Libertarians should be careful what they wish for.
Social solidarity is the first human law; freedom is the second law. Both laws interpenetrate each other and, being inseparable, constitute the essence of humanity. Thus, freedom is not the negation of solidarity. On the contrary, it represents the development and, so to speak, the humanizing of it.
Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.
— Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank
The Tea Party protesters have been accused of incoherence, but increasingly, a single cult-philosopher is unifying their vision.
The signs are appearing at Tea Party protests across the country. In New York, one of them reads, “Ayn Rand Was Right”. In Boston, a sign references the hero in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, “Where is John Galt?” Immediately next to that sign: “Atlas is Shrugging”. A little girl dressed in colonial garb is also holding a sign. It reads: “When I grow up, I want to be free”.
The Ayn Rand Institute boasts that sales of Atlas Shrugged have tripled in the last year. Internet sites with names like aynrandteaparty.blogspot.com are popping up across the web. If the Tea Partiers have a guru, her name is Ayn Rand. So who is she, and why has she captured the spirit of rebellion amongst the populist right?
It would be difficult to establish that Ayn Rand’s importance derives from any philosophical breakthrough or literary talent. On the latter point, her more well-read acolytes will agree. Philosophers and political scientists have dismissed her theory of “Objectivism”, citing so many fallacies and contradictions that anti-Rand critique has evolved into something of a sport.
Her personal life was a train wreck. Described in biographies as cruel, megalomaniacal, ungrateful and tasteless, she surrounded herself with a cult of loyal followers. She made a cuckold of her husband and humiliated him in public when he began suffering from dementia. She was addicted to amphetamines. By all accounts, she was not a very nice person.
The key to understanding why Ayn Rand became a famous philosopher in the United States has nothing to do with the merits of her work and everything to do with its utility. Like her political descendant, the gynecologist turned Congressman Ron Paul, she is widely described as a “libertarian” or sometimes “Minarchist” (an advocate of small government). Paul has stated that Rand “contributed immensely” to the libertarian movement and that “all of her novels are worth reading”.
Paul is by no means alone. Other notable Rand fans include former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, and SEC Commissioner Chris Cox. During the ‘50’s, Greenspan was a member of Rand’s inner circle. Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh is a great admirer, as is Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas is such a fan of Rand’s Fountainhead, in fact, that he requires his clerks to read it. And you thought your boss was an asshole.
There is a big difference between a Ron Paul and a Milton Friedman. Free Market ideology is useful for the ruling class because it can be used to discipline the poor. While the rich cooperate and receive subsidies by the state, the poor are told to compete and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It is doubtful that very many people in Washington actually believe in the “free market”. Paul is an exception.
A consistent opponent of war, corporate welfare and unconstitutional legislation such as the Patriot Act, Paul actually believes what he says He is marginalized by the political establishment, yet allowed to appear on Fox News. Why is he tolerated at all? And why is libertertarianism taken seriously as a political philosophy?
The answer lies in its utility. For Paul and his supporters, corporatism is a bastardization of the free market upon which America was built. (The question of whether such a market in fact existed, or is even possible, will be addressed shortly. For now, the important point is that Paul believes, like all libertarians, that freedom is tied up with property rights and the ability to sell labor.)
You might say that Marx’s nightmare is Paul’s utopia. According to Marx, the defining characteristic of capitalism is the commodification of human labor. He described this arrangement as “transitory serfdom”. According to libertarians, not only is the sale of one’s labor power not exploitative or serf-like, it is an expression of human freedom. American anarchist Voltairine De Cleyre called this “freedom” a “mysterious wetness” unconnected to anything tangible or real; others, that it represents the “freedom to starve”. The relationship between the capitalist and the worker is similar to the relationship between an armed robber and his victim. A mugging victim has the choice not to turn over his wallet, but the power imbalance is so severe that the decision is mostly made for him. The same analogy can be drawn to workers under authoritarian communism.
Although it is unlikely the establishment would ever allow someone like Paul to assume power, libertarians serve a useful purpose in that they equate freedom with wage slavery. Their insistence that nearly all forms of public ownership (or “collectivism”, as they like to refer to it) are evil, and that pure capitalism would produce a legitimate meritocracy, are also useful myths.
Capitalist markets must always produce large wealth disparities, which in turn consolidate power into the hands of the few. This power is then used to create even larger wealth disparities. Call it corporatism, monopoly capitalism or just capitalism, it is the natural and entirely predictable end result of market competition. As the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon famously remarked, “Competition kills competition”, resulting in monopoly.
The only way we have of redressing this power imbalance is collective action, which explains why libertarians are opposed to democracy. To libertarians, democracy is not the rising up of the common man to his proper place at the table, it is the lowering down of the justly elite to the lowest common denominator. In place of solidarity, we should embrace “rational self-interest”. The idea that community and common ownership could actually enhance individualism by correcting the power imbalance is not considered, despite numerous studies and anthropological examples, and despite the dismal trade record of capitalist “individuality”. In No Contest: The Case against competition, Alife Kohn argues convincingly that cooperation and wealth sharing are the result of “rational self-interest”, not its antithesis.
Rand’s philosophy is not difficult to articulate. It can be summed up by the title of one her books, The Virtue of Selfishness. For Rand, the very characteristics that human beings tend to most admire about ourselves – compassion, empathy, altruism, cooperation, egalitarianism and other “higher angels” – are actually the most dangerous elements of our nature. A free society will evolve when individuals look out solely for themselves.
It should be noted, at this point, that Rand’s philosophy represents a revolt against human nature. Not only are we hard-wired to feel emotions like empathy, it is precisely our ability to share, commiserate and act collectively that allows us to survive as a species. Moreover, recent data suggests that the great bugaboo of libertarianism – equality of outcome – is actually the single most important determinant of health and happiness in society.
British epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson looked at dozens of different countries and measured them on the basis of life expectancy, mental illness, teen birthrates, violence, the percent of populations in prison, drug use, and other factors. What he found was surprising. It wasn’t material wealth or social mobility that created happiness; it was the relative equality of people living in each nation.
In The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, co-written with Kate Pickett, Wilkinson details the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, encouraging excessive consumption.”
In fact, in more unequal societies, these problems aren’t higher by ten or twenty percent. There are perhaps eight times the number of teenage births per capita, ten times the homicide rate, three times the rate of mental illness. Huge differences.
If happiness has something to do with freedom, then not only are libertarians barking up the wrong tree, they’re not even in the right forest.
Whence Rand’s bizarre philosophy? It is likely that she developed her ideas in response to events in her own life. In many ways, she was a child of the Bolshevik revolution. Growing up as a privileged member of Czarist society, she witnessed the expropriation of her father’s factory by the state. It was not uncommon in Czarist Russia for children to be permitted to whip their adult servants. For Rand to see the master-slave relationship turned upside down would have been deeply distressing.
It is also likely that Rand, were she alive today, would be diagnosed as a sociopath. Indeed, she expressed open admiration for a serial killer active during her lifetime.
After William Edward Hickman kidnapped and dismembered a 12-year-old girl, she wrote admiringly of the state of mind that could engage in such an atrocity:
Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should”. Hickman had “no regard whatsoever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel ‘other people.’
As noted by Mark Ames in his article on the subject: “This echoes almost word for word Rand’s later description of her character Howard Roark, the hero of her novel The Fountainhead: ‘He was born without the ability to consider others.’”
How could so many Americans have come to embrace Ayn Rand? Especially considering that her philosophy is diametrically opposed to the message of Jesus Christ? The answer lies in the evolution of the “libertarian” movement.
Many American readers will be surprised to learn that the term “libertarian” was originally used to describe a specific strain of socialism. In America, the word first appeared in an article published by the French anarchist Joseph Dejacque. “Libertarianism” has traditionally referred to anarchism, sometimes described as “libertarian socialism” or “participatory democracy”. Its appropriation by advocates of free market capitalism has caused considerable consternation in anarchist circles.
If Ayn Rand is the most visible and widely read figure in the libertarian movement, the economic justification for “free market capitalism” has its roots in what is commonly described as the “Austrian School”. Leading proponents have included Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard and Friedrich Hayek. Rothbard, the founder of the modern libertarian movement in the United States, described his meeting with Ayn Rand as “akin to being Icarus, and flying too close to the sun.”
Like Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, the Austrian school has emerged as the proverbial punching bag of political scientists across the spectrum.
Feminist Susan Moller Okin demonstrated that Nozick’s theory of rights and rule of acquisition “results in children being non-persons owned by their mother.” Mike O’Mara points out that, in principle, there is very little difference between a land lord and a tax collector: “In cases where the origins of such constitutions or deeds were based on confiscation of territory, does the passage of time eventually make them legitimate?”
Anarchist firebrand Bob Black remarked of the libertarian’s theoretical opposition to coercion that
To demonize state authoritarianism while ignoring identical albeit contract-consecrated subservient arrangements in the large-scale corporations which control the world economy is fetishism at its worst…Your foreman or supervisor gives you more or-else orders in a week than the police do in a decade.
The problem of land ownership is particularly acute for libertarians. Since libertarianism is defined by property and the “freedom” this entails, the question of who should own what and by which set of criteria becomes something of a conundrum.
Ayn Rand solved the problem by avoiding it. Using the equation A = A, she said, in essence, what is is. If there were a mathematical equivalent of “let them eat cake”, this would be it.
There are so many problems with libertarianism that it would require a set of encyclopedias to elucidate them. It should be sufficient to note that were a theoretical “free market” ever to come into existence, it would quickly succumb to monopoly. Capitalism has never existed without a strong state to protect wealth disparities and maintain stability in markets, nor could it, for the simple reason that most human beings resent hierarchical relationships and will always act collectively to oppose them. Orwell dismissed the libertarians as follows:
[What Hayek] does not see, or will not admit, [is] that a return to “free” competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State. The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.
In the absence of rational or moral justification for much of what constitutes property ownership, many libertarians recede to the bosom of the Founding Fathers. A great many liberal scholars have stressed the fallacy of viewing the Founders as “libertarians”, yet there is perhaps more in common with the two groups than many would like to admit.
There is very little difference between Ayn Rand’s comment that the United States should be a “democracy of superiors only” and John Jay’s remark that the “People who own the country aught to govern it”. Madison’s statement that a primary purpose of government is to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” is similar to the libertarian concept that the state’s role should be limited primarily to self-defense and the enforcement of property contracts. Alexander Hamilton’s reference to the people as a “great beast” needing to be tamed by the forces of law and order approximates Ayn Rand’s dismissal of the mass of humanity as “parasites”, “refuse” and “imitations of living beings”.
In two notable instances, however, the founding father-libertarian relationship breaks down.
A popular quotation (often attributed to Ben Franklin) amongst libertarians is that “democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner”. Viewed through the prism of “representative” democracy under capitalism, this makes a certain amount of sense. Yet Franklin also remarked that:
[In Native American society] all property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchcoat and other little Acquisitions absolutely necessary for his Subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public Convention. Hence, the public has the rights of regulating Descents, and all other Conveyances of Property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it. All the property that is necessary to a man is his natural Right, which none may justly deprive him of, but all Property superfluous to such Purposes is the property of the Public who, by their Laws have created it and who may, by other Laws dispose of it.
Thomas Jefferson also noticed the relationship between common ownership and freedom of the individual. Employing the wolf/sheep metaphor in a different sense, he contrasted Native American society to that of Europe:
“Under presence of governing, [Europeans] have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep”. Whereas, amongst Native Americans:
Every man, with them, is perfectly free to follow his own inclinations. But if, in doing this, he violates the rights of another, if the case be slight, he is punished by the disesteem of society…Whenever there is, in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so extended as to violate natural right.
The reference to property and “natural rights” is especially interesting in this respect, since libertarianism equates inviolable property “rights” to “natural rights”. Jefferson turns the equation upside down. When the “laws of property” have been “so extended”, the “natural rights” of man become non-existent.
Ayn Rand was notoriously, embarrassingly ignorant of anthropology. Speaking of Native Americans, she remarked:
They didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using …. What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their ‘right’ to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent.
So much for property rights.
She loved bad architecture as much as she hated Native Americans.
“I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need?”
More than one commenter has remarked on the disturbingly Stalinist vibe one draws from Ayn Rand’s descriptions of architecture. Comparing the Fountainhead’s architect Howard Roark to Le Corbusier, Anthony Daniels writes: “The very idea that a house ‘needs’ things while the desires of human beings can be disregarded is one that would occur only to someone with a reptilian mind.”
Would a pure “free market” resemble Stalinism? Is modern day America an example of the logical endpoint of libertarianism? Yes and no.
Libertarianism evolved as a revolt against socialism. The United States has never had anything approaching a “free market”, yet the myth of “rugged individualism” is essential to the American dream. If communism was the height of tyranny, then pure individualism would be the height of freedom. In the 20th century the American ethos was characterized by what Dr. King described as a “morbid fear of communism”. Thus did libertarianism evolve as the logical alternative. The problem isn’t free market philosophy, it’s not enough free market philosophy. The solution to the health care crisis isn’t that the government is failing to provide for its citizens, it’s that the government is involved in health care at all. The solution to the failure of privatization is more privatization. And so on.
What would such a society look? Since any “free market” would quickly produce monopoly and statism, we are only able to catch glimpses of Ayn Rand’s utopia. For example, Howard Zinn notes of Colorado mining towns at the turn of the century that:
“Each mining camp was a feudal dominion, with the company acting as lord and master. Every camp had a marshal, a law enforcement officer paid by the company. The ‘laws’ were the company’s rules. Curfews were imposed, ‘suspicious’ strangers were not allowed to visit the homes, the company store had a monopoly on goods sold in the camp. The doctor was a company doctor, the schoolteachers hired by the company … Political power in Colorado rested in the hands of those who held economic power. This meant that the authority of Colorado Fuel & Iron and other mine operators was virtually supreme … Company officials were appointed as election judges. Company-dominated coroners and judges prevented injured employees from collecting damages.” [The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913-14, p. 9-11]
Yet there is an even better example.
In his classic study, The Mountain People, anthropologist Colin Turnbull describes a society ruled by naked self-interest. It makes for supremely disturbing reading.
The Ik people in Northern Uganda, displaced from their traditional hunting grounds and forced to exist in extreme poverty, devolved into a society in name only. Children were forced out at the age of three and made to fend for themselves; intricate fences were built around each home; the elderly were mocked as they were dying; theft, rather than sharing, became the rule; family members were robbed by other family members; displeasure was expressed by Ik defecating on one another’s doorstep; people were held down and made to vomit so that others could eat their vomit.
What is perhaps most disturbing is that the Ik did not abandon their society of “rational self-interest” after returning to comparative plenty. According to Turnbull:
I learned a few other new things, but the main objective was accomplished far more readily, for it was obvious from the outset that nothing had really changed due to the sudden glut of food, except to cause inter-personal relationships to deteriorate still further if possible, and heighten Icien individualism beyond what I would have thought even Ik to be capable of. If they had been mean and greedy and selfish before with nothing to be mean and greedy and selfish over, now that they had something they really excelled themselves in what would be an insult to animals to call bestiality.
In his closing remarks, Turnbull explicitly compared the devolution of Ik society to that of our own.
The individualism that is preached with a curious fanaticism, heightened by our ever growing emphasis on competitive sports, the more violent the better, and suicidal recreations, is of course at direct variance with our still proclaimed social ideals, but we ignore that, for we are already individuals at heart and society has become a game that we play in our old age, to remind us of our childhood.
We would be wise to consider the example of the Ik, and whether this is where we want to go as a society. Ayn Rand’s belief that true freedom could only obtained by “setting men free from men”, by abolishing the idea of a “public” or, in Ms. Thatcher’s words, of “society” itself, is not only absurd, it is profoundly dangerous. There is no reason to believe that Western society could not become even more barbarous than that of the Ik. We are well on our way.