Unlike classical conservatism, which stressed traditions and habits rather than absolutes of right and wrong, the modern American right has increasingly come to see all compromise as betrayal. Burke argued that ‘circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind’, but American right-wingers today are driven by a concern only for intellectual purity. Following the example of Barry Goldwater’s famous speech of 1964, Fox News hosts, shock jocks and angry bloggers endlessly reiterate Cicero’s claim that extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice no virtue.
Few figures better illustrate this harsh, fractious and uncompromising approach to right-wing politics than Ayn Rand. An émigré from Bolshevik Russia, Rand shot to fame in the Forties and Fifties writing popular fiction with a libertarian twist. Her work offered an ethical defence of acquisitive self-interest and commercial