Ayn Rand: An Introduction (with Eamonn Butler)
Eamonn Butler joins us to discuss his new book Ayn Rand: An Introduction.
Eamonn Butler joins us to discuss his new book Ayn Rand: An Introduction. Why does Rand’s work remain so influential? Her thinking still has a profound impact, particularly on those who come to it through her novels, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead—with their core messages of individualism, self-worth, and the right to live without the impositions of others. Eamonn Butler is the Director of the Adam Smith Institute. In this episode, we discuss Ayn Rand, her work as a fiction author, and her fascinating life and history.
Find Ayn Rand: An Introduction now available on www.libertarianism.org
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Aaron Powel: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powel: Our guest today is Eamonn Butler. He’s director and co-founder of the Adam Smith Institute, and he’s also the author of many books. His latest is Ayn Rand: an Introduction, published just this week by the Institute for Economic Affairs and Libertarianism.org. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Eamonn.
Eamonn Butler: Yes, hello. You’re welcome.
Aaron Powel: Maybe a good place to start is [00:00:30] with Rand’s early life, and how did her early life, how did her experiences in Russia and then coming to the US, influence her fiction and her philosophy?
Eamonn Butler: Profoundly I think. She was, of course, born in 1905 in St. Petersburg, which is of course in Russia. [00:01:00] This was of course, just before the Russian revolution. So, when she was just about 10 or 11, she saw the Russian revolution breaking out, and of course it broke out predominantly starting in St. Petersburg itself.
She came from a … It was a Jewish family, and her father ran a pharmacy shop. When the revolution broke out of [00:01:30] course, they tried to escape. They went briefly to the Crimea, and because her father’s business was nationalized, taken over by the revolutionary government, and then in Crimea, the same happened again, when the Red Army got to Crimea, they took his business again, so they returned to St. Petersburg. And of course she grew up during those years when the Communists [00:02:00] were trying to build a new order, but of course, it was an absolute disaster. It was shortages and injustices, and summary killings and all the rest of it, and people with property and businesses were disinherited.
She saw that as a profound injustice, that people who really had no claim at all, were taking property, and indeed, taking the lives of people [00:02:30] who were simply trying to fend for themselves, build up a business, improve life for themselves and their families, and she found that terribly unjust. It really colored the rest of her writings, where she’s very strongly in favor of the individual who can build up his or her own business, his or her own life, family, and everything else that’s important to people, and [00:03:00] that they should be able to that without people coming along and simply taking those things away from you. Yes, it was a very profound upbringing.
Then of course, from there, she went to university and discovered lots of interesting novelists, which again, colored her writings, like Victor Hugo and so on, but she also discovered Greek philosopher Aristotle, [00:03:30] and other people who informed her philosophy. Then she rather cleverly got a visa to go to America. You had to get a visa to leave Russia then, but she enrolled in a state cinematic institute, and got this visa in order to go to America and in order to study film. On that [00:04:00] visa, eventually she met an actor in Hollywood, she became married and became an American citizen, and spent the rest of her life in America. An interesting upbringing, and it brought something new to America; this way of thinking, the Russian way of writing and so on, which was completely new in America, so it was quite an important influence in the rest of her life.
Trevor Burrus: Was her [00:04:30] first love, it seems like it was movies maybe, and then she was writing novels later, and she definitely seemed enthralled by movies. She was involved with more movie making experiences than a lot of people might realize.
Eamonn Butler: Oh yes, absolutely. In fact, when she came to America, she stayed with some relatives, I think it was in Chicago, and they actually owned a cinema, so I think she spent a long while in the [00:05:00] cinema there, just going through lots and lots and lots of different films. Yes, that was very important to her.
You see, this was a new medium. I think Rand loved things that were sort of new and obviously loved things that were kind of rational. So, when she landed in New York in 1926, it wasn’t a very nice day; it was a winter’s day, but she was just overwhelmed by the skyline, which to her was just rational and logical, [00:05:30] but also heroic. That is, I think, what people were trying to produce in movies at the time. As I say, in Chicago, one of her relatives owned a movie theater, and so she indulged that passion. She borrowed money off the relative and went to California to try to make her fortune.
She had no idea of doing what she was supposed to do under the visa, which is to study [00:06:00] American film then go back. She knew that she wanted to live in America rather than this catastrophic and unjust nation that was being built in Russia. And on her second day in Hollywood, she just happened to run into Cecil B. Demille, who was a leading filmmaker, film director, and he hired her first as an extra, and then that’s where she met her future husband, Frank O’Connor. [00:06:30] And she wrote lots of screenplays for films during that period, so it was very much, for many, many years, it was really what she did. She was in movies. She was writing screenplays, editing screenplays, tightening up screenplays, and that sort of thing.
Aaron Powel: Is that then what led her to make, I mean, the kind of out of the ordinary decision for people who have grand philosophies they want to express, [00:07:00] which is to … She wrote novels instead of writing philosophical tracks. I mean, she wrote some of those, but those came later. Was it just that that was she loved and fiction was what she thought? Or did she … How fiction was the way she knew how to express herself, or was there some other motive behind that? Some thinking that fiction was maybe a better way to get these ideas across?
Eamonn Butler: Yes. It’s one of these things where people say, “Well, did she write novels in order [00:07:30] to express her philosophy?” And what she actually said was that, “No, no. I had to develop the philosophy in order to write my novels.” And that novel writing was what she wanted to do. I mean, she finished her first novel in 1934, so I mean she was not even in her 30s. And that was a sort of brutal portrayal of life [00:08:00] in the new Soviet Union. And it was very much at odds with what Americans and westerners at the time thought the Soviet Union was all about, and they saw it as a sort of heroic, even the middle class intellectual saw it as a kind of wonderful experiment kind of thing. But she, having lived through it, knew that it was an absolute disaster.
So she wrote this, what we would call in America, or the UK where I live, we would [00:08:30] call this a philosophical novel. And it’s unusual in America. It’s unusual in Britain. It’s unusual in the west. But it’s very commonplace in Russia, that you have this novel which somehow sort of expresses a philosophy and the philosophy informs the characters and all the rest of it. And then she followed that up with another novel, just two years later. So yes, [00:09:00] writing fiction, I think, was very much what she was good at and wanted to do. And I think although she said that the sort of philosophy came out of that, I think it’s … I’m not sure quite how closely their related. And she was good at … And I think that the philosophy sort of came later, and it was added on later, and she thought about it later. And sadly, I mean [00:09:30] she died really before she could complete a lot of the thinking and write a real treatise that explained her philosophy in philosophical terms. So we’ve got the books to go on, but not a great deal of other things.
Trevor Burrus: One of the distinctive things about objectivists, Randians, is it’s a fairly, today in her, it’s a fairly total philosophy. There’s some of the rifts between [00:10:00] different factions of objectivists, and also libertarians and objectivists often hinge upon the path of not accepting the whole thing, soup to nuts. So let’s get into some of the soup nuts, so to speak, and that it includes a metaphysics into the epistemology, and a morality, and a politics. What did Rand view as metaphysics as the ultimate nature of reality so to speak?
Eamonn Butler: Well, it’s interesting, just as an aside, I mean you talked [00:10:30] about the sort of rifts between Rand and within Rand’s circle, and those were very current. In fact, when I was at university, and just sort of starting to read these things, it’s one of things that put me off, and I didn’t come back to it until many, many years later, because it just seems so factional and so personal, and people were either in or they were out and you had to take the whole thing. And if you didn’t take the whole thing, then you’re somehow [00:11:00] heretical and you couldn’t be talked to at all. So there was that sort of sectarianism about it, which I found deeply unattractive.
But I can see why, because to her, as you rightly said, this whole thing is a comprehensive unit. Her metaphysics, what is the nature of the universe? Well, to her, it’s objective reality. That’s it. There’s an objective world out there. How [00:11:30] do we know about that universe? Epistemology. Well, we can only know about it by reason, by applying reason to what we see, and then from that, she goes on to the principles by which we should live. You should live according, in a way which is true to that reality. And to her, that means the principles of self-interest. [00:12:00] And then that brings her on to politics, where again, it’s sort of self-interest in social organization, which means capitalism.
And she also bolts on romanticism and art. But those are the main things. Objective reality, reason, self-interest, capitalism, everything hangs together. And this actually, I think, what makes Rand’s ideas so attractive, particularly, I think, to the young, because [00:12:30] they’re looking for an answer to everything. And she kind of gives you an answer to everything. This is all joined up. The world works in this way, we have to live by these principles in order to be at one with the world.
Trevor Burrus: When it comes to metaphysics, that reality exists, or there is such a thing as objective reality, I mean we know about philosophers, whether it’s like Bishop Barclay, or people who said that idealism might be a thing. But that doesn’t seem terribly [00:13:00] unique. I think most philosophers would say that something called reality exists. Was there something distinctive about the way that she made this claim?
Eamonn Butler: I don’t know … It’s very … It’s quite an old idea. I’m going to say it goes back to Aristotle and some of the Greek philosophers. So they … Yes, you’re right. Realism, as it’s called in philosophical circles, has [00:13:30] quite a long standing. I think the reason that it was interesting is because sort of empirical philosophy was rule the roost then. You had people like F. A. Hayek and so on who were steeped, really, in the Scottish empirical school, which is that we don’t actually know the world, all we can do is make guesses about it, and we try those guesses, and if they work, then we do more of them, and if they don’t [00:14:00] work, then we do less of them. And that’s how we find out about the world.
And people like Karl Popper, the Austrian philosopher of science, again saying that’s how science works. It’s a web of guesses, and we don’t know what the world is like, but we have a guess. And we test those guesses. We do experiments and see whether they stand up. And if they don’t, then we abandon them and make another guess. [00:14:30] And Rand is sort of coming from it the other way around and saying, “No, no. There is an objective world there. We can sort of understand it by using our reason to clarify how it works and what it’s all about.” So is it something which is out there that through applying your mind, you can work out what the reality is like? Working out of mathematical proof? Or is it something you don’t know what it is and you just have to stick your finger in it and see whether [00:15:00] it hurts?
Aaron Powel: What reason does she give or have for thinking that human reason is capable of that? So I mean we could say like a dog, a dog’s mind. We as higher beings than a dog can look at a dog and say that there are lots of things about the world that that dog not only can’t figure out, but can’t figure out that it can’t figure out. It can’t even be aware that it can’t figure them out, because its brain just [00:15:30] lacks the capacity to understand the nature of reality. And so we’re certainly smarter than a dog. But is there-
Trevor Burrus: Most of us.
Aaron Powel: -is there a reason to believe that our brains are so powerful? Like they’re just kind of as good as it can get, and that they’re capable of understanding everything? Because to me, that seems like a very large claim that I’m not sure how you would even set out to prove.
Eamonn Butler: Yes. Well I think that [00:16:00] that’s actually a very telling criticism, because if you look, I mentioned F. A. Hayek. If you look at his view on epistemology, and how we get to knowledge about the universe, he says our minds don’t sort of float above reality. We can’t hover above reality, looking down to see what it is. Our minds have actually been created [00:16:30] by this universe, because we’ve evolved as complicated social beings, and as part of that, we have a mind which works in particular ways. And it works in particular ways because it manages to deal with the universe fairly well.
And therefore, we’re a sort of part of this world which we’re trying to understand. And therefore, [00:17:00] it inevitably, we can’t separate ourselves from it and say, “Well, there’s an objective reality out there, and we can somehow detect that.” So I think that’s actually quite a telling criticism. And I don’t know that she overcomes it. I mean, again, one of her failings is that she doesn’t, if you like, debate with other philosophers [00:17:30] very much. She tends to like a few philosophers, and everybody else she kind of dismisses as sort of how these people are just wrong, and they’ve taken things on a wrong turn, rather than sort of going through their arguments and trying to meet them. So I think that’s actually a very telling proposition.
What she says is, of course, that, “Okay, we are human beings. We may have our limitations.” The question for us [00:18:00] is how do we human beings make our world our way in whatever it is that’s out there? And she says, “The only way that we can do that is to apply our reason to the best of our ability.” We might not always get it right. And we don’t get it right. And we have to abandon things that are proved to be mistaken. But only by using our reason will we get anything close to understanding what the world is like, and therefore, [00:18:30] how we should live within it.
Trevor Burrus: Before we move on to her moral philosophy, since we’re on metaphysics and epistemology, I want to ask you about something that I’ve heard Randians and objectivists say quite often, which is A equals A. There’s a particular … Even there’s a sort of notorious, at least for me, Leonard Peikoff interview on Bill O’Reilly, about 15 years ago during the outset of the Iraq War I believe. And they’re talking about bombing Iran I think. And [00:19:00] O’Reilly asks him some questions, “What if this happened?” And Peikoff’s answer is, “Well what if A didn’t equal A?” I’ve heard this sort of response, as like it’s a very strange way of answering a criticism, “What if A didn’t equal A?” Why is that something that Randians commonly say?
Eamonn Butler: Let me just go through this. There are sort of basic axioms she says. First, we know that things exist. Our brains make us aware that there’s a world out there. [00:19:30] We don’t necessarily know the exact nature, how they behave, but we know they’re there. So to her, she says existence exists. Secondly, we’re aware that things exist. We perceive them, so there must be something out there because we can’t be conscious of nothing. We have to be conscious of something. So we know that there’s something out there. And third, to be something, she says, implies that that thing has an identity. It has a collection of qualities [00:20:00] that distinguish it as a particular thing and not something else.
So a tree has particular characters that you and I don’t have. A tree has roots that go into the ground and so on, and we don’t, and has leaves and we don’t. It has a whole variety of characteristics which other things don’t have. So that brings her back to … Again, goes back to Aristotle. The idea [00:20:30] that existence is identity. That something is what it is, it can’t be anything else. And that is what she calls the Law of Identity. I’m very skeptical of this line of reasoning myself. I think that this is about words rather than things, and it’s about how we try to identify things. And quite often, we get it wrong. So is there [00:21:00] something that is specific out there? It’s got certain, irredeemable, irreducible qualities and somehow we get to know that? Or do we just have to make a guess? And often there are deep boundaries.
What’s the distance between a stool and a chair? Well, a chair has a back, but suppose it’s only a small back. Is that still a chair? Or does it then become a stool. And it just depends on how we choose to think about these things and how we find it convenient [00:21:30] to refer to them. It’s not necessarily something which is kind of out there and objective. So that’s the sort of criticism that people would make of her argument.
Trevor Burrus: Moving into her morality, so we have the three basic questions of philosophy. What is there? How do we know about it? And what do you do about it? Metaphysics, epistemology, and moral. So where did she go after saying there is reality, we have awareness of it, and we can use reason? What does that mean for what you should do [00:22:00] about things? About your life?
Eamonn Butler: Yes, well, moral values and actions are extremely important to human beings according to Rand because uniquely among living things, we have the ability to choose how we behave, how we treat others, and the virtues and ideals to which we aspire. So if we’re going to make good moral choices, we need to make another choice, which is to think objectively. [00:22:30] That is to use our reason and focus it on establishing what she says is the true nature of things, without evading, without drifting, or without getting confused. And where she boils that down, she says, “Well, what is the ends to which people should live?” And the answer is life. That’s our highest value. That’s what we’re aiming for.
By what principle should we act in order to achieve [00:23:00] that end of life? Well, the answer is use our reason, use your brain. And who should we focus our actions at improving? Whose life are we talking about here? Who should profit from your actions? And the answer is yourself. Not anybody else. So her view is that in order to be consistent with this world, we should be pursuing life, we should be using reason to work out [00:23:30] how to achieve life, and the person that we’re doing this for is basically ourselves, not for other people.
Aaron Powel: One thing that I often find puzzling about this aspect of Rand’s moral theory, and I know that this is an issue that there’s some debate on among Rand scholars, is this life as the standard of value. Because she has a very robust [00:24:00] and expansive moral theory that says there are certain kinds of things you ought to do, and there are certain ways that you ought to behave, and it’s wrong to behave in other ways. But it’s not entirely clear to me how that stuff can be derived just from the notion of life or survival.
So I mean, to put it … The very obvious counter-example would be there have been billions and billions of people who have lived very long lives, and didn’t know [00:24:30] about or didn’t follow Rand’s moral rules. And so it’s not clear that the relationship between following the rules of objectivism and living, because clearly there are non-objectivists who still live. So is there something more to just … Is this not just a mere survival standard? Is there something more like a baked in, to put in Aristotelian terms, like a flourishing, or a Eudemonia, or like a life that is the right kind of life?
Eamonn Butler: [00:25:00] Well, she says you should live according to your rational self-interest. And the important thing there is rational. She doesn’t advocate that people should just dissolve into hedonism and drink alcohol and smoke cigars and act in ways that are irresponsible. She says you need to work out what is right for you in the [00:25:30] long term. And your ultimate value might be life, but there are things that you have to do in order to achieve that in the long term. And your long term happiness, another important factor for her, depends upon doing the right things, if you like, the rational things, rather than just doing whatever comes into your head, and so, “It would be nice [00:26:00] to do this today? Why don’t I just do this and get myself completely blind drunk, or get myself onto heroin and have a nice day?”
Because in the long term, that is damaging for you and it will achieve the opposite of what you want to achieve. But I think, again, you’ve got it quite right that this … The life standard is a difficult one, because most moral decisions that we make [00:26:30] aren’t matters of life and death. It may be that you could say, “Well, we really ought to be honest, because if we weren’t honest, then in the long run, we’d never get on together and we’d never be able to do anything. We would die because we couldn’t cooperate.” [inaudible 00:26:45] That may be true, but in a particular instance, “Okay, I’ve taken something from my young son because I think it’s bad for him. And he asks where it is. What’ll [00:27:00] I do? Do I say it’s lost or do I say I’ve taken it from you because I think it’s bad for you?”
Well, you lie. Parents do. And in many cases, you have to lie. Now is that good or is it bad? Is it pro-life or anti-life? Well, it’s really difficult to say. That a little thing like that, telling a fib to your son for his own best interest is a difficult to say something like that is a matter [00:27:30] of life and death. But this is Rand’s ultimate standard.
Trevor Burrus: When she says selfishness, she has a book called The Virtue of Selfishness, a collection of essays. And a lot of people take that and read a bunch into it and say that that means you will do anything whatsoever to preserve your life like, I don’t know, George Costanza on Seinfeld or something, not even care about anyone else. But what does she mean by selfishness in her … We kind [00:28:00] of got into it a little bit, but in her specific definition of that term?
Eamonn Butler: Well, what she means is pursuing your own values. Now, your values are not necessarily simply your own life and welfare. It may be, as she said herself when her husband died, “I had lost my greatest value.” So there are other things, other people are important to you. Principles are important to [00:28:30] you. The fact that the world is working in some particular way is important to you, and people will spend a lot of time and energy and effort in trying to convince people of political philosophies or clean up the planet or tell people that they shouldn’t throw litter, and all sorts of things like that, because these are very high values to them.
And in many cases, the welfare of other people is a high value. And [00:29:00] I think that one of the criticisms I would make, Rand, she tends to draw human beings as rather individualists, whereas we have grown up as a social species. And the welfare of other people is actually very important to us. So it’s important how other people live and how we get on with other people, and their happiness and life is important to [00:29:30] us. Well, she says, “If that’s important to you, that’s what you should actually be focusing on.” So it’s your values that you should focus on, not necessarily your own life, because if you lose your greatest value, you may conclude that your life now has no meaning. So in many cases, suicide for example, is perfectly rational on the Rand thinking. [00:30:00] So it’s your individual values that count.
Trevor Burrus: Well, so on the flip side of that, she has a specific definition of altruism too, which she views as an evil in the way she defines it. But as you point out, it doesn’t mean just caring about people, which it’s okay to care about people if it’s your values. It means something else.
Eamonn Butler: Yes, that’s right. Yes. What her worry about altruism, she has many worries about altruism, [00:30:30] but she thinks it’s an evil actually. She thinks that the prevailing morality in religion, and many other forms of reality, they urge us to live for the benefit of others rather than ourselves. They praise self-sacrifice. And they say that self-serving, things that benefit you, are immoral. And that means, [00:31:00] she says, that the standard of morality then is not the value of the action itself, but the identity of who benefits. And according to that, serving others is good, serving yourself is bad.
And she says on that criteria, there’s really nothing to choose between gangsters and business people. They’re both evil because they’re both self-interested. And she thinks that that’s just, of course, completely wrong. There is a big difference between gangsters and business people. Gangsters exploit [00:31:30] other people through violence and force, and business people enrich other people through voluntary exchange. There’s no moral equivalence at all. And she says you shouldn’t confuse altruism with kindness, goodwill, or respect for others. We can all do that. It’s core demand is self-sacrifice which means self-denial. So that, if you like, makes morality everybody’s enemy. To be moral, you [00:32:00] have to do what’s bad for you. She says that’s no way to live, and it’s certainly not consistent with the way we’re created and the way the world works.
Aaron Powel: How do we get from that to then … You said so like the problem with gangsters is that they exploit other people for their own ends. But how is that wrong within this system as it’s set out? Because if I’m morally obligated to do what’s of value to me, [00:32:30] there may be instances where I could say, “Steal something from Trevor,” because then it will enable me to do something that fulfills my principles or my values more. So why should I respect rights in this system? Especially when respecting rights in a given instance would be harmful to me?
Eamonn Butler: Yeah. She draws the line at force. It’s the use of force which she thinks is one of the greatest [00:33:00] evils. That we can get along very well by mutual cooperation and just simply getting along with each other. When you start to use force, then there’s no end to it. And that way lies tyranny, and being brought up in the early Soviet Union, that’s not the place that she wants to be. She sees a world which is [00:33:30] morally superior in that it doesn’t have … It’s not founded on force. That’s why she is so pro-capitalism, so pro laissez faire capitalism, because there’s no force involved. It’s entirely voluntary. You trade with people or you don’t trade with people. It’s up to you. So what she’s against is people being told that they have to make a sacrifice to others, and certainly being forced to make a sacrifice to others, [00:34:00] that to her, I think, is the greatest evil. It’s use of force, and there’s [inaudible 00:34:07] once you start on that road, there’s no limit.
Trevor Burrus: This defense of capitalism that comes from her and objectivists, it has a little bit of a different flavor. We put together the pieces here, metaphysics to epistemology, reason, self-interest. But what we get from capitalism here is less, “Hey, capitalism is good because it helps the poor the best. [00:34:30] Or because it makes goods cheaper.” Or some sort of instrumental consequentialist argument.
Aaron Powel: It creates wealth.
Trevor Burrus: It creates wealth. It’s something much more like, “Capitalism is good because it is the moral truth of a human flourishing life. And creating value and pursuing your own ends, in like a heroic fashion, is what makes it good.” Which is why sometimes Randians get mad when you use instrumental or [00:35:00] consequentialist justifications for capitalism. They get mad at us a lot.
Eamonn Butler: I think both should be applauded quite frankly. Any defense of capitalism is good these days. To Rand, if you want a rational economic system, economics is really the science of applying social principles to production, if you like. That if you want a rational economic system, it’s got to be rooted [00:35:30] in the nature of the world, the nature of ourselves. And to be moral, it’s got to respect our basic rights. And it’s certainly got to avoid force. And the only system that does that, according to Rand, is laissez faire capitalism, capitalism without government intervention.
Because only capitalism respects people’s property rights, and that makes it the only moral system. Also then, moral social system, capitalism is a social system, [00:36:00] because it respects people’s rights and their values and their right to have their own values. A capitalist in a capitalist society, you can still value art, or science, or literature above material goods. It doesn’t make you focus only on money. People decide their own priorities. But in terms of production, that’s the rational way. And I think you are right. I think that her defense of capitalism [00:36:30] is intriguing because it was so fresh and new. And that she certainly argued that nobody had to sacrifice anything under capitalism, and she saw that production itself was a virtue because it was creative.
And in her novels it’s … She applauds business people because they create something of value. Value doesn’t grow on trees, you have to create [00:37:00] it. And capitalism is very good at creating effective, efficient producers. And it’s encourages, the freedom that is allowed in capitalism, encourages people to use their minds and apply their minds to problems. So she’s very much in favor of capitalism as the only moral system. But also, I think she does say that it actually produces the goods. There is a bit of a tension, you’re right, and [00:37:30] people have debated this, you’re right. But she actually, if you look at her writings, I think that she says both. Firstly, it’s a moral system. But secondly, looking at her writings and articles in particular on say Britain … Sorry, on America and Russia. She’s saying the capitalist system is better. It’s producing more. It’s doing better with people. People are richer. So she is looking at the results as well as looking [00:38:00] at the philosophy of it.
Aaron Powel: It seems like there might be a tension here between her moral prohibitions on force and coercion. That once you allow those in, you’re on your way to tyranny, and her rejection of anarchism. Because we spend a lot of time on Free Thoughts talking about the justifications for [00:38:30] and the nature of the state, and the state is effectively, by definition, is a group of people who have been empowered to or entitled to use force and coercion against other people. And so the anarchist would say, “If you’re opposed to those things, then you have to be opposed to the state.” But she was pretty strongly not an anarchist. So how did she rectify that? Is that a tension? And if it is, how did she rectify it?
Eamonn Butler: Yes. You’re right, she was [00:39:00] very critical of anarchism. And famously split from Murray Rothbard, the sort of great thinker on anarcho-capitalism. She rejected the idea that we don’t need government at all, because she thought that that would expose us to predation by criminals. And her view was, “We can’t be rational, we can’t think, we can’t [00:39:30] create, we can’t produce if we are living in fear that other people are going to steal our things or assault us and take our property or our lives.”
So we can’t live as rational human beings if we are living in fear, having to carry arms with us, having to fortify our homes, and to form gangs for our own protection. Having a state of some sort, she [00:40:00] believed, sent out a signal that there’s no point in initiating force, because force would be returned. And to her, the sole purpose of the state was to make sure that using force wasn’t worthwhile because the state had more force and it would flatten you if you tried it.
So yes, I think this is … It is very difficult because again, many people will have [00:40:30] argued that, “Well, once you start saying, ‘Well, we need a state,’ well, where does that stop?” Because we’ve seen in the past that countries like the United States for example have started a fairly small government with a specific aim, and now, it does just about everything, frankly. And lots and lots and lots of things that it shouldn’t do and which can’t be justified under its founding principles. So I think that is [00:41:00] a bit of a problem in Rand. She calls herself a radical for capitalism rather than an anarchist, simply because she thought that anarchism just precluded her in the state entirely, and that you couldn’t live without something which would protect you. Of course, Murray Rothbard would say, “No, that’s no problem at all. People just get together and they hire people to protect them, just as they hire people to unblock their drains or fix their electricity.”
Trevor Burrus: If [00:41:30] you look at her books, as you mentioned, especially The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, the heroes are makers. They’re people making things for some reason, trains are a really big deal in Atlas Shrugged. And there are architects, and there are people who are takers who are parasites who want to take what they produce. This leads to a criticism, especially in these sort of fraught inequality times. We’re [00:42:00] talking about inequality a lot, that therefore it implies that the distribution of wealth that results from a capitalist system is morally justified. That the people who have a lot of money at the top deserve it because they’re titans of industry, and they’re making things, and they’re heroic beings. And the people who don’t deserve it because they’re not heroic beings. And this is something you hear from Robert Reich I think made a criticism [00:42:30] recently, “This is exactly what Mitt Romney’s worldview is and what Paul Ryan’s worldview is. There are makers and there are takers.” Is that a fair criticism or description of the implications of her views?
Eamonn Butler: I think it’s a fair description, yes. I think that … I mean, Nozick puts it … Nozick, philosopher, puts it quite well. He says, “Take a basketball star or something, and people want to see this person play, [00:43:00] so they pay a few dollars, and they go to the stadium, and they watch the game, and they are each a few dollars poorer, and the basketball star is many thousands of dollars richer.” But nobody has acted in an unjust way. Nobody had been forced to do anything, so even if they started equal in terms of their incomes or wealth, they haven’t finished equal.
But if nobody’s [00:43:30] acted unjustly, how can that result in distribution be unjust itself? And so Rand, I think though, focuses really more on those heroes themselves. Her heroes are individualists. They live by their own creative talent, so they produce things that which of course benefit all of us. They exist for nobody else but themselves. They don’t ask other people to exist for them. They’re rebels. [00:44:00] They don’t conform to social norms, but they stand by their own vision, and they understand their own version of truth in their minds. They understand it and they build their vision and their values, their vision on those values and on that truth. And facts and reason are not on the forced authority of others.
So they’re creative minds. And that means they’re discovering new things. They’re discovering new knowledge. They innovate, and therefore [00:44:30] they drive progress. And that, consequently, benefits all humanity. And you can’t do that, of course, if you’re … You can’t force people to do that, creativity depends upon being free to act and think, and this is why she’s so strong on capitalism as a moral system. It leaves you free to think, free to act, and then you … Yes, you pursue your own values, and you benefit accordingly. Of course, it may be, and [00:45:00] I’ve know a lot of very rich people, and indeed they’re so rich they can’t actually … They don’t have time to spend what it is they’ve made.
So what do they do? The answer is that they set up charitable foundations, or they do other things in order to use that money. And to promote causes which thereby promote their own values. If Bill Gates thinks it’s important to wipe out malaria in the developing world, he gives is fortune to causes like that, [00:45:30] and in so doing, benefits a lot of people in the developing world.
Trevor Burrus: What do you think is the biggest … I mean, it depends on which side it’s coming from of course, but the biggest misconception of Rand? There’s a ton of them. She kind of operates as a figure that can sort of put everyone, like I said, Paul Ryan and everyone that believes in capitalism, for many people on the left are just unrepentant Randians who want the poor to die. But all these kind of misconceptions are out there. What do you think is the most pernicious [00:46:00] one?
Eamonn Butler: Yes. I think it’s that, that life is all about selfishness. The language is unfortunate. We can’t really have anything which is simple, but that expresses what’s she’s trying to get it. What she’s trying to get at is we should live for ourselves. Now, we’re complicated creatures, and yes, we do actually value what others think and what others do and so on. And we value some people [00:46:30] more than we value others. But we should live for those values, and in doing that, we will actually create a better world and create a better human society.
Because we will be encouraging the things that ought to be encouraged, and we will be discouraging the things that should be discouraged. And her objection to traditional morality, she says it’s all about self-sacrifice, you help other people and think of them first. No, that simply [00:47:00] encourages people to take advantage of other people. It encourages them to make themselves worse off. They can get the benefits of being worse off and get other people to shower them with money, or they want the government to shower them with money.
So we want to encourage people to be independent, strong-minded, but at the same time, good citizens. And that is actually her idea of selfishness. But because [00:47:30] the word has traditionally meant something different, people think, “Oh, it’s all devil take the high most, capitalism waiting tooth and claw, no regard for other people.” It’s not that at all.
Aaron Powel: We live in a rather different world from the one Ayn Rand lived in when she wrote The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. So what value … I mean, you just published a book about the ideas of Ayn Rand. What [00:48:00] value do you think she still has today? And what do you think her legacy will be?
Eamonn Butler: Well, I think that … On many levels, I think probably, that there’s a sort of philosophical level, and then there are more practical levels. And so on the philosophical level, the fact that she worked out a way to integrate so many different parts of her philosophy I think is quite interesting, [00:48:30] and new, and radically different. And she brought, and brings new ideas on life, on personal morality, on politics and economics, all based, she says, on reason. Using your mind. Now that’s actually a very powerful idea that it’s not about what you happen to like. It’s about what works, what you can work out about the world. It’s [00:49:00] an objective morality rather than just one that you just [inaudible 00:49:04] because it sounds good, or you came across it in a book.
And that’s what, to her, the virtue of selfishness. And the same in politics and economics as well. That these are political systems that are founded on rational principles. And I think another thing I would say that she [00:49:30] is remembered for is really her sort of robustness, that she believes all this so strongly, and that there’s no gray in Ayn Rand. You either use your reason or you’re revolting against reason and you’re all over the place. She’s an absolutist only in the sense of she’s absolute about reality. And that, although it causes her views to be seen more [00:50:00] like a religion sometimes than a philosophy. But at the same time, it’s very robust when it comes to arguing these things.
And so often, we argue about markets, and choice, and competition and all of these things, and people on the other side say, “Oh, well that’s just your view.” But no, she’s able to rooted in something to say, “No, this is actually all part of a salient system, and it’s a rational system.” Very difficult for people to argue against that.
Aaron Powel: [00:50:30] Free Thought is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoyed today’s show, please rate and review us on iTunes. And if you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, find us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.