Ayn (rhymes with "mine") Rand was born into a middle-class Russian-Jewish family in 1905. She lived through the Bolshevik Revolution, which left her with a lifelong hatred of Communism and, more generally, of collectivism: the subordination of the individual to the collective (whatever the nature of the collective -- class, race, "society," etc.). At a very early age she had determined to be a writer; once she had escaped to America, she set herself to the task.
Her first novel, We the Living (1936), drew on her experiences in the "workers' paradise." Anthem (1938) is a slim dystopian fable set in a future of collectivist stagnation and squalor, in which the word "I" has been banished from the language. The Fountainhead (1943), probably her best-known work, tells the story of an architect embodying Rand's own virtues of determination and independence. Finally, Atlas Shrugged (1957), an apocalyptic utopia, describes the collapse of civilization as the creators, the men of ability, go on strike against the masses.
With Atlas Shrugged, she burned her bridges to the nascent conservative movement: she and the conservatives excommunicated each other. She was an atheist, and conservatives still cling to the old religion; she preached a self-righteous egoism (which hardly seems strange or shocking today, for a generation raised on such notions as "self-esteem" and "self-realization"), while they clung to a religion-grounded altruism.
She went on to articulate the world-view underlying her novels as a philosophical system, which she called "Objectivism"; her associate, Nathaniel Branden, started an enterprise called the "Nathaniel Branden Institute" -- half publishing house, half church -- to provide guidance to her increasingly numerous followers. The Objectivist Newsletter was founded, which under various names and formats continued to provide a forum for her and a few close associates (most other forums being closed to them). Her nonfiction writing, nearly all of it originally published in this journal, occupied the rest of her life.
For ten years Objectivism spread in popularity and influence, and looked as if it might make a major impact on the nation's cultural life. Then, without warning, the bubble burst. She repudiated Branden for ill-specified improprieties; NBI was dismantled; her followers, dismayed by the split and cast adrift by lack of organization, ceased to constitute a coherent movement. All that remained was a tiny and dwindling band of sycophants, huddled close around the guttering flame of her great mind. She died in 1982.
Ayn Rand was a mythopoeic author, whose world-view seizes upon the mind, demanding to be accepted or rejected as a whole; and she could not tolerate ambivalence. To make matters worse, she cut herself off from all tradition -- or tried to. Although she made occasional, formal homages to the ancient Greeks, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and nineteenth-century liberalism, she claimed that only Aristotle ever taught her anything. Obviously she owed nearly as much to Nietzsche, and presumably also Hobbes and Locke, if only at second-hand; otherwise, we may take her word for it. Judging from internal evidence in her writings, she had only a superficial knowledge of history and a narrowly limited literary culture. Such was her brilliance, and the force of her creativity, that she could overcome this isolation; but even so, her works are excessively abstract -- thin, dry and cold, like the air on a high mountain. She was a genius, a dynamo of a woman; but not even she could tear down the world and rebuild it from the ground up.
Before we proceed to Ayn Rand's politics, we must first set them in their proper context with a brief summary of her thought, which constitutes a systematic whole (although her exposition of it was not systematic) covering every branch of philosophy -- metaphysics, epistemology, esthetics, ethics and politics -- making distinctive and provocative contributions to each. Her teachings in metaphysics, epistemology, and esthetics are, in my judgment, fundamentally sound (as far as they go), but have only indirect bearing on the present context. It is her teachings in ethics and politics that command our attention here, and it is these teachings that are fundamentally flawed: false to nature, and inconsistent with other, better ideas of her own.
We can see and correct the flaws in her ethics and politics by applying her own principles on the higher levels of philosophic thought. To give a tangential but significant example: on one level, she recognized that human knowledge is limited, so that our ideas should always be open to growth, refinement, and correction; but on another level, she implicitly believed her own system to be complete and perfectly free of error; consequently, she would never permit it to be questioned, qualified, changed, or added to, in any way. "Take it or leave it" she said, in almost as many words. Of course, no one capable of independent thought can accept anything on these terms. Ironically, but inevitably, she attracted precisely the sort of people who want someone to do all their thinking for them -- to give them all the answers to all the questions of life. The result, as one might expect, is a closed and sterile orthodoxy, which her epigones (inheriting her dogmatism but not her brilliance) tend like the curators of a museum.
Ayn Rand's use of the term "Objectivism" refers to her ultimate philosophical ground: the metaphysical principle that "existence exists," i.e. that there is an objective reality independent of the observer. This would seem to be pretty obvious: who has not learned by experience that "wishing doesn't make it so"? Nevertheless, this axiom is denied over and over again; the notion that "reality is socially constructed" is the fundamental premise of what passes for thought among the academic Left.
Following from the principle of objective reality is the epistemological principle of rationalism, i.e. that reason (as opposed to divine revelation, mystical insight, intuition, emotion, or whatever) is our only way of knowing reality. Reason tells us that "A is A," i.e. that contradictions cannot exist: or as we commonly say, "You can't have your cake and eat it, too." (Not that it stops people from trying.)
From the existence of objective reality, and from rationalism, it follows that there is an objective right and wrong, good and bad, grounded in reality and discoverable by reason. The existence of objective morality seems easier to reject than that of objective reality, and this is probably what most people mean (or think they mean) when they say "everything is relative" -- that "values" are purely a matter of taste. (Such people are usually convinced of the immorality of "imposing your values" on others -- which is, of course, self-contradictory, and points out why moral relativism implies a denial of reason and objective reality.)
For Ayn Rand, the basic principle of morality is self-preservation, or egoism. Her Nietzschean revaluation of "selfishness" and "greed," and consequent advocacy of unbridled capitalism, are undoubtedly the best-known, or most notorious, of her ideas. The idea here is that man (meaning each individual man, not the human race as any meaningful whole), left free to follow his own reason, and pursue his own self-interest, will flourish by mastering the earth, making products out of it, and trading them with his fellow men for their respective products. This freedom from men and mastery of earth, while maximizing the production of material goods, also produce what she calls "happiness."
The basis of Randian ethics is precisely the point at which Randian philosophy goes wrong.
For Ayn Rand, as for Hamlet, the question is: "To be or not to be." She chooses existence; those who choose otherwise are beyond any ethical consideration. From this choice she deduces the principle that the basis of morality is the preservation of one's life.
There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence -- and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action .... Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of "Life" that makes the concept of "Value" possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.
Reason is man's distinctive means of self-preservation, and therefore is imperative: if man does not exert himself to the utmost to comprehend and control reality, by means of reason, he will die. Hence rationality (i.e. practical reason, or prudence) is the virtue, and productive work its first corollary. (See Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter VII; cf. "The Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness.)
The first and most obvious problem with this argument is that life is neither self-generated nor self-sustaining. In the first place, life is not born by the action of the organism itself; and in the second place, every living being will inevitably die, whatever actions it takes to postpone the inevitable. Therefore the effort to prolong life, i.e. mere existence, is ultimately futile. Recognizing this futility, it is hard to avoid the tragic sense of life that she so detested.
The second problem is that this argument would not support the moral system she tried to build on it, even if it were sound. She can only make it seem to do so by using "man's life qua man" as what she herself called a "package deal": fallaciously conflating two distinct ideas -- usually, one good (or at least innocuous) and one bogus (and usually pernicious). In this case, the good idea is that the goals and standards for human conduct are derived from human nature; the bogus idea is the reduction of man's natural requirements to his requirements for self-preservation.
Although Rand declares that it is only proper to trade value for value, and wrong for any man to preserve himself at the expense of others, self-preservation surely offers only one imperative: "Grab whatever you can get away with." To deny the possibility of successfully living -- living, that is, in terms of mere subsistence -- at others' expense, is to seek refuge in a dreamworld. Although society as a whole cannot survive if too many of its members are parasites, parasitism is often all too feasible for any one individual. The only way out of this quandary is to assert that man's true self-interest lies in something more than self-preservation, even "long-term" self-preservation; but this is precisely what she has forbidden.
Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that we might make it actually impossible for anyone to live as a parasite, in some utopian society. The idea that life is an end in itself still undercuts everything of value in Ayn Rand's thought and art.
If existence is an end in itself, and reason only the means to this end, then why should one exert oneself beyond the absolute minimum required to sustain life? Her answer (the only logically valid answer) is: to increase the cushion of wealth that keeps one safe from privation and death. The purpose of life, then, is to pile up a higher and ever higher heap of gold, more and ever more consumer goods, and "the one who dies with the most toys, wins." Any attempt to justify anything more, on this basis, is an example of what Rand herself called the "stolen concept" fallacy: affirming the consequent while denying the ground. Thus the heroic efforts of the artist devoted to his art -- of Howard Roark to his buildings, for instance -- are reprehensible, because they involve so many sacrifices of material advantage. Rarely if ever has anyone so explicitly reduced man to that despicable, soulless pygmy, Homo oeconomicus. Unlike most libertarians (such as Murray Rothbard), the idea that life consists of more than the production and consumption of wealth, is not simply alien to her: all the more appalling, then, when she denies that it does.
It is significant that she should identify reason with productivity, as opposed to discovery or creativity. In her view, there is no allowance for the love of truth for its own sake -- in a word, curiosity -- since for her, rationality is merely instrumental: she explicitly reduced it to economic calculation. But if there is no such disinterested love, it is difficult to see why anyone would be persistently motivated to seek knowledge. One cannot know what one will know, before one knows it; therefore one cannot know whether it will be useful or not. One must sift through innumerable facts to find the few that are really useful. There must first be useless theoretical scientists, before there can be any techniques for doctors, engineers and industrialists to apply.
Even if we suppose that Randian Man will recognize this and pursue knowledge for its remotely potential utility, it is odd that she neglects what should be an obvious fact: that thinking and learning are pleasant. Indeed, it is remarkable what little place pleasure has in her world, except in the abstract. Her heroes pursue their own happiness with all the harsh discipline of monkish ascetics. Even their eroticism is peculiarly nonsensual; and though she described Objectivism as "a philosophy for living on earth," she had far less esthetic appreciation for the actual surface of the earth, and for the life that grows and moves upon it, than some "world-despising" Christians one could name.
Perhaps the most striking and obvious contradiction within her work is in Atlas Shrugged, when hero John Galt declares that life without heroine Dagny Taggart would not be worth living. This from the man whose credo is "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another"? How much worse, then, is it to die for anyone else's sake! How can the sacrifice of one's very life be reconciled with the claim that life itself is the basis of morality? Obviously, it cannot. And if it is "sweet and fitting" to sacrifice one's life for one's beloved, why not for one's country?
Actually, the credo says "another man" -- but Rand freely used "man" in the generic sense, and in any case gives no hint of explanation why sexual love should have any special status, as against any other kind of love. Indeed, despite this intimation that there is more to life than its own preservation -- for one can live without sexual love, after all, albeit uncomfortably -- one cannot find any ground for it, as a moral imperative, in her stated premises.
However groundless, her affirmation of sex is not inconsistent with egoism, since she severed it from its natural teleology: marriage and the family. In her view, the difference between the sexes is only relevant to the sexual act itself -- tacitly endorsing heterosexuality as the norm. But why draw a line there?
Individualism abstracts from sex as well as everything else, and makes men and women interchangeable in all ways. If the sexual act is merely a self-centered gratification, how can any form of gratification be better or worse than any other? If marriage is not a union of complementary opposites, but a "partnership" of "equals," then why not allow same-sex "marriages"? Anyone with an ounce of common sense will reject this nonsense at once, but it cannot be avoided once the abstract individual is made the center of all things.
She also admitted the value of friendship -- even more mysteriously, since friendship does not satisfy any bodily desire at all. Survival does not require any kind of love or regard for other persons (except perhaps a kind of superficial friendliness, to grease the wheels of commerce), and in fact love as such is contrary to her doctrine of the self-sufficiency of the ego: "[Austen] Heller knew that [in Howard Roark] he had found the best friend he would ever have; and he knew that the friendship came from Roark's fundamental indifference. In the deeper reality of Roark's existence there was no consciousness of Heller, no need for Heller, no appeal, no demand" (The Fountainhead, part I, chapter XI). So then, only those who don't care about anyone else can really care about anyone else.
She goes beyond this Zen-like paradox to something closer to a rational argument when she declares: "Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man's character" ("The Objectivist Ethics"; emphasis in the original). Now, if we wish others well because we perceive their good as our own, then it is hard to see how such "egoism" is meaningfully different from "altruism." In fact, the whole distinction between egoism and altruism breaks down.
If egoism means anything, it means that the ego must be isolated from others. The egoist has no need or desire for the pleasure of "the virtues of another man's character"; no need or desire for "payment" from another in the form of "love, friendship, respect, admiration." Absorbed in the pursuit of his own, self-centered "values," "lifestyle" and "self-esteem," he is incapable of any connection or loyalty to anyone else. For such a person, the sexual act can only be a matter of gross physical gratification; even if it involves another person, it is still only a form of masturbation. Obviously, too, the ties of family, community, and patriotism are meaningless to such a person: once they are dissolved, what -- if anything -- is to take their place?
Just as she absorbed, or independently replicated, the Lockean concept of acquisitive individualism, Rand also absorbed or replicated the Lockean notion of the "social contract" that follows from it. If man is (or ought to be) essentially selfish (i.e. an isolated, self-centered, narrowly self-interested ego), then society is problematic: it has to be reconstructed by the deliberate and voluntary consent of all individual men. As man is reduced to Homo oeconomicus, the utility-maximizing social atom, society is reduced to purely contractual and commercial relations.
For Ayn Rand, and for those who think as she did, the only moral basis for association is free and rational choice. "All proper associations are formed or joined by individual choice and on conscious, intellectual grounds (philosophical, political, professional, etc.) -- not by the physiological or geographical accident of birth, and not on the ground of tradition" ("The Missing Link," Philosophy: Who Needs It?). With this sentence, she decrees the abolition of society, and passes a death sentence on the human race itself. If this is true, then the family as an institution is immoral: no one chooses his parents and siblings -- consciously, intellectually, or otherwise. Real human beings do not pop into existence, fully-formed, out of thin air: they have to be born and raised.
Perhaps needless to say, she never declared flat-out that the family is immoral: it just never occurred to her to ask how people come into existence (exactly like socialists, who never ask themselves how wealth comes into existence). As one might expect, Rand herself did not sacrifice any of her own wealth and comfort by bearing and raising children. In the utopian society of "Galt's Gulch" (Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapters I-II), there are dozens of eligible bachelors, but only four women and two children. Clearly, this is not a viable society.
Now we can turn her own moral ground -- the question "to be or not to be" -- against her. Granting that there may be no rational justification for perpetuating of the human race, we can say: if you Gulchians don't see the need for its perpetuation, then go ahead and fail to reproduce yourselves, while the rest of humanity goes on.
But let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the human race accepts individualism only inconsistently: that it is immoral enough to keep on reproducing itself, but otherwise tries to conduct its affairs on individualist principles. What kind of society, if any, could it form?
We have already had a taste of her scorn for tradition. Here is a stiffer dose of it: "The plea to preserve 'tradition' as such ... appeals to the worst elements in man and rejects the best: it appeals to fear, sloth, cowardice, conformity, self-doubt -- and rejects creativeness [sic], originality, courage, independence, self-reliance .... The argument that we must respect 'tradition' as such, respect it merely because it is a 'tradition', means that we must accept the values other men have chosen, merely because other men have chosen them -- with the necessary implication of: who are we to change them?" ("Conservatism: An Obituary," Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal)
Now, what is tradition? Everything that is handed down from generation to generation -- all the accumulated knowledge, beliefs, customs, and institutions of a people. How can society exist without continuity between one generation and the next?
A code of conduct (no matter how rational) devised by one man, in the course of one life, cannot possibly have the depth and solidity found in a code formulated over generations, out of the experiences of many lives; and because one's own code is private, it cannot provide any basis for social life. Society cannot exist, and people cannot live fulfilling lives, without preordained rules and standards to live by, which no one thinks about, or decides on, or agrees to.
Tradition, too, can be idolized; it is certainly foolish to declare that every tradition must be preserved unchanging forever. But the consequences, even of that, are not as dire as the irrational neophilia of libertarians and other Leftists. When tradition is idolized, civilization becomes static and fossilized; but if novelty is idolized, civilization faces complete dissolution.
Consonant with Rand's contempt for tradition as such, is her rejection of ethnicity as a principle of social cohesion. "There is no tyranny worse than ethnic rule .... Marxism is corrupt, but clean compared to the stale, rank, musty odor of ethnicity" ("Global Balkanization," The Voice of Reason). Now, what is "ethnicity"? It is simply that which makes an eqnoV, a people, of individual persons; it is the inherited cultural identity that, being shared, makes social life possible. What is the result, if ethnicity, as such, is rejected? Either society is annihilated, or some new, a priori principle of social cohesion has to be invented.
Rand tried to have it both ways. She denied that man is naturally social, yet also declared that commercial relations would be sufficient to preserve society. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged secede from their country and their civilization, cutting themselves off from the past and from posterity, from the whole stream of culture. The new society they form recognizes no claims on the individual except the mutual recognition of their absolute liberty, and no ties between them except those of trade. Even if it might be possible to reconstitute some shallow and desiccated form of society on such a basis, would it be worth the bother?
Rand scarcely faced the problem of social-political integration, and to the extent that she did try to solve it, she cheated. She assumed that rational men would all be exactly alike: would all arrive at exactly the same standards, expectations, and attitudes (i.e., her own) -- the only difference being their respective places in the division of labor. Her Gulchians are as interchangeable as the drones in a collectivist hive. She never asked herself how different men, each operating on his own limited, partial, and fallible reason, were to arrive at such unanimity.
Man and society are dependent on each other, both factually and logically: if you conjure up that phantom, abstract man, you must conjure up a vaporous "society" for him to dwell in. Libertarianism recognizes the importance only of the individual, at one extreme, and humanity as a whole, at the other; therefore, just as much as socialism, it systematically delegitimates and devalues all closed, partial, heterogeneous, and inherited associations. Of course, it is in just such associations that real men are born and raised.
Individualism, with all its implications -- that Narcissistic self-absorption is man's highest state; that his life should be devoted exclusively to the production and consumption of wealth; that he pops into existence, fully-formed, out of thin air -- is so bizarre that one may doubt that anyone really believes in it. One might well dismiss it as a caricature, if one had not spend years actually listening to the Mammon-worshipers (whether they call themselves Objectivists, Libertarians, or Republicans) and pondering the implications of what they say. For of course, they rarely own up to holding such preposterous ideas.
The importance of Ayn Rand, in this context, is that she was a moralist, whereas most other libertarians shun (avowed) moralism, and so she made explicit the moral underpinnings of the abstract liberty they idolize -- thereby exposing them to criticism. She even evoked the figure of Robinson Crusoe (not by name, but by the idea of a man alone on a desert island) to epitomize the ideal of man against nature, facing the ultimate alternatives of life and death immediately and inevitably. What is left out, of course, is the whole social dimension of human life, which is why Crusoe on his island is so often used as a symbol of individualism and the isolation it implies.
Rand, to her credit, did try to offer an answer to the question, "What is liberty for?" -- a positive morality, and (in her novels) vivid, esthetic representation of her abstract ideas. This offers a way out of the moral anarchy of libertarianism; whether this effort is ultimately successful, is another matter. However, I suspect that this very effort explains why so many libertarians resent her. Defining the good, the positive goals of life, seems an intolerable constraint on freedom -- even if it is only the freedom to feel and act according to whim, not political-economic freedom.
For her, political-economic freedom is ultimately founded on metaphysical freedom, freedom of will, which she argues (quite plausibly) is reducible to the single ultimate choice: to think or not to think. The "basic virtue," rationality, derives from this choice: having chosen to use one's rational faculty, one must then exercise it fully and deliberately -- and one must be left free to do so. "To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival" (Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter VII). Conversely, it is impossible to force anyone to think, i.e. to be virtuous.
This line of argument does hold true with all matters susceptible to reasoning. It is seen to be inadequate when we deny (1) that the human good is reducible to rationality, and (2) that rationality is reducible to prudent self-interest. Rand, of course, assumed that there are no limits to prudential reason; but we have already seen the problems that arise with the attempt to rationalize society. The abstract regime of "rights" is not sufficient to establish or preserve any kind of society, so it really makes no sense to ask whether such a society would be a good one.
The essential flaw in her ethics, from which all (or nearly all) of her particular errors arise, is that the survival-for-its-own-sake imperative makes nonsense of the concept of flourishing as opposed to mere subsistence: i.e., of the good life as opposed to life simply. There is a profound distinction between the two states, which she glosses over.
Most people would probably agree that a man who loves his work, and does it well, is admirable, and that he is living a good life. But the real test of whether an endeavor is worthwhile, is whether one would do it without being paid for it -- i.e., whether it is worth doing for its own sake, without the burden of necessity. Human flourishing is precisely this advance beyond the struggle for existence. (In fact, not even animals are wholly limited to the struggle for mere existence. The higher mammals, even in the wild, are playful and affectionate, in strikingly humanlike ways.)
The true self-interest of man qua man is the highest and fullest exercise of his natural faculties, including sociability, which requires cooperation rather than predation, belonging rather than isolation. This leads us back to the community (in the broadest sense), which is a precondition of man's development -- indeed, his very existence qua man (one lesson she failed to learn from her acknowledged master). The community is the specific realization of man's abstract and potential sociability; it molds the individual personality, and is, therefore, an extension of one's own personality. To uproot oneself from it only diminishes the self. Man "liberated" from culture is not autonomous, he is nothing -- or at most, a soulless creature existing only to fill his belly and exercise his genitalia.
The important and valuable point she raised is: what do we really mean by "selfishness" and "greed"? However we answer this question, the assumptions underlying the terms will not be left unchanged by their examination. We certainly have much to learn from her insights into the really self-effacing nature of so much "selfish" behavior -- how people seek to puff themselves up in others' eyes, and thereby reveal their dependency on others, and the real frailty of their egos. And no one else, except Jean Raspail, has so percipiently seen and depicted the morally corrupting effects of altruism. But she (unlike Raspail) went too far, reducing man to the naked and isolated ego. However much lip service she pays to Aristotle, her conception of human nature is infinitely more Hobbesian than Aristotelian; and her preaching of the perpetual and restless desire of wealth after wealth, which ceaseth only in death, is the part of her thought that most resonates with other libertarians.
In seeming contrast to her Hobbesian and contractarian view of society, Rand is thoroughly Aristotelian and teleological in her view of government. For her, government is legitimized by the fact it is the indispensable means to a necessary end -- though of course her conception of its role is essentially Hobbesian, i.e. the protection of man's life (and, by extension, his property) by eliminating the "war of all against all." But here arises yet another contradiction in the heart of Objectivism: she wants to establish her teleological government by consent, i.e. without violating her dogma that the "initiation of physical force" is inherently evil. Although she does not appeal to the quaint and ahistorical notion of a primeval "social contract," she cannot escape the trap of "government by consent," which raises the "social contract" from its grave.
Locke himself believed that government could be refounded on a consensual/contractual basis; but the anarcho-capitalists do not, and they are clearly right. She never went as far as they do -- but she came close. She believed that government is necessary, but should be financed voluntarily. In this view, government has even less claim on the individual than a private club, which may exact dues as a condition of membership.
Just as she rejects ethnicity as a principle of human society, she rejects the common good as a principle of government. Now, it is true that the concept of the common good has been abused and inflated; but so has the concept of "rights," and she does not want to dispense with them. Properly defined, the common good is the good of men that accrues to them because, and insofar as, they belong to a group -- be it a voluntary association or a political community.
Inconsistently, Rand accepts the principle of the "national interest" as the standard of foreign policy: what is the "national interest" if not a specific formulation of the common good? It only goes to show that the concept of the common good is indispensible to politics. The choice is that between the narrow Hobbesian version and the broader Aristotelian version -- or anarchism, if one does completely reject the common good. Rand, of course, understands it in Hobbesian terms: protecting the individual rights of the nation's citizens. The idea that the nation is any more than an aggregate of rights-bearing, utility-maximizing individuals is, of course, anathema.
By far the most valuable contribution Rand made in political thought is her withering criticism of "rights inflation." Against the notion of "economic rights," a "right" to subsistence or to economic equality, she asked the damning question: "At whose expense?" So-called "economic rights" conflict with the basic facts of reality: that wealth must be created, and no man's need can cause its own satisfaction. Hunger grows no grain and bakes no bread. Rand reminds us (tacitly following Locke) that wealth rightfully belongs to its creator; it is not only impractical, but unjust, to take it away from him and give it to someone who needs it.
To my mind, this argument against any and all forms of political wealth-redistribution is unanswerable. This does not require us to accept her materialism. The creation of wealth is a necessary means to all ends, but we must never lose sight of the ends that wealth serves, nor ever reduce them all to mere survival.
More important than the substance of Rand's politics, perhaps, is her style. She was a moralist, and attacked both Christianity and socialism precisely where they believe themselves strongest: in their sanctimony. She asserted her ideals stubbornly, courageously, unflinchingly. Most libertarians, like good relativists, whimper that Christians and socialists "want to impose their values on us": she denounced their "values" as evil.
Rand's greatest significance is pre-political. Objectivism is, after all, not an ideology, but a system of philosophy with political implications. She was one of the most ardent, vociferous and influential advocates of rationalism and humanism in the twentieth century. Her reaffirmations of reason and humanity are vital necessities today, as against both the old religion and the new anti-reason and anti-human movements -- e.g. environmentalism, "New Age" mysticism, "deconstructionism" and "postmodernism."
Unfortunately, her philosophical contributions have been overshadowed by her ethical-political errors -- not least among her own followers, whether or not they have joined the wider libertarian movement. These errors, if they proliferate, will only contribute to the deracination, anomy and nihilism that are unravelling the moral and social fabric of Western civilization. The long-run question is whether her more fundamental ideas will prove the more powerful, and contribute to a second renaissance of our civilization. Ultimately, only such a renaissance can save the West.
© 2002 by Karl Jahn