essays

Aug 30, 2017

An Objectivist Case for Libertarianism

Despite her disavowal of the label “libertarian,” Ayn Rand’s ethics provide a justification for libertarian political institutions.

Ayn Rand was born in 1905 in precommunist Russia, and lived through both the Kerensky and the Bolshevik revolutions. Communists expropriated her father’s pharmacy, leaving the family to endure many hard times and the young Rand to learn firsthand the evils of totalitarianism. Rand decided to be a fiction writer when she was nine years old. Her greatest literary influences were Victor Hugo, for what she later called his “romantic realism,” and Fyodor Dostoevsky, for his psychological acuity.

Rand fell in love with the West she saw in American and European movies, and America became her model of a free country when she studied its history in high school. She immigrated to the United States in 1926, where she honed her English language abilities by writing screen plays, short stories, and plays. She eventually published four best-selling novels and innumerable essays, comments, and columns.

To understand Rand’s ethical and political philosophy, one must read not only her nonfiction but also her fiction. We the Living shows how totalitarianism exalts the worst and destroys the best. The Fountainhead depicts the ideal man as one of vision and integrity—a man who lives firsthand and succeeds in overcoming the forces of ignorance and mediocrity. Atlas Shrugged provides both a glimpse of an ideal world, Atlantis, and a slow-motion look at the gradual disintegration of a society governed by the “aristocracy of pull”: bureaucrats and mediocre businessmen and intellectuals in a perpetual game of favors, counterfavors, and threats, out to destroy those who engage in “unfair” competition by excelling at their work without any political favors.

It is partly due to her novels that Rand has the influence she does outside the academy. It is also partly due to her novels that she lacks such influence inside the academy. Whereas many people find her depiction of heroic characters inspiring, many others find it wooden and unconvincing. Her nonfiction, too, divides readers. Some are persuaded by her genuine insights and polemical style; others are put off by her style and the lack of awareness of possible objections to her arguments. They are also put off by her misinterpretations and snap judgments of most philosophers.

Rand calls her philosophy “Objectivism” to emphasize the importance of recognizing (a) that reality is “an objective absolute,” existing independently of our wishes or fears, and (b) that reason, rather than feelings or revelation, is our only means of knowledge and survival.1 The name Objectivism also emphasizes the importance of recognizing that values are objective rather than subjective or intrinsic. Subjectivism holds that values are determined wholly by our wishes and desires independent of the nature of the external world, whereas intrinsicism holds that they are inherent in the external world, independent of our nature.2 By contrast, Objectivism holds that values depend both on our nature as rational beings and on the nature of the external world in which we live.

In ethics, Rand advocates ethical egoism—the view that we need morality for our own good, rather than for the general good or for others’ good. She also argues that ethical egoism is the indispensable foundation of liberty, because liberty is needed for our own survival and happiness as rational beings who think and act by choice. The only alternative to ethical egoism, she claims, is altruism, whose essence is self-sacrifice, and we don’t need liberty in order to sacrifice our lives and happiness. This is not, of course, the standard understanding of altruism in the academic literature, where altruism is usually defined as doing something for another for that person’s sake but not necessarily at the expense of one’s own rational desires or goals. Rand’s conception of ethical egoism also differs from contemporary conceptions. I will begin by explaining this conception and then will proceed to discuss her defense of liberty, capitalism, and the minimal state.

According to ethical egoism, moral principles and virtues tell us what sort of person to be and how to act in order to advance our own good. But what if advancing our own good requires us to trample over other people? One form of ethical egoism says, “Well, then, you ought to trample over other people.” But a world of such egoists would soon end up killing each other. And an ethical theory that leaves those who practice it dead is neither very egoistic nor very ethical. It is no wonder then that this is not what Rand means by ethical egoism.3 What, then, does she mean? Elsewhere I have argued that Rand’s essays and novels support more than one interpretation, but here I will limit myself to the most plausible one.4

Rand argues that ethics “is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life” and that it is “an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival.”5 By this statement, Rand means not merely physical survival but “survival qua man,” that is, “the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan—in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice.”6 The ultimate goal for every individual is his or her own survival and happiness. But since every individual rightfully has this goal, every individual’s pursuit of it has to be compatible, in principle, with other individuals’ pursuits of their ultimate goals. The “human good,” she declares, “does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone.”7

In what sense, however, is survival or happiness through immoral means not a “human good”? Since only human beings act immorally, it seems that the good achieved through immoral means is very much a human good. Further, why can’t one person’s good be achieved by sacrificing another person’s? Countless people have gained their wealth and eminence through fraud or violence. The answer to these questions is that Rand is thinking of “human good,” “survival qua man,” and “happiness” in partly moralized terms even though she never acknowledges this point.

Happiness, according to Rand, is the existentially and psychologically “successful state of life.” It is “a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt,” achievable only by “the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions.” 8 Happiness here is not a feeling we have episodically but an objectively worthwhile and emotionally positive state of life—what Aristotle calls eudaimonia. Rand holds that the pursuit of happiness is inseparable from the activity of maintaining one’s life through the rational pursuit of rational goals.9

Because rationality is a virtue—indeed, the chief virtue that entails all the other virtues—the rational pursuit of rational goals makes virtue partly constitutive of the ultimate goal of survival qua man and happiness. (Note that, unlike virtuous acts, virtue as such is a character trait, an evaluative disposition to characteristically think, feel, and act in certain ways. Rand never makes this explicit, but she depicts it clearly enough in her portraits of her fictional heroes.) But doesn’t the view that virtue is partly constitutive of the ultimate goal of survival and happiness contradict her oft-repeated claim that virtue is not an end in itself but a means or instrument to survival and happiness? For reasons I give now, the answer is “not necessarily.”

Sometimes when a philosopher says that virtue or morality is an end in itself, he means that it has no necessary connection to anything else that we care about: happiness, survival, or the things that produce or enable them. Kant is the foremost defender of this position. Morality is one thing, and the goods of this world another. Rand is surely right that in this sense virtue is not an end in itself—or that, if it were, practically no one would care about it. Sometimes, however, when a philosopher says that virtue is an end in itself, he means that it is partly constitutive of the ultimate end of a good human life, without denying that virtue also has instrumental value. This position is defended by Aristotle and neo-Aristotelians. Roderick Long and I have argued in other work that this is also the position supported by many of Rand’s statements and by her depiction of her heroes.10

Virtue is clearly partly constitutive of the happiness of her heroes, who often risk death and suffering for the sake of their moral principles, because the alternative—betraying their principles—would be even worse for them. Human happiness does require success in one’s worthwhile projects, but even more importantly, it requires a sense of justified pride in oneself, and justified pride requires virtue. This is why The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark can be seen as acting in his self-interest when he turns down commissions that would have made him the wealthiest and most sought-after architect in the country—but only at the price of his architectural vision. Roark chooses integrity over this kind of success.

The heroes of Atlas Shrugged renounce even more when they withdraw from the world. In both novels, Rand’s heroes ultimately succeed in work and love, because it is an important part of Rand’s project to show that, in a decent society, virtue is efficacious, that it helps us to succeed in our worthwhile goals.

This interpretation of Rand’s view of virtue as both instrumental to, and partly constitutive of, happiness is, as we’ll see, also the only interpretation that is compatible with Rand’s defense of liberty and individual rights.

Liberty

Rand’s argument for liberty is rights-based rather than consequentialist or contractarian. In other words, her argument is based on the premise that we all have rights by our very nature as beings who must choose to think and act, rather than on the premise that liberty brings about the best consequences or that people have agreed, or would agree, to a system of liberty.

At the same time, Rand holds that, in fact, a system of liberty would bring about the best consequences and that, partly for this reason, people would agree to it. Individuals are ends in themselves, not means to others’ ends. As such, they are entitled to lead their life and pursue their happiness as they see fit, so long as they don’t forcibly interfere with others’ like pursuit.11

Rand argues that a right is “a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”12 “A right is that which can be exercised without anyone’s permission.”13 All that is needed for freedom of action is the absence of physical coercion or fraud by others—including the government. All rights, thus, are negative, requiring of others nothing other than noninitiation of force or fraud.

Like other conceptions of rights, Rand’s is also hierarchical. She states,

There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)14

And again,

Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival… . If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man’s rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.15

Rand is making three highly significant points here, two absolutely necessary to liberty, the third possibly fatal. The first point is that rights are claims to take certain actions without interference rather than to be given things. They are claims to liberty of action, not to whatever I might need or think I need—even if I need it for acting. This is entailed by the very concept of negative rights. For example, to earn a living I might need a car, and I have a right to acquire a car in a peaceful exchange with someone who wants to sell me a car. If I can’t find anyone who wants to sell me one I can afford, I can try to borrow money or beg for a free car. If I’m lucky, I’ll succeed in one of these attempts. But if I don’t, it’s too bad. I have no “positive” right to a car just because I need one.

An individual’s right is an enforceable claim against others—a claim that the government is obligated to enforce. The view that I have a positive right to a car implies that the government ought to coerce others into providing me with a car. But such coercion, even if it is indirect, through taxation, violates others’ negative rights to be left alone so long as they are not aggressing or committing fraud against me. Positive rights are incompatible with negative rights. Hence, I don’t have a right to a car, only to take the (rights-respecting) actions necessary for acquiring one.

The second point Rand is making about rights is that rights are held by individuals, because their function is the protection of the individual’s freedom from interference by other individuals, groups, or government. So-called collective or group rights are a negation of individual rights, because they are nothing more than some individuals’ power to force other individuals to obey their edicts. Individual rights are held against the collective—“the expression ‘collective rights’ is a contradiction in terms.”16 Indeed, the “principle of individual rights is the only moral base of all groups or associations.”17

The third point Rand is making is that all rights are rights to actions that we need to take, as rational beings, for our own life and happiness. This is the problematic claim, for it entails that we have no right to take actions that are inimical to our life and happiness.18 And if we have no such rights, then we may be forcibly prevented from doing things that are bad for us. Suppose, for example, that I have inherited a tidy sum of money, and now just want to enjoy the easy pleasures of lying around drinking beer, watching sitcoms, and snorting coke. My behavior is clearly self-destructive and irrational. So if all rights are rights to actions that we need to take, as rational beings, for our own life and happiness, Rand’s view implies that it’s not a violation of my rights for the government (or concerned individuals) to force me to do something more worthwhile, such as studying or working, under threat of punishment. But this is not a very rights-respecting view, and a society in which such coercion is practiced is not a very rights-respecting society. And Rand’s conception of a proper government as a limited government also entails that such coercion is impermissible. She argues that a proper government must be confined to only two tasks: (a) protecting us from domestic and foreign violence and fraud and (b) settling disputes according to objective laws. There is no room in her night-watchman conception of the state for paternalistic or moral legislation allowing the government to coercively prevent people from self-destructive or immoral behavior.

How, then, can we reconcile this view of the proper role of government with Rand’s claim that “[r]ights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival,” where “are” is the “are” of identity? One possibility is that in saying this, she is thinking of what gives rise to rights and what makes them valuable to most of us.19 It seems undeniable that if human beings had been incapable of valuing their own—or anyone else’s—proper survival or happiness, we would have been incapable of valuing rights. Again, if human beings had been incapable of thinking and acting long range, if it had been in our nature to always act impulsively, we would have been incapable of living by principles, or even of conceiving of them. Hence, since rights are principles sanctioning an individual’s freedom of action, we would have had no rights or even a concept of rights. But the fact that the capacity for thinking and acting long range, valuing our own or others’ proper survival and happiness, is essential for having rights doesn’t entail that rights must be limited to the freedom to take the actions that are rationally necessary for our life and happiness, period. Take, for example, the couch potato described above. A couch potato has the capacity to think and act long range, to value his long-term survival and happiness, even if his actions are irrational and self-destructive. This capacity is enough to make him a rights bearer. Respecting his rights may or may not do him any good, but it does respect him as an autonomous being responsible for his own life. A society that respects people’s rights respects even the couch potato’s rights.

Other statements by Rand show her recognition that what matters is liberty, whether it’s exercised rationally or irrationally, so long as the exercise does not violate anyone else’s rights. As she declares, “[A] right is the moral sanction of … [the individual’s] freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice.”20 Again, freedom is said to be “the fundamental requirement of man’s mind” because “the choice to exercise his rational faculty or not depends on the individual.”21 She does not say that freedom is needed only for making rational judgments, or only for exercising one’s rational faculty.22 But Rand is, at best, inconsistent on this point.

Turning now to the other specific rights that human beings have, two of the most important are freedom of speech and property. As with other rights, the right to free speech “means freedom from interference, suppression or punitive action by the government—and nothing else.”23 It does not mean the right to be given a podium or newspaper in order to express one’s views or, for that matter, the right to be given an appreciative audience. The right to property is “the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values”24—not a right to have property, but simply a right to act to gain it, and once gained, to use it or sell it or give it away. And all these actions must themselves be respectful of other people’s rights. A diamond ring gained by theft does not become the thief ’s property, no matter how hard he had to work for it or how ingenious his plan. Nor does the right to use one’s property mean that one may use it in ways that violate the rights of others. For example, if I live in an apartment, I have no right to play my radio as loudly as possible at 1:00 a.m., thus disturbing my neighbors’ sleep.25

The next question is: Why should we respect each other’s rights? It’s good for me that other people respect my rights to my life, liberty, and happiness, but how is it good for me to respect their rights? On an egoist ethics, it has to be good for me to be justified. One answer is the instrumental answer given by the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes: we should respect others’ rights because we can’t hope to get away with violating them. But this answer is not enough because there are times when we can get away with it.

Rand adds another reason: immorality requires self-deception, which, in turn, leads to psychological conflict and, if pursued as a policy, a sense of emptiness. But for many people, an occasional deception or worse causes no psychological conflict, and for too many people even the policy of deceiving, defrauding, or robbing others for the sake of their own goals causes no conflict or sense of emptiness. Given the variability of human nature, this conclusion should not be surprising. Moreover, surely we ought to respect others’ rights because they have rights and not because it might be psychologically bad for us.

Here again, Rand’s neo-Aristotelian conception of survival qua man and of happiness comes to the rescue. To live a life proper to a human being requires living virtuously, and each virtue is defined partly in terms of a recognition and acceptance of some fact or facts, an acceptance understood by the agent to be indispensable for gaining, maintaining, or expressing his or her ultimate value: a happiness worth having. For example, integrity is “the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake your consciousness,”26 a recognition that is expressed in loyalty to one’s rational values and convictions,27 and honesty is “the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake existence,” a recognition that is expressed in truthfulness in thought and speech.28 Justice is the recognition of the fact that we ought to give others their due and part of what is due them is respect for their rights.29

An important question about rights is whether they can conflict. Rand denies this possibility if they are properly defined as protections of freedom of action against physical force or fraud. So-called “positive rights” conflict with negative rights because they are claims to benefits for certain people at the expense of other people’s freedom of action. For example, my “positive right” to have you bake me a cake for my gay wedding conflicts with your (negative) right to refuse to participate in an act that you regard as being against your religion. It has been argued, however, that even negative rights can conflict. To use an earlier example, my right to use my property as I see fit seems to entail that I have a right to play loud music whenever I like, even though you also have a right not to be disturbed at 1:00 a.m. However, Rand would say that I don’t have such a right because the sound of the music is not confined to my property. To paraphrase the old saying, my right to play loud music at 1:00 a.m. ends where your ears begin.

Rand also argues that not only rights, but even rational interests, don’t conflict, at least in a free society.30 In her words, “[T]here is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.”31 This harmony of different people’s rational interests has been taken by some commentators to be essential for the existence of rights and a peaceful society.

But what is Rand’s argument for the proposition that rational interests don’t conflict? It seems that conflicts of rational interests abound. To take the case she herself considers: two people apply for a job, but only one gets it.32 Assuming that both are qualified, hasn’t the loser’s rational interest been frustrated because the other person got the job? True, the loser hasn’t been treated unfairly and hasn’t sacrificed his interests, as Rand points out, but this point is irrelevant to the question of a conflict between his rational interests and those of the other candidate.

Rand argues that, assuming that the employer was rational, the better person got the job. But what if the employer wasn’t rational—or not on this occasion? Or he was rational but made an innocent mistake of judgment about the better candidate? Quite apart from questions of rationality or vision, in a buyer’s market, employers often practically toss a coin to decide whom to hire, or do so on the basis of quite irrelevant factors, such as liking one applicant’s sense of humor better than the other’s. There is nothing irrational about this when two (or more) applicants turn out to be equally qualified. To take an even simpler case: I want that little doggie in the window, but so do you, and you get there first and buy him. Commonsensically, our interests conflict even though they are rational. The only way to remove the appearance of conflict is to declare retrospectively that I never had an interest in the little doggie. But this is just a “sour grapes” rationalization. Why would I have tried to get to the store to buy the little doggie, or felt disappointment when I failed to buy him, if I didn’t have an interest in him?

These criticisms, however, are compatible with Rand’s general point that acting dishonestly or unjustly in order to get the job—or the doggie—is not in our overall, ultimate interest. Better to break rock in a quarry, like Howard Roark, than to sell out. They are also compatible with the fact that rational interests do not necessarily—that is, by their very nature—conflict. The conflicts are contingent on extraneous factors, such as that there is only one job or one doggie for two rationally interested people. If rational interests necessarily conflicted, there would be no rights—indeed, there would be a war of all against all. But there is no good argument for Rand’s claim that rational interests cannot conflict. Nor does acknowledging that they can endanger the existence of rights.

Capitalism

Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.

—Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal

By “capitalism,” Rand means “a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez faire capitalism—with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.”33 Just as the state’s interference in religious matters and religion’s interference in state matters led to a corruption of both state and religion, so the state’s interference in economic matters and business lobbying for special favors has led to a corruption of both politics and business.

Capitalism is the “politico-economic expression of the principle that a man’s life, freedom, and happiness are his by moral right”—that is, of the principle of ethical egoism.34 The doctrine of individual rights recognizes this principle by protecting people’s freedom to pursue their own interests, so long as they respect the rights of others to do the same. It recognizes that no one may be forced to sacrifice her- or himself for the sake of the nation or society, or for another individual.

By Rand’s definitions, no so-called capitalist society is genuinely capitalist. At best, contemporary societies are mixed, with elements of capitalism and socialism or fascism in the brew.35 In a pure capitalist society, force may be used only in retaliation against the one who initiates force; and, except when the threat is immediate, this retaliatory function is given to the government. Indeed, Rand describes the government as “the means of placing the retaliatory use of force under objective control.”36 The government may not, however, prevent people from making peaceful transactions or, for that matter, coerce them into making any particular transaction. But this is exactly what it does when it prevents, say, Uber and its would-be customers from making the contracts they want to make, or when it requires businesses to raise their minimum wage.

Capitalism is morally justified because it respects our rational nature by leaving us free to discover or create values, as well as to trade them to mutual benefit.37 Capitalism thus exemplifies the principle of justice. It also advances the common good by creating prosperity, but this, according to Rand, is not its justification. Ever focused on the creative mind, Rand holds that the ultimate driver of the economy is not the consumer (demand) but the innovator (supply). Contrary to imitators—those “who attempt to cater to what they think is the public’s known taste”—innovators continually raise “the public’s knowledge and taste to ever higher levels,”38 even if it takes time for the public to realize the value of the product.

An important example of such a revolutionary product from our own time is Steve Jobs’s computer, the Lisa. The Lisa failed to gain much market share, but Jobs’s Apple computers soon gained in popularity, beating out cheaper personal computers. However, Rand does not recognize that innovators can also use clever new methods to spread urban myths and debase taste in order to make money. Thus, although the Internet provides innovators with a platform to spread knowledge and advertise products that improve people’s lives, it also provides them with a platform to spread misinformation and advertise products that are overall harmful or encourage a debasement of taste. Of course, Rand might claim that anyone who does this is an imitator, not an innovator; but using clever new methods to make people more ignorant than they already are, or to debase their taste, is hard to see as imitative. It would therefore be more accurate to say that a capitalist economy offers innovators the opportunity to increase our knowledge and improve our taste—but it also offers them the opportunity to do the opposite.

Rand challenges the widespread view that capitalism leads to wars, on the grounds that capitalism “bans force from social relationships,” including relationships with the residents of other nations, by advocating free trade, “[that is], the abolition of trade barriers, of protective tariffs, of special privileges.”39 It is thus “the only system fundamentally opposed to war.” No wonder, then, that “capitalism gave mankind the longest period of peace in history—a period during which there were no wars involving the entire civilized world—from the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.”40 Although pure laissez faire capitalism has never existed, Rand believes that this period came closer to it than any before or since.

Rand is right that genuine capitalism creates conditions for peace by substituting free trade for war, but her statement that there were no wars “involving the entire civilized world” from 1815 to 1914 is problematic. For this is also the period in which European colonizers of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America maintainted their control by force. In other words, the more capitalist countries of Europe aggressed against the  non- or less-capitalist countries. And the most capitalist country, Britain, continued to do this at the same time that its industrialization was taking off. These countries departed from the peaceful principles of free trade to conquer, colonize, and exploit the peoples of poorer countries. What capitalism stands for is one thing; whether a capitalist country consistently adheres to its principles is another.

Rand argues that all freedoms—economic, personal, and political—stand or fall together, because coercing people in one sphere requires coercing them in others. Striking examples could be found in the slaveholding South. Slavery was, of course, the most egregious violation of the rights of enslaved individuals, but slavery also spawned violations of the rights of slaveholders and other whites. Most Southern states passed laws against manumission out of fear that freed blacks would subvert the slaveholding order and drafted young men to catch runaway slaves. They also censored speech, outlawing any talk of abolition. The North was freer not only economically but also politically and personally.

Still, economic and personal freedoms don’t always go hand in hand. The freer economy of the North did not prevent most Northern states from imposing legal segregation in public schools and public housing, or from prohibiting blacks from voting or from serving on juies. Many Northern and Western states barred the free entry of blacks from the South and outlawed sexual relations between blacks and whites.41 All these laws have been struck down now in our far less capitalist system.

Capitalism gradually extended the right of women to own property and participate as independent agents in the economy; but thanks to cultural changes, women have far more economic freedom now in our mixed economy than they did in the 19th century.

In matters of sexual preference and reproduction as well, people are far freer now than then. For example, before 1962, sodomy was a felony in every U.S. state, and anti-sodomy laws were struck down by the Supreme Court only in 2003. The federal Comstock Act of 1873 outlawed not only abortion but also contraception, and even dissemination of information about contraception. Most states had similar laws. The first open attempt at disseminating birth control information and devices was made only in 1916—that is, after the end of the period that Rand regards as the most economically free period. And abortion continued to be illegal until 1973.

To take another contemporary example, the Index of Economic Freedom often rates Singapore as one of the freest economies, but on measures of personal and political freedom, Singapore fares rather badly. Why “personal” freedoms and economic freedom so often fail to go hand in hand remains an open question.

Rand herself is a consistent defender of all freedoms. Writing about laws against birth control and abortion, she argues that they deny women as well as men the right “to their own life and happiness—the right not to be regarded as the means to any end”—in this case, procreation, like “stud-farm” animals.42 On racism, she writes that it is “the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage … . [It claims] that a man’s convictions, values and character are determined before he is born, by physical factors beyond his control.”43

The Minimal State vs. Anarchism

In a rights-respecting libertarian society, human relationships are voluntary. People are free to cooperate or go their own peaceful way, leaving others free to do likewise. In such a society, only retaliatory force against rights violators—those who initiate force or fraud—is permissible. But the right to retaliatory force cannot be left to every individual without risking chaos and a general breakdown of society. Except when the danger is imminent, we need to cede this right to the government, which Rand defines as “the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control—[that is], under objectively defined laws.”44

Since Rand believes that the only function of a government is to protect us from domestic or foreign aggression or fraud, she holds that all legislation must be limited to protection of our rights. The government has no right to prohibit people from peaceful activities on moral grounds (even if the activities are actually immoral), or to force them to support social programs for “the greater good.” To do so is to violate their rights to live their lives as they see fit. But a government can be prevented from overstepping its proper function only if it is tightly controlled by law—only if it is “a government of laws and not of men.”45 In a society with such a government, “a private individual may do anything except that which is legally forbidden; a government official may do nothing except that which is legally permitted.”46 This is the way to subordinate “might” to “right.”

Rand rejects the view that a free society must be anarchist on the grounds that without a government individuals would have to go around armed out of fear of attacks, or join gangs, and society would dissolve into gang warfare.47 Even if every person in a given society were “fully rational and faultlessly moral,” the society could not function as an anarchy, because there is always the possibility of honest disagreements, and their resolution requires “objective laws” and an arbiter that all sides can accept.48 In Atlas Shrugged, however, Rand depicts her utopia, Galt’s Gulch, as a society without a government: a “voluntary association of men held together by nothing but every man’s [rational] self-interest,” without any formal organization.49 There is a judge to arbitrate disagreements, although he has never been called on to arbitrate. Galt’s Gulch is, thus, an anarchist society, although Rand never calls it that. Perhaps Rand would say that a small community of like-minded people who know each other well and rely on each other for all their needs can conduct their own affairs peacefully and justly, but that this is too much to expect of people in a big society, even if they are all rational and committed to justice.

Anarchists charge, however, that a government holding a monopoly on retaliatory force is itself guilty of initiating force against the citizens who have to accept its rule, whether they consent to it or not. A monopoly government also initiates force against its would-be competitors. Because protecting rights by banning the initiation of force is the linchpin of Rand’s social morality, she is inconsistent to reject anarchism.50 Moreover, a territorial monopoly on law and force (government) is not necessary, because people can establish a just and effective legal system in a competitive market of security providers.51 The Law Merchant, a body of law established and enforced in private courts by the merchants of various countries in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, illustrates the possibility of an effective voluntary legal system.52

Rand rejects the idea of “competing governments” (more precisely, competing security agencies) because, she says, they are incompatible with a single, objective system of law and, thus, with rights and peaceful cooperation.53 Competing agencies will, or might, have competing systems of law, with no way of reconciling differences. This criticism is rejected by anarchists, who point out that most of Western law grew out of competitively evolved systems of law, such as Roman law, Anglo-Saxon law, and the Law Merchant. But even if Rand and other minimal statists are right that anarchism is impractical, they have no defense against the objection that a monopoly state is guilty of initiating force.

Conclusion

Crude ethical egoism is inconsistent with the unconditional obligation to respect others’ rights. But an egoism that sees virtue as partly constitutive of the individual’s good does not have this problem, and it is this sort of egoism that Rand defends in much of her writing. Like other defenders of negative rights, Rand sees rights as claims to freedom of action and not to desired or even desirable outcomes. Her defense of capitalism as an “unknown ideal” is distinctive by virtue of her insistence (a) that capitalism is the political-economic system in which there is a complete separation of the state and the economy and (b) that this separation is necessary for freeing the individual to pursue his own happiness by creating values and trading with others.

Rand argues that justice and peace require a state, but the state must be minimal, restricted to a protection of our rights. When it goes beyond this basic function, the state itself becomes a violator of rights.


  1. Ayn Rand, “Introducing Objectivism,” Objectivist Newsletter, August 1962, p. 35.
  2. Ayn Rand, “What Is Capitalism?” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: New American Library, 1967), pp. 21ff.
  3. Michael Huemer, however, attributes just this kind of egoism to Rand in “Critique of the ‘Objectivist Ethics’.”
  4. Neera K. Badhwar and Roderick T. Long, “Ayn Rand,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, rev. ed., (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2016).
  5. Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: New American Library, 1964), pp. 13, 23 [emphasis in original].
  6. Ibid., pp. 25, 27.
  7. Rand, “Objectivist Ethics,” p. 31 [emphasis in original].
  8. Ibid., pp. 27, 32.
  9. Ibid., pp. 29, 32.
  10. Neera K. Badhwar, Is Virtue Only a Means to Happiness? An Analysis of Virtue and Happiness in Ayn Rand’s Writings (Poughkeepsie, NY: Objectivist Center, 2001). Long takes a similar position. See Roderick T. Long, Reason and Value: Aristotle vs. Rand (Poughkeepsie, NY: Objectivist Center, 2000).
  11. Rand, “Introducing Objectivism,” p. 35.
  12. Rand, “Man’s Rights,” Virtue of Selfishness, p. 93.
  13. Ayn Rand, “Textbook of Americanism,” The Ayn Rand Column, rev. ed. (New Millford, CT: Second Renaissance Books, 1998), p. 83.
  14. Rand, “Man’s Rights,” p. 93.
  15. Galt’s speech, in Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Random House, 1963), p. 182.
  16. Rand, “Textbook of Americanism,” p. 83.
  17. Rand, “Collectivized ‘Rights,’” Virtue of Selfishness, p. 102.
  18. Several philosophers have made this criticism. For references, see Neera K. Badhwar and Roderick Long, “Ayn Rand.”
  19. Such a “genetic” query is an important aspect of Rand’s methodology. For example, she asks what gives rise to values, to the need for an ethical code, to the concept of justice, and so on.
  20. Rand, “Collectivized ‘Rights,’” Virtue of Selfishness, p. 102.
  21. Rand, “Capitalism,” p. 17 [emphasis added].
  22. Sometimes Rand thinks of irrationality as the failure to exercise one’s rational faculty rather than as a misuse of it.
  23. Rand, “The Fascist New Frontier,” Ayn Rand Column, p. 106.
  24. Rand, “Man’s Rights,” p. 93.
  25. See Ayn Rand, “The Left: Old and New,” Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (New York: Meridian, 1999), p. 167.
  26. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, 1957), p. 936.
  27. Rand, “The Ethics of Emergencies,” The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 46.
  28. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, pp. 936–37.
  29. Rand herself defines justice more narrowly as “the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature … that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly” (Galt’s speech, For the New Intellectual, p. 129). But the point she is making here is a special case of giving people what is due them, and human beings are due respect for their rights because they are rights bearers.
  30. Rand, “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests,” Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 50–56.
  31. Rand, “Objectivist Ethics,” p. 31 [emphasis in original].
  32. Rand, “Conflicts,” p. 50.
  33. Rand, “Objectivist Ethics,” p. 33.
  34. Rand, “Alienation,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 284.
  35. Under fascism, individuals own private property but the government controls their use of it through regulations; under socialism, the government controls property without having a title to it. See “Fascist New Frontier,” p. 98. Rand thought that America was more fascist than socialist (“The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus,” Capitalism).
  36. Rand, “Capitalism,” p. 19 [emphasis in original].
  37. Ibid., p. 24.
  38. Ibid., p. 25.
  39. Rand, “The Roots of War,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, pp. 38–39.
  40. Ibid. [emphasis in original].
  41. See Douglas Harper, Slavery in the North, 2003, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racial_segregation_in_the_United_States; Jason Sokol, “The North Isn’t Better Than the South: The Real History of Modern Racism and Segregation above the Mason-Dixon Line,” Salon, December 14, 2014; and “Anti-Miscegenation Laws.”
  42. Rand, “Of Living Death,” The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (New York: New American Library, 1990), pp. 55, 58–59 [emphasis in original].
  43. Rand, “Racism,” Virtue of Selfishness, p. 126.
  44. Rand, “The Nature of Government,” Virtue of Selfishness, p. 108 [emphasis in original].
  45. Ibid., p. 109.
  46. Ibid., p. 109. [emphasis in original].
  47. Ibid., p. 108.
  48. Ibid., p. 112 [emphasis in original].
  49. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 690.
  50. Roy Childs, “Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand,” reprinted in Liberty Against Power: Essays by Roy A. Childs, Jr., ed. J. Taylor (San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1969, 1994) and Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, revised edition (New York: Macmillan, 1978) [Rothbard 1978 available online (pdf)].
  51. Roderick T. Long, “Market Anarchism as Constitutionalism,” in Anarchism/ Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country? ed. Roderick T. Long and Tibor R. Machan (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008), pp. 133–54.
  52. Roderick T. Long, “Why Objective Law Requires Anarchy,” Formulations 6 (Autumn 1998).
  53. Rand, “Nature of Government,” p. 112.

This article has been revised since its publication in Arguments for Liberty.