in Economics, Politics

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.