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November 29th, 2011
Freethought San Marcos: The sophistry of Ayn Rand Libertarianism

Freethought San Marcos: A column

In 1964, I roomed with Wally. Wally had discovered Ayn Rand and talked frequently about rugged individualism–his desire to be left alone by the state, by institutions, and by others to follow his own path. Wally thought no one should tell him what to do. That entire semester, Wally probably missed 90% of his college classes. After all, he wanted his liberty. Needless to say, his grades suffered, but we had some fascinating discussions about philosophy and the socio-economic condition of the US, a subject about which Wally took no responsibility. After all, each person is responsible for his or her own condition, created by his or her own choices.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is echoed in the callousness of the current Republican presidential campaign, where Herman Cain states that if a person doesn’t have a job, it is that person’s fault; where Ron Paul suggests that if a person needs health care but has chosen not to purchase health insurance, then it is perfectly acceptable to let that person die; where all undocumented immigrants should be immediately shipped back to their country of origin, and electrified, military-guarded fences should be erected to assure that they cannot return; where the crowd applauds all of Gov. Perry’s executions, even if some of those executed were innocent; where waterboarding is torture that makes Republicans feel good (they like to call it “enhanced interrogation”); where gay servicemen are booed; and where “no work, no food” is an honored value. It’s chilling: even George W. Bush claimed to have compassion, but Tea-party-leaning, Ayn Rand-spouting Libertarians have none.

Rooming with Wally was my introduction to Libertarianism. If that had been the end of my study of Libertarianism, I would have a more jaundiced view than I now have of the philosophical underpinnings of that philosophy. Now, over forty-five years later, Libertarianism is widely discussed and mentioned in conversation. We have some politicians who claim to be Libertarians. Many freethinkers call themselves Libertarians–comedian Bill Maher, illusionist Penn Jillet, biologist P. Z. Myers, and others. I often agree with some Libertarian ideas, but I’ve come to realize that there is a fatal flaw in Ayn Rand Libertarian philosophy.

To say that someone is a Libertarian is about as useful as saying that a person is religious. There may be as many varieties of Libertarianism as there are religions in the US. Lately, though, many in the political class identify themselves as Any Rand Libertarians, so I will focus on their brand of Libertarianism. After all, it is the kind extolled by Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Ron Paul, Clarence Thomas, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and most of this year’s crop of Republican presidential hopefuls, though I don’t claim that any of them follow Ayn Rand’s philosophy (Objectivism) in any systematic way.

Ayn Rand extolled the virtues of individualism, sometimes called rugged individualism, as a lynchpin of her beliefs. Individualists are glorified as ambitious, fiercely independent people who succeed spectacularly in life solely because of their own actions, resources, intellects, and willpower. In Ayn Rand’s world, the masses of people don’t fit this description. They are largely miserable souls who occasionally overcome their misery thanks to the exceptional abilities of a few individualists, who do great things because of their creativity and intellectual acumen.

If this is your view, your reality is not the same as mine. When I look at society in the US, I see opportunities for many people made possible by the collective actions of us all–a system created based on an implicit social contract that has created public education, infrastructure, modern utilities, water resources on which all life depends, organized social and economic systems that, however flawed, make possible success for the great masses of our people. Rand’s idea that those who succeed do so because of their individualist qualities that make them some sort of supermen is a dishonest analysis of how our society works. One has to have blinders not to see the importance of the cooperative spirit that pervades America.

Most of our politicians don’t believe in the American government because they don’t believe in the basic tenets of our democracy; they don’t believe in the Constitution, and they don’t believe in the Declaration of Independence, both of which are imbued with a collective, cooperative spirit.

Based on their actions in the last thirty years, nearly all Republicans (as well as many, sometimes most, Democrats and some independents) don’t believe that government should have the purposes envisioned by our founders. The Declaration, for instance, provides as follows: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

For the most part, Libertarians don’t like the fact that governments are created by people to secure for everyone the basic rights of equality and a multitude of other rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – which were further explained and expanded in the Bill of Rights.

All of these ideas from the Declaration and Constitution create an implicit bargain–a social contract–among the American people. The essence of that social contract is that we will help one another by joining together to form a government that will serve the interests of us all. But Ayn Rand and her current Libertarian followers nowhere acknowledge the truth written by W. E. B DuBois 55 years ago: “We let men take wealth which is not theirs; if the seizure is ‘legal’ we call it high profits and the profiteers help decide what is legal.” And that has been the failure of our republic for at least the last thirty years. The profiteers have been allowed to write or re-write the rules under which our political and economic system operates.

Governance, as the Occupy movement is arguing, is all about balancing the interests inherent in the social contract and the rights we have so that one group (the “profiteers”) cannot dominate another, a view anathema to the 1% and their defenders, who spend millions to make sure the rules favor them and not the 99%.

The profiteers, using Libertarian justifications, help corporations dominate American life to satisfy their quest for greater profits; to enrich the wealthy further, insisting that people pull themselves up by their bootstraps (ignoring the fact that to do so literally means that you land on your backside when you try); to deny the basic need of all people for adequate food, housing, education, and medical care if they are unable to afford those things because they can’t find a job, are unable because of infirmity to hold a job, or are a child in need of nurture and care; to pass laws like Medicare Part D in a way that enriches the pharmaceutical and insurance industries at the expense of the people and creates greater deficits; to let half the people and many corporations get away with contributing nothing to fund the federal government; to refuse to stabilize Social Security through two simple methods–expand the payroll tax to all earned income, and recover through the tax system most Social Security benefits paid to the wealthy; and to fight wars that do little if anything to protect America, but everything to enrich defense contractors, funding these wars with borrowed money.

The signers of the Declaration believed that laws should be adopted that are “most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” This belief is virtual heresy to most Ayn Rand Libertarians, who do not want laws that are for the public good. They want laws that benefit the corporations and the wealthy. They ignore the Constitution, which provides that one of the purposes of our form of government is to “promote the general Welfare.” One of the most succinct statements in opposition to Ayn Rand’s philosophy came recently from Senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren at a house party in Massachusetts:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea — God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Warren’s message is one well-understood by the Occupy movement, whose members are driven by a profound commitment to democratic principles and to an economic system that will assure a decent life for all, rather than just the 1%.

Ayn Rand viewed the misery of many of the world’s people as a failure of their will. She would not acknowledge that our government, through opportunism, the taking of natural resources, militarism, and exploitation of the labor of third world people, made possible much of our prosperity. Rand’s philosophy is grounded in selfishness and greed disguised as virtue. The needs of others, including those starving and homeless, are not worth her consideration. As far as Rand was concerned, these weak, defective people could just die.

I value individualism, but within certain boundaries. When I look at the world, I recognize that I have whatever success I have had not as some willful lone ranger operating on my own. I had friends, family, teachers, mentors, opponents, leaders, public servants, and countless others long forgotten who helped me become whatever I have become. I have never seen anyone else whose life has been otherwise. It takes extreme myopia or mendacity not to see that rugged individualism is a figment of Ayn Rand’s imagination. Not only are her novels fictional, but her entire philosophy is based on a fiction, as well.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos

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20 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: The sophistry of Ayn Rand Libertarianism

  1. Once again, someone who has never actually read Ayn Rand, which is indicated by all the false implications of Objectivism as stated in the above article, tries to destroy what they don’t understand. “And I can’t imagine what empty heads can achieve.”

  2. Seriously, what do you have to do to get an article these days? First, Ron Paul never said in that debate that the hypothetical 30 year old should die. Nice dishonest smear on your part. Second, while many libertarians have read and admire Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand was philosophically opposed to “libertarianism.” Third, you are defining the “general welfare” statement in the Preamble from a modern perspective, not in the spirit that the framers intended. Fourth, “governments are created by people to secure for everyone the basic rights of equality and a multitude of other rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Rights of “equality,” whatever the hell that is, are never mentioned in the Declaration. Finally, Elizabeth Warren’s idiotic statement “nobody ever got rich on their own.” True, but everyone involved in that person’s getting rich was reimbursed according to voluntary, peaceful agreement, whether by being paid for their efforts or receiving a good and service at an agreed upon price. “The roads the rest of us paid for?” Uh, the rich person paid for them too, for his own purposes, and the “others” are free to use those roads for their purposes. Lamar, whatever school you went to, I hope you sue them for an inferior education.

  3. the real problem in the USA (and the world for that matter) is this:

    the total wealth of a nation is all derived from the extraction of resources, agriculture and mining. and the more people you have, the more those resources must be divided. we can either band together in urban communism to redistribute those resources to meet the needs of everyone, or we can all share the resources via land-ownership in liberty; but either way, nature will force us, voluntarily (wisdom) or involuntarily (suffering+death) to live within the bounty of available resources. there is no freedom in any other society except an agrarian society. all other forms of society necessarily lead to communism because owners of land own the wealth – and we can either share in that wealth, or use force to redistribute it. there are no other ways.

  4. i should add this: the real difference between Ron Paul (constitutional govt) and the others is that Ron Paul wants to return to a society where we live and die according to the personal responsibility of not only ourselves, but also according to the responsibility of our parents to provide for the children they have. we succeed and fail on a family/individual basis. whereas, with the “others”, we succeed and fail, live and die, as a nationwide collective. but either way, we live and die, succeed and fail, in accordance with our ability to live within the availability of natural resources (which are not increasing). life will get more and more difficult/expensive as we keep increasing our population regardless of politics..

  5. It always amazes me how so many people think that because we as individuals cooperate with each other, we are not really “individuals.” No libertarian believes that we are “self-reliant.” Libertarians are very well aware that we as individuals cooperate with each other in terms of trade/business and social interactions. That has NOTHING to do with a group of individuals (those in the government) forcibly determining what any individual can do with his or her own body and the property that he or she has obtained by peacefully, voluntarily exchanging/interacting with other individuals.

    If some individuals want to let a group of individuals (those in the government) forcibly determine what they can ingest in their bodies, determine who they can associate/contract their body with, etc., that’s their decision. But I think I’m old enough to determine what’s good and bad for me (i.e., my body and my property) without getting permission from people called “president,” “congressman,” “judge,” etc.

  6. It’s hard to take any article about libertarianism seriously when the writer doesn’t even seem to understand the distinction between “Libertarian” and “libertarian” – the former being a member of the political party and the latter being one who follows a particular philosophy.

  7. Lamar, it sounds like you don’t believe any of the poor are victims of their own bad choices. I happen to believe most of them are. Just as the small amount of success I enjoy is a function of some investment in good choices and hard work. The great thing about success is there’s a limitless amount of it. I think your loyalty to liberalism/socialism prevents you from appreciating the message Rand put out. Her stereotypes are metaphors aimed at her target audience – young people newly curious about principles like self-sufficiency and logical thinking. One last point, like most socialist, you don’t seem to ever offer any good suggestions on how to motivate the inherently lazy. Is there a more efficient way than the all-mighty dollar?

  8. Thanks for the article. There are serious research errors. The “Pay It Forward” concept praised by Warren and the article was in fact developed by LIO Fellow Robert Heinlein, an eminent Libertarian. Libertarianism seeks to advance rights with such voluntary alternatives.

    For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues, please see http://​www.Libertarian-Internation​ , the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization


    “Alexis de Tocqueville once described what he saw as a chief part of the peculiar genius of American society—something he called “self-interest properly understood.” The last two words were the key. Everyone possesses self-interest in a narrow sense: I want what’s good for me right now! Self-interest “properly understood” is different. It means appreciating that paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest—in other words, the common welfare—is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being. Tocqueville was not suggesting that there was anything noble or idealistic about this outlook—in fact, he was suggesting the opposite. It was a mark of American pragmatism. Those canny Americans understood a basic fact: looking out for the other guy isn’t just good for the soul—it’s good for business.”

    “The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.”

  10. Abe Lincoln said this:

    “The worst thing you can do for those you love is that which they could and should do for themselves.”

    It sounds like Tocqueville had a zero-sum mentality meaning he believed there was only so much wealth to go around. That’s just not true. My “wealth”, meager as it is, is quite vulnerable to the next young go-getter who wants to come and take my job. (because I spend too much time on the internet)

    Lastly, the perjorative nature of your label “Ayn Rand Followers” is not lost on us. Ayn Rand is for college freshmen as a toe in the water for further study. Of course there are zealots, even as there are with Stiglitz.

  11. Before you read this know that I read every Ayn Rand book – all of them! …and I still find her ideas horrible to contemplate. The idea of an “Objective” Reality is contrary to all spiritual teachings and always leads to Fascism – industry trumps environment. Why? Because once you remove spirituality, then you can destroy anything with no worries about karma or heaven and hell. In which case you have no idea what “Reality” is anymore. Materialism cannot justify Freedom. If all you are is a bucket of blood and mucus, then why should I not kill you and steal everything – survival of the fittest – and most intelligent – right? Making money is the highest ideal, right? Nature is ours to exploit is it not? Believe anything other than what Ayn Rand tells you and you can suck my bullets right?

    I AM the Violet Flame of Freedom’s Love!

    I AM Love incarnate of Light.

    I AM Source Light of Love.

    I AM NOT depending on an author of controversial books for guidance!

    I AM My Heart’s Highest JOY.

  12. Do you have a quote for the Ron Paul claim? I’ve heard him point out, over and over, that no one is refused coverage in a hospital for inability to pay; and it’s precisely because of that reason, that mandating healthy people to buy insurance to subsidize the unhealthy is not even neeeded. I find it hard to believe that he’s suddenly developed amnesia on that point, and now thinks that people without health insurance are simply left to die in the absence of gov’t health insurance. In short, I don’t believe you; it sounds like you’re responding to someone else’s spin, not to what Paul actually said.

    BTW, Paul is no Randian (nor is the other libertarian in the race, Johnson), while the others you mention have probably never read a page of hers. I have no idea why you think she’s pulling strings here.

  13. Here is the LATimes 9/18/11 report on the Republican debate where this issue came up. I think it supports my statement that Paul “suggests” that it is acceptable for such a person to die, though he would not say so directly, nor did he say he disagreed with his supporters who shouted that response. When I read the last paragraph below, I am left believing that in spite of Paul’s unwillingness to say so directly, there isn’t another plausible conclusion. If the government and the churches don’t do it, what happens? The person dies.:

    Healthcare, and the role of a strong central government in providing it, is one of the key issues separating the GOP, which opposes Obama’s healthcare insurance overhaul. So it was no accident that the issue became part of the debate as host Wolf Blitzer posed a hypothetical to Paul, who is also a physician.

    “A healthy, 30-year-old young man has a good job, makes a good living, but decides: You know what? I’m not going to spend 200 or 300 dollars a month for health insurance, because I’m healthy; I don’t need it,” Blitzer said. “But you know, something terrible happens; all of a sudden, he needs it. Who’s going to pay for it, if he goes into a coma, for example? Who pays for that?

    “In a society that you accept welfarism and socialism, he expects the government to take care of him,” Paul replied. Blitzer asked what Paul would prefer to having government deal with the sick man.

    “What he should do is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself,” Paul said. ”My advice to him would have a major medical policy, but not before —”

    “But he doesn’t have that,” Blitzer said. “He doesn’t have it and he’s — and he needs — he needs intensive care for six months. Who pays?”

    “That’s what freedom is all about: taking your own risks.,” Paul said, repeating the standard libertarian view as some in the audience cheered.

    “But congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die,” Blitzer asked.

    “Yeah,” came the shout from the audience. That affirmative was repeated at least three times. Paul, who has always had a reputation for being a charitable man, disagreed with the idea that sick people should die, but insisted that the answer to the healthcare problem was not a large government.

    “I practiced medicine before we had Medicaid, in the early 1960s when I got out of medical school,” Paul said. “I practiced at Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio. And the churches took care of them. We never turned anybody away from the hospitals. And we’ve given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves and assume responsibility for ourselves, our neighbors, our friends; our churches would do it. This whole idea — that’s the reason the cost is so high. The cost is so high because we dump it on the government. It becomes a bureaucracy. It becomes special interests. It kowtows to the insurance companies, then the drug companies.”

  14. DJ Glombowski,
    Anyone who has standards enough to object that “Once again, someone who has never actually read Ayn Rand,” should reject Ayn Rand. Read her “Virtue of Selfishness” and if you know anything about Judaism and/or Christianity, you will see that this “philosopher” didn’t have the slightest idea what these important faiths were all about!. As a Christian theologian, I find it hard to refute what she wrote against Christianity because I don’t even recognize what she is objecting to and I don’t recall her ever specifying verses, something the bible makes extremely easy by numbering every verse!
    Putting Rand on an intellecutal pedestal makes about as much sense as going along with Glenn Beck’s idea that a “self-educated” dunce like him, who couldn’t make it through a sinble semester of college should create a Blenn Beck University!

  15. What is Ironic is Rand escaped communist USSR seeing the horrors of comunism first hand. She lived through the hell called comunism that made her appreciate freedom and responsibility more so than a natural born citizen. What is sad is people around the world come to America to escape comunism(people wash up on Miami Beach pretty often escaping Cuba) yet there are Americans who call for it. Lack of perspective maybe? “It’s not so much that our liberal friends are ignorant, it’s just that what they know isn’t so.”

  16. please research the Non Aggression Principle and Logic. A full understanding of those two things will really open your mind. It’s not your fault. You have been conditioned by the state. So have billions of others. You are better though. You have made the effort to try to understand this stuff. You are almost there. Keep going and you will get there eventually.

  17. Mr. Hankins, this is written with all the fairness and knowledge that is held by a 3 year old. Childish and stupid, showing an inability to grasp simple concepts such as fairness and self worth. As Dean Wormer said, “Fat drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” I think that Wormer would have meant intellectually as well as physically. You’re proving him wrong.

  18. I once had to quote Ayn Rand to get a job at a company (practically located in the middle of a corn field in Kansas) owned by a bunch of millionaire teenagers. Fortunately, I was an avid reader who enjoyed science fiction. Hey, what can I say, I thought she wrote science fiction. I mostly enjoyed the sexual tension between the heroes and heroine. Later in life, I would be reminded of this in a much funnier way when watching Dr. Charles Montague and Nurse Diesel in Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety.”

    -ralph swanson: I believe the “pay it forward” concept is a bit older than even our beloved Heinlein.

    -Jerry: That’s funny! Thanks for the laugh…quoting a fictional Animal House character after accusing someone of being childish and stupid.

    -Lamar: Huh? I had trouble figuring out who you were talking about…Ayn Rand Libertarians, specific non-Ayn Rand Libertarians or Individualists or Tea Partiers, generally speaking Libertarians, etc…. It read like a first draft of several ideas, although I did get you don’t care for Ayn Rand I believe you give her too much power.

  19. I’ve been thinking a lot about your article on Ayn Rand. I kept thinking how two people could read Atlas Shrugged and get two different views. It occurred to me that you failed to read the entire book. You failed to read the chapters where in the people with originals ideas who had tried to better society for everyone were shut down by the “spread the wealth” crowd. They removed themselves from the struggle. They were shut down repeatedly by others who “knew better” what the population needed. And what did they do? They collected themselves in an environment and plotted how to save society when it finally collapsed under it’s own weight. They weren’t keeping it all to themselves. They had people in all walks of life figuring out how they would benefit all when they entered back in to society. I would suggest to you that you watch an old film titled Dr. Zhivago. In this film the main point is how the Soviet Union came in to being, and we all know how that turned out. The union of that time decided that the “haves” should not have. The “have nots” should get all their wealth. Of course the “haves” could no longer generate jobs for the “have nots” and it all collapsed. It is a fictional account, but does a great job to show what could happen if the “spread the wealth” crowd are successful. It is my hope that your article prompts others to read her work. It causes you to review what you believe and why.

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