BOOK (1964)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am

The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism
Ayn Rand

Whether a less cautious, more caustic writer ever hit the shift key is doubtful. The relentlessly right-wing Ayn Rand was belligerent to the depths of her conservative core.

But Rand's nuance-purged style still resonates and generates copious coverage. Run a news search on her name and the hits keep rolling up. In the stories, Rand, who died almost three decades ago, is bracketed with shock jocks and hardliners such as Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.

Much of the coverage is laced with grudging respect. 'Say what you will about Ayn Rand, but one thing is certain: She had no use for common niceties,' analyst Heather Wilhelm wrote in a 2009 Wall Street Journal article, adding that sales of Rand's books are 'surging'.

Nowhere in Rand's ascendant nicety-free canon is her take on politics expressed with more verve and venom than the essay collection The Virtue of Selfishness. The Neocon bible expounds Rand's philosophy, which she called 'objectivist' in a foretaste of the equally dubious Fox News slogan: 'The Spin stops here'.

About as objective as The Narnia Chronicles, Rand's gut-instinct tract exalts egotism as a rational code of ethics and slams socialism as a vice. A selfish, non-sacrificial way of life is possible and the only way to be, according to Rand, whose individualist take on how to live could be seen as an affront to Christianity, Confucianism and several other belief systems that place hope in community.

Rand's Darwinian outlook, which makes Britain's Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher appear warm and fuzzy, must stem from her upbringing in Soviet Russia. The doomed communist bastion synonymous with food queues, clapped-out tractors and general wretchedness might well have inspired Rand's extreme aversion toward socialism - a stance that she defended.

The Virtue of Selfishness attacks the assumption that radicalism is suspect. 'Observe, in politics, that the term extremism has become a synonym of 'evil', regardless of the content of the issue [the evil is not what you are extreme about, but that you are 'extreme' - i.e., consistent],' Rand writes, reminiscent of an aggressively no-apologies blogger such as Michelle Malkin - but even Malkin appears more measured.

Rand can be so short on rigour that she resembles a crazed cult leader. Her claim that extremity equates with consistency is just one example of her borderline lunacy, which can be toxic.

Elsewhere in the book, she is even more virulent.

Despite Rand's fanaticism, The Virtue of Selfishness remains a compelling reflection of her spectacularly dysfunctional mind and a masterclass in the waspish art of polemic. Stinging.