The Cato Institute recently hosted a book forum with the authors of the two new Rand biographies, Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller, and Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns. Cato’s David Boaz ran the forum, setting the context, introducing the authors, and running the Q&A.
I am interested in the two books, so I wanted to hear the authors as they presented some of their thoughts and showed their mettle in the back-and-forth. The bottom line? Burns seems honest in her scholarship and sincere in her engagement. She said a lot of interesting things, and I want to hear more from her despite some weaknesses due to a lack of grounding in Rand’s system of thought. Heller didn’t come across nearly as well, which left me much less interested in her work. And then there’s Boaz.
Boaz began by speaking of the enduring influence of Rand, especially on libertarians and conservatives, and about the recent surge in interest in her and her work. He agreed with a Liberty magazine review of Heller’s book, saying that “There can be no question about the fact that Rand remains America’s most influential libertarian, with the possible exception of Milton Friedman, and America’s most influential novelist of ideas.” Extending this, Boaz characterized Atlas Shrugged as a libertarian book, and Rand as a libertarian who has done more than anybody in our time to introduce people to libertarian ideas.
What got my attention was Boaz’s treatment of the elephant in the room: he chuckled that many listening may wince at his talking that way, that indeed Rand would have disagreed with being classified as a libertarian (this would be an understatement) and that “many of her fans maintain that point even now.” He dismissed all of this, saying in effect that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. You see, “anybody who believes in individual rights, free enterprise, and strictly limited government is a libertarian. And Ayn Rand certainly did.” QED. Yet, he informs us, somehow this impeccable logic is lost on the “high priests” of Rand’s estate, who refused to let any of her material appear in his book, The Libertarian Reader.
As an Objectivist, I see a different puzzle here: Many people, libertarians in particular, clearly admire and profit from Rand’s ability to analyze and integrate, to identify widespread and longstanding false alternatives and package deals time and again, and to then offer something better. So I find it odd that when they see Rand apparently ignoring the incredibly straightforward point that she fits their definition, that they don’t pause to consider whether there might be some more basic reason for her balking so.
And of course there is. Here’s a hint: it’s an epistemology thing.
Concepts are important. They are how we organize our knowledge of the world so we can act in service to our lives. Good concepts are immensely helpful (see the basic ideas that ushered in the fruits of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution), and bad ones can really hurt us. What if, for example, your moral system left you seeing the bully and the victim who fights back as morally indistinguishable? As we’ve seen with pacifism, the result of such thinking is unjust and destructive to all concerned, both personally and socially: victims are morally if not legally discouraged from defending themselves, predators are only emboldened, and this view naturally translates to unjust and destructive cultural sentiments, laws, and policies like those against simply “violence”. So it makes all the difference to distinguish sharply between aggressive and defensive use of force because these are in fact morally opposite things with existentially opposite effects on human lives. Examples abound, but the general point to appreciate is that Objectivists are methodologically careful about this sort of thing because they grasp that accepting any concept which treats essentially identical things as opposites, or opposite things as essentially identical, ultimately means inviting difficulty if not disaster in our efforts to successfully navigate reality.
Now consider the libertarian way of thinking about political classification. Rejecting the generally useless left-right spectrum, they offer a two-dimensional approach based on degrees of personal and economic freedom which is often shared via their educational and recruiting tool, the Nolan Chart. In this view, libertarianism is neither left nor right, and it stands fundamentally opposed to totalitarianism. This sets up the natural axis of size or extent of government as their key normative criterion, which is pretty easy to pick out in their policies and rhetoric and reactions to world events. This is also why libertarians have always had influential anarchists in their ranks: even those who might be wary of the “extreme” of anarchism have no principled objection to it because, in their own basic way of thinking, anarchism is the natural full opposite of the evil of totalitarianism — indeed, they have framed it as the pinnacle of libertarianism.
We can now appreciate what Rand was signaling with her outrage at being grouped or associated in any way with anarchists in particular and libertarians in general: she was refusing the mental, personal, and social chaos that flows from a fundamentally flawed way of seeing things. Rand understood that the essential concept in politics is individual rights, and so she identified totalitarianism and anarchism as indistinguishable in what’s important: their complete lack of an objective recognition and systematic protection of man’s rights. In contrast, as noted above, the libertarian way of thinking mis-classifies totalitarianism and anarchism as moral opposites by focusing on the inessential characteristic of size. If the purpose of politics is to sort out and enact the conditions required for people to successfully live among one another, this kind of confusion is about as disastrous as it gets — even while self-consciously seeking the good, the conceptual lens of libertarianism will drive you to its opposite.
And conversely, the libertarian framework fails to capture crucial differences. Consider a powerful government that performs all and only its proper functions in the defense of man’s rights, and one that happens to have all the same laws and institutions but also has, say, conscription on the books just in case war breaks out. These two governments are all but indistinguishable (and neither is smiled on) in the libertarians’ basic classification scheme based on size. But Objectivists see these two as moral opposites because one is committed to the essential task of the defense of man’s rights and the other is not. Even though not currently violating any rights, the government with conscription laws clearly rejects the key principle of the field. It has no principled defense against the slippery slope to serfdom we’ve seen play out in history all too many times.
The politics of liberty that Objectivism advocates really does depend on a particular philosophical foundation. The Libertarian movement might be in a better position to understand this if they weren’t so eager to set aside the fact that fundamental ideas are critically important.
While scholarly leaders like Boaz should surely know better, there are plenty of people who innocently adopt the libertarian way of thinking about government because it seems to line up reasonably well with fundamental American values like strictly limited government, respect for rights, and capitalism. (Indeed, I was just such a person.) But even innocent use doesn’t mitigate the very real problems and dangers discussed above. So Objectivists will continue to pointedly reject the libertarian label and its conceptual basis in the interests of moving our culture toward one that genuinely values liberty.