Or the Koch brothers, of course. But right now it’s Ayn Rand, as evidenced by a new book review by Thomas Frank of Wharton School of Business author Adam Grant’s Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. It’s the newest in the trendy “creative genius” category of business traveler books. Here’s Frank:
Had he chosen to, Grant could just as easily have sourced this idea to Ayn Rand, who made the war between the great and the mediocre the obsessive subject of her literary career. As Rand’s writing suggests, this doctrine is not a particularly democratic one. It is, among other things, a succinct distillation of the Great Man school of history, in which nothing matters except the lives of geniuses and the methods by which these noble figures arrive at their decisions.
Nowhere in Grant’s book does Ayn Rand appear, but Frank sees her anyway, because he dislikes the trendy nature of Grant’s thesis – the creative “rebel” who happens to not offend capitalists – and of course dislikes Ayn Rand. So why not link the two, even if erroneously? She’s a go-to boogey(wo)man for progressives, and here Frank is invoking her almost as if to deliberately caricature those of his ilk.
And if you didn’t get the hint that Grant is promoting libertarianism, let Frank be more overt:
I mentioned before the incipient Ayn Randism of all creativity literature, and what interests, or rather alarms, me most about Originals is that, even though Barack Obama, the archenemy of libertarians everywhere, sits in the White House, Rand’s heroic new creative order seems to be getting closer all the time.
Frank actually provides proof that Grant is inspired not by mean ol’ Ayn Rand, but instead lefty heroes, i.e. those involved in the civil rights movement and defeating Nazis:
It’s worth remarking that when Grant studies historical movements, they are always leftish or liberal ones: women’s suffrage, the civil-rights uprising, people who helped Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, a former student leader from Serbia who took part in a movement that overthrew Slobodan Milošević and whose clenched-fist logo Grant reproduces on page 223. These are whom we must look to in order to derive lessons for how to manage employees and come up with new business ideas. One reason for this distinct liberal bias is that it serves to camouflage the essential elitism of the creativity genre.
So when Grant approvingly cites something, it’s a facade. When he fails to cite something – Ayn Rand – it’s very much there and informing his thinking. Talk about seeing (or in this case reading) what you want to see.
Frank’s problem with Grant exemplifies a broader tension between old-school welfare state liberals and their newer, more heterodox counterparts, which writer Joel Kotkin has discussed at length. (And yes, the class of educated professionals Frank has in his sights are Democratic or Democrat-leaning, as shown by tech journalist Greg Ferenstein last year in his analysis of Silicon Valley types.) What’s been dubbed an “Atari Democrat” really is more open to libertarian-ish ideas in some areas of life, such as education. But not in most of them. And it’s more often a competing communitarian vision they’re promoting relative to the Franks of the world, not me-first libertarianism. What critics of new liberals (but not necessarily neoliberals?) mistake for individualism is likely a lack of consensus on how to be collective-minded. The doors of perception have been blow wide open, and there’s no longer any agreement on which one to walk through.
But this doesn’t mean the Atari Democrats are libertarian. Libertarianism has meant hostility to government per se since forever. This obviously applies to the deontological and natural rights-type libertarians, but also to consequentialist libertarians, who more overlap with professional economists. But as Ferenstein showed, Atari Democrats aren’t hostile to government, apart from its national security and law enforcement apparatus, something they share with the left in general. Yes, they’re less keen on government imposing burdens on business than their union-organzing peers, but they’ve got little problem with government itself taking up measures to alleviate poverty, invest in scientific research, and whatever else. Oh, and by all accounts they’re very much on board with SJW race and sex concerns. Especially gay rights.
We live in age in which one side of a giant intra-left squabble is perceived as “conservative” because few real conservatives exist anymore. And something has to fill that void. When actual conservatives do threaten to wield influence (see Trump), the progressives and libertarians (also known as “business conservatives”) team up to bring them down. Because while they may not agree on the benefits of government everywhere and always, they can at least agree that questioning diversity – and by extension, immigration – is the greatest threat to mankind. A cosmopolitan order must be upheld, for the left because racism, for the “right” because free markets.
Frank is a progressive keen on boxing libertarians, even when they’re nowhere in the ring. But sometimes they are, acting as a kind of junior partner in a comfortably dominant liberal age. Cracks in the system may be underway, but in the meantime expect to see libertarian influence in the US misrepresented and overhyped. It’s barely a vestige of opposition to progressive influence, but it’s the only enemy the latter has left.