Column on Rand & Libertarians Misunderstood

Ayn Rand & Libertarians Grossly Misunderstood

Tibor R. Machan

In my local paper a letter writer, apparently eager to besmirch Ayn Rand–which many have tried in vain–had this to say: “Rand’s libertarianism has an underlying philosophy that says that if you are not particularly smart, ambitious, disciplined or wealthy, and you become homeless, hungry, financially ruined and suffer from premature illness or death, then that is entirely your fault.” (April 25, Local p. 5)

Neither Ayn Rand nor libertarianism says any of this. What they both do say is that if you are in such a state, you by no stretch of the imagination have the authority to deprive others of their resources. You can ask, of course. And surely that is correct.

Even a person in the greatest of need has no warrant for stealing from others. What such a person most definitely is fully justified in doing is to request help from others which, in America especially, millions provide at little urging–just consider the help that they provide when something like Katrina or a tsunami strikes, and all the charitable contributions they send to the casualties of various similar mishaps. They do this far more than citizens of any other country.
Both Rand and libertarians support voluntary aid but oppose, most vigorously and vociferously, confiscating what other people own.

Nor do Rand and libertarians hold that everything the letter writer lists is one’s fault, quite the contrary. Many mishaps people experience, because of illness and natural disasters, are clearly not their and (most often) anyone else’s fault. Bad things do happen, be it to good or bad people.

What Rand and libertarians have believed, on pretty good grounds, is that when improvements are needed in people’s lives, relying on confiscating other people’s belongings and coercing them to do work to provide assistance are flawed and morally wrong remedies. Instead, voluntary cooperation is both the most ethical and the most effective way to go.

This idea is by no means odd. In broad terms it is recognized that countries the laws of which protect their citizens against coercion–violent criminals, intrusive or meddling governments–are in better shape than those ruled by strong rulers who impose their idea of what is good for everyone not by convincing citizens of what they believe is right but by imposing their will on them. Be this in small matters or large ones, history is replete with the lessons about how coercive force between human beings is an ill advised way to handle problems.

In one area, especially, this has proven to be true for the last few centuries. Ever since Adam Smith published his path-breaking book The Wealth of Nations in 1776, it has been understood by quite a few political economists that prosperity is best pursued in peaceful ways. Voluntary economic relations among people are what is now referred to a win-win situation, whereas coercive economic relations are primarily zero-sum games, meaning when one party gains the other loses. In most of human history, sadly, this latter is how wealth has been obtained and many still advocate the approach even today. This is in part because in a largely free markets–there has never been a fully free market anywhere, unfortunately–those seeking to have their needs and wants met, from gaining groceries to major medical treatments, have been able to find nearly exactly what they have in mind, suiting their particular, individual needs and wants instead of some general benefit that governments prescribe for everyone, something that always suffers from government’s ignorance of what it is that can benefit individual human beings. This may be one reason boosters of government involvement in our lives–in other words, statists–tend to speak mostly of the public interest or the public good or the common welfare since these are so indeterminate, to vague that no one can check out just exactly what they come to in practice.

Aside from all this, there is also the less well known greater generosity found in free societies than in those with top-down government regimentation of nearly everything in people’s lives. But this isn’t government “generosity,” involving robbing Peter so as to hand some of the loot to Paul. It is voluntary charity and philanthropy so it is likely to be far more efficient than what the government does when it sets out to “help” people, including the poor, indigent, hapless, or unfortunate among us. (It isn’t help when one doesn’t dig into one’s own pockets or bank accounts but those of other people and hands these to those in need of help. Moreover the welfare state didn’t emerge because private help was not forthcoming.)

Ayn Rand and libertarians have supported all voluntary contributions to the people the letter writer listed, provided those people aren’t set on robbing others to support their goals or urging the government to do so. Rand, in particular, did believe that focusing too intently on the needy is a mistake. After all, even the needy are much better off if the productive among us are championed. And how are the needy ever going to gain from rich bashing, by denigrating and discouraging those who create the resources from which they might benefit?

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2 Responses to Column on Rand & Libertarians Misunderstood

  1. Larry Wilbur says:

    Dr Machan,
    I am a thinker, like you. Not in your class, of course, but a thinker none-the-less. I have for some time had an idea about what is the real cause of America’s fall in the last 50 years. There must be some ubiquitous and very powerful cause, far more powerful than the governments or unions or even combinations of many influences. That cause is feminism. Please do not laugh. There is much merit and truth to this idea. Feminism is an experiment that has failed. Look at the decline and destruction of the white race.
    I am an old Engineer and have seen much of the working world. When I say work, I mean productive work, not sitting around a table sipping coffee and trying to look and sound smart with a lot of mumbo-jumbo. I can tell you the bottom line to our economic problems is not the corrupt beauracracy, or Obama, or unions, it is hard work. Americans do not want to work. Why?
    Since the “civil rights” movement, which was an outgrowth of the feminist movement, there has been a trend toward non-productive jobs and away from productive jobs. Productive jobs create wealth, non-productive consume wealth. So when the balance between productive and non-productive jobs is disturbed, a new equilibrium is created.
    As feminism grew in popularity over the last 50 years, there was a strong demand for more and more non-productive jobs, jobs that are more attuned to females than males. Women wanted to work for “economic freedom” if nothing else. This demand could not be met by the productive part of the American workforce. So the result was tremendous borrowing by all Americans not the least was government. This horrible trend was exacerbated by the desire of women to have more and have it now. The result was a highly self-indulgent and narcissistic society that is now America.
    This does not mean that men were divorced of these doings. Men were merely pushed aside and found little desire to try to change the trend, a change that became more and more difficult with time.
    I do not dislike women. Quite the contrary. But the facts are obvious. Men are simply built for speed, and women built for children and the better things in life. We can and will adapt to all changes over time, but everyone should realize that feminism is truly a rebellion against nature. Once Americans recognize the need for productive work and give it the recognition and reward it deserves we will be able to make America great again. If that means instituting division of labor by letting men do what they do best, that is produce wealth, then so be it. The society of the future that best applies this method of division of labor will be the one that excels. The more wealth that is produced by the productive men, the more non-productive “jobs” that will available for all.
    Maybe my entire argument is old-fashioned or entirely nutty. If not it is a simple explanation of a seemingly complex economic situation. Women have always been expensive, but they have become just too damn expensive.
    I would relish your thoughts on this topic.

    Larry Wilbur
    Mechanical Engineer

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