The Magazine

Alan Shrugged

...And Washington fell to its knees.

Oct 8, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 04 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Age of Turbulence

Adventures in a New World

by Alan Greenspan

Penguin, 544 pp., $35

I  was in the midst of reading up on Alan Greenspan, whose new memoir, The Age of Turbulence, has just been published to wide publicity and boffo sales, when I saw in a local gossip column that he and his wife had been spotted (somehow!) spending yet another Sunday afternoon in the owner's box at FedEx Field, watching the Washington Redskins.

For Washingtonians of a certain sort, the owner's box and its shifting set of inhabitants plays roughly the same social role that the roof of Lenin's Tomb did in the old Soviet Union--a promontory upon which members of the city's elite can display themselves. And I recalled an odd moment from a biography of Ayn Rand, the radical libertarian philosopher to whom Greenspan was devoted earlier in his career.

"Do you think Alan might basically be a social climber?" Rand once asked a mutual acquaintance.

It wasn't a rhetorical question, apparently. This was in the late 1950s. By then, Rand had published her two thick, preposterous novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and stood poised on the brink of international stardom. Her creepy philosophy of Objectivism, placing the self at the center of the moral universe, was being enthusiastically embraced, as it still is, by tens of thousands of pimply teenage boys in the dreamy moments between fits of social insecurity and furious bouts of masturbation. As her cultish fame spread, Rand wanted to keep tabs on her most intimate acolytes. Of these Greenspan was the most promising and, by all appearances, the most normal. Which worried her.

He had, for example, a life; most of the members of the Collective--the name her dozen closest followers attached to themselves--did not, devoting themselves to her welfare exclusively. Greenspan was making good money, soon to be great money, as a savvy economics consultant. He lunched with bond traders, corporate leaders, even titans of industry, real-life versions of the planet-girding capitalists Rand fantasized about and invented for her books. On Saturday nights Greenspan, then in his early thirties, would gather with his fellow Collective members in Rand's dim, shuttered apartment in midtown Manhattan (she kept the windows closed and the blinds drawn for many years, after one of her beloved cats tumbled tragically to its death). There in the grim presence of their idol they would sit on folding chairs and release expletives of thrilled admiration as her writings were read aloud. One memoir from the Collective, My Years with Ayn Rand by Nathaniel Branden, shows that even then Greenspan's mode of communication was Greenspanian.

"Ayn," Alan would say, overcome by some Randian insight, "upon reading this, one tends to feel exhilarated!"

Greenspan could argue for the gold standard, the absolute deregulation of the economy, the abolition of the Federal Reserve, and every other item of Rand's libertarian dogma with unparalleled rigor. When Atlas was slammed by a left-wing reviewer for the New York Times, who detected in Rand's advocacy of an unbridled free market a poorly concealed totalitarian itch, Greenspan took to her defense with a (now famous) letter to the editor.

To the editor:

'Atlas Shrugged' is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should

Alan Greenspan

New York

But of course Rand was right to feel uneasy about acolyte Alan. Green-span slowly slipped from her orbit, and though he never explicitly repudiated her or Objectivism--he speaks of both fondly, though vaguely, in his new book--he never once tried to advance her pitiless worldview from the many positions of power he has held since leaving her circle. Judged by his public performance, it's as if he'd never believed in Objectivism at all; he was, so to speak, objectively anti-Objectivist. The eloquent theoretician of unregulated capitalism instead became capitalism's highest-ranking regulator, chairman of the same Federal Reserve that Rand disdained as the parasites' protector and chief impediment to the New Man. Greenspan has earned vast praise and celebrity as a result.