The voice of Rand
Robert Tracinski dedicates his life to spreading the 20th-century writer’s ideas.
By Richard Wagle
Photography by Bettmann/CORBIS
Robert Tracinski, AB’91, is unafraid of controversy. In fact, he thrives on it, making a living peddling his analysis of politics and ideas from an unconventional perspective, that of 20th-century novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. As editor (since 1996) and owner (since 2001) of The Intellectual Activist (TIA)—a political magazine based in Charlottesville, Virginia, dedicated to promoting Rand’s ideas—Tracinski does not worry about making some people angry, as long as his arguments fit into an overall Randian worldview.
After Hurricane Katrina, for example, he wrote a September 2, 2005, TIA column speaking out against the welfare state, citing the subsequent looting and violence as examples of what becomes of people rewarded “for their lack of initiative and self-induced helplessness.” His 2006 follow-up column, “The Unlearned Lesson of Katrina,” was picked up by several conservative sites, including RealClearPolitics.com and Fox News. Reactions ran the gamut, from a reader on Free Republic, a conservative-leaning online forum, who called the piece beautifully written, thoughtful, and insightful, to a DailyKos blog comment calling it “one of the nastiest pieces I have read on the topic.”
With an incendiary point-of-view that stems from his interpretation of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, Tracinski applies her theories of rational self-interest, reason, and laissez-faire capitalism to contemporary political and economic circumstances. When Microsoft was in the midst of its antitrust troubles in the late ’90s, for example, Tracinski founded the Committee for the Moral Defense of Microsoft, a group dedicated to educating people about what he saw as the injustice of antitrust laws. According to a January 1999 Atlantic article, the group claimed, “Microsoft is perfectly entitled to behave the way it does in order to increase profits for shareholders, regardless of the public good.” In another feat of activism, in April 2001 Tracinski organized an anti–Earth Day rally, “Up with Industry—Down with Earth Day,” at the Washington Monument in DC. Earth Day, Tracinski wrote for Capitalism Magazine, “stands for wholesale attack on industry and technology. … The name of one radical environmental group is admirably exact: ‘Earth First!’ The unspoken implication is: humans last.” Some 50 humans showed up at the rally in support.
Tracinski first discovered Rand in high school, when a friend who had read The Fountainhead started “making all these Objectivist arguments.” When Tracinski tried Atlas Shrugged, it didn’t initially convince him. Yes, this is a good book, he thought, but it isn’t realistic. So he stopped reading the 1,000-plus pager. But during the months after, he’d be watching the news or reading a newspaper and find himself thinking in Objectivist terms.
“I’ve met a lot of people who become interested in Ayn Rand’s ideas who say, ‘It expressed what I always thought but never had the words for.’ I wasn’t one of those people,” says Tracinski. “But there were certain things that just made complete sense. I always thought of myself as being conservative on economics and liberal on social issues, and she integrated those around a common principle that made sense.”
Most of Tracinski’s activism emerges through his writing, found in his periodic column at RealClearPolitics.com; in the pages of The Intellectual Activist; and in the magazine’s online news-analysis column, the TIA Daily, a subscription service distributed through e-mail. While his commentary has been reprinted in the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer, Houston Chronicle, and Washington Times, Tracinski has found enough TIA Daily subscribers to make that service the mainstay of his publishing enterprise.
When writing each issue of the TIA Daily, Tracinski focuses on five or six topics; he then scours the Internet for articles “that give details that say exactly what was going on.” If he’s writing about the financial crisis, for example, he finds out “what exactly was the role of government in this; how did it proceed; what were the regulations that made it worse, that sort of thing. Giving [readers] the cold dope, if you will.” The facts, he argues, allow him to advocate for his viewpoint: “I’m using ideas from Objectivism to help me understand the world, but the goal is not to push the Objectivist agenda down people’s throats. It’s to help people understand.”
The Treasury and the Fed have ignored “the facts,” says Tracinski, in framing the economic bailout plans for Wall Street banks and Detroit automakers. “The financial crisis,” he wrote in an October 2 RealClearPolitics.com column, “was caused by more than a decade of using government power to rewrite the facts of reality and override the judgment of the market, and the bailout just offers more of the same fantasy economics.” The risks taken by private financial institutions are part of the natural process of a free market, in which new strategies—including subprime lending—are tested, and those that fail are abandoned or modified to create better approaches. The “process of failure,” Tracinski wrote, “is a crucial benefit of the free market.”
In the same way he believes public institutions shouldn’t interrupt the market, he also finds offense with laws that target individuals’ ideologies. In a 2003 article for Capitalism Magazine, “‘Hate Crimes’ Law Undermines Protection of Individual Rights,” he argues against giving special criminal treatment to hate crimes. “A ‘hate crimes’ law,” he writes, “would expand the law’s concern from criminal action to ‘criminal thought.’ It would institute the premise that the purpose of our legal system is not to defend the rights of the victim, but to punish socially unacceptable ideas. This is a premise that should be abhorrent to a free society.” Punishing criminals for their ideas, he says, leads us down a slippery slope: how long before people are simply punished for what they believe? Tracinski argues for free speech over political correctness, even in a country where, publicly, the latter is the norm.
Tracinski’s politics have made him some Objectivist enemies. During the 2004 Bush/Kerry presidential election, for example, Tracinski, who had been an Ayn Rand Institute senior writer since 1997, had a public disagreement with Leonard Peikoff, founder of the ARI and Rand’s legal heir. Peikoff endorsed Kerry, fearing that Bush would move the country too close to theocracy. For Tracinski, Bush’s stance against terrorism, which included supporting the Iraq war, was enough to declare himself an “Anti-Bushite for Bush,” a reference to Rand’s support of Nixon—she called herself an Anti-Nixonite for Nixon before the 1972 election. After Bush won, Tracinski and the ARI parted ways.
Tracinski enjoys having an independent voice: “I have to find something new and unusual every day in order to earn my pay.” It allows him to be, as he puts it, “an entrepreneur in the realm of ideas.”