness. And it strikes me that I may have been unfair to her. You are scrupulously fair, it seems to me, to her in your book. And we'll talk about that whole--the question of what selfishness means, and also the way that you treat her.
Russ Roberts: But, I want to start with a little, with her personality. I did not know until I read your book how extraordinarily charismatic that she was. I didn't realize that, with the help of an inner circle of friends and acolytes that she created a slightly-frightening--well, I would say 'frightening'; I'm not going to say 'slightly'--a cult of personality around her philosophy and her writing. So, talk about her personality and the devotion and passion of her followers, and how that played out in 1960s, politically and culturally.
Jennifer Burns: Yeah. It's interesting. So, she did have a very powerful charisma. And she also had a very powerful negative charisma--which, I think goes back to that bookshelf. Some people just hate Ayn Rand. They cannot stand her. They have a very visceral, negative reaction. And others, especially those who met her at the right moment, just sort of fell under her spell. And I think some of that goes to her very unusual personality where--she was what she wrote about, in terms of being a true individualist, very solitary. Doesn't mean she didn't care about other people or have strong emotions or want the high regard of other people. She absolutely did want that. But, she was free from a lot of the sort of striving for status in power and positioning, so she could have a very unique[?] perspective on someone when she met them; and she could have, for all her difficulty reading other people's emotions, she sometimes would get a very sort of deep and pure insight into your core. And she could give that to a person, and just win their unending loyalty. Now, then might become a sort of dominant relationship where, she was so overwhelming, she was so quick, she had thought so much about what she stood on every issue that it was very hard to disagree with her. And she would sort of use this logical web of: 'If you agree in rationality, here are my first premises; you agree with my first premise, now, here we go. You can't break free because I've already got you to agree on the basics, and you're going to follow me wherever I go.' And, it started going in very strange directions in terms of the type of music you could listen to, the types of movies that these premises would lead you to. And so--I mean, you called it frightening, this sort of cult of personality. I'd add a couple of things to that. So, as I describe in my book, when she moved to New York in the mid-1950s, she had a whole series of encounters with conservatives, some of whom began to follow her philosophy; many of whom did for a short while and then sort of broke away, or, like yourself, found certain things missing or inadequate. And then, she pulled to her a group of college students, or actually recent college graduates, centered around a young couple, Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Branden. And they became sort of the core set of her social life and her intellectual life and her world. And they pulled in others--among them, Alan Greenspan is kind of the most famous member of this group--that called themselves 'The Collective.' And, a couple of things, I would say--we'll get to the, I assume we'll get to the relationship with the Brandens--it's sort of its own set of discussions. But, when I really came to see is the 1950s and the 1960s, for intellectuals and cultural figures, were kind of the Age of the Entourage. Like, you weren't anybody until you had an entourage. Like, think about Frank Lloyd Wright--he had Taliesin; he had all these people designing like him. It was sort of a mark of status and accomplishment if you had this entourage. And also, for Rand, who was outside of any kind of institution. She wouldn't have graduate students. She wouldn't have, you know, necessarily, proteges in the typical way she would hire or in that way they would simply become part of her social world. Now, you called it 'scary.' And it is true that there's a lot of first-person, eye-witness testimony that, to be in this tight inner circle, very close to Rand, could be very psychologically damaging for people and, sort of stifling; and that to stay there long term, you had to--and this is this giant, grand paradox--suppress your own individuality in order to support Rand's specific idea of what individualism was. And so, in that inner core, it was like--I mean, Murray Rothbard has this incredible letter. I don't know if your listeners will be familiar with Rothbard, anarcho-capitalist--you know, very libertarian. And he met Rand, and he kind of went hot and cold on her. And eventually he sent her this letter that was like, 'When I met you, you were like the sun, and I thought you would burn me up if I got too close.' You know? And, so if you knew Rand in New York in the 1950s, that could be a dangerous spot. Now, if you were a couple of degrees out, and you read her book at the right time and the right place, it might change your life. And it might change your life for the better. And I, regularly meet--and this is actually an interesting angle of her, and her relationship with women and gender--I all the time meet women who read her at a certain moment in their lives, and said, 'Things are different for me, since I read that book.' I just met a woman who said, 'When I first read Ayn Rand, I thought I was going to be a nurse. And after I finished Ayn Rand, I was like: No. I'm going to be a doctor.' And she became a doctor. And so, that aspect of Rand, I think is also really important. And people can get over-focused on this cult in New York, because it's so interesting and fascinating and kind of weird. But, I really think the true impact of Rand is several--if you think of concentric circles of influence or readership around her, it's not that tight-knit group. It's a view out, is where you really have people being impacted by her philosophy in ways personal and ways political.
Russ Roberts: Well, as you point out, it's a little bit of a paradox. These people--she demanded total loyalty. Which is ironic, given her stress on individualism and reason. But her view was: I'm right; everything else is wrong; and therefore if you don't follow me and agree with everything I say, obviously there is something wrong with your powers of reason. But, it has a--first, it has a religious feel to it. And she's an anti-religious person. It has a cult-feel to it--and she's an individualist. And the group call themselves "The Collective." Which is weird. Because she's not--she's an opponent of collectivism.
Jennifer Burns: Well, it was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. Right? Like, ha-ha. And, eventually it's like, 'Well, the joke's on you.' It did become very collectivistic. I mean, you know, we can sort of go back and forth on this. I think one issue--the individualism piece--is an element there. But a lot of it was this idea of rationality and this idea that she was going to create a new ethical system based on rational thought. And cults of reason have happened before. And they'll happen again. And, it was that reason, which she then joined to this, you know, idea of individualism. But, you could imagine another idea of individualism that would be sort of expressive individualism. Or, 'Go with the flow.' Or, 'Go with your gut.' Or, you know, 'Follow your intuition': more of a Rousseau-ian romantic individualism. And that was not her. She was very clear that rationality was the defining feature of humankind. That was what separated us from animals. That was what made us unique. And that was what we needed to cultivate. And she became very suspicious of emotional life, feelings, things that couldn't be controlled. And so she really set reason and emotion against each other, and insisted that reason must win. And then, the final irony is that the whole theme[?] kind of blew up in this cataclysm of emotion.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. We should really talk about that. And, I'll mention, to parents listening with young children: You may want to listen to this next part before you continue listening with your kids. If you are on your way to school. But, she--um, she had--she was married, through her entire life, until the death of her husband. But, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, who were also married--they ended up getting divorced. And presume, partly, if not totally, because Nathaniel and Ayn Rand had a long-standing "secret affair." But, not secret to the people and their spouses. That's what's bizarre about it. And, when Branden goes off to find a different woman, later on in his life, Ayn Rand totally--and we have to make it clear--Ayn Rand originally dedicates Atlas Shrugged to Nathaniel Branden and to her husband. And when Nathaniel leaves for another woman--leaves romantically--Ayn Rand--well, explain what happens. It's kind of extraordinary. And why it was so hard for her, intellectually, to deal with his defection, romantically.
Jennifer Burns: Yeah. Well, let me go back a little bit to kind of set the stage for the relationship. One thing I uncovered in my research that was sort of interesting, is, as she became famous--so, she became famous for The Fountainhead. She then spent some time in Hollywood where she was working on the screen adaptation. And, she would have fans writing her letters all the time. And she would often meet them. And it looks like there were a couple of young men with whom she got close to maybe having a romantic relationship. Never quite happened, but looking back, they said, maybe this was in the cards somewhere.
Russ Roberts: She was married at the time.
Jennifer Burns: And she was married at the time. She was married to her opposite--a lovely, soft, kind, yielding--
Russ Roberts: passive? almost?--
Jennifer Burns: Passive, artistic man, who, you know, basically he was the wife in the relationship, according to the gender standards of the day. You know, he didn't work. He minded the home. He supported her. He was very good at--
Russ Roberts: But not financially. She supported him financially.
Jennifer Burns: Yeah. Sorry. Exactly. She was the breadwinner. But he was the one who would, you know, help her through her tough times with her writing. Help her socially. Support her socially. They'd go to a party; he'd be at her side, introducing people; just kind of making things flow well. And so, at any rate, you know, but it apparently lacked the passion that she wanted. She was very drawn to Nathaniel Branden.
Russ Roberts: Who was much younger than she was.
Jennifer Burns: Much younger, 25 years younger. They first met; he sent her a letter. He actually sent her two letters. He was at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles]. He came to visit her. They stayed up all night talking. He came back; he brought Barbara Branden; they stayed up all night talking; they sort of embarked on this very intense intellectual relationship where she saw him as the person who would carry forward her ideas, learn her ideas. And moved to New York--in large part, the Brandens moved to New York to continue their education, and Rand essentially followed. She came out very shortly after. And, it was within a year or so, the relationship became romantic between her and Nathaniel Branden. Now, at this point, they sought the consent of Barbara Branden and her husband, Frank O'Connor. And originally they sought the consent for--they said they had fallen in love and they just wanted some time together. Eventually, they came back a couple of months later, and said, 'This is now going to be romantic time together, and we want to agree.' And they said, 'Sure. Okay. We agree. This makes sense. You guys are both sort of geniuses; you should be together.'
Russ Roberts: We're all adults.
Jennifer Burns: We're all adults. We can all agree.
Russ Roberts: We're not going to let emotion get in the way of these intellectual relationships.
Jennifer Burns: Right. 'We rationally understand this makes emotional sense,' if you--
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Jennifer Burns: Well. And then--but then, the secret stuff there: So, Rand could be there, unconventional, but she did not want this secret to get out. So, it became this sort of, pretty toxic, not-secret secret. Right? The players right immediately involve it. Apparently nobody else knew. And looking back, once it came out, people were like, 'Oh, how could we have missed this? The dedication to the book?' Right? 'And you readers out there, you should grab your copy to Atlas Shrugged, if you've got one with a double dedication.' Like, hang onto it. That's worth something. Imagine. And it's an historical curio. So, this progresses. And then, the book Atlas Shrugged comes out. It's her masterpiece. She's worked so hard on it. And it was just universally panned. Critiques really hated it. It didn't get like a single good book review. Now, it sold like hotcakes. People loved it. She had an incredible fan base. But, you know, to the extent that the book review crowd was more liberal, more elitist, they just didn't like this novel at all. They weren't going to give it the time of day. And the publisher was actually pretty stunned that the book sold so many copies, despite being so widely panned. So, she was depressed, though. She wanted to be greeted as a major thinker on the scene--and sent to--she was basically made fun of by anybody who was anybody. So, Branden said, 'You know what? You've got a fan base. People want to learn about your stuff. I'm going to start a school dedicated to your philosophy.' He called it the Nathaniel Branden Institute, or NBI, it was how it abbreviated. And he started--he put an ad in the New York Times, you know, Lectures by Ayn Rand. Lectures about Ayn Rand's Philosophy. And it said something like, you know, 'At the conclusion of the lecture series, Miss Rand will consent to appear and answer questions.' And they started. And it was successful. It was popular. It grew. They franchised it. They recorded the lectures. And then you could be a representative in Los Angeles or Chicago, get together a bunch of people, collect a fee, and play the tape recording.
Russ Roberts: And they had a newsletter, with 20,000 subscribers. Which is a lot.
Jennifer Burns: Yeah! It's a newsletter that rivals those little magazines we spend so much time writing about. They had other people doing affiliated lectures. I think Greenspan gave a lecture on, like, business. People doing all kinds of stuff. It grew and grew and grew into this real intellectual community. And it had ties to the growing conservative movement. It was never conservative, per se, because she staked you, you know, positions that would be anathema to religious conservatives. But, it was an important part of that 1960s' conservative moment. And, as it went on, Branden became, you know, we had became, we made good money and we aren't exactly wealthy but fairly--you know, this was his living. He became well known. He became, um, sort of a celebrity within this world. His whole world was built around Ayn Rand. Yet, at the same time, he was losing interest in a romantic relationship. And he didn't know what to do. And he basically decided he couldn't tell Rand. And so, he sort of dissembled and fabricated. At the same time as he began becoming involved with another woman. And so--
Russ Roberts: Let's cut to the punchline. When she finds out, she totally destroys his empire of affiliated material. Threatens him legally. And, that whole movement--the whole cult of personality is jarred, tremendously, by this. And for me, as a--as someone who has become more skeptical of the power of reason, as I've gotten older, it's a--it's an incredibly fitting end to this story. It's a tragic end. But, it's incredibly fitting, these people who thought the only thing that mattered was reason, were torn apart by an emotional response to their relationship.
Jennifer Burns: Yeah. I mean, it just blew sky high. The whole movement. And there was a giant schism. And, nobody was told the reason. It was like, unspecified. It was like dishonesty and corruption. And so, nobody knew. People were having wild speculations--did he[?] steal money? did he do this? did he do that? And you basically came, did you take the Branden side or you took Ayn Rand's side. I mean, families have split; there are people who never spoke to each other again for the rest of their lives. And then, a lot of people are just watching from the outside looking in, were like, 'This whole thing is looney toones crazy.' It cost Rand a great deal of credibility. It basically brought her career to a screeching halt. Branden took off to California and started doing New Age stuff. You know. Objectivism would kind of roll on as itself. But, you are right: That was kind of the cataclysmic moment. And, it came out of this environment where you had to be reasonable. And that meant, in this, you know, culture, pushing all of your emotions aside. And then, boy, did they come rushing back.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's just a--in a way, her personal life was a test case, or at least a part of her, a lab experiment, for part of her philosophy.
Russ Roberts: But let's move to the economics part of it. One of the--not that there aren't related--but one of the things that I found striking about reading your book was being reminded of her moral defense of capitalism, and how jarring it is to a modern ear. Which is relentlessly utilitarian and efficient and practical. And, she would have none of that. She--of course, I remember it now, was, when I think back on it: She only cared about the morality. She didn't care about the utilitarian part of it.
Jennifer Burns: Yeah. She really--it's true. I actually just am writing up this episode now where she gets in a big fight with Milton Friedman, who was kind of talking about the efficiency of markets. And she just thought, 'This is like a horrible way to go'--that you had to talk about the ethics of it. And I think that comes, you know, more than anything, from her experience in Russia. So, she was born, you know, sort of bourgeois Russian family, Russian Jewish family. And they were, she was about 12, when the Russian Revolution unfolded around her. And her family's livelihood was basically taken by the state. Confiscated. And she just thought that was the sort of ethical corruption and rot at the core of the modern world. That, you could say, 'Somebody needs this more than you; I'm going to take it.' Or, 'You don't really own this; this isn't really yours; I'm going to take it.' And it was--to her, she kind of drilled down to thought was going on. And it was, to her, a group of people, The Collective, being placed against one person, the individual. And so, that was the essence of it. And the reason that capitalism--was, she called it the best moral and social system--was that it was it was built on the rights of the individual. And it allowed the individual to flourish. And so, any discussion of the ways capitalism was bad, or it was immoderated, came back to her, as potentially threatening that sovereign individual. So, for her--capitalism--she claimed it in its pure form had never been known. In its pure form, it would be very close to anarchy, with a very minimal state. And it would allow individuals to sort out for themselves what they wanted out of life, and to compete freely--you know, in a market economy and on a contractual basis. You know, peer to peer, equal to equal.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm very sympathetic to that view. As you just stated it. The part that I would add--and I'd love to get your reaction as to how she'd react to this--the part that I would add is that, commercial dealing is what we do voluntarily with each other. We choose to contract with each other; we choose to buy[?] yourself from each other; that competition is very powerful in protecting people and in creating excellence. At the same time, I would be a champion of people who voluntarily get together to help other people. So, to form charities, foundations, philanthropy, and so on. To me, that's the other aspect of, you know, what's often called civil society. It's the things that we do together but not through force, not through the ballot box, not through taxation, but through our individual choices of what we are passionate about and what we think helps make the world a better place. Would you say she would be opposed to those activities, when she talks about the virtue of selfishness, say? Or does she just not want people to feel compelled to do that?
Jennifer Burns: No, it's more the latter. But, it's a little bit tricky. So, she would say, 'Of course, you are perfectly free to act in altruistic manner or to support other people on your own time, as long as it's free and voluntary choice. But, that's not the essence of morality. And so, people who consider themselves teachers of ethics and morality should not be emphasizing that behavior, and should not be holding that up as a standard of behavior. We have far too much of that. What we should hold up as a standard of behavior, instead, is people, like the people in my books: Howard Roark, John Galt--paragons of individualism. And we need to recognize that that is an ethical life.' And, so, she really--she didn't want you to emphasize that other stuff. She would subsume it, and put it way down under free choice--like, 'Yadda, yadda, sure, you could do this with your free choice. But, the important thing is the free choice, not that your free choices are to help other people.' And, you know, that was what, I think, really disliked about her: is that she downplayed all that and she didn't think there was a role for that type of moral encouragement. Now, I think that she was deliberate about that. Part of it was having grown up in Russia and having been subject to propaganda. She felt there were ways that political leaders could use propaganda and persuasion, and those were inappropriate; and the state certainly shouldn't be doing that, and political leaders shouldn't be doing that. She also came to believe that Christian morals were, as she put it, the 'Kindergarten of Communism.' That it was Christianity that taught people it's right to care about others, to be your brother's keeper; and that once people believed those sets of actions were moral, they could be the victim of a political leader or a statist system that said, 'I'm doing this for other people. It's the right thing to do.' And, if you'd already agreed that was true, you didn't have any ground to stand on to object. So, she would put the things you are describing--voluntary charity--she put them way at the bottom of her list of things people should talk about. Now, that then goes to her sort of theory of human nature, which in some ways was fairly optimistic, in that you didn't need leaders to encourage social norms and proper behavior, because people would sort of rationally follow their own interests. And she didn't spend a lot of time thinking about the bad sides of self-interest. That wasn't her task. Her self-appointed task was, 'I'm going to talk about what's good about self-interest.' And if she was given any example of how self-interest might be bad, usually she would say, 'Well, that's not really true. Self-interest--to get a fortune through a crime is not really true self-interest because it shows a lack of regard for the integrity of your self.' And eventually you're like, 'Okay, yeah. Whatever.' But some people want to lie, rob, cheat, and steal. And that's a form of selfishness. I think what made a lot of this system tick and hold together is that she really elaborated and expressed it in fiction, in which she had a great deal of control over her characters and she didn't have to grapple with observed human behavior. She could just idealize and make it up.
Russ Roberts: Now, I just want to emphasize one of the themes that comes through in the book that I mentioned earlier, but--it's hard to understate how powerful it was. If you asked a question or showed doubt in one of these seminars or in her salon on Saturday nights, it wasn't like, 'Oh, that's interesting. Let's see where that goes.' It was like--the way you describe it, you were just cut off.
Jennifer Burns: Mmmhmm. And it got really bad after Atlas Shrugged. And there's a lot of different relationships I sort of trace. Earlier in her life she was more open. She was sort of, saw herself as an up-and-coming thinker who could take the time to recruit people to the cause and to sort of rectify error and change minds. When she was done with Atlas Shrugged, she was like, 'I'm done. Here's the book. Read it. There's nothing wrong with it.' And, 'If you think there's something wrong with it, I'm going to talk to this other person over here.'
Russ Roberts: Check your premises.
Jennifer Burns: Check your premises. And I think that the other theme that I talk about in the book, is: she was a lifelong user of amphetamines. And, this again, was fairly common in the literary culture of the day. She got prescribed this, like, Benzedrine was the name of it back then: it's basically low-level speed. She got prescribed it for weight loss, I think. You know. And she kept taking it. And she just took a lot of it. And, over time, that can definitely change your personality. Can exacerbate the need for control, rigidity, anger, your ability--all of that. So, some of what we're seeing is, I think, her natural intellectual development, her natural aging process. But, I think you've really got to factor the lifelong abuse of this drug in there as well.
Russ Roberts: I want to come back to the remark you made that 'Christian morality is the Kindergarten of Communism.' First, I want to get there in a roundabout way. She was not a fan of Milton Friedman. You mention a book, a study that Friedman wrote with Stigler that I remember reading long ago on rent control, that she--that was published by the Foundation for Economic Education [FEE], which is a free-market institution in upstate New York. And she despised that study, even though it was critical of rent control. And she despised it because they were, Stigler and Friedman, were against it, "for the wrong reason." And she also despised F. A. Hayek, who she called, 'poison,'--and something else. The word 'pernicious' in there. Because he wasn't pure enough. So, talk about that. And then I want to come back to the kindergarten economy as a remark. Talk about why she hated Friedman and Hayek.
Jennifer Burns: So, you know, like many ideologues, she really trained her fire not on the other side but on this sort of false flag that people who she felt were semi-on-her side but not enough. So, the problem with Hayek--you know, if you read The Road to Serfdom and other works--he is talking about, 'How can we do national health insurance? How can we do unemployment? How can we do all this stuff while preserving the free market system?' And she just thought that was like the opening wedge of, you know, taking his phrase, of the road to serfdom. Right? If you said you needed these things in addition to capitalism, that was, for her, really problematic. Friedman, in particular pamphlet--they use the word 'rationing.' They talk a lot about the word 'rationing.' And they were using it both in the context of the war, in which there was actual rationing of goods during WWII. And then they were also using it in the economic sense in which a market can be said to ration goods by price, because you need x amount of dollars to get the good--
Russ Roberts: There's not enough to go around of everything.
Jennifer Burns: Right. And so, she actually thought they were Communists, and that this was a Communist plot to like make a fake argument about free market economics, because, in addition to using this rationing language, this was a moment in time when Friedman and Stigler were still talking about social equality and how that was important to them. Later, that theme really disappears in their work. But, it was pretty strong at this immediate post-War moment. So, she saw that; she saw the word 'rationing'; and she thought, 'These guys are pinks; they are plants; they are trying to subvert the development of the honest-to-God, true, free-enterprise movement,' which, to be true-blue would talk about how evil collectivism is and how the individual is the only ethical standard; and how free market capitalism is the only system that upholds the individual and is ethical. So, she couldn't stand either the value-free efficiency argument or the social-justice/equality argument, or the compromise argument. Though, she basically settled on Ludwig von Mises as the only economist whose views she could endorse. And she steered her readers to Mises. And I think she did a lot to sort of keep his work circulating in these lean years in the United States, and it eventually grew into its own independent Austrian movement, that she was a very important ally for him.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; but ironically, Rothbard, who is Mises's--also, with Hayek, Mises's protégé, she didn't get along with him, ultimately, as we discussed earlier. But it's interesting--even today, among libertarians, there is a schism between people like me, who think I have a lot to learn from Hayek and Friedman, even if I might not agree with everything they say; that's okay. And, a more dramatic example of Friedman's imperfection would be his encouragement of, let's say--what would be a good example?--the negative income tax: 'Instead of eliminating the welfare state, we'll just do it more efficiently.' Or, another example might be--I can't think of another example. It doesn't matter. So, he's persona non grata, because he's willing to imagine a possible role for the government and helping poor people. And Hayek, similarly, because he wrote a sentence, or a paragraph or a page in The Road to Serfdom that said that the national, that health insurance might be an appropriate role for the state; therefore, he's out. So, among people who listen to EconTalk, I'm sure there's some out there, I'm suspect because I like Hayek and Friedman and don't worship Mises. I don't know Mises's work as well as I know Hayek's. I don't know Mises's work at all, hardly. I've read a little Mises. I didn't learn so much from him. He doesn't grab me the way Hayek and Friedman do. So, I'm not an acolyte of any of them. None of them are saints; none of them brought down their works from Mt. Sinai; they are not holy. They have things I learn from, things I don't; things I agree with, things I don't. But, in the movement I think of free market folks and libertarians, there is this schism still between Friedman/Hayek on the one side and Mises-and-Rothbard on the other. They are okay--Mises and Rothbard are--because they are uncompromising; and the other guys are not okay.
Jennifer Burns: Yeah. It's interesting. I think most of it was a character-driven and philosophically-driven outcome, you know, [?] stance. You could also think of it as having some strategic value in terms of, 'I'm going to stake out the furthest possible edge as that's how we get there, and compromise is not how we get there.' And some people are inclined to compromise, and some not. But, it connected existentially to this very black-and-white view of the world where she said: There are two sides to every issue, right and wrong; and the worst is gray, in the middle. There's no such thing. So, it pervaded her thinking, her relationships, her fiction. That was just who she was. So, yeah: she aligned herself up with Mises. They did know each other. They spent time together. And then she funneled readers of this, you know, pretty big newsletter--she would funnel them to Mises. She's say, 'Go to Mises.' She'd sell his books through her book service. All of that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I don't see--my view is, it's okay to be--well, I don't even that's okay. I was going to say--gray is fine for me. I just want to make a case for gray. Because, again, for me, the question is who I learn from. And if I can learn from somebody, I'm okay with it. I'm a big follower of the dictum of the Talmud that says, asks the question, 'Who is wise? The person who learns from everyone.' Rather than the one who follows such-and-such a creed or whatever. But, it's just interesting to me how that intellectual, that ideological purity test remains important to folks 50, 60 years later, and will probably continue to do so.
Russ Roberts: But, I want to come back to your point about the Kindergarten of Communism, because I think it's a really interesting tie-in to Hayek, even though she didn't like Hayek. Or thought he was flawed. Which is: So, Rand was an atheist. She hated religion, viewed it as a form of anti-reason, I assume--was one reason she hated it, not more than reasons, but she also didn't like this moral imperative of some religions to help other people. And, it's interesting that she saw Christian morality as the Kindergarten of Communism. It says in the Old Testament: Love your neighbor as yourself. That's not a very Randian thought. And what Hayek argues in The Fatal Conceit is that we have this natural tendency to take the ethics of our family and extend them out into the larger extended order of society at large. And I think that's what he saw--I think correctly--as the root attraction of socialism, and of Communism. That, the family is a pretty great thing. And certainly, in our family, we care for each other and we take care of each other. And therefore we need to do that more widely. And he said, 'That's the road to tyranny. And if you try to take the extended order of the marketplace of bringing it to the family, you are going to destroy the family.' And so, we need to live in two worlds at once: A world of small group ethics, which is the family or close friends; and the larger order of strangers who we trade with and exchange with and interact with through the marketplace. And I think that's an incredibly deep insight into why modern life is challenging. Politics--political economy--is challenging. And it's interesting to me that he would have been very sympathetic to that remark that the morality of--she called it Christian morality, but it's also the morality of the family--that, to love one's neighbor as oneself, to love one's family members as one's self, to care about others--is the natural impulse toward collectivism.
Jennifer Burns: Yeah. Um, it's a really interesting way to think about it. For me, with Rand, one interesting kind of thought experiment is like, 'What if Rand and Frank O'Connor had a child?' You know? Like, would that have fed into her philosophical system--or how would it have? Now, she did help some of her family members. But she tended to be--there is this whole series of letters, her Ayn Rand letters, where she is basically offering support to one of her nieces and nephews, and putting, like, conditions on it. Like, 'I want you to go to school. I want you to do this.' And, 'Please stop asking me for dresses,' again and again and again. So, it's true, she had an unusual family situation in that she left Russia and she stayed in touch with her family but then she lost contact with them over the war. She had--you know, she had a husband. She had a quasi-family--people who believed in her philosophy. And, one episode that happened later in her life, which I cover a bit in the book, is that she actually discovered her sister, Nora, who she thought had died in the war--there was like a traveling; her photograph appeared in Russia as part of some type of intercultural exchange. And she was recognized. And her sister recognized her. And she actually brought her sister and husband to this country, and expected--this could have been her favorite sister, this great reunion. And they didn't get along. And they argued. And her sister defended Communism. And, it's just terrible. The relationship fell apart; and they went back to Russia, and they never spoke again. And so, you know, she had that moment, later in her life, that chance to re-connect. And it was very clear that her ideology was more important than her family ties. It couldn't have been clearer. And it was just a missed moment. So, I think that's also why, you know, the rap on Rand is, like, 'Teenagers love her.' And I always say, 'Teenagers of all ages love her.' Right? But, you know, there is a very common pattern, and people feel really strongly about Rand at a certain point in their life; and then, later, when they've had more relationships, more experiences in their life, they look back and they say it's not really capturing what I now know to be true. And I think part of comes out of her own biography and her really unusual personality. It takes an unusual personality to sort of make history and to stay alive as an intellectual force--you know, 50 years, 100 years in time. But it really means you are not an ordinary person. You have trouble speaking to that experience.
Russ Roberts: It reminded me a lot of Steve Jobs. Walter Isaacson's biography paints him, I think, in a very mixed way. Which is, that he's a very difficult person to get along with, and yet people want to be around him all the time. And I felt the same response here, to Rand. Before we leave religion, I just want to add, ask you to talk about one more thing I didn't know anything about, which is: She was very much an antagonist of William F. Buckley's, in both directions. And I didn't know about that. So, talk about the role that religion played, especially how Buckley and the National Review in the 1950s were revitalizing conservatism, but saw libertarianism--which is sometimes thought of as on the conservative spectrum, and of course it is to some extent--was dangerous. And similarly Ayn Rand viewed Buckley and the conservative rise in the 1950s and 1960s and National Review as a bad thing as well.
Jennifer Burns: Yeah. I mean, it was sort of a turf war. It was a battle over who gets to control this movement, and what do we call it, and what's important to it. And Rand had been kind of involved during the early war years--the late 1930s, early 1940s. And she saw Buckley and his ilk coming along. And, you know, there's this famous moment where she meets Buckley and she says, the first words out of her mouth, are, 'How can someone so intelligent still believe in God?' And, you know, it just rubs Buckley the wrong way. You know, she's kind of a high-end modernist: Bohemian, anti-religious, pro-rationality. And he's trying to bring back, you know, Catholic conservatism and religious conservatism. So, I think Buckley's perspective is: Free markets are great, but we need then to be married with more traditional ideas about virtue and restraint, because if left to themselves, you know, markets may encourage all kinds of self-destructive or selfish behavior. So we need to kind of modify that. And guilt is good. And having people worry about social norms is good. And Rand is the total opposite. You know: We need to free markets from these atavistic ideas about morality. We need to free all of ourselves from guilt. We need to move forward and pursue our own interests and fulfill our own personalities and lead the ethical life that way. And we need to create a new morality that supports that. So, they couldn't have been more opposite. And, you know, Buckley kind of took some joy in needling her. Like, he sent her these postcards; and we'd find these postcards in her archives, and he would be like, 'Hey, I saw you getting into a taxi and I waved, and you didn't wave back.' And meanwhile, she's like, 'I hate you.' Because, then he did sort of the ultimate, he had her book to review, Atlas Shrugged, and he gave it to Whittaker Chambers.
Russ Roberts: This is 1957.
Jennifer Burns: This is 1957. And, Chambers wrote this just incredible review. It's well worth re-reading today. And he basically said--so, Chambers had discovered religion and was working hand-in-hand with Buckley to bring back sort of Christian conservatism and make it a part of the fight against Russian Communism and part of the fight against domestic liberalism. And he was speaking as a veteran of these wars, as a former communist spy. All of that. And so, he takes one look at Rand, and he said, 'This is false freedom. This is false individualism. This is a totalitarianism of the right; it's a totalitarianism of reason and individualism.' And he said, basically the last line of the review is something like, 'To a gas chamber go.' Like, the message of this book is going to culminate in Fascism. I mean, it couldn't have been harsher. Rand was just outraged.
Russ Roberts: She's also Jewish by birth, so it's--it's not very tasteful, either. It's pretty horrific.
Jennifer Burns: Very tasteless review. Very tasteless review. It's interesting though that Rothbard, who had this kind of checkered relationship with Rand, when it came out he, like, peppered Chambers with these letters, saying, 'How could you write this horrible thing? You're a horrible person.' And then, like 5 years later, he's writing to Chambers again and he's like, 'Oh, my God, you were right. How did you know? How could you tell? You just read that book and you knew exactly. I went through it all; that's exactly what happened to me.' And so, you know, Chambers put his finger on something important about Rand; it also was a really intense review, very negative. And I think there's a bit of, you know, discrimination going on for Rand for kind of daring to play in these circles, as a woman wasn't particularly certified or educated or didn't have a, you know, connections in the United States--it's sort of like, 'Who are you?' Like, you know, 'You're not part of our movement. Get away.' And so, then, the kind of irony of that story is that Rand would never go away. I mean, National Review had a [?] publishing articles about her--like, every couple of years they'd have to publish an article about Ayn Rand because their readers loved her so much. So, what I was sort of showing as an historian was there's this conflict and it's never really resolved. It's just attention that's always there, and it's always being kind of worked through in different ways. And it's still around today.
Russ Roberts: It's shocking--telling that story, I was just reminded, reading in your book, that she was on The Tonight Show, I think--how many times?
Jennifer Burns: It was probably a couple of times. I don't know.
Russ Roberts: But, more than once. And, just to imagine that--it's just hard to imagine that. It reminds me--I've mentioned this before about when I've gone back to read Barry Goldwater's acceptance speech--at least I think this is the one I'm thinking of, in the 1964 Convention--and you compare it to a modern acceptance speech of a politician accepting the Presidential nomination--how much the world has changed in those 50 years is just--it's just so striking, in terms of the intellectual level and the content and the sophistication. The idea that Ayn Rand would be on The Tonight Show debating whatever she was debating, whatever she was talking about, is just--it's--there's something surreal about it now.
Jennifer Burns: She really was an intellectual celebrity. She was on the TV shows, and she was quoted in the New York Times and other places. She did college tours regularly, to overflow crowds. She was a very popular speaker on campus: She was sort of bringing that provocative viewpoint. She had speaking invitation after speaking invitation. She turned down most of them. She only did a few. And, she really was a kind of touchstone in that moment. And she still is, today. There's references to Ayn Rand on "The Simpsons," and movies--"Madman--television show. Like, this is constant. She's a constant touchstone and a certain type of--a certain personality type, a certain set of ideas, a certain moment in people's lives. A certain piece of American political culture.
Russ Roberts: I mentioned, when we started this conversation, that I had gotten less--I was enamored of her when I was a teenager intellectually, enamored of her, and then got turned off by the lack of recognition of the role that caring for others has in our lives and community and other things. But--and this 'but' is important; and I mentioned earlier her moral defense of capitalism--I think it's really important: You're an historian; I'm just speaking from my own personal perspective here--I think it's incredibly important that somebody defends the morality of freedom, and the morality of capitalism. And we've gotten so far away from that, that reading those quotes from her, it's a breath of fresh air. It reminds me of--I read a biography of Maggie Thatcher recently. And, when you read what Thatcher said about liberty, it's just so jarring because it's so out-of-step with--a politician couldn't say those things any more. And so I think it's incredibly important. And I even have sympathy for Rand's romanticization of business. But I do also think that was dangerous. I think that's unfortunate that she romanticized business, because I think she helped people become confused about capitalism and business. So, I'm pro-capitalist, but I'm not pro-business. And I think she was pro-both. And I was, I was kind of shocked by how, and I didn't know about this: when Atlas Shrugged came out, how many business people were excited about it, because it was, 'Yeah! I'm an okay guy. I'm okay! I'm a good person. It's okay to just care about profit.' And although, you know, part of me rebels a little bit about that, at the same time, I understand that, if you never defend that--if no one is out there defending that, freedom is going to have a tough time flourishing.
Jennifer Burns: Yeah. I mean, it's a--I do mean that there's something, this kind of core moral insight about the worth and the sort of intrinsic value and intrinsic irreplaceability of each individual person. That's really valuable. It's timeless. And it's not just in Rand, obviously. It's in, you know, most religious systems. It's in our founding documents of our country. And it's an idea more often observed in the breach. But someone does have to say: It's an ideal. And sort of stand up for it. I think, looking at Rand's oeuvre as a whole, looking at her writing and her fiction, that message can get muddied in her very fiction. You know, for all that discussion of the individual--you know, a lot of her, um--there is a lot of emphasis particularly in Atlas Shrugged, on aristocracy.
Russ Roberts: Yeah--
Jennifer Burns: Yeah, and not--and yeah, not natural aristocracy. You know, like this wonderfully talented person, although you could say John Galt is sort of an example of that. But she'll go on and on about this, you know, heir to this and that copper king them, and the long family that runs the, you know, central railroad. And these people as sort of blood aristocrats in some way. And I can understand why people read that and see it, and find it very uncomfortable. And find an uncomfortable set of messages in that. And find messages that are invariants with this sort of stated content with, you know, the individual qua-individual is only what matters.
Russ Roberts: Now, you point out that Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman, was written shortly after Atlas Shrugged, and has some, much, in common with it intellectually. I don't think Friedman particularly drew on it. But, they--let's say it this way: They mined similar themes. And, in particular, they both disliked greatly the John F. Kennedy quote, "Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country." And, you write the following : You say,
Friedman's association with the U. of Chicago and his technical work in economics insulated him against the type of attacks Rand endured. [close quote]
I'm kind of skeptical of that claim. I think Friedman was often mocked and treated with disdain, for a long, long time. Would you change that sentence now that you are working on a Friedman biography?
Jennifer Burns: Um, interesting. I think what I was getting at in that is a sort of this sort of figure of ridicule, public figure of ridicule. And I do know that there is a little more granular in Friedman [?]. There was, you know, probably a decade or so in his professional life when he was seen to have sort of turned away from the more interesting work in economics and really gone backwards. And then eventually I think he'll kind of re-emerge as a force to be reckoned with that people have to deal with even if they are still dislike his politics. So, um, I guess I'm going to put an asterisks by that right now. I still think that when Friedman sort of appeared on TV and the media, you know, he was treated as serious economist with serious ideas. And some of the coverage of Rand is just very ad hominem, attacks, how she looks, what she says, her accent--the people around her, 'We're [?], this whole thing is a joke. Oh my God, how did we get here?' Like, I don't think you see, or I haven't seen in the media that coverage of Friedman, yet. I've seen him presented, even when he's presented negatively, it's sort of a dangerous foe we have to watch out for. Not a ridiculous person that it's unbelievable people take seriously. And that's a lot of the tone of coverage of Rand in the '1960s, is really noticeable for that.
Russ Roberts: That's interesting. I think it's mainly a difference between the public, the media, and then academia. So, I think the public and the media have been respectful of Friedman, more or less, partly because of that credential he has: the fact that he was a U. of Chicago professor; eventually he has the Nobel Prize. But, among fellow academics, there was--a lot of people thought he was a kook, thought he was crazy, thought he was dangerous, and hated him for his policy positions. I'm curious how--let me rephrase this. Your views on Ayn Rand's philosophy do not come through in the book. Which is a tribute to your scholarship and your even-handedness and your role as a historian. I think you can read this book and have no idea what Jennifer Burns thinks of Ayn Rand. And, I'm not going to ask you now--you can talk about it if you want--but I'm more curious about the social aspect of it. Which is: I'm curious how your friends and family reacted to the fact that your book is pretty even-handed. Because, I suspect, like you said: there are plenty of people out there, you know and love who--a few of them don't like Ayn Rand; I bet a lot of them don't like her. And--what was their reaction to the book? And, what was the reaction academically and among historians?
Jennifer Burns: Yeah. I think--well, I will take that as a compliment because, yeah--
Russ Roberts: and I meant one--
Jennifer Burns: I wanted Rand to be the center stage and not me and what I happen to think. I feel like that's less interesting. But, I think, by and large that the reception has been positive. Especially within the academic community, I would say. A lot of people were curious about Rand, and were sort of like, 'We're curious but we don't want to sit down and read all those books.' So, like, 'Whew! We can read your book, instead.' And, 'Your book is really interesting,' and like, 'Now, I feel more informed.' So, I think there was sort of that gratitude. It's very much, then, part of the convention of the field to try to understand the person and the people you are writing about. So, you know, that's the considered the mark of good history rather than to sort of pull rank on these people who were born earlier than you were and point out all the things they got wrong and all the things that, you know, we're now more enlightened about. Like, that's--you know, people critique and point out flaws and errors but try not to be too heavy-handed, so that was very much my approach. I mean, I don't think I necessarily let Rand off easy because I think I show how it worked and didn't work for her. And, she had--she sort of tested out her ideas in her life and they led her to certain places. And the object lesson to me is kind of in the events as they happened.
Russ Roberts: Fair enough. But you don't--in terms of the public policy issues, your feelings about capitalism, your feelings about government regulation, your feelings about wealth redistribution, the welfare state--I have no idea where Jennifer Burns stands after reading that book; and I think that--I take that as a compliment. Other people might view that as a negative. I don't. I think that's very--the book comes across as a very dispassionate portrait. And some of the vehemence that I felt from it is my interpretation, by the way. Not yours.
Jennifer Burns: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that's also--I wanted to create a space, because I had seen that bookshelf where I wanted both people to read the book; and to kind of create this like, kind of dispersive [?discursive?] space where you could be in it and not feel like you weren't allowed in the book because you already had some set of opinions that the author was going to be judging. You know? So that was very deliberate. I think--
Russ Roberts: I hope you know [?] Milton Friedman, by the way, because he's [?].
Jennifer Burns: This worked because it was a university press. And, at the same time I looked at more of a trade press; one editor told me very bluntly, 'In publishing, we're singing to the choir. You've got to figure out which choir you want to sing to and sing to that one.' And I was like, that's really not what I want to do, because I like I could write that book about Ayn Rand with my eyes closed. That's not interesting; that's not challenging; that's not hard to do. Anybody can do that. That's not what I want to do. And so, in terms of my friends and family, they were just delighted that so many people wanted to read this book, and talk about it. They thought it was really interesting. I talked to a lot of them about it. Some of them were mad because they had to read Ayn Rand--they felt obligated to read Ayn Rand while I was writing this book, so I did get a few people who were like, 'Oh my God, I read Ayn Rand because of you.' Who really didn't like that experience. But, I would say--and I also wrote the book to last. I didn't want you to pick up the book and be like, 'Oh my God, this is so 2009.' With, like, an epilogue that talks about whatever; pet policy idea everyone was obsessed with for 6 months and now is completely forgotten about. I think a good book of history should have a lot of staying power. And so that was another goal of mine.
Russ Roberts: One of the questions I mention about Ayn Rand that's come up a few times on this program, one of the questions I've raised at some point in the past is how it is that a book like Atlas Shrugged can continue to sell, in huge numbers--how it is that supposedly, according to Reader's Digest--which is not in your book, I noticed, at least if it is, I missed it--according to a Reader's Digest poll, it's the Number Two most influential book in people's lives after the Bible. Ironic. And yet, we don't live in a very Randian world. And one of the answers to that, one of my answers has always been: Well, people didn't--some people liked the capitalist part and the celebration of free markets and the economic freedom. But what people really liked, what really spoke to them and the reason it has this staying power is the emphasis on, I would call it, the will to happiness. The will to control your life. The idea that you can be strong and step out of the crowd--stand on two feet at the top of the mountain; ideally controlling fire at your fingertips while you're smoking your cigarette--
Jennifer Burns: Right--
Russ Roberts: and a lot of her set pieces have this romanticization of smoking. Which is weird. But, at any rate, putting that little part to the side, this idea that somehow you can control your destiny. And I think that's what--my idea has always been that that's what spoke deepest to people. What do you think is the reason that it's been so successful and yet not had that big an impact, I would say, on policy?
Jennifer Burns: Yeah. I think everything you say is true. You have to kind of--I focused a lot on the political aspects of it just because I thought that hadn't[?] really been looked at--there's an apolitical piece that speaks to all those themes about self-discovery, self-knowledge, self-recognition, self-cultivation, and that's really powerful. If the policy hasn't changed, the politics at least have: that, there's a fairly robust multi-layered, multi-strain conservative movement out there, most of which is critical of what they say is liberalism or statism. And, Rand has funneled people into that, for decades. I think she's maybe less now--I'm not sure; kind of the jury is still out; I wrote something for the Washington Post about that called "Ayn Rand Is Dead," like wondering what she's doing in the current political environment. I think that's a little unclear. But, you know, she's set people's minds in a certain way. She's opened their reading list to people who might not consider; and if the policy hasn't changed yet, at least we're in an environment where people talk about it. And that conversation has been going on for quite some time. I don't know if it takes--I don't know what it takes to move the policy more in those anti-government directions; and it may also be--the other thing is--the bigger the government gets or the more people object to it, the more popular it is to read about criticisms of the government, because the more evident it is in people's lives. And it's like it's more of a target. Right? So, they could also be related: the failure of the policies she promotes and the popularity of reading about it, how great it will be when they succeed--those could be related.