Ayn Rand left an intellectual legacy the size of Mount Everest. A mountain this size cannot be traversed in a few hours, the literary equivalent of which is 36,000 words.
But Eamonn Butler pulls it off, not by scaling the mountain, but by taking the reader on an easy helicopter ride over Rand’s philosophical terrain in his excellent primer, Ayn Rand: An Introduction, published by The Cato Institute, and available on Libertarianism.org. Butler, who for the past four decades has served as Director of The Adam Smith Institute, the UK’s leading free market think tank, and has authored several influential primers on thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, brings his franchise to Ayn Rand. Butler covers all aspects of her philosophy, wisely stripped to their essentials, to make every word count. More crucially, Butler does not forget to trace the integrative concepts when jumping from ethics and epistemology to economics, and from politics and culture to aesthetics.
Illuminating the turning points in her life from a Russian childhood to life in America, Butler spares no feud—Rand’s own, or within her followers, from a dispassionate mention. Most impressive is his ability to do justice to Rand’s critics. Here he distills the essence of the more meritorious critiques, aptly ignoring the envious smears and ignorant spears thrown at the much-maligned Rand. Only once he throws his own grenade, perhaps inadvertently: “… Frank O’ Connor, whom she married in 1929, just before her visa ran out.”
Butler is not an unabashed admirer. Of the iconic Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s best-known and bestselling work, he says, “Its plot seemed far-fetched, its characters cardboard, its tone sermonizing, and its length wearing.” He attributes Rand’s polemic style in fiction to her Russian roots, where a didactic form of literature stood its ground as a form. But he sets aside his misgivings with flawless summaries of Rand’s novels, noting their quintessential value—“They make self-belief cool.”
As for quibbles, I have a few. Alan Greenspan is cast merely as one among the high-profile people inspired by Rand. No mention of the fact that, by his acceptance of a role to preside over fiat money manipulation, indeed, become one of its most egregious offenders, Greenspan became the philosophy’s unpardonable traitor. No words for Rand’s provocative assertion that Milton Friedman was not a defender of Capitalism (Friedman was a utilitarian) or her respect for the work of Ludwig von Mises. An author immersed in economics need not have missed that detail in the panorama. Absent also is Rand’s theory of sexuality and the briefest of discussions about Rand’s fictional villains’ inability to redeem themselves.
Nevertheless, for those unexposed to Rand, if the mountain beckons by the end of the fly over, the book has achieved its purpose. Libertarians, in particular, should be awe-struck by the wires that connect a political philosophy with art and psychology and science and a theory of knowledge.
For if you saw The Matrix (1999), reading Rand the original is like swallowing the red pill. It’s possible to disagree, even vehemently, but no mind open to reason could stay unaffected. No one forgets if they have been to Everest. And Butler’s chopper entices by taking high-fidelity, high-definition landscape pictures that miss very little. Now it’s up to his readers to climb the mountain.