Objectivism vs. Liberty

If you love liberty, beware the works of Ayn Rand. They can render you politically ineffective, or downright dormant.

This may seem odd to many. Rand wrote passionately for capitalism and limited government. Her words sparkle and seduce those with great talent and limited social skills -- the people least suited for politics. Her words repel and sicken the social animals among us, the people who propel the political tides.

Rand worried not about political viability. For her, political movements were the consequence of philosophical ideals. She would have her followers focus on philosophers, on the top of the opinion shaping pyramid. From there freedom fostering art would follow, which would lead to better political leaders.

She had a point. Politics is in part moral philosophy put into practice. Alas, Objectivism is the wrong philosophy. Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy is incompatible with a free society(!)

Pure capitalism coupled with pure self-interest does not work. Capitalism at its best is indeed a beautiful thing: we each get paid by serving others. Alas, the exceptions are significant: spammers, polluters, high-pressure salesmen, financial fog artists, and sharks with bear trap contracts disprove the perfection of capitalism every day. Raw self-interest must be tempered by restraint for the good of society, or by an ever growing body of regulations.

Limited government requires even more self restraint for the good of society. Self interest * political power = crony capitalism. The second Bush administration epitomized the problem; government grew. Go to George Mason University and study Public Choice Economics if you do not believe me. The self interest of the political players leads to bigger, badder, government. Free market capitalism requires active benevolence—altruism—on the part of political leaders and their supporters. The people understand this intuitively and are thus repelled by politicians who appeal purely to self interest.

(Here I mean “libertarian” in the broadest sense, including constitutionalists, smaller government Republicans, free liberals, upper leftists, as well as “true libertarians.”)

Libertarian activism* is an act of altruism. Liberty is a public good. Society benefits but the players who provide it pay more than they recover in freedom. The moocher receives more than he pays for. The small government crusader gets a tiny fraction of the tax cut which follows from thwarting the moocher. When selfishness rules the day, government grows into a cancerous mass of special interest subsidies and loopholes. That we haven’t devolved completely into crony capitalism is testament to the sacrifice of many lovers of liberty, including some Objectivists. Man is a rationalizing animal, and some Randians have reconciled the call to duty and work tirelessly without pay for liberty, despite the logic of Rand’s teachings.

Rand’s “Rational Self-Interest” is asceticism in disguise. Ayn Rand was a rationalizing animal as well. In order to deal with the points above she backed off from true self-interest and negated its many implications by tacking on the modifier “rational.” Her “rationally self-interested” heroes thus performed acts of pure will against human nature that would do Kant proud. The scientific genius became a menial laborer. The peaceful philosopher became a pirate. The wealthy heir became a celibate playboy.

Freedom requires concessions to actual human nature. Asceticism in deference to an idealized human nature and political philosophy make for a dangerous mix! See the history of communism or theocracy for examples. Or read the history of the actual Ayn Rand to get a taste of the true incompatibility of Objectivism and liberty.

Rand was wrong. In The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell points out that ideas and trends are carried forward by three types of people: salesmen, connectors and mavens. Since liberty is a public good, we have limited funds to pay salesmen. Since Objectivism is an anti social philosophy, we lose the connectors, those people who love people and collect contacts like I collect books. So we are left with the mavens, those self-appointed experts who research and nitpick for the joy of it. Rand placed her hope in the mavens. Let the crusty geeks and pretentious professors grok her philosophy and teach more personable folks to spread it to the masses. However, to appeal to mavens a philosophy must be true, or at least so mind-numbingly obfuscated that even mavens are bamboozled. Rand wrote clearly, clearly wrong to the intelligent skeptic as I shall demonstrate soon.