Friday, March 30, 2007

Ayn Rand, Libertarianism, and ARI

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent letter to the editor to The Los Angeles Times, Jeff Britting of the Ayn Rand Institute writes as follows:

"Ayn Rand did not write novels of "uncompromising libertarianism." In her view, libertarianism has no philosophy to uphold uncompromisingly. Libertarianism rejects the need for a consistent, objective, philosophic defense of liberty and regards politics as primary. Rand was a defender of reason and recognized that political freedom requires a philosophy of reason and egoism. That is why Rand repeatedly condemned the libertarian movement, regarding herself, instead, as a "radical for capitalism." For further explanation, see Rand's novel of uncompromising objectivist, not libertarian, ideas — "Atlas Shrugged" — celebrating its 50th anniversary this year." (Letters, March 30, 2007)

To appreciate the errors of this letter, first notice that no libertarian is ever mentioned—the claims about libertarianism are fabricated. ("Libertarianism rejects" is, of course, nonsense—a political stance cannot do any rejecting, it is its advocates or defenders who may.)

As the author of the recent book, Libertarianism Defended (Ashgate, 2006), I can testify to at least one libertarian not rejecting "the need for a consistent, objective, philosophic defense of liberty…." Moreover, Ayn Rand identified herself as a libertarian early on and only once some libertarians disagreed with her on certain issues did she rather arbitrarily dismiss all of it. Her dismissal, moreover, was based on a careless generalization about libertarians, whom she dubbed "hippies of the right."
In fact, a great many libertarians have reached their libertarian political conclusions based on their view that Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy gave this position solid support. Libertarianism is a political stance, not a full blown philosophy; this, by the way, is the case with many other political positions, including those of Republicans, Democrats, monarchists, or theocrats, all of which have been defended from a variety of philosophical viewpoints not every one of which is successful in giving them adequate support.

Rand, by the way, also called herself a "radical capitalist" and it is clear that capitalism is also defended from a variety of philosophical and religious standpoints. She used to insist that many of these are hopeless but hers, Objectivism, achieves what is needed. Well, that is exactly what she and her epigone should have said about libertarianism—the Objectivist defense succeeds, others do not. But, in fact, her politics is every bit as libertarian as her political economy is capitalist.

One reason for all this quibbling is, of course, turf fighting. Those at the Ayn Rand Institute would like nothing better than having everyone believe that their way to give support to the fully free society is the only one worth paying attention to. Now I happen to agree that Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy is head and shoulders above other attempts to make the case for libertarianism, but this does not translate for a moment into claiming that those at the Ayn Rand Institute are the only ones who are able to provide such a case. Rand was a teacher, as were Adam Smith, John Locke, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman. And she had students, some strictly loyal to her wording of the case for the free society, some more independent and still fully in accord with her ideas, and some others more or less heretical. Most do a creditable job of laying out a case for the free society—that is to say, for libertarianism. All this nitpicking about whether Rand was a libertarian is entirely pointless, in the end, and only serves dubious, distracting purposes.

Would it not be swell if all these silly quarrels could be set aside and all those who are convinced of the value of the free society for human community life could focus on productive endeavors instead? Alas, that is perhaps wishing for human nature to be different from what it is, which, as Ayn Rand herself taught, is endowed with free will and thus all too capable of straying from the right track in all matters, including in how essentially sound ideas will be defended.

No comments: