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Where Is The Liberal Ayn Rand?


Paul Ryan has often talked about the books, and thinkers, that helped form his conservative outlook; starting with Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged," as he told the Atlas Society back in 2005.

PAUL RYAN: It's inspired me so much that I - it's required reading in my offic,e for all my interns and my staff. We start with "Atlas Shrugged." People tell me I need to start with "Fountainhead," then go to "Atlas Shrugged." There's a big debate about that. We go to "Fountainhead," but then we move on. And we require Mises and Hayek as well.

BLOCK: He's referring to Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek; both Austrian economists, prominent advocates of free market capitalism, and critics of socialism and central planning. Many conservatives cite this trio as key to their beliefs.

So what about the liberal side - or, as the question is posed in Slate, "Why Is There No Liberal Ayn Rand?" The column is written by Yale professor Beverly Gage, who teaches 20th century history and political thought. She joins me now. Welcome to the program.

BEVERLY GAGE: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: And you mention in your column, Professor Gage, that it's vastly easier for you to put together the conservative side of your syllabus than it is the liberal side.

GAGE: Well, I teach an undergraduate seminar called "Liberalism and Conservatism in America." And it basically goes from the New Deal up to the 1980s or so, up to Ronald Reagan. So it's sort of the rise and fall of liberalism, and the fall and rise of conservatism, I guess you could say.


GAGE: And so, when I put together the conservative side of the syllabus, many of the people that Paul Ryan cites, end up on there. And then when I get to the liberal side, it's much more catch as catch can. So I turn to figures like John Kenneth Galbraith, like Michael Harrington, Betty Freidan, Martin Luther King; people who are coming at liberal issues from a pretty wide variety of perspectives. And I guess what's interesting to me is whether outside of the classroom, liberals are reading those folks anymore.

BLOCK: And you say that that wide variety of perspectives from the liberal side isn't the equivalent, really, of Rand or Hayek, or the conservative icons. Why not?

GAGE: Well, I think conservatives, and particularly a segment of the conservative movement, have been pretty self-conscious since about World War II, in coming up with a coherent intellectual tradition. And I think liberals have been much less self-conscious about doing that. I mean, partly the project of liberalism is to be sort of skeptical and eclectic. And to some degree, the kind of default position of liberalism has been diversity, the big tent, bringing in lots of voices. And as an electoral strategy, that's probably got very good points to it. But what it doesn't do is create a really coherent movement of people who feel like they're engaged in a common cause, and who know where they are headed.

BLOCK: We also have seen cases recently, where liberal thought has been used against politicians. Republicans, especially Newt Gingrich, slammed President Obama as a Saul Alinsky radical, talking about the community organizer. There is a backlash, sometimes.

GAGE: Absolutely, and I wondered if one of the reasons that Paul Ryan can get up and say, I was inspired by this set of books and, I have this set of ideas, is precisely because this doesn't feed into some pre-existing narrative about, you know, egg-headed conservative elites and their bookishness. Whereas on the liberal side, of course, it kind of does. And so liberal politicians may actually shy away from articulating what their own intellectual heritage might be, for that very reason.

BLOCK: I'm curious what your students say, as they're going through the syllabus that you described. Do they feel that there is not an equal counterweight from the liberal side, to their conservative thinkers that they're reading?

GAGE: Well, so often, the conservatives who come into the class have already read the books that are on the syllabus. Whereas the students who tend to be on the more liberal side of the spectrum, often have not - which I found interesting.

BLOCK: Yeah.

GAGE: To some degree, liberalism has changed a lot over the past 50 years, in terms of limiting its vision a little bit more than you would've seen, say, in the 1940s and 1950s. So one thing that students are always very struck by - in going back and looking at liberal, left-leaning figures from earlier periods - is just how ambitious and confident and farseeing they appear to be. And that, to them, is often quite a foreign experience.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Beverly Gage, professor of 20th century history at Yale University. Her column in Slate is titled "Why Is There No Liberal Ayn Rand?" Professor Gage, thanks so much.

GAGE: Thanks, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.