Part one of this two-part series reviews Ayn Rand’s views and novels, to help us understand her influence on the United States Supreme Court.
OPINION | The views expressed in this article are those of the author.
Part One: Who are Howard Roark and Judge Narragansett?
At the end of August 2022, Senator Bernie Sanders gave a rousing speech to British workers who are attempting to defend their rights (watch the video on YouTube). Sanders paraphrased the abolitionist and human rights advocate Frederick Douglass on the importance of struggle in the fight for equality of all citizens. In his West Indian Emancipation Speech of 1857, Douglass stated: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. … Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.”
As Sanders points out, workers and ordinary Americans wishing to see their votes count in upcoming elections face a growing oligarchical structure of wealth and power and political influence. The top three multi-billionaire families own more wealth than the bottom half of American society – that is, of 165 million ordinary citizens. In the last few decades – an age of “extreme capitalism” in the U.S. – the wide spread of wealth and political power has grown to its current dangerous state.
Ayn Rand’s Individualism
There are few American writers and proponents of extreme capitalism from a radical right perspective besides novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. She was born in Russia in 1905, immigrated to the United States in 1928 and passed away in 1982. Rand eventually became a screenwriter and noted enemy of left-wing writers, who were prominent for a brief time in Hollywood before the “Red Scare” and McCarthyism took their toll. Her hatred of Soviet Communism extended to all writers and thinkers, including political and legal thinkers who opposed her vehement views on the sanctity of unregulated markets and the “persecution” of the real makers of wealth (big businessmen and their corporations).
Rand adapted some of the German philosopher Nietzsche’s views to her concept of the Ubermensch (Superman or Overman). She believed in freeing the hands of the major producers – businessmen – from the “second raters” and “looters” (to use terms of abuse she regularly employed in her novels). She promoted a form of individualism in a country known for such trait. However, when reading her novels, one quickly learns she is dead serious about super-sizing the concept of individualism.
It is clear from 2005’s Ayn Rand Answers that all who oppose her positions on individualism, her hatred of altruism, and her belief that any restraint on “free markets” and the ability of powerful individuals to produce what they wish, without governmental controls, are “collectivists”. In the Randian universe, collectivists’ views should be given the contempt they deserve. In Ayn Rand Answers, we also learn that while property rights are sacrosanct, Indigenous peoples could have no property rights whatsoever because of the nature of their society (at pages 102 to 104). For good measure, she also claims the indigenous people of historic Palestine (Palestinians) lack property rights and indeed should be viewed as having no rights whatsoever, including “to human intercourse” (at page 97). With these views, she likely would have loathed the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In fact, her entire philosophy is deeply committed to a hierarchical order of great businessmen (and a few businesswomen) that has troubling implications for a modern democracy.
Given Rand’s extreme commitment to property rights and aversion to virtually all government regulation, many politicians and justices widely admire her. Donald Trump has declared himself to be a latter-day Howard Roark, protagonist of Rand’s 1943 blockbuster novel The Fountainhead. Rand Paul, prominent Republican Senator, gives friends and staff gifts of Rand novels every Christmas.
In this two-part series, we will look at the connection between Rand’s novels and U.S. Supreme Court justices. This first part will set the stage for part two by looking at the main characters of two of Rand’s most famous novels. In part two, we will look at the strange yet strong connection between the novels and philosophy and the judicial approach of the “Midas Mulligans”, as I dub the five radical right members of the Supreme Court led by Justice Thomas.
There are two trials in The Fountainhead, her breakthrough novel of 1943. The second forms a climax to the fiercely controversial plot. Rand tells us she designed the novel to offer a projection of her ideal man, a “moral” force in the world. The novel’s hero is Howard Roark, a brash, nonconformist architect. Although the novel is apparently set in the late 1930s, primarily in New York, we are a long way from realism. The characterization is wooden. There are totally evil villains, including architectural and dramatic critic Ellsworth Toohey, who writes for a leading newspaper, the Banner.
One episode in particular represents the atmosphere of this strange novel. A group of playwrights discuss a truly mediocre and even embarrassing play that should not see the light of day. Despite this, Toohey and the Banner’s drama critic join forces to promote the play, praising it to the skies. They watch audiences flock to it on Broadway. This sequence perfectly captures the narrator’s inexhaustible contempt for “the masses”, the ordinary citizens. Throughout the novel, we see citizens blindly following opinion makers who have underhanded, nefarious motives. Only the exceptional individuals like Roark (or his eventual partner, Dominique Francon) are capable of resisting conformist thinking in favour of collectivism. Rand postures that it is these giants who create works of value and provide leadership.
A minor but still telling incident occurs late in the novel as Roark finally establishes his architectural firm with a growing staff. As an employer, Rand portrays Roark as completely dedicated and interested only in his employees’ productivity, not any aspect of their lives. The stern employer lets a young man go after only two weeks because he dared “to introduce the human in preference to the intellectual in the office.” The Randian worldview is a harsh “survival of the fittest” one, in which only a few ruthless geniuses will emerge victorious.
Late in the novel, Roark is on trial for dynamiting a housing project for needy orphans. Roark secretly worked on the project plans while he claims they were prepared by his “second rater” acquaintance, Peter Keating. A change to the project between Roark and Cortlandt Homes – to add a gymnasium – breaches the pact between the two men. The plan enrages our unyielding protagonist, and he proceeds to destroy the large structure, endangering any pedestrians in the process. The trial concludes with a stirring presentation to the jury by Roark of his life’s philosophy – selfish individualism that tolerates no compromise. Roark has naturally determined he is best defending himself. I note for what it is worth that normal rules of procedure seem to fly out the courtroom window at this point. Further, the prosecutor is stumped by the strategy and seems to weakly accept the verbal onslaught, without objection or response.
The judge is apparently so impressed, or overwhelmed, by Roark’s change of subject that he fails to sum up and guide the jury through the facts. A man has taken it upon himself to blow up a large partially constructed building, endangering others who might be in the vicinity. With the aid of the stupefied judge and prosecutor, naturally in this black and white tale, the jury acquits. Roark goes on to build not just a skyscraper in this journey between valleys and peaks, but the “greatest, tallest” building in the city, courtesy of a commission by a wealthy newspaper tycoon.
In 1957, Rand was back with the triple decker epic, Atlas Shrugged. This capitalist romance novel milks the self-pity of “poor little rich boys”, the major business tycoons of the time. Our heroine, Dagny Taggart, is an heiress and part of owner of a railway company. She idolizes a virile and handsome businessman who has climbed to the top of the world of epic producers. In this dystopian world of government overreach and needless regulation, the major business oligarchs have staged a strike. (This is a cunning reversal no doubt, of the typical 1930s proletarian novel, empathizing with the vulnerable working class that Rand so despised.)
There is no doubt in Atlas Shrugged that the President, his Cabinet and various government officials wear black hats and have a compulsion to overregulate. Still, readers not seduced by Randian philosophy will likely raise their eyebrows at the thought of big business being the truly oppressed class in American society. The government enacts anti-trust laws following a democratic process. And no doubt, mega-firms do not like the idea of having to break into smaller companies. Yet are they entitled to perpetrate dangerous and anti-democratic behaviour? You be the judge, assuming you are willing to trudge through this 1,168-page novel.
We learn of the powerful entrepreneur and oilman Ellis Wyatt’s response to regulations on rail shipments in a truly vicious manner. He actually blows up his oil wells, which of course would cause major pollution and environmental disaster for local residents. He (and the narrator) is unapologetic. Dagny’s lover, Hank Rearden, is forced to stand trial for flagrantly ignoring a law in his business operations. We see a deep contempt for the legal process, as Rearden refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the tribunal (of three judges). And despite courteous requests, he obstinately refuses to plead to the charge. As one of the Nietzschean heroes of the melodrama, you can surely guess the result.
Towards the end of the novel, Dagny and Hank meet up with the other protesting tycoons. We learn of the work of the astute banker, Midas Mulligan, and a wise old judge of distinctly conservative convictions, Judge Narragansett. The judge completely sympathizes with the strikers, who have now forced the federal government to resign, recognizing at last the necessity of a business takeover.
Here in the hideaway of the reverse Robin Hoods at Galt’s Gulch, we learn, along with the judge, of the often violent and predatory behaviour of the plutocrat’s ancestors. Raw capitalism under the Randian world-view entails acts of violence, even murder, in the pursuit of maximum profit-taking. Laws in the public interest are made to be broken by these Randian Supermen.
As part of the new order, which I interpret as a coup, Judge Narragansett is hard at work drafting amendments to the Constitution including the Bill of Rights. He proposes removing various provisions that he views as contradictions. The centrepiece of this elitist Constitution will be a new clause: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade…” God help us from all zealots who would overturn the U.S. Constitution to enshrine the wealthy and powerful, including big business and its property interests, as the final arbiters of all issues!
A Massive Influence
Rand’s books, particularly these two novels, have sold more than 37 million copies, with sales picking up over the past dozen years. Collectively, they are the equivalent of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin but endorse “liberty” as proclaimed by the radical right. In addition to the massive influence they have had on Republican politicians and conservative-minded justices, a survey by the Library of the U.S. Congress ranked Atlas Shrugged right below the Bible in its list of the most influential books ever written.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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