Monday, December 14, 2009

Rand and Libertarianism

Tibor R. Machan

The question still comes up, "What does Rand have to Contribute to Libertarianism?" Of course, late in her life Rand tried to disassociate herself from libertarians, whom she called "hippies of the Right." In fact, of course, what she found most objectionable about libertarians is their alleged disdain for a philosophical foundation for their political ideas and ideals. Rand was convinced that philosophy matters very much in the defense of a free society. She stressed, moreover, that in the last analysis she was not a capitalist, not an egoist, not even an individualist but, first and foremost, a champion of human reason. From this, she argued, one can infer most of what really matters to us all, including the vital importance of a free society.

Libertarians, however, tend to want to have an open door policy--they don't want to exclude people from the rank of those who defend liberty even if their defense is wrong or weak or really badly put. Be you a Moonie or Christian or even socialist in your personal viewpoint, libertarians want to extend an invitation to you. This seems only sensible, strategically prudent--it will swell the ranks of those who will support human liberty, never mind why. Yes, hippies, too, were welcome and still are, as are Mormons and prostitutes and bowlers. The more the merrier. It is quantity that matters, not quality, since libertarianism is a political movement, primarily. It needs to have its supporters swell in numbers as far as possible.

Rand, however, believed that without the best case for liberty, liberty would lose out no matter how good the numbers. No ill founded doctrine of liberty can hold up against all the attacks from the various sophists who are eager to show how flimsy the defense of human liberty really is. Today it is the communitarian, especially, who mounts a sophisticated case against freedom by first attempting to discredit elements of libertarianism such as individualism. For Rand unless a sound case for these elements exist, it makes no difference how large the number of libertarians is. In the end it is the soundness of the argument that matters most, or so she believed, because she held that human beings are rational animals and only when ultimately something appeals to their reason, will they give it long term support.

One aspect of Rand's position that has not managed to make itself heard clearly is her view that what you think isn't the result of your personal history and, indeed, this idea follows the long appreciated view of most philosophers that one ought not to commit the genetic fallacy, of judging a viewpoint by the history and origin of those who advance it. Rand is now being more and more judged, even by sympathizes such as the authors of the two recent biographies, one from Doubleday, the other from Oxford, not so much by whether her case for her ideas is sound but by reference to her upbringing or history. Since she was raised in Soviet Russia, she is often deemed to be captive of her origins. This is nonsense, of course, considering how many others who find her ideas sound didn't share her history at all. I did and that has been held against me by adversaries all my career, but they have used it mostly as a ploy since they new that many of those whom they embraced, refugees from right wing dictatorships, were not biased by their history, only educated by the experience of it. And that holds for the likes of Ayn Rand and me. But to acknowledge this would mean giving up a possibly effective weapon against our ideas!

But why do her recent biographers keep insisting on committing the genetic fallacy? I think the reason is that contemporary biographies are all written under the influence of scientism, the view that everything must be explained (away?) by means of efficient causes in a person's life--upbringing, nutrition, climate, economy (a la Marx), psychology (a law Freud), etc. To understand Ayn Rand, then, amounts to have explained her along such lines. This is what is demanded by modern (mechanistic) science (though not by contemporary science, which has largely shed its mechanist premises).

There is an important scholar of recent times who fought against such a way of understanding thinkers of the past. Leo Strauss, of the University of Chicago's Committee of Social Thought, insisted that those who try to understand Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many other great thinkers by these means fail miserably and miss out on their valuable teachings. And, of course, they are also facing a fatal paradox: If the subjects of their study are to be understood by explaining away their thinking, then so must be the biographers, as well. And that would leave truth out of the equation completely.

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