Reminiscences of Rand and Buckley
I very much enjoyed Russ Roberts’s Econtalk interview with Jennifer Burns, author of Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Market.
Some highlights along with, at times, my comments.
Burns: And then this realization she’d actually been quite influential in the conservative movement.
True, I guess. But Rand was much, much more influential in the libertarian movement.
Burns: 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.
I bought the 20-lecture Nathaniel Branden “Basic Principles of Objectivism” series–20 vinyl records–in early 1969, which was just after the big split between Rand and Branden the previous summer. I remember paying a huge tariff on it when I picked it up at the Winnipeg post office because I didn’t know that I could be exempt simply by saying it was educational. I played the lectures, one per meeting, at the local “Students of Objectivism” meetings on a Tuesday night and with our local libertarian group on a Sunday night, charging 25 cents per person per time with the plan of getting my payment + tariff back. Had I been thinking more like an economist, I would have charged 50 cents and made money.
When it was all over, Ellen Moore, the head of the local Objectivist group wrote Leonard Peikoff, in response, if I recall correctly, to a statement in the Objectivist Newsletter that it was immoral to buy anything from Nathaniel Branden. Ellen wrote Peikoff to ask if they had been immoral to pay 25 cents to David Henderson. He replied that they were fine but that David Henderson was immoral and they should cut off all “business and personal relationships” with him. (Later we local libertarians started joking about B and PRs.) Ellen called me up to tell me that she was cutting off all business and personal relationships. I asked why and she made her case. I pointed out the logical problems with her case. Then she started saying it again. I said, “Ellen, you aren’t saying anything you didn’t already say and you aren’t being responsive to my responses. So if you have nothing left to say, I’m going to hang up.” I did. That was the last time I talked to her. It felt strange. I was 18 at the time and actually kind of liked her and so felt hurt by what she did: she seemed like a robot reading a script rather than the vivacious woman I had got to know. At the same time, I felt kind of honored that Peikoff, whom I had never met but had heard of, saw fit to single me out by name as someone who was particularly immoral.
Burns: 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.
Burns shows a lot of understanding of how Rand would come to her views based on her experience with Communism.
Burns: 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?
YES. I’ve seen others make that point over the years. It’s profound. As one of my colleagues put it, “There are no children in Atlas Shrugged.”
Two personal stories:
1. I used to be anal about getting through a half-hour comedy show and finding out what happens. Then in 1984 we had our daughter, Karen. In 1985 or 1986, we would be watching TV and Karen would throw up or do something that required immediate attention. We would give it. I was stunned how easy it was to give up knowing what happened in any particular show. My priorities had changed.
2. Winnipeg was, in some ways, an Objectivist hot spot. Barbara Branden had grown up there and she was friends with her sister-in-law Miriam Weidman, a Winnipeg resident. Miriam and I were friendly, if not friends. Every summer, starting when my daughter was 4, I would take her on a father/daughter trip and for the first few years, we would fly into Winnipeg and then drive to my cottage. I would always visit my friend and mentor Clancy Smith, who lived and lives in Winnipeg. One year, when Karen was about 6, we went to see Clancy at the end of the trip. He had a gathering there that included Barbara and Miriam. I was having a nice visit with them but both women were smoking non-stop in a small space. Karen told me that she was having trouble with the smoke. So I very nicely asked Barbara and Miriam if they would be willing not to smoke for a half hour. They both said no. There was no anger on my part, but I needed to do the right thing for my daughter. So we left.
Burns: And, you know, [William F.] 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.’
I got a kick out of this. It reminds me of something else. In July 1986, Buckley called me up and said, “Mr. Henderson, I have a problem and I wish to make it your problem.” He had asked his friend Milton Friedman to recommend someone to replace Wally Olson as economics editor of National Review. Milton had recommended me. I accepted and started in August. I would write two unsigned editorials every biweekly issue and send them within a few hours. It was a good discipline. I was told to expect that as a matter of course, they would use half of them. They ended up using all of them.
In December of that year, my wife and I watched on live TV as Dick Rutan’s and Jeana Yeager’s Voyager landed in California after flying non-stop around the world. As they got out of the cockpit and started visiting, my wife asked where all the government officials are who always swarm around when there’s a big government project. I told her that it was not a government project. It reminded me of the John Galt Line in Atlas Shrugged. I got inspired and wrote a short editorial on it for National Review, comparing the Voyager to the John Galt Line. I knew that Buckley didn’t like Rand but I sent it off anyway.
They didn’t use it. A week or two later, I wrote Buckley, pointing out that the editorials were taking about twice as long to research and edit as I had predicted and that they were using twice the number of them they had predicted. Given a demand and supply curve that were each twice as high as predicted, I said, I would like twice the price. I made sure not to state it as an ultimatum. Shortly after, I received a brief letter from Buckley saying that he was so sorry that it hadn’t worked out. (The letter burned in my fire in 2007.)
Roberts: 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.
I agree with Russ that it is important. I don’t agree that a politician couldn’t say those things any more. Not just in the obvious sense that of course he or she could but might have to suffer the consequences, but also in the sense that Russ meant it: I’m not sure the consequences would be that bad.