Ayn Rand’s recent appearances in the news made me think about her position on urban issues. Some of her novels suggest that she is anti-city, believing that individualism can only be achieved by living in remote areas. In Anthem, for example, her protagonist lives in a type of dorm where people are never allowed to be alone. He achieves the freedom that he couldn’t realize in this totalitarian society by escaping to an isolated home in the woods. Likewise, her description of Galt’s Gulch, the mountain utopia in Atlas Shrugged for productive capitalists, is based on Ouray, Colorado. Ouray is a beautiful town in a beautiful part of the country, but its built landscape notably shares little in common with the urban areas where her villains live.
While her Galt’s Gulch description is clearly fanciful, I think it is important to note that the characters would not have been able to support themselves in a small market with the specialties they chose before dropping out of society. Galt himself is an electrical engineer, and other residents of the Gulch include a railroad manager, a metallurgist, and a famous actress. Since the Gulch does not engage in trade with the outside world, those living in the Gulch would not be trading in a market nearly large enough to be specializing in their chosen professions.
In The Gated City, Ryan Avent provides an excellent description of the specialization that is only possible within large cities. Going back to the Ouray example, this small mountain town provides opportunities for a certain type of specialization, such as spa manager or ice climbing guide, but this is only because tourists visiting the area have the requisite standard of living to visit resort towns. Since the division of labor is limited by the size of the market, the division of labor within Galt’s Gulch would be extremely limited, reducing these capitalist heros to a near-subsistence standard of living.
Perhaps Rand relies on these different types of developments merely as symbolism; since few people meet her standards of individualism, they must escape to sparsely-populated areas of the country to achieve independence from government. Rand herself lived in a New York apartment in Murray Hill, a far cry from Galt’s Gulch. She lived in New York for 30 years, indicating she probably wasn’t a city-hater. She expressed admiration for the New York skyline, and Howard Roark, the protagonist of The Fountainhead (which I’ve not read), is an architect. He says, “I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. Particularly when one can’t see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible.” Clearly Rand appreciated the type of architecture and large-scale infrastructure projects made possible by urbanization at the same time her protagonists seek to drop out of cities.
While it’s difficult to say what stance Rand herself took on urbanism, we do know that Frank Lloyd Wright is rumored to have been the inspiration for Howard Roark. Wright’s views on cities are very clear. He thought that living “communally” such as in apartment buildings was anti-individualist and that densely built cities were anti-democratic. A follow-up post will explore Wright’s urban theories as they relate to individual liberty.