Ayn Rand’s Libertarianism
Ms. Rand believed that society works best when its citizens are free to follow their own self-interest. The Objective Standard is a website devoted to spreading Ayn Rand’s philosophy. It promotes policies that release “virtues such as independent thinking, productiveness, justice, honesty, and self-responsibility.” It is a philosophy that has been eagerly adopted by many right-wing politicians.
No More Left or Right
We are used to viewing politics and morality as left or right. On the left are those who believe that the government has a responsibility to look after the less fortunate. This involves providing publicly funded services such as health care, education, and housing that are paid for by taxation. The belief is that society thrives best through the cooperation people helping one another.
On the right, are people who prefer small government and argue that people should be responsible for their own welfare. They believe society functions properly through competition, which brings out the best in individuals.
Most democratic countries operate on a system between the far left and the far right. In the middle of the 20th century, Ayn Rand offered another way of organizing society that she called objectivism. Although she discarded the left/right labels it's the right-wing that has seized on her ideas as the best way to move society forward.
The Philosophy Book writes that Ms. Rand challenged “the idea that man’s moral duty is to live for others.” Two books, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) describe her philosophy and they both still sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year. Both books are works of fiction.
In Atlas Shrugged she describes business people struggling under the weight of government regulations. The burden is so heavy that companies close down production and cause the world’s economy to collapse.
Ayn Rand said that self-interest was the best driver of society and that capitalism should be free to operate without restrictions. She also said that education should be free of faith-based instruction.
Above all, are the concepts of individual freedom and reason. She frequently described society as consisting of “makers” and “takers.” Makers were industrious, hard workers while takers were idle slobs.
She had no time for social welfare programs, which she saw as subsidies for the takers. Interestingly, as soon as she was eligible she applied for and received Social Security (pension) and Medicare (health services for the elderly).
In a 1959 interview on CBS she told Mike Wallace that man’s “highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness, and that he must not force other people, nor accept their right to force him, that each man must live as an end in himself and follow his own rational self-interest.”
Government should not try to control behaviour and should have only a very limited function, she said.
Objectivism in Politics
Ayn Rand’s ideas have moved into the world of politics and have been enthusiastically taken up by people who call themselves libertarians.
Here’s how Charles Murray illustrates his beliefs in What It Means to Be a Libertarian (1997): “A person who is making an honest living and minding his own business isn’t hurting me. He isn’t forcing me to do anything. I as an individual don’t have the right to force him to do anything. A hundred of his neighbours acting as a mob don’t have that right. The government shouldn’t have that right either …”
Currently, the Libertarian Party of Canada says its mission “is to reduce the responsibilities and expense of government. This, so that we may each manage our lives to mutually fulfill our needs by the free and voluntary exchange of our efforts and property for the value that best realizes our happiness.”
Objectivism at the Top
Third in line of succession to the President of the United States is the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The post is currently filled by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
The Christian Science Monitor said of him in 2012 that he “often cites [Ayn] Rand as his inspiration for entering public service and the philosophical basis for his economic vision for America.”
In a 2005 speech he said “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.” He even gave out copies of Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents.
However, suddenly, in 2012, Mr. Ryan lost his enthusiasm for Ayn Rand. As a Roman Catholic he said he could not tolerate Ms. Rand’s atheism. But, she was always an atheist and he was always a Catholic.
Mr. Ryan probably switched sides because, as a man with high political ambitions, being associated with an atheist did not sit well with the Christian Right, his natural constituency.
Other U.S. politicians who have praised Ayn Rand’s philosophy are Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, former President Ronald Reagan, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, 2016 Libertarian presidential candidate and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and former Representative Ron Paul.
Criticism of Objectivism
Writing in The Guardian (August 2014), physicist and cancer researcher Dr. David Robert Grimes offers the opinion that when objectivist/libertarian ideas and science clash, science is usually the loser.
He cites opposition to reductions in carbon emissions as a means of combatting climate change. If we accept that human activity is causing global warming, a conclusion supported by the vast majority of scientists, then it follows that we must accept regulations to control carbon emissions.
However, writes Dr. Grimes “… the demon of regulation is a bridge too far for many libertarians.” So, to keep their ideology intact they must reject the reality of climate change.
The same blindness to facts is displayed on the gun control issue. The overwhelming wealth of evidence is that the presence of firearms is a major factor in the annual slaughter of more than 30,000 Americans by guns. But, the ideology of individual rights trumps proven facts, so gun ownership is defended fiercely.
The former leader of Canada’s Libertarian Party, Jean-Serge Brisson, refused to wear a seat belt as a matter of principle. In November 2000, he served some time in jail for breaking the seat-belt law. “Can a government decide, for me, how best to protect myself?” he asked. Obviously, he decided the answer was “No.”
According to the BBC, “In the 1990s, a survey by the Library of Congress named [Ayn Rand’s novel] Atlas Shrugged as the most influential book in the U.S., after the Bible.”
Originally named Alisa Rosenbaum, Ayn Rand was 12 when she witnessed the Bolsheviks seizing her father’s pharmacy in St. Petersburg, Russia.
- “What Is Objectivism?” Craig Biddle, The Objective Standard, undated.
- “Libertarian Ideology is the Natural Enemy of Science.” David Robert Grimes, Guardian, August 29, 2014.
- “Paul Ryan Does an About-Face on Ayn Rand.” Husna Haq, Christian Science Monitor, August 14, 2012.
- “Ayn Rand: Why Is she so Popular?” Tom Geoghegan, BBC News Magazine, August 17, 2012.