Posts tagged Ayn Rand

Essay on Rand & Rothbard: Diverse Champions of Liberty

Ayn Rand & Murray Rothbard: Diverse Champions of Liberty

By Tibor R. Machan*

No one should attempt to treat Ayn Rand and Murray N. Rothbard as uncomplicated and rather similar defenders of the free society although they have more in common than many believe. As just one example, neither was a hawk when it comes to deploying military power abroad. There is evidence, too, that both considered it imprudent for the US government to be entangled in international affairs, such as fighting dictators who were no threat to America. Even their lack of enthusiasm for entering WW II could be seen as quite similar.

And so far as their underlying philosophical positions are concerned, they both can be regarded as Aristotelians. In matters of economics they were unwavering supporters of the fully free market capitalist system, although while Rand didn’t find corporations per se objectionable, arguably Rothbard had some problems with corporate commerce, especially as it manifest itself in the 20th century. One sphere in which they took very different positions, at least at first glance, is whether government is a bona fide feature of a genuinely free country. Rand thought it is, Rothbard thought it wasn’t. Yet the reason Rothbard opposed government was that it depended on taxation, something Rand also opposed, so even here where the difference between them appears to be quite stark, they were closer than one might think.

When intellectuals such as Rand and Rothbard have roughly the same political-economic position, it isn’t that surprising that they and their followers would stress the difference between them instead of the similarities. Moreover, in this case both had a similar explosive personality, with powerful likes and dislikes not just in fundamentals but also in what may legitimately be considered incidentals–music, poetry, novels, movies and so forth.

Yet what for Rothbard might be something tangential, even incidental, to his political economic thought, for Rand could be considered more germane since Rand thought of herself–and many think of her–as a philosopher (roughly of the rank of a Herbert Spencer or Auguste Comte). Rothbard wrote little in the sphere of metaphysics and epistemology, although he was well informed in these branches of philosophy, while Rand chimed in, quite directly, on several philosophical issues, having written what amounts to a rather nuanced long philosophical essay on epistemology and advanced ideas in metaphysics, such as on free will, causality, and the nature of universals. Her followers, such as Nathaniel Bradnen, Leonard Peikoff, Tara Smith, Alan Gotthelf, James Lennox, and David Kelley, among others, have all made contributions to serious discussions in various branches of philosophy.

The central dispute, however, between Rothbard and his followers and Rand and hers focuses, as I have already noted, on whether a free country would have a government. The debate is moved forward in the volume edited by Roderick Long and me, Anarchism versus Minarchism; Is Government Part of a Free County (Ashgate, 2006).

Even apart from their disagreement about the justifiability of government in a bona fide free country, there is the difference between them about the subjectivity of (some) values. Rothbard holds, for example, that “’distribution’ is simply the result of the free exchange process, and since this process benefits all participants on the market and increases social utility, it follows directly that the ‘distributional’ results of the free market also increase social utility.” The part here that shows the difference between Rothbard and Rand is where Rothbard says that the “free exchange process … benefits all participants on the market.” Maybe most of them benefit in such exchanges do but some do not. Suppose someone exchanges five ounces of crack cocaine for an ounce of heroin. Arguably, at least as Ayn Rand would very likely maintain, neither of these traders gains a benefit in this exchange, assuming that both commodities being trade are objectively harmful to the traders’ health. Both are, then, harmed, objectively speaking, even if they believed they would benefit.

This may be a minor matter but it isn’t, not at least if Rothbard’s idea is generalized to apply to all market exchanges. True, from a purely economic viewpoint both parties in free exchanges tend to take it or believe that they are benefited by these. But this belief could well be false.

Now of course Rand would agree with Rothbard that just because people engage in trade that’s harmful to them, it doesn’t follow that anyone, least of all the government, is authorized to ban such trade or otherwise interfere with it. Such matters as what may or may not harm free market traders from the trades they choose to engage in are supposed to be dealt with in the private sector. Family, friends, doctors, nurses, et al., or other agents devoted to advising people what they should and should not do are the only ones who may launch peaceful educational or advisory measures to remedy the private misjudgments and misconduct of peaceful market participants. Such an approach sees public policies such as the war on drugs as entirely unjustified even if consuming many drugs is objectively damaging to those doing so.

In any case, the Randian view doesn’t assume that all free trade benefits those embarking on them. Let me, however, return to the major bone of contention between Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand, namely, whether government is (or could be) part of a free country. Given that Rothbard believes government cannot exists without deploying the rights-violating policy of taxation, his view is understandable but the underlying assumption that gives rise to it is questionable. Rand did indeed question it in her discussion of funding government in the chapter “Government Financing in a Free society” in The Virtue of Selfishness, at least by implication, when she argued that government can be financed without taxation. If she is correct, then Rothbard or his followers need to mount a different attack on the idea that the free society can have a government. (And some have indeed made this argument, including me in, for example, my “Anarchism and Minarchism, A Rapprochement,” Journal des Economists et des Estudes Humaines, Vol. 14, No. 4 [December 2002], 569-588.)

Rand proposed that instead of taxation, which involves the rights-violating policy of confiscation of private property, a government could be funded by way of a contract fee, a lottery, or some other peaceful method. Whether this is so cannot be addressed here but it shows that Rand and Rothbard were not very distant from each other on the issue of the justifiability of government in a free country. Perhaps the term “government” is ill advised when applied to whatever kind of law-enforcement institution would be involved in bona fide free countries. But this is not what’s crucial–a rose by any other name is still a rose and a law-enforcement, judicial or defense agency in a free society is what is at issue here, not what term is used to call it. So, again, Rand and Rothbard seem closer than usually believed.

Yet it’s not just about taxation for many who follow Rothbard. Most also hold that the idea is mistaken that government–or whatever it is called–needs to serve a society occupying a continuous instead instead of Swiss cheese like region. The idea of a disparately located country, without a continuous territory and with the possibility of all parts being accessible by law enforcers without the need of international treaties, makes sense to Rothbardians. Not, however, to Randians, it can be argued, not unless the familiar science fiction transportation option of being “beamed up” from one area to anther (so that law enforcement can reach all those within its jurisdiction) is available. Otherwise enforcement of the law can be easily evaded by criminals.

Again, this isn’t the place to resolve the dispute between Rand & her followers and Rothbard and his. This brief discussion should, however, indicate where their differences lie. It doesn’t at all explain, however, why the different parties to the debate tend often to be quite acrimonious toward each other. What may explain this, though, is a simple point of psychology. Nearly all champions of a fully free, libertarian society are also avid individualists and often tend to insist on what might be called the policy: My way or the highway! Even when their differences don’t warrant it.

Column on Rand & Libertarians Misunderstood

Ayn Rand & Libertarians Grossly Misunderstood

Tibor R. Machan

In my local paper a letter writer, apparently eager to besmirch Ayn Rand–which many have tried in vain–had this to say: “Rand’s libertarianism has an underlying philosophy that says that if you are not particularly smart, ambitious, disciplined or wealthy, and you become homeless, hungry, financially ruined and suffer from premature illness or death, then that is entirely your fault.” (April 25, Local p. 5)

Neither Ayn Rand nor libertarianism says any of this. What they both do say is that if you are in such a state, you by no stretch of the imagination have the authority to deprive others of their resources. You can ask, of course. And surely that is correct.

Even a person in the greatest of need has no warrant for stealing from others. What such a person most definitely is fully justified in doing is to request help from others which, in America especially, millions provide at little urging–just consider the help that they provide when something like Katrina or a tsunami strikes, and all the charitable contributions they send to the casualties of various similar mishaps. They do this far more than citizens of any other country.
Both Rand and libertarians support voluntary aid but oppose, most vigorously and vociferously, confiscating what other people own.

Nor do Rand and libertarians hold that everything the letter writer lists is one’s fault, quite the contrary. Many mishaps people experience, because of illness and natural disasters, are clearly not their and (most often) anyone else’s fault. Bad things do happen, be it to good or bad people.

What Rand and libertarians have believed, on pretty good grounds, is that when improvements are needed in people’s lives, relying on confiscating other people’s belongings and coercing them to do work to provide assistance are flawed and morally wrong remedies. Instead, voluntary cooperation is both the most ethical and the most effective way to go.

This idea is by no means odd. In broad terms it is recognized that countries the laws of which protect their citizens against coercion–violent criminals, intrusive or meddling governments–are in better shape than those ruled by strong rulers who impose their idea of what is good for everyone not by convincing citizens of what they believe is right but by imposing their will on them. Be this in small matters or large ones, history is replete with the lessons about how coercive force between human beings is an ill advised way to handle problems.

In one area, especially, this has proven to be true for the last few centuries. Ever since Adam Smith published his path-breaking book The Wealth of Nations in 1776, it has been understood by quite a few political economists that prosperity is best pursued in peaceful ways. Voluntary economic relations among people are what is now referred to a win-win situation, whereas coercive economic relations are primarily zero-sum games, meaning when one party gains the other loses. In most of human history, sadly, this latter is how wealth has been obtained and many still advocate the approach even today. This is in part because in a largely free markets–there has never been a fully free market anywhere, unfortunately–those seeking to have their needs and wants met, from gaining groceries to major medical treatments, have been able to find nearly exactly what they have in mind, suiting their particular, individual needs and wants instead of some general benefit that governments prescribe for everyone, something that always suffers from government’s ignorance of what it is that can benefit individual human beings. This may be one reason boosters of government involvement in our lives–in other words, statists–tend to speak mostly of the public interest or the public good or the common welfare since these are so indeterminate, to vague that no one can check out just exactly what they come to in practice.

Aside from all this, there is also the less well known greater generosity found in free societies than in those with top-down government regimentation of nearly everything in people’s lives. But this isn’t government “generosity,” involving robbing Peter so as to hand some of the loot to Paul. It is voluntary charity and philanthropy so it is likely to be far more efficient than what the government does when it sets out to “help” people, including the poor, indigent, hapless, or unfortunate among us. (It isn’t help when one doesn’t dig into one’s own pockets or bank accounts but those of other people and hands these to those in need of help. Moreover the welfare state didn’t emerge because private help was not forthcoming.)

Ayn Rand and libertarians have supported all voluntary contributions to the people the letter writer listed, provided those people aren’t set on robbing others to support their goals or urging the government to do so. Rand, in particular, did believe that focusing too intently on the needy is a mistake. After all, even the needy are much better off if the productive among us are championed. And how are the needy ever going to gain from rich bashing, by denigrating and discouraging those who create the resources from which they might benefit?

Column on Essential Capitalism

Essential Capitalism

Tibor R. Machan

A while back I got caught up in a fracas about using the term “capitalism” to mean the free market, fully voluntary system of economic relations. It didn’t surprise me since I am aware that complicated matters often need to be discussed, well, in complicated ways so when one just refers to some system as “capitalist” or “democratic” or “socialist” or “libertarian,” one is likely to start a dispute as to just what the term is to mean in the language in which such issues are to be discussed.

For most of my life and career, much of it entangled in writing about political economy, I have taken “capitalism” to mean just that, the free market, fully voluntary system of economic relations. No such system has ever existed, of course, and yet the term is often used to refer to certain extant economies, such as those of England, America, Australia, Hong Kong (prior to its return to China), and so forth. Some even call today’s version of “communist” China a capitalist country. And with a bit of generosity this is no big problem. Such uses of “capitalist” or “capitalism” amount to indicating some of the most basic and distinctive features of a country’s economic order without at all implying that the country is adhering thoroughly to the principles of capitalism as a fully developed, consistently implemented economic order conceived by those who champion it without compromise.

I like to compare this to using the term “marriage,” since most marriages do not at all conform to the version of that institution that one has in mind in one’s most romantic imaginings. Yet, we use “marriage” or “married” without constantly having to qualify it with such terms as “more or less,” “troubled,” “half ass” or the like. We just say, “Harry and Susie are married,” realizing that what that amounts to it in their case may not be the pure thing of romance novels.

There is a problem, however, since unlike most uses of “marriage” or “married,” “capitalism” or “capitalist” rarely occur in nonpartisan contexts. Those using the terms are usually either critics or champions. And the critics will mostly zero in on what they regard as the liabilities of capitalism while the champions on the assets, not bothering to make very clear what is the central or core aspect of the system. Even when one spells it out, however, there will be those who will look for a chance to besmirch capitalism and those who will admit to no possible problems with it at all.

I am not going to clear all this up here but I would recommend, strongly, that when such terms are used, a bit of time and space be reserved to offering some details, some qualifiers, such as “I do not have in mind state or crony or similar version of capitalism but the unsullied sort we find in such advocates as Ludwig von Mises or Ayn Rand.” Sure, this may not pacify the determined critic and such a person is likely to associate capitalism with all kinds of features that no one who is honest would claim is a part of it. Thus, in a recent letter to me, in response to a column I wrote, someone insisted that capitalism must involve massive theft by the rich! And this zero sum idea about capitalism is evident in many discussions even though it is all wrong.

Of course, one can do a similar thing with all systems one does not favor, such as socialism or communism, and focus only on, say, the Soviet or North Korean version, not admitting that some forms may be rather mild and peaceful, such as the kind that we find in many a kibbutz or commune. Not that these will have escaped all the liabilities of a system in which the means of production are publicly owned but they may have managed to deal with them less harshly than the Soviets did when they collectivized Russia’s farms.

Most of us do not have the time to discuss even the most important issues in full so that we do take care to cover all crucial elements and avert most honest misunderstandings. But it may be worth giving it a try if it is likely to secure a civilized discussion instead of what turns out to amount to a mere slinging of political ad hominems.

Column on Atlas Shrugged, Part I, the movie

Atlas Shrugged Part I, the Movie

Tibor R. Machan

I saw the movie Atlas Shrugged, Part I (to be released on April 15) and I liked it a lot, just as I did the book when I first read it in 1961 while serving in the US Air Force near Washington, DC. (The maiden ride of the John Galt Line was back then the most riveting segment and it still is for me, in the film.)

I ran across Ayn Rand’s ideas without much fanfare–I was in a theater group I helped start and run back then and we decided to put on The Night of January 16th, a curious little number in which after a fascinating trial (pitting independent entrepreneur against leach), a jury is picked from the audience after each performance. The cast and staff used to stay up until the wee hours debating how the verdict should have gone and why the jury went one or the other way.

After that no Ayn Rand for me for a year. Then I saw some mates reading The Fountainhead just after I read a nasty review of Rand’s first major novel–there were others, such as the novella Anthem and the very well done We The Living before–The Fountainhead by of all people that snide novelist Gore Vidal. The short of it is I read and liked the novel, again especially some features of it (e.g., where the importance of the human individual is asserted and defended). I was won over to Rand in part because I already held individualist views having survived a stint under Soviet communism–actually, as Susan Sontag so perceptively asserted many years ago, fascism–and a Nazi parent’s brutality. Such collectivist, communitarian regimes held out no attraction to me by then. Yet I lacked the education to figure out just why a human individual should be acknowledge as the center of values and Rand helped me figure this out.

Right or wrong, I found Rand–whom I met, in 1962, for a 30 minute private chat but who banished me, too, later, from her group of close knit students–sensible, passionate, a bit bellicose, and all around very insightful about nearly all aspects of philosophy. Then came Atlas Shrugged for me, three years after its publication, and I read it on a single day in one fell swoop, that is how vivid and good a read the book was and, judging by its phenomenal sales worldwide, still is for its contemporary readers.

Of course, there was a lot more meat in it than that fantastic train ride. So, for example, I cut out Galt’s brilliant speech, a long one that critics used so as to try to ridicule the novel, and with several buddies at Andrews AFB used to sit up weekends scrutinizing it. (Of course, no one much ridicules James Joyce’s lengthy stream of consciousness in his avant guard novel, Ulysses, or some of the Left wing political monologues included in, for instance, Swedish writer Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing. That’s partisan literature for you–Rand infuriated both the Left and the Right and some never could treat her honestly.)

I saw Part I of the movie a few weeks ago and although it didn’t grab me as did the book when I first read it–how could it have?–it is a very good picture; it’s modern, serious, chuck full of poignant anti-statist and pro-capitalist dialogue (unlike most Hollywood products these days). The central theme is captured very well–about how when the mindful, productive, creative, and industrious folks in the land have had enough of the meddlers in Washington they go on strike and leave the place in shambles. The acting is good, much better than it was in the film version of The Fountainhead (with Gary Cooper and Patricia O’Neal–except for Cooper’s superb courtroom speech) and the production values are outstanding. The train and the bridge, made of Rearden metal, are rendered flawlessly!

Even if billions go see Atlas Shrugged 1, 2 and 3, it will not, as the novel didn’t (to Miss Rand’s reported consternation), change the world–you would need attentive, thoughtful viewers for that and one can never guarantee this (a central features of human existence). Yet it will brighten the day, even perhaps the week, for many who go see it and might inspire quite a few who are new to Rand to give her ideas a good study. I did and I never regretted it for a moment!

Tibor R. Machan is the author of 40 plus books including Ayn Rand (Peter Lang, 2001) which was recently translated into German by Lichtschlag Medien und Werbung KGm.

Column on Coercion and Laziness

Coercion Betrays the Vice of Laziness

Tibor R. Machan

So many people who try to justify coercing others to part with their lives, time, resources and so forth claim that the goals to be served justify the coercion. Indeed, one hears it said often that we must realize there are greater goals than our own ones that need to be served by us. Anything else is greedy or selfish or some such thing or other. So don’t fret about your liberty, you selfish monster you. (And by what moral right do slaves and serfs insist that they be set free? Go figure.)

Now I have an observation to offer that should wake up people to just what kind of ruse all this amounts to. If you believe that there are these very important goals that everyone must serve and for the sake of which they may be coerced, how is it that coercion is the chosen approach instead of, say, proselytizing, advocating, crusading, promoting, campaigning and all the other peaceful, non-coercive ways one can go about raising support for what one believes is really worthwhile? Not only is it inhuman to force people to do the right thing–it deprives them of the morally significant choice of whether to do it themselves–but it also shows one’s own laziness or, even worse, hypocrisy. After all, if everyone ought to believe in and support this supposedly superior goal, would it not follow that one who is fully convinced of its great merit would be first in line to actually work for it instead of trying to force others do so? I mean here that they ought really to work and not merely vote for government regulations and rules to force others to comply with the idea.

Only voluntary compliance with good ideas, including moral imperatives, amounts to something praiseworthy. Anything else is morally insignificant–at the point of the gun, morality ends as Ayn Rand once pointed out. But those who would enforce such imperatives should of course be the first out there doing what they preach. And to respect their fellow citizens, they should always use persuasion, never coercion to achieve their goals. Using coercive force on others to get them to do anything, including what is worthwhile when done voluntarily, is treating people as if they were the children of those using the coercion. If adults make use of such means, it is unjustifiable except it amounts to retaliation of the prior use of force, as in self-defense. Who are these adults regimenting fellow adults anyway?

Why then are so many people utilizing coercive force to get others to pursue all those great ideas they believe need service from everyone? Could it be that (a) these people talk a good game but do not at all really believe in putting their money whether their mouths are; and (b) might they just be so damned lazy that they want everyone else to come up with the effort excepting them? After all, if a cause is that worthy, surely one way to serve it is to go out and diligently hustle up support for it. Here is where the traditional peaceful missionaries can serve as a good model–most of them believe and preach instead of using weapons or the threat of them to serve their ideals.

But no, the bulk of those advocating using force really just want other people to do the work that they pretend to be committed to doing, serve the objectives they pretend to cherish so much. Are they then better than ordinary criminals who circumvent the honorable ways of interacting with their fellows and resort, instead, to stealing, lying, cheating, murdering, raping and doing all kinds of other things that do not respect the rights of others? You know the correct answer to this, of course. Please try to make sure everyone else reaches the same insight–these coercers are unabashed bullies.

Those who reject coercion as a means for getting things done have a bit of a disadvantage because they must, if they are to possess any integrity, abide by their own policy of refraining from coercing others even if the objective is morally impeccable. Certainly implementing voluntary relationships among people qualifies as that.