With Republicans back in control of both Houses of Congress, with members including borderline extremists of various right-wing positions, we should consider more closely the sources of these positions. Here, let’s consider the influence of Ayn Rand, and the problem of libertarianism in general.
When I was about 15, I read Anthem and some of Rand’s literary essays and remember being highly impressed. She spoke to my adolescent consciousness and my wish to find moral justification for my youthful belief in my own obviously superior capacities that no one seemed to notice at the time but myself. Besides, she wrote a strong defense of the poetry of Mickey Spillane (“Bootleg Romanticism”) that I was reading at the time.
Later I read a book by Nathaniel Branden, which was much more coherent and reasonable, but exactly because of that, I found it easier to think through Objectivism critically, and realized how little of it could be applicable socially in a complex culture.
Then much later I tried re-reading the novels of Mickey Spillane and realized that he is a perfectly dreadful writer, who just happened to express a certain zeitgeist. So I had to admit that even as a literary critic, Ayn Rand’s opinions weren’t worth much.
I never got through more than 30 pages of one of her supposed ‘landmark’ novels, I don’t remember which one.
The only thing I appreciate her for now is William F. Buckley’s anecdote, how when he first met her, the first words out of her mouth were, “How can intelligent man like you believe in god?”
Which reminds me that the only text any Randian with any lasting power or any wider reach beyond Objectivist libertarianism seems to be George H. Smith’s “Atheism: the Case Against God.” Well, perhaps a few less doctrinaire passages by Branden….
As for Rand herself: After reviewing the material available on the internet, including the remarks at Rationally Speaking, I have to say that Rand strikes me as one of the more intriguing young German philosophers of the 1860s. With a little discipline she could go far….
Seriously, Rand’s philosophy is stuck in a mode of thinking that ranges from Kant, through the epistemological and logic problems of Fichte, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, tracking defiantly into the social issues addressed by Feuerbach, Stirner, and Marx, and culminating in a rivalry with Nietzsche over ethics – and there it ends. She doesn’t even make it to Dilthey or Husserl (let alone Mach or Frege), which leaves her unable to compete with either Heidegger or the Vienna School, although I can see her possibly trying to debate the Marburg Neo-Kantians (without much success).
As a reader in the history of philosophy, I rarely decry a philosophy as simply out of date – but when it is outdated in its initial composition – and by 50 years, at least – the question arises, is there anything here still of use?
Despite her insistence on rationality, Ayn Rand’s texts are best read expressionistically – she is signifying a certain historical angst over the failure of German Idealism to survive WWII intact.
So where does this leave that segment of contemporary Libertarian though derived from Rand’s supposed ‘philosophy? – which unfortunately has adherents in the Houses of the American Congress.
Rand’s fundamental claim for libertarian capitalism is a claim of right. Even non-Randian libertarians assert that they have some necessary right to their own business affairs, profits, etc. But Rand’s claim of right is really coming out of a possible reading of Nietzsche – a claim to a greater freedom for the more creative, the smarter, the more willing to acquire and extend their powers. One can see the attraction this would have for those who see themselves as belonging to such a class. The problem is that the presumption of such a theory completely ignores the fact that commercial success, in any field, frequently anoints, not the most creative, but the most manipulative; not the smartest, but the most cunning. The acquisition and extension of one’s powers in a political economy is not dependent on some inner higher value or greater virtue. It is merely a matter of being in the right place and the right time, and playing the right game well.
But more generally, there are a number of problems with any economic theory that is based in any notion of ‘rights.’ The first is that such a theory tends to be a-historical. The whole notion that some sort of capitalism is historically necessary is as false as the notion that it has a determined beginning in a recent century. Capitalism is there as soon as the first symbolic wealth exchange appears, and this has a history of many centuries – but it is certainly not globally universal throughout that history.
In a similar manner, we can see that any attempt to hypostasize ‘rights’ is a falsification of the diversity and contingency of human reality. Rights are generated within a given culture, and the notion has uses – political, ideological, legal, social, culture – but they exist nowhere else but within the bounds of such use. Any claim to right in a given culture where such ‘right’ is not universally recognized (within the culture), is a purely political move to attain political ends or economic; depending on the context, these ends may be just or unjust, but the question of justice derives from elsewhere, a complex development out of a simple recognition of our shared humanity. (If justice is too strong a word here – and it probably is, given its history in both ethical and political discourse – then let us simply refer to it as fair-play, born of human sympathy.)
So, any notion that there could be a ‘right’ to property or a ‘right’ to wealth (earned or otherwise gained), whether derived from god or nature or some metaphysical whatever, is simply false. Rights are generated in political discourse and activity, and a society can always change or eliminate whatever ‘rights’ it inherits, or generate new rights as it pleases.
This is not to disparage the use of claim-of-right political discourse – such is inevitable in a complex society with representative-democratic aspirations within a republican structure of government. And each claim must be weighed appropriately in terms of the interests of the individuals and of the society as a whole.
Here economic claims of right need be treated cautiously within a culture of increasing complexity and diversity, and where the gulf between the wealth and opportunity of a minority and those of a majority becomes so wide as to threaten the stability of the society as a whole. American economies, both in relation to the global community, and fragmented between many different interest groups domestically, are far too complex and diversified to reduce to the kind of simplistic modeling we get from libertarians, Objectivist or otherwise.