Ayn Rand is 110 and still in your face after all these years

Ayn Rand, Russian-born American novelist, is shown in Manhattan with the Grand Central Terminal building in background in 1962.

Modern-day capitalism has no shortage of heavyweight scholars—names such as Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, Friedrich von Hayek and Murray Rothbard are among the most prominent names that surface among free market thinkers. Yet the person most frequently evoked by proponents and detractors alike was neither a trained economist nor a traditional businessperson.

Ayn Rand, author, thinker and political lightning rod, would have turned 110 years old this week. More than three decades after her death, she remains one of the most influential defenders of the free market.

Over the last several years, the immigrant—born Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum—who studied filmmaking and eventually fled Communist Russia to become an ardent defender of free markets and limited government has ridden a tidal wave of newfound public appreciation. Although she was little more than a fiction writer, Rand's oeuvre and legacy inspire frequent, and fierce, debate. One of her biggest defenders says her storytelling is one of the major reasons why she remains such an icon.

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Rand's enduring popularity, and her sway on the debates over capitalism, "is partially because she wrote fiction," Yaron Brook, head of the Ayn Rand Institute, told CNBC in a recent interview.

Even in death, the philosopher is as prominent as she's ever been. An early Rand novel called "Ideal" is set to publish in July, her first original work in more than 50 years.

"The stories are timeless … and it leaves a more emotional impression on our lives. We remember the stories" even more than the facts, figures and data presented by traditional economists, said Brook, who himself was introduced to Rand's work at age 16.

In that vein, her status as an economic layperson and novelist gives her ideas more salience to both non-scholars and scholars alike, Brook said. "The fact that she wrote acts as strength," the 53-year-old said. "It allows the stories to be carried from generation to generation."

From pariah to icon

Rand's resurgence was in large measure a counter-reaction to the public's waning support for capitalism after the 2008 financial meltdown. When the government was forced to bail out the banking and auto sector—in the process dramatically expanding its own authority—it eroded belief in free markets.

Brook, however, sees the events of the last decade differently. "Capitalism is in retreat in the West because there is doubt about its moral foundations," he said. Through her writing and uncompromising philosophical beliefs, "no one presented an unequivocal defense of capitalism's morality like Ayn Rand."

The persistent interest in the author's tomes is because "you get the sense that Rand got it," he said. "She gave business leaders a sense of moral authority."

In her 2009 Rand biography, "Goddess of the Market," University of Virginia historian Jennifer Burns described how Rand's breakout book, "The Fountainhead," was "freighted with Rand's symbolic connotations." The story and characters made the book's basic elements "exciting and lively."

Burns quoted a letter that Rand wrote to an acquaintance saying that "it's time we realize—as [Communists] do—that spreading our ideas in the form of fiction is a great weapon, because it arouses the public to an emotional, as well as intellectual, response to our cause."

A knack for compelling narratives may explain why "Atlas Shrugged"—Rand's seminal work that was almost universally panned when it was first published in 1957—has drawn legions of acolytes in the decades since.

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In the wake of the 2009 financial crisis, and the government's response to the meltdown, sales of "Atlas" topped 7 million copies, and the book is now widely considered a classic. At last count, the polemicist's collective writings have sold more than 25 million worldwide.

By being so closely linked to free market economics, Rand's cultural import is in some ways similar to the fictional works of Philip Dick or Isaac Asimov. Both authors' writings have been given life on screen, and have taken center stage in debates over artificial intelligence and technological advancement.

"If you control Hollywood and storytelling…. it has a profound impact on the culture," Brook said. "I wish we had [more] Ayn Rands out there writing about [economics], but we don't."

Battered from left and right, but aging quite well

Yet there is little doubt that Rand has been far more influential, due in large part to Objectivism, a philosophy the author developed that hinges primarily on self-interest as being central to the pursuit of happiness. That line of thinking has earned Rand criticism from both the cultural left and right.

Nobel laureate and progressive economist Paul Krugman is a particularly strident critic who once dismissed her writing as being reserved for "adolescent boys."

Meanwhile, Peter Wehner, a former aide to former presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, is hardly a fan. In a published article, he once denounced Rand as a "nut," while calling objectivism "deeply problematic and morally indefensible."

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For his part, Brook dismissed the criticism from both liberals and Rand's erstwhile fellow travelers in the conservative movement. "At least the left is consistent, but the right is completely inconsistent. In the end Bush and Reagan got co-opted by the left," he said.

"Rand is the only one to make the argument against the left, and that's why they talk about her."