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Apr 2, 2012

Response to The Horrors of an Ayn Rand World

Friend and blog reader Robert M. gives an excellent response to a third party who queried him about an anti-Rand article written by Gary Weiss entitled "The Horrors of an Ayn Rand World." Excerpt: "In an Objectivist world, roads would go unplowed in the snows of winter, and bridges would fall as the government withdrew from the business of maintaining them. Public parks and land, from the tiniest vest-pocket patch of green to vast expanses of the West, would be sold off to the newly liberated megacorporations. Airplane traffic would be grounded unless a profit-making capitalist found it in his own selfish interests to fund the air traffic control system. If it could be made profitable, fine. If not, tough luck. The market had spoken. Fires would rage in the remnants of silent forests, vegetation and wildlife no longer protected by rangers and coercive environmental laws, swept clean of timber, their streams polluted in a rational, self-interested manner by bold, imaginative entrepreneurs." The third party asked, "The author of this article below seems to think her thought has gone into Libertarian beliefs. Has it?"

Robert's response...

Back in the ‘70s, a man named Jerome Tuccille wrote a book called “It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand” about the first Libertarian Party convention. It described the eclectic combination of lefties and righties, anarchists, monarchists, and others that conglomerated in ’72 to form the LP. I wasn’t there, but I think it safe to say that many, if not most, of the participants had read Rand’s works.

While it is true that many of those who gathered there were influenced by Rand, they were almost immediately denounced by Rand herself.“Screeching Heepies!” they were branded by Rand, who declared that libertarians had stolen and misconstrued her core political principle – that of the non-initiation of force – but didn’t require members to accept her philosophy in toto. Every LP member, from 1972 on, would have to sign the following affirmation (this may not be exact, but it’s close): “I hereby affirm that I do not believe in the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals.”

From that moment, the paths of Objectivists and Libertarians diverged. Rand and her coterie maintained that political change couldn’t occur without philosophical change – that until the American people accepted her belief that there was an Objective Universe, that the Abrahamic faiths were mere myths, and that the ONLY way to interpret the universe was through Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy there was no hope for political progress. Objectivists I have met deride the LP as whim-worshippers who “… mouth phrases with no understanding of the epistemological underpinnings of their meaning”.

Rand’s ideas are presently guarded by Leonard Peikoff, a Randian ideologue who regards the author’s every word as gospel (Peikoff is the inheritor of Rand’s money and copyrights).
Today’s Objectivists, from what I have seen, are unnecessarily stern and uncompromising in their disdain for libertarians. A man named David Kelly had the impudence to address a group of libertarians and was promptly kicked out of the inner circle. He started a new group – I think it’s the Atlas Society – to try and rescue Rand’s philosophy from what appears to be a Scientology-like cult.

In short, yes, Rand’s ideas have influenced many libertarians – myself included – but Rand and her followers didn’t like it.

That being said, I’d like to get up on my hind legs and say a few things about that absurd screed by Gary Weiss you sent along.

Mr. Weiss’s words are a familiar criticism. Ever since William F. Buckley’s scathing review of Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s ideas have been attacked by those with a Statist mindset – those who see State power as a proper and useful tool to solve social problems. Because she set up a philosophy based on reason instead of mysticism, denounced the Leviathan State, and challenged the idea of human sacrifice, her ideas have been twisted beyond recognition by many in similar attempts to discredit them. I presume that this attack, and other recent ones I’ve seen, has been prompted by the mention of Rand by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and others in conservative and tea party circles, and a recent surge in sales of Atlas Shrugged.

Mr. Weiss lists many things that have been done by positive government action, and says that all these things would disappear if Ayn Rand’s ideas were to take hold. He does not care to wonder how these things would evolve in a free society. These things have been done by the State in the past, therefore without the State they won’t be done at all, he seems to say. I don’t have time to address them all, but here’s one: Mr. Weiss equates Rand’s concept of Rational Self Interest with the sort of avaricious selfishness people love to abhor. It’s a cheap shot, and inaccurate.

I do want to point out something that goes to the core of Rand’s ideas, though. It is the theme of sacrifice in Mr. Weiss’s words. He doesn’t use the terms generosity or charity to describe the virtues necessary to counter (his interpretation of) Rand’s individualism. He uses the terms altruism and sacrifice – concepts Rand fought all her life.

Pure altruism consists of sacrificing something for someone other than the self with no expectation of any compensation or benefits, either direct, or indirect. - Wikipedia
Rand argued that the concept of altruism is dangerous, especially when mixed with political power. When the idea of sacrifice is enshrined as a high value, it is relatively easy to convince large populations that they must all sacrifice “for the common good”. And whenever there is a sacrifice, there are sacrificers and sacrificees, and life becomes a struggle over who will be sacrificed to whom.

Mr. Weiss doesn’t seem to recognize that the only power government has is that of initiating raw violence without fear of reprisal. Or perhaps he thinks the sort of State that can provide all of his listed benefits can be confined to benevolent acts and restrained from such abominations as the Patriot Act, the NDAA, or the many wars we’ve been involved in – On Poverty, On Drugs, and on many foreign lands.

Look around us. Sacrifice is everywhere. Piles of butchered bodies, millions of unemployed, millions in prison, and all of us have to worry about being spirited away in the dead of night because of an incautious word on the telephone.

Political liberty is not mentioned in Weiss’s article, yet he ignores it at his peril. America was founded on the idea of individual liberty, and though it’s had its good days and bad days, the ideal still survives. It is our answer, and our hope.

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