Ayn Rand's legacy

Ayn Rand died on March 6th, 1982, leaving behind a controversial legacy that still engages millions of people worldwide. Her book, "Atlas Shrugged," was voted the most influential in their lives by members of the Book-of-the-Month Club in response to a 1991 Library of Congress survey.

Although she wrote books such as "For the New Intellectual," and "Capitalism - the Unknown Ideal," her philosophy was accessed by many readers through her fiction writing.  She left post-revolutionary Russia and settled in the US, where she began script writing in Hollywood. Her best-selling, "The Fountainhead," features a brilliant architect who refuses to compromise his principles, espousing a radical individualism central to Rand’s philosophy.  The book’s success, and that of its movie adaptation starring Gary Cooper, projected Rand to a wider audience.  Her later work, Atlas Shrugged (1957), depicting a mysterious strike by leading innovators and industrialists, still sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year.

She called her philosophy "Objectivism," supposing that reality exists as an objective absolute, independently of any conscious mind. She thought knowledge to be based not on faith, but on sense perception, the validity of which she considered axiomatic, and which was interpreted through reason.

In ethics, she argued for rational self-interest as the guiding moral principle, and said the individual should "exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself."

Her political philosophy emphasized individual rights, including life, liberty and property, and she supported laissez-faire capitalism because in her view it was the only system based on the protection of those rights. This led her to oppose any government action beyond those needed to protect individual rights.

Controversially, she opposed altruism as a denial of rational self-interest, saying that no person should live his or her life for the sake of another. Although some deride this as "selfish," in her view there is no conflict of interests between rational individuals; they recognize the value of respecting each other’s rights consistently, sacrificing neither themselves nor others.

A biographer, Jennifer Burns, referred to her as "the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right," and it is true that she leads many, by justifying their belief in themselves, to support capitalism and to oppose all forms of collectivism. Rand has a huge following today, especially among young people, attracted by her philosophy of rational individualism, and by the way the Objectivist view of knowledge meshes in with its ethical and political stance.

She remains massively popular, even a cult figure in some circles, and has been featured in several documentaries. Her likeness even appeared on a 1999 US postage stamp. Each year the Adam Smith Institute hosts an Ayn Rand Lecture to commemorate her ideas.