Ayn Rand is best known for her novels, which continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies each year, and for her philosophical essays on ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and epistemology. But she was also an astute observer of politics and culture. In the 1960s and 1970s, after publishing her last novel, Atlas Shrugged , she wrote scores of commentaries about the people, events, and trends of her time.
Her periodicals The Objectivist and The Ayn Rand Letter include observations about politicians from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan. She wrote trenchant essays on issues and events: the Vietnam War, the Apollo 11 moon flight, Woodstock and Watergate, papal encyclicals and Supreme Court decisions, environmentalism, the rise of the New Left, and books by B.F. Skinner and John Rawls, to mention a few.
The events she wrote about are long past, the people long gone. Many of the issues and trends have disappeared off the radar screen. As a general rule, political and cultural commentary has a pretty brief shelf life. But in Rand's case I am often struck by how relevant these essays are today. Because she brought a philosophical perspective to bear on the events of the day, and analyzed those events in terms of essentials, her comments have staying power. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if she were looking into the future and writing of things we see around us today.
Rand was an astute observer of politics and culture.
In her essay "Racism" (1963), for example, she observed that the civil rights movement was beginning to switch from the pursuit of justice for individuals to the pursuit of privilege for racial groups. Almost a year before the Civil Rights Act, and long before the appearance of "affirmative action" as a code word for racial quotas, she saw what was coming: "America has become race-conscious in a manner reminiscent of the worst days in the most backward countries of nineteenth-century Europe. The cause is the same: the growth of collectivism and statism."
The precedent set by black leaders was soon adopted by other groups, and equality became one of the major causes of the political Left. In "The Age of Envy" (1971), Ayn Rand described how egalitarians were creating an "aristocracy of non-value" in which groups claim privileges for disability, poverty, misfortune, incompetence—i.e., for a lack, rather than for achievement. It is the morality of altruism, she argued, that allows such groups to demand special treatment at the expense of achievers. The essay is still the best guide to the victims' lobby that has since emerged.
Environmentalism is the other major cause of the Left, and Rand dealt with it in "The Anti-Industrial Revolution" (1971). She saw that the nascent environmental crusade was a way of continuing the anticapitalist movement now that socialism had been exposed as a fraud—a shift from Red to Green, as later commentators would put the same idea. The issue of pollution, she argued, was a smokescreen for hatred of individualism, achievement, happiness, and freedom—an argument amply confirmed by environmentalists in the three decades since (see, for example, Robert James Bidinotto, "Death by Environmentalism," Navigator, March 2004).
Rand was prescient because she analyzed trends and movements in terms of their essential animating ideas. The first major article she wrote in this genre, "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World" (1960) presents the basic framework she brought to all the issues she dealt with. It highlights her distinctive alertness to the relationship between epistemology, ethics, and politics.
The essay deals with "the contradictions of Western civilization," a clash within our civilization between two opposing sets of values: reason and freedom vs. faith and force.
These two—reason and freedom—are corollaries, and their relationship is reciprocal: when men are rational, freedom wins; when men are free, reason wins. Their antagonists are faith and force. These, also, are corollaries: every period of history dominated by mysticism was a period of statism, of dictatorship, of tyranny.
Why did Ayn Rand think the epistemological conflict—reason vs. faith—has any bearing on politics? Reason is a faculty of individuals as individuals. It is exercised by the individual's choice to focus his mind on reality, rely on observation, use logic, assemble evidence, and reach a conclusion. A culture that values reason will give people the freedom to use their minds and act on the basis of the conclusions they reach. And reason is an objective means of knowledge; it relies on observation and evidence, with observable reality as the ultimate point of reference. So, when people rely on reason they can interact and resolve conflicts by discussion, persuasion, and debate—that is, by voluntary means.
"But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge," Rand says, "no persuasion, communication or understanding [are possible]." If people derive their conclusions from ineffable intuitions or by methods that only they know how to apply, then there is no way for two people who disagree to get "behind" their opinions and resolve the conflict by re-examining the evidence. That leaves force as the only method of "persuasion": "Anyone who resorts to the formula 'It's so, because I say so,' will have to reach for a gun, sooner or later."
As evidence of her point, Rand mentions the Dark Ages as an era of mysticism and, along with it, an oppressive lack of freedom, in contrast to classical Greece and the Enlightenment as eras of reason and freedom. The cultural momentum of the Enlightenment carried forward through the nineteenth century, which demonstrated the power of reason unbound to produce knowledge, art, and material abundance on an unprecedented scale.
After that burst of human progress, why did collectivism return in the twentieth century—and return in such grotesque and bloody forms as Nazism and communism? Because, Rand argues, people were unwilling to abandon the morality of altruism. Altruism is the third element in the cultural syndrome that Rand saw as the enemy of human well-being. What she means by altruism is not generosity, or kindness, or benevolence, which we often have occasion to extend to others in the course of pursuing our own goals. Altruism is the principle that the needs of others always take precedence over our own.
The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only moral justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value.
The principle of altruism pushes people toward mysticism, for the simple reason that the principle makes no sense. There is no rational ground for asserting that sacrificing yourself in order to serve others is morally superior to pursuing your own (long-term, rational) self-interest. Altruism ultimately depends on non-rational "rationales," on mysticism in some form, whether it be the command of God, or the arbitrary postulate that one must act for the greatest good of the greatest number, or Immanuel Kant's theory of duties demanded by a "noumenal" self, or any number of other claims that have to be taken on faith.
Rand viewed altrusim as the enemy of human well-being.
The moral code of altruism also pushes a society toward collectivism. If self-sacrifice is an ideal—if service to others is the highest, most honorable course of action—why not force people to act accordingly? This is exactly what happened in Nazi Germany, where people were compelled to serve the German Volk, and in the Soviet Union, where several generations lived in misery and oppression as a sacrifice to a future workers' paradise. In the United States, the impact of altruism is blunted by the spirit of individualism and by a political system based on individual rights; nevertheless, appeals to sacrifice and service are the primary cultural cause for the growth of government, especially the welfare state.
In "Faith and Force," as well as many later essays, Rand observed that while the liberals of her era wanted to expand the power of government through entitlement programs and regulatory control over business, their efforts were perfunctory and evasive, without the moral idealism of earlier generations. The root of liberal anxiety, she argued, was the clash between their knowledge that socialism doesn't work and their wish that it could—a wish that springs from the ethic of altruism.
Today, liberals are fighting to preserve the two major socialist systems in the United States, public education and Social Security, against the forces of privatization, and they have sought to socialize health care. They are no more willing to use the "S" word than were liberals in Rand's day, and many have abandoned the "L" word, too. But the altruist root of their political goals is as clear and unquestioned as ever. After polls revealed the importance of "moral issues" in the 2004 election, for example, Robert Reich explained how liberals could invoke the morality of altruism to promote their policies:
What should Democrats say now and in the future about public morality? That it's morally wrong to give huge tax cuts to the rich while cutting social programs for the poor and working class…. That we have a moral obligation to give every American child a good education and decent health care. ("The Moral Agenda," The American Prospect Online Edition, November 4, 2004.)
Rand saved her harshest words for conservatives, who set themselves up as defenders of capitalism. "The moral justification of capitalism is man's right to exist for his own sake" ("Faith and Force"). Capitalism is the social system based on trade—exchange to mutual benefit—in which "every person, every individual, is an end in himself, not a sacrificial animal serving anyone's needs." But conservatives, afraid to reject altruism, limited themselves to the argument that capitalism serves the public good by producing economic abundance. The point is true but nonessential. It leaves the opponents of economic freedom with the moral high ground and produces the bizarre spectacle of defenders of capitalism speaking as if self-interest and the profit motive played no role in it.
Rand predicted that the conservative movement would fail politically.
Rand predicted that the conservative movement would fail politically, not only for its moral inconsistency but for its equally inconsistent effort to base capitalism on religious faith. That obituary turned out to be premature; conservatives have wielded substantial power in the last three decades. But they are still offering an apologetic defense of capitalism, when they bother to defend it at all. They have made no serious effort to eliminate the welfare state. And their appeal to religion has become more and more pronounced, not only as a means of getting votes from fundamentalists and evangelicals but as a basis of particular policies such as restrictions on stem cell research.
Writing during the Cold War, Ayn Rand saw Soviet communism as the purest embodiment of the mystic-altruist-collectivist axis. The altruism and collectivism of communist ideology are obvious, but it took some doing to explain the relevance of mysticism. These were atheists, after all, and Karl Marx had made a point of describing his view as "scientific socialism."
Rand used the term "mysticism" very broadly to include any doctrine that denies the efficacy and absolutism of reason. In addition to traditional mystics who claim revelations from supernatural beings, therefore, the opponents of reason include those who deny and reject its validity, as relativists and subjectivists do, or who replace logic with some other method, such as dialectical materialism. That's why we find in totalitarian political systems the same phenomena as in religious movements: a sacred text, a closed system of thought, an authority with the exclusive right to interpret that text, and severe penalties for heresy and apostasy.
Today, the communist enemies of civilization have been replaced by a much more primitive form of the mystic-altruist-collectivist axis. Islamist terrorists like bin Laden and al-Zarqawi are killing on the basis of what they take to be instructions from a supernatural being who revealed himself to an illiterate merchant named Muhammad fourteen centuries ago. They encourage suicide bombers to sacrifice themselves for the cause. In Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and anywhere else Islamism has come to power, religious dogma is imposed by force, a goal that the movement has always sought. Indeed, the very insignia of the Muslim Brotherhood—the Qur'an framed by crossed swords—is a perfect symbol of the union of faith and force.
During World War II, Rand understood that the battle between German Nazis and Russian communists was a family feud; they were both collectivists. The real battle was between individualism and collectivism in any form, left or right. That's common knowledge now, but Rand knew it from the beginning; she knew it because she saw past the political level to the underlying ethic of sacrifice and epistemology of unreason. In the same way, she would have seen the common essence of secular communism and Islamic fundamentalism, and could have predicted the ease with which secular Baathists converted to Islamism.
In short, Rand's analysis of ideas at work in the world is as timely and illuminating as when she wrote. It ought to be required reading for everyone engaged in the post-9/11 war on terror.
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.