Things Libertarianism Is Not, Part 2: The Cult of Ayn Rand

There’s no getting around it. Ayn Rand has long served as the punching bag for anti-libertarian polemics. People who see the state as the fount of human cooperation tend to cast their opposition as on the side of “greed,” “hate,” and cold-hearted selfishness. If Ayn Rand isn’t the most frequently-used symbolic anchor for that smear, I don’t know what is.

According to these folks, Ayn Rand authored the modern libertarian movement, and her defining characteristics always come out of a grab-bag of antonyms for camaraderie, compassion, or cooperation.

Ayn Rand is the rebel queen of [libertarians’] icy kingdom, villifying empathy and solidarity.

— David Mascriota, AlterNet

Furthermore, they say, libertarians venerate this titan of misanthropy with a religious fervor. Atlas Shrugged is not merely a novel. It is holy writ. Their fondness for her literature can only be explained as cultish brainwashing.

Ayn Rand is the patron saint of the libertarian Right. Her writings are quoted in a quasi-religious manner by American reactionaries, cited like Biblical codices that offer profound answers to all of life’s complex problems (namely, just “Free the Market”).

— Ben Norton, Salon

Since we can take for granted that Ayn Rand’s vision for the world is a dystopian hellscape where selling orphans’ kidneys is permissible so long as profit is involved, we can use her name to damn any innovations that threaten our own preconceptions. If an entrepreneurial outfit dares to benefit workers or consumers on their own terms without our permission, well, that’s got to be brutal Ayn Rand worship.

[Uber] is Ayn Rand’s brutal, irrational and primitive philosophy in its purest form: altruism is evil, and self-interest is the only true heroism.

— Richard Eskow, Salon

After all, approving of the counter-intuitive virtues of the marketplace amounts to socioeconomic Darwinism. Libertarians believe, as Ayn Rand surely did, that if you make less money you’re a lesser being.

The core of Ayn Rand’s view, incorporated into many of the policies of Dr. Paul and certain (but not all) Tea Party believers, is that the poor are poor because they are inferior, that workers are jobless because they are inferior.

— Brent Budowski, The Hill

She’s basically a Ferengi.

Ayn Rand in her native garb.

Ayn Rand in her native garb.

Now, I swear I’m not trying to make up a strawman here. I know there are folks out there who disagree with Rand and libertarians both and can coherently describe what they disagree with. I’ve spoken to some of them. But those people don’t conflate the two before damning both as morally bankrupt. For the polemicists I’m talking about today, the argument boils down a chain of three points:

  1. Ayn Rand taught that greed and selfishness were virtues.
  2. Libertarians follow Ayn Rand.
  3. Therefore, libertarians hold that greed and selfishness are virtues.

The followup conclusion, of course, is that this makes libertarians Bad People, so nothing further is required to refute them on whatever the subject at hand might be.

I don’t know why so many writers do this. Maybe they genuinely believe that dumping on Ayn Rand successfully delivers a knockout blow to economic liberalism. Maybe they have read so little about the ideas they attack that this is the only name they know. Maybe something else is going on. Regardless, this argument is just plain wrong.

Ayn Rand did not teach that greed and selfishness were virtues… at least not in the way you’re thinking

Let’s take a look at Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness, a book she titled provocatively on purpose. Rather than an apologetic for stomping on corpses for your own gain, it is an attempt to confront the way people think about self-interest.

In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.
Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.

This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.

The ethics of altruism has created the image of the brute, as its answer, in order to make men accept two inhuman tenets: (a) that any concern with one’s own interests is evil, regardless of what these interests might be, and (b) that the brute’s activities are in fact to one’s own interest (which altruism enjoins man to renounce for the sake of his neighbors).

In other words, “selfishness” in common usage carries a morally charged image, but the word as technically defined represents a different, more specific idea: the mere concern for one’s own interests. We should not automatically assign a moral value to that concern without knowing what interests exactly, or how they’re being pursued.

She defines the “ethics of altruism” as an ethics where someone’s actions are judged not on their merits, but on who they supposedly benefited. She argues that this makes for a poor understanding of morality. People give a free pass to atrocities if they were supposedly self-sacrificing, and dismiss someone’s honorable behavior if it was for their own benefit.

Observe the indecency of what passes for moral judgments today. An industrialist who produces a fortune, and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own “selfish” benefit. A young man who gives up his career in order to support his parents and never rises beyond the rank of grocery clerk is regarded as morally superior to the young man who endures an excruciating struggle and achieves his personal ambition. A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit “the people,” not himself.

Observe what this beneficiary-criterion of morality does to a man’s life. Thefirst thing he learns is that morality is his enemy; he has nothing to gain from it, he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect. He may hope that others might occasionally sacrifice themselves for his benefit, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for theirs, but he knows that the relationship will bring mutual resentment, not pleasure—and that, morally, their pursuit of values will be like an exchange of unwanted, unchosen Christmas presents, which neither is morally permitted to buy for himself. Apart from such times as he manages to perform some act of self-sacrifice, he possesses no moral significance: morality takes no cognizance of him and has nothing to say to him for guidance in the crucial issues of his life; it is only his own personal, private, “selfish” life and, as such, it is regarded either as evil or, at best, amoral.

Her point was that pursuing one’s own interests can be virtuous. But that wasn’t all. She argued the corollary is equally true: Being virtuous can be in your own interest!

She sought to put an end to the belief that virtue and the self are always at odds. What incentive does anyone have to be honest, honorable, diligent, or loyal if that always means harming yourself for someone else’s benefit? She wanted to show that the virtues and self-interest are not mutually exclusive. To think that they are actually discourages good living, according to Ayn Rand.

You may hold a different view, but she’s not the monster you were told she was.

Ayn Rand never thought of herself as a libertarian

Ayn Rand despised the movement that took the label “libertarian” back in the 1960s and 70s, with special contempt aimed at the Libertarian Party. Here are some of her own words:

All kinds of people today call themselves “libertarians,” especially something calling itself the New Right, which consists of hippies, except that they’re anarchists instead of collectivists. But of course, anarchists are collectivists. Capitalism is the one system that requires absolute objective law, yet they want to combine capitalism and anarchism. That is worse than anything the New Left has proposed. It’s a mockery of philosophy and ideology. They sling slogans and try to ride on two bandwagons. They want to be hippies, but don’t want to preach collectivism, because those jobs are already taken. But anarchism is a logical outgrowth of the anti-intellectual side of collectivism. I could deal with a Marxist with a greater chance of reaching some kind of understanding, and with much greater respect. The anarchist is the scum of the intellectual world of the left, which has given them up. So the right picks up another leftist discard. That’s the Libertarian movement.

Or how about that time someone asked her why she had such a beef with the libertarians?

Because Libertarians are a monstrous, disgusting bunch of people: they plagiarize my ideas when that fits their purpose, and they denounce me in a more vicious manner than any communist publication, when that fits their purpose. They are lower than any pragmatists, and what they hold against Objectivism is morality. They’d like to have an amoral political program.

To make a long story short, she did not like libertarians very much and considered them wrong in the most fundamental way.

Libertarians don’t (all) think of themselves as Randians

I found that the one who coined “anarcho-capitalism” (which could be considered the radical wing of American libertarianism) was a man by the name of J. Michael Oliver, who started out as an Objectivist. He wrote The New Libertarianism: Anarcho-Capitalism. I don’t know if he was a hippie but his argument, like that of Robert P. Murphy in Chaos Theory, is that the economics of Objectivists is generally right but needs to be extended into their politics to be logically consistent. That is, we don’t even need the minimal state to provide police and courts. It is possible — even preferable — to build these institutions in the marketplace, instead of a state monopoly. Rand clearly disagreed, but there you have it.

Ayn Rand is not the key figure of modern libertarianism. She insisted on a particular brand of conservative politics and as far as I can tell, never budged. The libertarians on the other hand, were agnostic about the particulars of governing a just society, willing to leave most or all of those decisions and value judgments up to individuals so long as no one was using violence that was not purely defensive.

The title of Founding Libertarian can more accurately be placed on Murray N. Rothbard. Rothbard was a mind-bogglingly prolific philosopher, economist and historian. He is the only one to have written a book on the Panic of 1819, and his history of colonial America, Conceived in Liberty, has no rival. In The Ethics of Liberty he talks about human rights, the proper use of force, and many other topics in an attempt to show a coherent and complete libertarian ethics and politics. His essay, Anatomy of the State, describes the libertarian view of the state — which is markedly different from Ayn Rand’s.

Many libertarians enjoy her books and admire her contributions to philosophy, but the relationship was entirely one-way. The High Priestess of Libertarianism she is not.

Things Libertarianism Is Not, Part 1: Socially Liberal, Fiscally Conservative

The political climate being what it is in 2016, many Americans are casting about for alternatives to what the major two political parties offer. The media seems eager to investigate any alternative whatsoever to Donald Trump. As a result, the Libertarian Party is getting more attention than it has in a long time. The Party’s standard-bearer this year is once again Gary Johnson, a successful two-term governor of New Mexico with a history of shrinking government humanely, and a bee in his bonnet about legalizing marijuana. His running mate Bill Weld was a Republican governor of Massachusetts and his record is checkered from a libertarian point of view, but Gary seems to believe in him.

Johnson’s positions tack with the Libertarian Party platform more than they don’t, but I disagree with his approach to the message. From life experiences as an entrepreneur, adventurer and governor, he seems to have worked out some rules of thumb about leadership that he calls “principles of good government.” That’s fine, and it makes the Johnson/Weld ticket a rather respectable one according to traditional political wisdom, but I don’t think he’s going to make it terribly clear where the motivating ideas of his party come from.

For that reason, I am going to use this moment in which America’s ears are slightly more open, and discuss just what intellectual and moral background the Libertarian Party comes from by dispelling some popular stereotypes about libertarians. This post will be the first in a series.

Libertarianism is not “socially liberal, fiscally conservative.”

The Johnson campaign is probably going to keep using a line like this. One I’ve heard recently is “the best of both parties.” Maybe that line will get votes. Maybe it mostly describes the platform according to the tidy little boxes Americans already have for thinking about politics. But it’s technically wrong. We are not the “pot Republicans.” Thinking about libertarianism as if it were borrowing a little from column R and a little from column D misses the fact that libertarianism is cut from completely different cloth from either D or R. The major truth the LP was created to administer is the simple fact that the political spectrum is not one dimensional. The range of possible thought on these issues does not begin with Elizabeth Warren and end with Ted Cruz.

So if libertarianism isn’t a wishy-washy hodgepodge of beliefs some wonkish nerds threw together from their favorite bits of Democrats and Republicans, what is it?

In America we use the word “libertarian” because the word “liberal” has been associated with the Left, and a different term was needed in order to avoid confusion. As a result, it is not obvious what the pedigree of libertarianism is. To follow the ideas farther back you need to look for the “liberals.” Ideas from thinkers such as David Hume, John Locke, and Adam Smith all inform liberalism. There are many others. The American libertarian platform grows out of this heritage.

For example, a libertarian would advocate unfettered international trade and a heavily scaled-back military stance. One might be tempted to think such a platform is just borrowing from the anti-war left and the pro-business right because both of those elements seem fashionable to those respective constituencies. In reality you are hearing ideas drawn directly from the likes of Frederic Bastiat, Adam Smith, Montesquieu and Richard Cobden. These men postulated that as the intensity of trade goes up, the likelihood of war goes down. This view is often expressed in the witticism: “Either goods will cross borders, or soldiers will.” Some of the classical liberals even went so far as to predict world peace brought about by free exchange among nations.

This pattern can be seen across the libertarian platform. Libertarians are in favor of lowering taxes on businesses of all size, yet also against subsidies to those very businesses. These ideas that sound on the surface like a commingling of left (end corporate welfare!) and right (low taxes!) flow naturally from the classical liberal view that government is at best a necessary evil which should exist only to protect life, liberty, and property.

Another example: What should be done about “gay rights?” The libertarian answer to this question — government should not be defining marriage in the first place — leaves the social conservatives unsatisfied because it takes the guardianship of traditional marriage out of their hands, and infuriates the social liberals because it deprives them of the weapon they need to universally impose new norms. There is a crucial difference here. Both our social liberals and social conservatives view the state as an appropriate tool for reshaping society, and the libertarians do not.

The libertarians are not the ones borrowing platform planks. Classical liberalism has a coherent argument to make about the role of government, the nature of rights, of property, and how to think about both. Rather, the Democrats and Republicans routinely pirate Liberal (libertarian) language and arguments in order to buttress their own.

On Risk, Time, and Living: Niven’s Ringworld

I know economics isn’t the first thing to spring to mind for most people when reading a science fiction classic, but bear with me anyway. Something stood out to me in the light of Austrian economics while reading Ringworld. Something that I consider a huge credit to Larry Niven for believable world-building. It has to do with the Pierson’s Puppeteers and how they handle their immortality.

If you haven’t read the book, I’ll try to explain the Puppeteers without spoiling the story. In the Ringworld universe, the Pierson’s Puppeteers are one of the older space-faring species. They are bizarre, three-legged, two-headed creatures with very high intelligence. Once upon a time they governed a gigantic commercial empire, but at the time of the novel, they are confined to their own home world, too averse to danger to risk leaving it. The one Puppeteer in the cast of the story, Nessus, is considered insane by his people because he has not only dared to leave home, but is taking a group of aliens (two humans and a Kzin) on a dangerous expedition.

So why do they act this way? The book explains this behavior as a consequence of the Puppeteer’s development of immortality. If they’re careful and can avoid being killed, they never die. So naturally, they’re careful to a fault. This intuitively makes sense when you’re given all the information, but thanks to economics we can roughly anticipate the Puppeteers’ preference for caution just by knowing about their longevity.

In the Austrian view of economics, there is a concept called time preference. Someone with a high time preference is willing to discount the future in order to have something sooner. Someone with a low time preference is willing to delay gratification, to discount the present in order to get something later. You see this all the time when people work for wages (high time preference), loan money or start an entrepreneurial venture (low time preference). Our time preference is also very much influenced by the length of our lives. None of us live forever, so every choice you make with your future self in mind has the end of your life (usually before age 100) as a furthest boundary. This is why people try to save during the early part of their adulthood, and switch to mostly spending during the twilight years of their lives. It’s not so common for an 86-year-old man to work twelve hour days and save like a miser the way an unmarried 20-something running a startup might. When your future is likely to be short, you tend to favor the present.

But what if your future was effectively infinite? Two things: First, you might not mind taking the long view and making plans that take a long time to develop because hey, you’ve got plenty of future in which to reap the rewards. Second, think of what kind of loss death represents. How many years are lost when a human dies? Probably somewhere less than 100. An effectively immortal creature stands to lose trillions. For a Pierson’s Puppeteer, virtually all of life always lies well into the future, and deserves a level of protection bordering on the paranoid.

Perhaps most importantly, this piece of Ringworld is a lesson in the value of our mortality. The Puppeteers manage to make very clever plans, but by and large they are selfish and cowardly. Their own lives loom so large in their futures, there’s no room for anyone else. We mere mortals can only spend so long thinking that way. Eventually we have more of our life behind us than we have before us, and if we want to touch the future, it will be through other people: your children, extended family, and friends.

My great uncle lived only about 77 years, cut short by disease earlier than I would have liked. Even though he is no longer with us, the dent he made in the world is going to last for generations. The old dairy farmer was gruff and sometimes short-tempered, but he lived his life by giving generously to anyone who had need. He didn’t die rich as far as I know, but over 700 people attended his funeral in a small country church, each of them profoundly touched by him at some stage of their lives. And not just family. Some were friends that hadn’t been seen for years, some were the type who were afraid to even set foot in a church, but they showed up all the same to say thank you one last time. To put it in Austrian terms, living like he did is a matter of keeping a low time preference for the sake of other people’s futures, in spite of your own dwindling time on earth. A creature who never dies never even has the opportunity to make that sacrifice.