How Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman Help Us Understand the American Right
8 mins read

How Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman Help Us Understand the American Right

As a psychologist who also works in education policy and reads a lot, I have become familiar with the jargon and language tools of various social sciences, sciences, humanities, and other disciplines. Economists and political scientists tend to have their big equations, sociologists tend to use words that run off the page, and engineers sometimes try not to use words. But if I am going to be faced with a long read, and I am a historian, I will usually want to learn something new about how history is told and through writing.

Stanford University historian Jennifer Burns is one of those writers who can probably make a lot of things interesting. I’ve enjoyed reading her books Market goddess:Ayn Rand and the American Right AND Milton Friedman:The Last ConservativeIt’s worth reading not only to understand these influential figures and their influence on politics and other perspectives (especially the American right), but also to read a fascinating, research-based story, written in simple, clear, and descriptive language. Here, she graciously answers a few questions about the research and writing behind her books.

Why did you decide to write about Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman?

Jennifer Burns: It was a combination of personal interest and gaps in the scholarly literature. I had always been curious about Rand, both as a novelist of ideas and as one of the few intellectuals most people know about. When I was a student of American history, I decided to learn more about her and realized that there wasn’t much information about her—for example, there was no biography of her at the time, which was very unusual for a writer of her caliber. At the same time, historians were writing more about the conservative movement, and I wondered where Rand fit into that world. She was clearly influential to conservatives, but also very different from them. I was intrigued not only by her life story but also by her role in shaping American politics and ideology. How did a Russian immigrant come to write texts that were the epitome of American individualism? How did she create a universe and fictional characters that had such a profound effect on her readers? These are the questions I explored in this book, which chronicles her public life, the evolution of her ideas, her fame, and her broader cultural impact.

Questions like these brought me to Milton Friedman, whom I first saw as a public figure like Rand, known for his criticism of government and his emphasis on personal freedom. At first, I didn’t think much of him as an economist. But as I began to research, that became one of the most fascinating aspects of his story. Friedman trained as an economist before the era of mathematical modeling, when economists were really trying to communicate with a wider audience. Looking at his career shows how the profession of economics evolved, becoming more quantitative, more politically influential, and more narrowly focused. It was also incredibly edifying because Friedman laid the foundation for the modern study of inflation and played a key role in how people understood the Great Inflation of the 1970s. During the time I was doing my research, no one cared about inflation—it was a relic of the past. But that had changed by the time I published it! In my book, I delve into the theoretical debates, economic consequences, and political implications of inflation – all of which have become incredibly relevant today.

What resonated most in both cases? Market goddess AND Milton Friedman was the enormous power of their personalities. Can you discuss this, as well as other parallels you found in writing about these two influential figures?

JB: I always kept in mind that these very significant figures had extraordinary personalities. While I wanted them to be relatable to readers by showing the human beings behind the legend, they left their mark on history because they were not ordinary people. This is most obvious in Rand, who lived her individualistic philosophy, defying the myriad gender and social conventions of her time. This independence, which we admire, was coupled with many other personal characteristics that made her a very difficult person! In the book, I describe the development of a cult around her ideas and the many broken relationships in her life.

Friedman wasn’t all that special, but he had a charismatic personality that either drew people in or made them want to run the other way. But I also discovered some very prosaic secrets to Friedman’s success. As I describe in my book, almost every major work he wrote had a female co-author. This was because of his independence of mind: Friedman was more willing than his peers to work with female economists, which paid huge dividends in his career. He was also willing to be unpopular and an outspoken conservative in a liberal profession. As such, he was willing to promote economic ideas that had fallen out of fashion but were eventually recognized as important, such as his fundamental focus on monetary institutions, economic history, and the role of money in inflation.

Another similarity is the way both figures promoted libertarian ideas in the public sphere. Here I see them on complementary, parallel tracks. Rand’s ideas fueled a wave of libertarian ideas that were easily shared and understood through the popular medium of fiction. Friedman, on the other hand, spent most of his career in elite universities and communicating with other professional economists. Although he reached a wider audience later in his career, his work in economics was his primary platform. Together, they tell us much about why and how Americans became more conservative and more skeptical of government over the course of the 20th century.

How did you approach your research and structuring the narrative for these books? What did you learn from that process?

JB:The first step was to read the most important books – in Rand’s case, Source AND Atlas shrugged. For Friedman it was a work written together with Anna Schwartz, Monetary history of the United States, 1867–1960. In both cases, I looked for major themes and ideas that I could explore further in my research and get a solid foundation for their ideas. Then I went back to the beginning—literally, in Friedman’s case. I visited his hometown of Rahway, N.J., found materials at the local historical society, and had lunch at the Chinese restaurant that had once housed his parents’ home and business. From that point on, most of my research and writing was strictly chronological, because it helped me understand how things fit together and ensured that I wasn’t mixing up any important events. I organized my research chronologically, and then began writing from those research files. Once I had a draft manuscript that was chronological, I began the real writing process, in terms of thinking about how best to present the material. That meant I could do flashbacks or break up the narrative more thematically. I really like that part because it allowed for a bit of artistry while also making it feel like a puzzle where the pieces didn’t always fit. But I didn’t feel comfortable doing that until I had the arc of events firmly in mind. This is followed by several rounds of polishing, which I also enjoy!