The Ayn Rand Dollar

A few weeks ago, Time reported on a proposal to put the image of a woman on America’s paper currency. (Suffragette Susan B. Anthony and Lewis and Clark guide Sacagawea have already been featured on $1 coins.)

Then Time did the next logical thing and asked it readers for their opinion about who that woman should be. They gave a range of options, from the reasonable (Abigail Adams, Harriet Beecher Stowe) to the trivial (Beyoncé Knowles).

But what’s interesting is the result: leading the poll, far and away, is Ayn Rand. She gets a little over 55% of the vote; Eleanor Roosevelt is a distant second at about 10%.

What should we make of that? This is an online poll, so the results are highly unscientific, easily swayed by an enthusiastic campaign from Ayn Rand’s fan base. (So get to it, and see if we can’t drive those numbers up farther.) Moreover, if you’re on the left or the center, you have many candidates to split your vote. If you’re on the right and want to cast a vote that reflects your political preference, Ayn Rand is the only option.

The whole thing is academic anyway, because I don’t think they’re going to take George Washington off the $1 bill any time soon, nor should they. First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen—and first in our everyday cash transactions.

But it is significant that Ayn Rand was offered as an option, and significant that she apparently has the biggest fan base. Then again, I have to wonder if some of the votes came from people who didn’t necessarily agree with her philosophy but thought it would be wryly appropriate because, after all, Ayn Rand was in favor of money, right?

And she was, though as I have explained recently, not in the way those with a more superficial acquaintance with her ideas tend to think.

She certainly adopted the dollar sign as her symbol. It recurs frequently in her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, and she explains what she means by it when the heroine of the novel, Dagny Taggart, follows a series of clues in which the dollar sign keeps popping up. Here’s the response she gets when she quizzes one of the novel’s minor heroes, Owen Kellogg.

“I know that this stands for something.”

“The dollar sign? For a great deal. It stands on the vest of every fat, piglike figure in every cartoon, for the purpose of denoting a crook, a grafter, a scoundrel—as the one sure-fire brand of evil. It stands—as the money of a free country—for achievement, for success, for ability, for man’s creative power—and, precisely for these reasons, it is used as a brand of infamy…. Incidentally, do you know where that sign comes from? It stands for the initials of the United States.

“[This] was the only country in history where wealth was not acquired by looting, but by production, not by force, but by trade, the only country whose money was the symbol of man’s right to his own mind, to his work, to his life, to his happiness, to himself. If this is evil, by the present standards of the world, if this is the reason for damning us, then we—we, the dollar chasers and makers—accept it and choose to be damned by that world. We choose to wear the sign of the dollar on our foreheads, proudly, as our badge of nobility—the badge we are willing to live for and, if need be, to die.”

So the concept of an Ayn Rand dollar is pretty much irresistible, isn’t it?

Yet it is also deeply ironic, because when Ayn Rand wrote those lines, the dollar was still backed by gold—and later in that same scene Kellogg is only willing to trade with Dagny in exchange for gold dollars. Elsewhere in the novel, Ayn Rand describes her ideal currency, which is not printed by the Federal Reserve, either.

[He] reached into his pocket and dropped two small coins into the palm of her hand. They were miniature disks of shining gold, smaller than pennies, the kind that had not been in circulation since the days of Nat Taggart; they bore the head of the Statue of Liberty on one side, the words “United States of America—One Dollar” on the other, but the dates stamped upon them were of the past two years.

“That’s the money we use here,” he said. “It’s minted by [banker] Midas Mulligan.”

“But…on whose authority?”

“That’s stated on the coin—on both sides of it.”

By contrast, Kellogg explains that he won’t accept any currency “whose sole standard of value is the decree” of a government economic planner. Which is exactly what today’s paper money is. In 1971, in a crime that was way bigger than Watergate, President Nixon severed the last ties between the dollar and gold, turning Federal Reserve Notes into funny money that was promptly and thoroughly debased. So much so that when you read about the various business transaction mentioned in Atlas Shrugged, you have to habitually multiply all dollar amounts by ten to get anything that makes sense in a contemporary context. So I don’t think Ayn Rand would have felt honored to have her face appear on today’s paper dollar.

Not that I think we have anything to worry about. If Ayn Rand ever gains enough cultural influence to become an uncontroversial choice to appear on a dollar bill, it will be on a dollar that can’t be printed in infinite numbers and quantitatively eased into oblivion. The real-life Ayn Rand dollar will be redeemable in gold.

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