Ayn Rand and libertarianism

I will be the first to admit that I admire Ayn Rand for her many accomplishments in life. As a fellow fiction writer, I am in awe of her ability, as a recent Russian immigrant, to write a novel at roughly the same age as I but in a language other than her native one. Writing a novel is hard enough. Writing one in a foreign language is incredible.

In many passages of her fiction and nonfiction, she displays moments of brilliance and makes intellectual observations I have encountered in few other works of literature. Her book The Romantic Manifesto I recommend without hesitation to any artist, whether they be a writer or a painter.

On my bookshelf is a copy of most of her works, including her early fiction. Although she did not alter any of my views, like so many writers, Rand helped clarify intellectually what I believed and held to be true on an emotional level but did not fully understand.

Additionally, during the birth of the Tea Party movement in 2009, Rand’s novels like Atlas Shrugged helped exposed ordinary Americans to ideas such as laissez-faire capitalism. Her first novel, We the Living, is a quasi-autobiographical story that takes place inside Soviet Russia and gives the reader a ground view of what kind of horrors people had to endure during that time.

When it came to matters of politics, Rand chose to create an entirely new philosophy known as Objectivism which, among other things, promoted the concept of limited government, which she saw as a potentially dangerous but essential tool to protect the rights of individuals.

In her essay “The Nature of Government,” she wrote:

If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules.

This is the task of a government—of a proper government—its basic task, its only moral justification and the reason why men do need a government.

A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control—i.e., under objectively defined laws.

Many people regard Ayn Rand as a libertarian, but her writings make it evident that while she shared many similar values and beliefs with libertarian anarchists like Murray Rothbard, at a fundamental level she differed when it came to the legitimacy of the State, or government.

To libertarians like Rothbard, and myself, the State has no claim to legitimacy because it ultimately does not require the consent of the individual, only of a predetermined percentage of a population in a predetermined area. For Rand, the legitimacy of a government rests on whether or not it adheres to its limited role. As long as its authority remains constrained to its responsibilities it is considered legitimate.

Interestingly, Rand also described taxation as a form of theft, which brings up an interesting question. If taxation is theft, and governments rely solely on taxes to function, how can governments claim to be legitimate?

In the book The New Libertarianism: Anarcho-Capitalism, author J. Michael Oliver attempts to address some of the problems with Rand’s views and provides a defense against many of her objections to anarchism.

In a review of the book, David Gordon writes:

But must not Oliver overcome an objection? The standard response of Objectivists to anarchism is that there cannot be a market in law and defense. To the contrary, the free market presupposes the existence of a fixed legal order, not subject to competition; and this only a government can provide.

Oliver not only answers this difficulty but turns it against the objectivist defenders of the state. It is entirely true, Oliver says, that the free market presupposes objective law; but the requirements of objective law are fixed by human nature. Far from requiring a state, objective law correctly understood precludes its existence. “There is no need for a legislative process. Law is inherent in the nature of things — including man’s nature. Thus, discovery of law rather than the fabrication of law is called for. … Because capitalism/voluntarism is based upon a recognition of the necessity of freedom of thought and action, it makes no sense to create a monopolistic agency for the discovery of truth and law.” In an anarcho-capitalist society, the basic elements of law would not be “up for grabs,” contrary to the claims of the Randian critics of anarchism.

It is state-created law, not anarcho-capitalism, that conflicts with legal objectivity. “One deleterious effect of governmental law is the suppression or obfuscation of concern for objective law. After generations of living under an omnipresent legal system, men could easily come to view government as the source of law, thus losing sight of natural, objective law.”

This isn’t to suggest that Rand said nothing worthwhile about freedom and liberty. As I wrote above, much of her fiction and non-fiction work are great reads and have done much to increase awareness about human freedom. But it is important to differentiate between Objectivism and libertarianism because their fundamental premises are separate (Objectivism, for example, is also an atheistic philosophy, while libertarianism concerns itself only with the legitimate use of force), and this difference, while seemingly minor, lead to differences in political matters.

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5 Responses to Ayn Rand and libertarianism

  1. greattomato says:

    I’m going to make use of your points when I start my investigation of the ills of Rand. (I’m of the belief that any philosopher is inherently flawed and we must be vigilant as academics, scholars and philosophers ourselves in discussing the flaws.) Your last point is particularly keen — Rand’s objectivism certainly is atheistic and I can agree that the church is artifice. This atheism is a problem for the Right, for obvious reasons; in my belief we must attempt to discern the true fundamental meaning of a spiritual existence and eschew the institute of religion. God certainly may be real — I believe it to be the universal love that pervades all — but the church is as dangerous to the individual as the State.


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