Part of the "Critiques of Libertarianism" site.
Last updated 10/25/07.
I was introduced to libertarianism through Ayn Rand's Objectivism. I intend to focus on Objectivist in this essay, with only a few directly libertarian references. Much of what I say here may not be new to the reader, but I hope my particular order and interpretation might help.
In college, after many failed attempt to pack muscle onto my chubby 6' frame, I encountered the writings of former Mr. America Mike Mentzer. He presented his view of strength training in a logical matter, and following his ideas I made the best progress of my life. Throughout his books he credited his success in deriving a scientific and consistent theory of weightlifting to his adherence to Ayn Rand's Objectivism. His long-winded writing and tendency to discuss tangent topics grew tiring at times, but I found that I agreed with the large majority of his statements. Intrigued, I purchased the first book on his recommended reading list, Ayn Rand's "For the New Intellectual."
From the first page I was hooked. I devoured "The Virtue of Selfishness," "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal," and "Atlas Shrugged." For a short time I professed almost entirely to the Objectivist creed, and I still do see value in many of the things Ayn Rand wrote and said. But after months of pigheadedly arguing with my friends, I was brought to reason. Eventually I was able to review the books with a less emotional attachment, and the errors became apparent.
Ayn Rand, despite her frequent statements of appeal to reason, recruited me with emotion. I imagine the same can be said for others. As one big example, In Atlas Shrugged, she gives an account of the fictional "American Motor Company." This company goes from success to failure after it is transformed to a socialist organization. Its destruction served as a powerful illustration of the inherent illogic of socialist organization. But the three siblings who orchestrate this transition to socialism are a weakling, a mean-spirited woman, and a lavish socialite. It never occurs to Rand that people with truly good intention, although misguided, could attempt such a change. Instead, she portrays them as tremendous scoundrels from the beginning.
In her discussion of capitalist trade as the only just means of exchange between men, she divides non-capitalists into two categories. The socialists are labeled the Brutes and the religious people are the Witch Doctors. By using those terms, Ayn Rand cannot profess a neutral perspective of the situation. A choice between capitalism, socialism, and theocracy is not the same as choosing between men, Brutes, and Witch Doctors. These terms and negative characterizations are common throughout Ayn Rand's works.
She uses definitions in a similar manner. Ayn Rand freely redefine words to fit her ideas, and this allows her to use more emotionally charged language. Her definition of altruism is (loosely) seeking the good of others without regards to one's own values and happiness, and her definition of sacrifice is sacrificing a lesser good for a greater. So where most people see the forgoing of some luxuries to save up for retirement as a sacrifice, and feeding the poor out of charity altruism, she does not. She sees giving the lives of men to defend the rights of squirrels as sacrifice, and giving people the money you would have used to feed yourself as altruism. With these re-definitions, she can now rage against the absurdity of altruism and sacrifice. All of a sudden, religious and charitable organizations that were reasonable in the mind of the reader appear to be ridiculous.
Another term she liked was 'arbitrary.' She used this to describe a normal man's lack of freedom in a socialist dictatorship. The socialist leaders attempt decisions according to the will of the people, but as far as the man is concerned the decisions are arbitrarily made. This wording is false. The man may have no input on decisions of his governance, but they are not arbitrarily made. Even a socialist dictator does not consult a Tarot deck or a dice roll to make decisions. That kind of governance would be truly arbitrary. This is yet another way Rand twists words to make the situation seem worse than it is.
In "For the New Intellectual" Ayn Rand places a speech taken from her book, "The Fountainhead." In the story, Howard Roark was hired to create architectural plans for a building, and the plans were then altered without his consent. In retaliation he demolished the resulting building. A speech is made defending Roark's right to do this because of intellectual integrity, etc... etc... this diatribe is unnecessary. Succinctly, the people who contracted him for the architectural plans are guilty of breech of contract and can be sued as such. End of story. No powerful statement of intellectual rights necessary. More importantly, you cannot correct one evil - the illegal modification to plans, with another - blowing up the resultant building.
So let's move past that. Let's say you ignore the prejudicial language used in her works because you are more concerned with the substance. Next I will consider some of the holes I identified in her ideas, regardless of phrasing.
Ayn Rand's approach to philosophy is cursory, at best. She begins with the axiom, "Existence Exists" and builds from there. A great part of philosophy at any point in history is a discussion of the nature of reality - Metaphysics, from Parmenides to Aristotle's Metaphysics to Kant's Phenomenal and Noumenal worlds. Ayn Rand's axiom is simply assumed to be true, and she builds from there. Now, many people will say that it is absurd for a philosopher to wonder whether he exists or not. (Descartes' "I think therefore I am", etc...) It certainly sounds absurd to spend one's life discussing such things. But consider that every school of philosophy has a theory of the nature of reality, and no school perfectly explains the conditions of human existence. Our conclusion then must be that we still don't have a complete correct understanding of the situation. Ayn Rand simply shoves all of this under the rug as unimportant and continues with her undefended - and undefendable - assertion.
In her foundations for ethics and happiness, Ayn Rand shows that man's goal is his own survival through the following inductive argument: 1. Plants and microscopic animals are genetically programmed for their survival. 2. Animals are instinctively oriented to their survival. 3. Man lacks a basic natural guidance for survival, and instead possesses the ability to think. Conclusion: The human ethical goal is survival through thinking. This logical progression seems acceptable, except her premises are faulty. Animals and plants primary role is often propagation of the species, even at the expense of their own lives. Salmon spawn and die. Parent animals often defend young to their deaths. In insect species, males often don't survive the courtship. This misunderstanding of the situation is tremendous, on her part. Now the ethical foundation of Objectivism is shown to be as shaky as the Metaphysical one.
Consider her chapter in Selfishness on ethics in emergencies. First, she begins with the disclaimer that the ethics of emergencies are not central to the value of an ethical system. This is a cop out. A completely valid ethical system must be valid for all possible circumstances. That's contained in the definition of complete. No such system exists, and Objectivism cannot claim to be valid by simply permitting exceptions. Regardless, her example is that of a drowning man, and how respect for life would encourage an observer to throw a life preserver, even if he expected no personal gain. So consider another example. Say a rich man that finds a poor man starving near his property. Like throwing a life preserver, buying this man bread is a small easy act for the rich man, although he gains no benefit. Is that the ethical thing to do out of respect for life? If the answer is no, then why is it okay to use the life preserver? If the answer is yes, then all of a sudden Objectivism supports some sort of welfare system, even if only to prevent starvation.
When discussing the economy in "Capitalism," Ayn Rand postulates that recessions and depressions are always the result of government interference with capitalism. She also believed gold should be an objective monetary standard. The case can be argued to use precious metals as money. Even if this will lessen the chances of economic turmoil, it can not guarantee stability. This is a statement of hope, not fact. If there is a drought, farmers will starve. If there is a fire, people will be unemployed. If a disease ravages an area, the economy will suffer.
That tactic occurs more than once in Objectivist and Libertarian literature: assuming laissez-faire capitalism will solve for a problem simply because no counterexample exists. Another example is monopoly. Ayn Rand states that, in true capitalism without government interference, an abusive monopoly is impossible. Of course, since such a system hasn't existed, no one may offer a counterexample. I would like to pose a hypothetical one: addictive narcotics. Assume crest starts placing nicotine and heroin in its toothpaste. With no government interference, they have no need to label their products or use a disclaimer. If other toothpaste manufacturers follow suit, in a few years we're all hooked on nicotine toothpaste. If not, Crest has a coercive monopoly. Either way, nothing an Objectivist or Libertarian would call illegal has happened, but an evil has been done.
Consider environmentalism. This is where I first found a weakness in Objectivism. Ayn Rand, and other Libertarians, made extensive use of the "Straw Man" logical fallacy in this arena. To use this fallacy, a person sets up a weaker version of the argument and disproves it. Ayn Rand, Objectivists, and Libertarians do this by comparing all environmentists to people who want to preserve forests for the sake of the spotted owl. That scenario is not the prime motivator for most environmentalists. The primary issues for most environmentalists include toxic chemical dumping, depletion of natural resources, and global warming. Objectivists and Libertarians do allow the survivors and relatives to sue companies that dump toxic wastes illegally. This is small consolation to the dead. Existing non-laissez-faire regulations attempt to discourage such dumping before people die, not after the damage is done. Look at the depletion of resources. Government-regulated fisheries and hunting preserves maintain population levels sufficient to replenish themselves as time goes on. Unregulated fisheries and hunting grounds are rendered barren by extensive over-harvesting. The initial capitalist gain is higher, but in the long run much valuable material is lost. Finally, global warming is a tremendous issue. Animals, humans, and human industry consume oxygen and carbon to produce carbon dioxide. Plants and plankton consume carbon dioxide to produce oxygen and carbon. The number of humans and the amount of human industry is increasing geometrically. The amount of plants, trees, and plankton are being decreased geometrically. Eventually - in ten, fifty, five hundred, of ten thousand years, the effects will be felt. When is not important, because Libertarianism and Objectivism possess ZERO governing mechanisms for slowing this change. There is no deterrent to stop a laissez-faire industry from burning garbage now, and there won't be one in three thousand years. If something is to be done, it must be done now. Even if you dispute global warming - and that can only be done by refusing to acknowledge facts - you cannot deny increase rates of skin cancer, lung cancer, and other lung diseases. Unregulated pollution of any sort has a definite negative effect. There are no Libertarian or Objectivist solutions to these issues, except the handy ostrich tactic of sticking your head in the ground and refusing to acknowledge them.
One of the most admirable Objectivist virtues is honesty. Unfortunately, this virtue is at odds with man as trader. For my inner sense of self worth, honesty is certainly extremely important, and I agree with Objectivism in making it a virtue. But as a trader in business, honesty obstructs my ability to amass wealth. There is a special term for completely honest used-car salesmen: out of business. A blatant lie may be harmful in business, but exaggerations, small print, and misdirection boost the corporate bottom line tremendously. Advertising thrives by a form of dishonesty: influencing people to desire products they do not need. There is a contradiction here. The system is not consistent.
Now I would like to consider Ayn Rand's close mindedness. It is not my intent to insult her, just to point out some things that detract from her message. She is human, and I do not expect her to be perfect, but by inventing a philosophy she has set herself up as an example for this philosophy. It doesn't matter whether that is intentional or not.
If the first issue that turned me off to Objectivism was its stance on environmental issues, the second was its inflexibility. Ayn Rand states that her philosophy is based upon freedom, and it alone of all philosophies and political systems truly encourages thinking for one's self. But she also explicitly states that anyone who disagrees with any part of Objectivism is not an Objectivist. In short, "Think for yourself, but only as long as you agree with me." Is Objectivism compatible with X? If X is not Objectivism, the answer is easy: no. This kind of brainwashing can be found in the religious and socialist systems she is so quick to despise.
Ayn Rand mocks Eastern philosophy and all forms of mysticism. Nathanial Branden stated in an essay that she would not even discuss hypnotism, having decided the concept was invalid. Meditation, Hypnotism, and Acupuncture are all techniques with documented physical and psychological benefit. She would not consider them.
Among the Objectivist virtues is pride. Rand defines pride as a sense of self-worth from one's other virtues and accomplishments. She sets this up on direct opposition to the Christian virtue of humility, which she defines as a statement of self-worthlessness and an unwillingness to judge others. Now a Christian would define pride as feeling superior to others, judging others unfairly, and having an inflexible belief that one is correct. A Christian would define humility in the willingness to accept that one can be wrong, and a tendency to be very careful in making judgements because one is not omniscient.
I am not a Christian, but the Christian definition of pride seems to more nearly fit Ayn Rand's attitude. She did not thoroughly study other philosophers before dismissing their ideas. She dismissed the idea that hypnosis and meditation have value. She would not consider the possibility that pollution could have detrimental effects on living conditions around the planet in the long term. She refused to believe any socialist or religious individual might act out of a misguided sense of right and wrong, and was instead convinced they all had hidden selfish agendas. She explicitly stated that a person must adhere to all of her standards in order to consider himself an Objectivist.
Mike Mentzer could be considered guilty of the same flaw. He too was unintentionally narrowminded. In all of his rebellion against traditional strength training, he never once called into question accepted ideas on nutrition or aerobic exercise. In rereading his books, I was amazed. If the standard "3 sets of 10 for each of 8 or 9 major exercises, 3 times a week" was anathema to him, how come "3 meals a day balanced between the 4 food groups" never came into question? I do not mean for Ayn Rand or for Mike Mentzer to be perfect. But to me, their emphasis on pride and the value of their own ability to judge closes their minds to new ideas.
Now conversely, look at the many achievements that would have taken businesses much longer to reach without government intervention. Government-sponsored research led us to unlock the atom. The transcontinental railroad was built by capitalists on land granted to them by the federal government. How long would it have taken if they had to purchase thousands of miles of land on their own? The space program and the moon landing, hallmarks of human achievement and genius, weren't sponsored by any corporation.
I will not argue with a Libertarian or Objectivist that states our present government has made mistakes. The list of abuses and grievances is very long, and appalling. But the simple fact of the situation is that removing the government influence on all aspects of the economy will replace existing problems with new ones. Laissez-faire has been presented as a miracle cure. Because it has never been practiced before, it is difficult to prove that it will fail. But the same could be said about communism, before the Soviets tried that. Just because no one has tried it, it does not mean it will work perfectly.
There are no easy answers in life, there are no easy answers in economics, and there are no easy answers in philosophy. Please don't blindly embrace any ideology. I made that mistake with Christianity, and then I made it with Objectivism. Now I try to be a bit more... Objective.
I hope my thoughts helped.