Ayn Rand is perhaps the most controversial figure attached to the libertarian movement. To see why, notice my phrase, “attached.” She decried libertarians for supposedly stealing and warping her ideas, excommunicated several dissenters from her circle for no apparent reason, and then wondered why they didn’t like her.[i] While this may seem like a mere ad hominem attack,
When money ceases to be the tool by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of men. Blood, whips and guns—or dollars. Take your choice—there is no other—and your time is running out.[ii]
Others, perhaps, have had similar ideas. Herbert Spencer, F. A. Hayek, and Franz Oppenheimer all have outlined the fundamental difference on a macro level between commercial/industrial and military civilizations. But none have put it so bluntly and showed its relevance to everyday life. If you fail to organize society on the basis of voluntary transactions – the dollar – you will be forced to organize it by naked, brute force. You can trade with your fellows or you can compel them to your will. There is no intellectually consistent middle ground; as
[In] the extended order, old instinctual responses like solidarity and altruism continue to retain some importance by assisting voluntary collaboration, even though they are incapable, by themselves, of creating a basis for the more extended order. If we were to apply the unmodified rules of the microcosm (say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our sentimental often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were to always to apply the rules of the extended order to our most intimate groupings, we would crush them.[iii]
Altruism, as Hayek notes, works only in small groups: but for small groups like the family, often only altruism can work. This is due to psychological as well as evolutionary factors. Often, we feel the need for flexible personal relationships, something which is rather incompatible with monetary valuations. And humans often find meaning out of decidedly non-monetary concerns, in friendship, caring, and love. But the factors enabling us to form bonds, likely “developed” due to how they enhancing survival, only work with people we trust and know personally. It is rare to act as if one values an abstract humanity – both since it is hard to love abstracts like humanity when its individual members often behave stupidly, and because such valuations are not very conducive to survival. Yet it is not necessary to reference the exceptional abstract variety of altruism to show the pitfalls of
I call attention to this principle of
If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve the career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor's child and let your own die, it is.[viii]
The first two situations here clearly demonstrate value-inconsistent behavior. And the third situation as
There are two main reasons why
“Do you think that a man should give jewelry to his mistress for any purpose but his own pleasure?” he asked. “This is the way I want you to wear it. Only for me. I like to look at it. It’s beautiful.”
“Do you understand it’s for nothing but vicious self-indulgence on my part? I’m
not doing it for your pleasure, but for mine.”
“Hank!” The cry was involuntary, but it held amusement, despair, indignation, and pity. “If you’d given me those things just for my pleasure, and not yours, I would have thrown them in your face.” [ix]
Hank, by giving the jewelry to Dagny because he likes to look at it, makes Dagny’s happiness in having the jewelry only relevant in whether she accepts his gift. He never says anything along the lines of “I’m glad you like it.” And Dagny’s response, by drawing a false dichotomy between one’s own happiness and others’ happiness, does not take into account the possibility that one could derives pleasure directly from others’ happiness. Furthermore, in The Fountainhead,
The same conclusion is reached when we read carefully into
Altruism is the idea that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value.[xi]
In using black and white words: “no right,” “only justification,” “highest moral duty.,” she paints an extreme representation of altruism that I think few that would celebrate. But since
For man to exist for his own sake alone is a solitary, undesirable, and valueless existence; service to others helps to enrich his life.
Because of its partial acceptance of altruism (service to others is a legitimate value) Randians must too condemn this concept as evil. But if service to others is not a legitimate value, then one cannot legitimately derive happiness from others’ happiness. In other words,
By making altruism into an all-or-nothing moral issue,
Galt's Gulch is a place where the Prime Movers of society are invited to, when they go on strike. It is not a place where any moral man or woman would be invited to merely because of being "a good person." In that sense, it is an elite society — "the aristocracy of superior ability." Therefore, do not view it as a literal prototype of an ideal society in the real world; it is not meant to be that.[xviii]
Yet what is left then for the Eddie Willers of the world, men who, as Francisco d’Anconia put it to Hank Rearden, “could not equal the power of your mind, but who would equal your moral integrity”?[xix] Eddie, Dagny’s childhood best friend and right-hand man at Taggart Transcontinental, is simply abandoned in the desert. There is no serious attempt mentioned of saving him at the end of the book, when the characters are escaping, or of offering him any choice of escaping beforehand. The only refuge from collectivism in
Though Rand’s initial position promoting value-consistent behavior and blasting altruism (as defined by
I have summarized the errors that I believe lie in
This view is true insofar as long as
The next, and deeper question is: from whence did all of these mistaken ideas, of egoism and intellectual aristocracy, spring? I believe that there is an underlying reason for these wrong ideas; they sprang largely from
Accept that your mind is fallible, but becoming mindless will not make you infallible – than an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error. (p. 969)
At first glance, this seems to be an acknowledgement of this very possibility of error, and thus protection against it. But Galt follows this sensible prescription with a command to “discard that unlimited license to evil which consists of claiming that man is imperfect” and “accept the fact that in the realm of morality nothing less than perfection will do. Man has a single basic choice: to think or not, and that is the gauge of virtue.”[xxv] To
Objectivism does not permit any variant of the mind-body dichotomy, any split between theory and practice, between one's convictions and one's actions....I hereby withdraw my endorsement of them and of their future works and activities. I repudiate both of them, totally and permanently, as spokesman for or of Objectivism. [xxvi] [emphasis mine]
[i] Examples of those excommunicated are Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, and Murray Rothbard. Understandably, sources are rather conflicted on these and especially other excommunicatees, with each side telling vastly different stories. In reference to who she saw as Rothbard’s supporters,
[ii] p. 385
[iii] F. A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit, p. 18
[iv] Francisco d’Anconia and Ken Danagger each started work at 12, Hank Rearden at 14 in an iron mine. Danagger is described as having no personal friends. Dagny Taggart often sleeps in her office and in numerous occasions remarks to her brother Jim that she cares about nothing but work. The list of examples could go on.
[v] Anyone in doubt of this should examine Japanese culture. Also, see here: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karoshi)
[vi] Furthermore, if the welfare state was abolished, voluntary forms of charity would be quite effective at helping the poor. See
[vii] p. 655
[viii] Spoken by John Galt, p. 941,
[ix] p. 344
[x] From the Ayn Rand Institute. http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=education_contests_edu_tftheme&printer_friendly=1
[xi] Quoted in a Playboy interview in 1964, online here: http://ellensplace.net/ar_pboy.html
[xii] The full quote is: “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. The man who is wrong still retains some respect for truth, if, only, by accepting the responsibility of choice. But the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth in order to pretend that no choice or values exist, who is willing to sit out the course of any battle, willing to cash in on the blood of the innocent or to crawl on his belly to the guilty, who dispenses justice by condemning both the robber and the robbed to jail, who solves conflicts by ordering the thinker and the fool to meet each other halfway. In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win,” p. 965
[xiii] Nonprofits that work to promote freedom, for example. To give a more general example, programs that give scholarships to inner-city students so they can go to better schools often still have the parents pay more than half of the tuition, so students retain a sense that the education is valuable and not just an entitlement. For more see Murray Rothbard, For A New Liberty, p. 175-209.
[xiv] I have my doubts as to whether
[xv] Though the role of families in Ayn Rand’s fiction could make an interesting topic, I will here only note how small the familial role is. At best, families teach the value of individualism, as in the Taggart and especially D’Anconia family. The Taggart parents in Atlas Shrugged are viewed as somewhat supportive, but they play no role in Dagny’s development – if it can be described as such. But the Rearden family, including Hank’s wife Lilian, are shown at length as complete parasites. Ragnar’s father disowns him for following what he sees as the only moral course, that of piracy. And to reiterate, none of
[xvi] After the schoolmaster in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, who declares that she never went through the infant and childhood stages and was born as an adult.
[xix] p. 419
[xxi]This point is furthered by the many splits and excommunications in Objectivist circles.
[xxii] By way of comparison, there are many who call themselves individualists yet call for bigger government without recognizing the contradiction. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek noted that “liberal socialists” like Bertrand Russell often argued for centralization of economic power in the hands of the government without realizing the contradiction. Today, modern liberals uphold the power of government – especially the federal government – and a “living Constitution.” Then, they are surprised when the liberal Supreme Court justices all support decisions like Raich and Kelo, overturning state laws permitting medical marijuana for the chronic-disease-ridden, and redefining “public use” in the Fifth Amendment to justify seizing old people’s houses and giving the land to someone who can generate more tax revenue. Such results are repugnant to modern liberals – yet the inevitable result of their support for increased government to help the individual is that we get increased government and it tramples the individual.
[xxiii] By ‘moral philosophy’ I refer to personal ethics rather than larger political concepts like ‘the role of government.’
[xxiv]See Justin Raimondo: http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig5/raimondo1.html
[xxv] p. 969
[xxviii] This is a benefit downplayed by Objectivism. Murray Rothbard highlighted the “Randian belief that every individual is armed with the means of spinning out all truths a priori from his own head.” Because of this, “there is felt to be no need to learn the concrete facts about the real world, either about contemporary history or the laws of the social sciences. Armed with axiomatic first principles, many ex-Randians see no need of learning very much else.” This is vital; in constructing an intricate philosophical system it is imperative that one takes into account the possibility that one might be wrong. It is after all almost inevitable to overlook a couple of points here and there, and without the benefit both of inside discussion and reference to history one’s reality-checks are severely impeded.