The provocative title of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness introduces an equally provocative thesis about ethics. Traditional ethics has always been suspicious of self-interest, praising acts that are selfless in intent and calling acts that are motivated by self-interest amoral or immoral. Ayn Rand’s view is exactly the opposite. This collection of nineteen essays is an effective summary of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, which holds the value of the individual over and above that of the state or any other collective. The thread running through all of the essays is Rand’s definition of selfishness as “rational self-interest,” with the idea that one has the right to assure one’s own survival, to pursue happiness, and to own the fruits of one’s labor without having to sacrifice any of these to others against one’s will.
You can find iterations of this worldview and this moral judgment everywhere on the right. Consider a few samples of the rhetoric. In an op-ed piece last spring, Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, called for conservatives to wage a “culture war” over capitalism. “Social Democrats are working to create a society where the majority are net recipients of the ‘sharing economy,’ ” he wrote. “Advocates of free enterprise . . . have to declare that it is a moral issue to confiscate more income from the minority simply because the government can.” Brooks identified the constituency for his beliefs as “the people who were doing the important things right–and who are now watching elected politicians reward those who did the important things wrong.” Senator Jim DeMint echoed this analysis when he lamented that “there are two Americas but not the kind John Edwards was talking about. It’s not so much the haves and the have-nots. It’s those who are paying for government and those who are getting government.”