Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Was Ayn Rand a libertarian? Is Objectivism a form of libertarianism?

Not, at the very least, by the definition of "libertarian" Ayn Rand used. While mainstream media sources will often refer to Ayn Rand as a libertarian writer, Rand was consistently very critical of "libertarianism" whenever it was brought up, including the U.S. Libertarian Party and notable libertarian writers and organizations of her time. Rather than leaving it at that, however, I would like to provide some explanation of how Objectivism conflicts with libertarian political ideas and some of the context I think should accompany quoting what Rand said.

The aspect of Objectivism essential to understanding how it relates to libertarianism is that Objectivism is not merely a set of political views, or even a political philosophy, but a full philosophic system, with interdependent positions on epistemology, ethics, and other branches of philosophy. Ayn Rand argued that political views are ultimately derivative of more fundamental philosophic issues and thought about politics in those terms. Libertarian is a purely political designation describing a certain set of political beliefs. Sometimes it is said that libertarianism, therefore, describes the Objectivist politics but merely doesn't include the other aspects of Objectivism. But these "other aspects" are essential to Objectivism's politics and leads to various concrete political differences between Objectivists and libertarians.

One major difference between Objectivism and libertarians is that many "libertarian" writers and advocates support anarchism or "anarcho-capitalism," while Objectivism upholds the absolute need for the state. Another is that many libertarians are "pro-life," where Ayn Rand took the opposite view. While each of these issues are somewhat controversial among libertarians, two positions a solid majority of libertarians seem to take is opposition to intellectual property and pacifism in foreign policy, each of which Ayn Rand and Objectivist intellectuals have rejected.

It is easy to come up with examples of how these differences originate from Objectivism's basic philosophy. Objectivism includes a theory of morality based on the requirements of man's life, and a theory of rights based on this morality, of which its concrete political proposals are an application. Libertarianism, by contrast, is vaguely associated with a desire for "less government" or "not initiating force." If someone claims a woman seeking an abortion is "initiating force" against a recently-created zygote, Objectivism's theory of rights and the justifications for it in man's nature clearly preclude this. Libertarianism offers an evangelical Christian "pro-lifer" no counter-argument here. It is easy to see why Ayn Rand supported intellectual property, given that she considered the basis of all property rights "man’s right to the product of his mind." What do libertarians have to argue against the claim the government is "initiating force" against those who sell copies of other artists work? Nothing.

But the very vagueness and amorality that sharply contrasts libertarianism with Objectivism also means that those who identify as libertarian will vary widely in how they compare to Objectivism. Objectivists, consequently, aren't universally hostile to everything with the label "libertarian." Ayn Rand's aforementioned condemnations of libertarians refer to them matter-of-factly anarchists, a designation many who identify as libertarian would reject. Ayn Rand Institute president Yaron Brook recently participated in an event with the Cato institute to promote his new book, and Ayn Rand's anthology "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal" lists a book published by the "Libertarian Press" in its recommended bibliography. [pg. 340]

Unlike some of our topics there is more to this than I can put in a blog post. Further, many Objectivists would likely say I put too much or too little distance between Objectivism and "libertarianism." My intention isn't to persuade either. But I hope I've made clear that the issue is far from superficial, and written something that can give those new to Ayn Rand's ideas a general impression of it to protect yourselves from the various off-hand references to it you will inevitably encounter elsewhere.

Further Reading / Listening

Peikoff.com: A discussion with Yaron Brook on libertarianism
The Objective Standard: Even with Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party Undermines Liberty
The Objective Standard: The Problem of Gary Johnson's Libertarian Affiliation