Seeking Truth – Facing Ourselves
We can find our ideas from many sources; religion, the media, schools, governments, eastern philosophies, western philosophies, and so on. What “sticks” is a little different for each person. We are exposed to information every day. We all have different backgrounds. We all have access to different data. We have predispositions based on how we were raised, or what our parents repeated when we were children. And we can seek out fresh ideas and judge for ourselves what is right and correct and what isn’t. From many different sources we develop a philosophy to live by. We all have one, whether we know it or not. This article will mainly concern the philosophy of Ayn Rand. But we will also discuss the general ideas of learning new things, challenging ourselves, and developing a good system of thinking to thrive and enjoy our lives.
Ayn Rand called her philosophy Objectivism. To me, and many millions of people, her writing has been a great help in developing my thinking. Many people are drawn to her writing for the political and economic ideas she laid out in Atlas Shrugged. Published in 1957, this book is still a best seller today. Without digging deeper into her philosophy the book strikes a chord with conservatives, constitutionalists, classical liberals, Republicans, tea party types, and libertarians. In addition to politics, Rand discussed the other branches of philosophy; metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics. To me this was her important contribution. In these areas, she gave us an excellent system for perceiving reality; that reality objectively exists, and we have the ability as humans to use our senses to figure things out. She explained that we each have the right to exist and thrive; that my life is my highest value and that it is okay and good to be happy and seek my own rational self-interest. She explained that it is not right to initiate aggression against other people. These ideas and others form the basis of Objectivism. I’ve found it extremely helpful in my life. Like other things I’ve read, many parts of it were so logical and rational; it just put explicit words to what already made sense to me. For a while I considered myself an “Objectivist”. But, after a time I saw it wasn’t an absolutely perfect system. Many people go through this, including many well-known thinkers who were once official Objectivists. Rather than treating it like a religion not to be questioned, we keep trying to poke holes in our own beliefs and continue to feed ourselves new information until we see there is more than Objectivism. This is what this article will be concerned with. We will discuss the value of objectivist ideas. We will discuss the flaws of turning philosophy into a movement. We’ll cover some of the logical inconsistencies with objectivist politics. And at the end of the article I’ll include a resource list of objectivist minded thinkers who have gone on to make great contributions in many areas, but who are not official Objectivists.
Orthodox Objectivists don’t care for this though. They seem to not look kindly upon people who learn from Ayn Rand, then continue integrating new knowledge, and move away from being an Objectivist by name. According to Objectivists you essentially have to adhere to everything Ayn Rand said or you’re not one of them, and you very well could be a savage, and even an “enemy of freedom” in Rand’s own words. The term many people use for Orthodox Objectivists is Randian. I do think it fits, because “Randian” puts the focus on her and brings up the issue that they adhere blindly to what she said without fully questioning the ideas in a larger context. I don’t believe orthodox Randians can find a single flaw with Objectivism since they’ve been told it is a complete coherent philosophy for living on Earth. In other words, to them it is a closed system. I know of no other thinker, philosopher, economist, etc. who people follow dogmatically, not questioning a single word: except religions.
This idea started to come to light in the 50s when Rand began to host regular meetings to discuss ideas. Some people like Piekoff latched on and have remained ever since. Others found issues with her ideas or the group’s methods and either stopped coming or were kicked out. Here is a video of a short play written by Murray Rothbard – comically summarizing the way the Randian “Collective” treated people. It is called “Mozart Was a Red“. In a book called It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand, by Jerome Tuccille, he describes some of these interactions between Rand and her “collective” . You can view an entertaining chapter from that book here, called “The Rational Dancer”. If you are an official Objectivist, and you start to stray from accepted beliefs – watch out, because they will put you on trial, and then will “break” with you. This peculiar practice started in the 1960s when Rand would expel people from her inner circle. Most famously she “broke” with Nathaniel Branden after their affair ended, and because he had his own independent thoughts. The breaking process is always similar. The peculiar part is that they feel the need to make a public declaration explaining their disagreement. The other peculiar aspect is that once broken with, the Randians act as if the person was nothing, and had never done anything of value. They end up just sounding irrational, still to this day attacking anyone like Branden, Rothbard, Reisman, or Kelley, who didn’t toe the line.
The problem for Randians is that to question even a single idea within Objectivism would start to break their whole paradigm, starting with the “whole and complete philosophy” idea. People get comfortable in their beliefs. They want to find something, stick with it, and not rock the boat too much. So if they’ve become comfortable with their views, and any doubts or cracks arise in the facade, more than likely they’ll double down to defend themselves before challenging the ideas. It is a tough thing to challenge our ideas because it means we are challenging ourselves, challenging those we trust; those we love. And it’s in our natural tendencies to hold on to that love and trust. One small doubt or question could lead to the thought of “what else don’t I know?”, what else am I wrong about?”, or “what have those I love and trust been wrong about?” And yes, it is uncomfortable to face yourself, your ideas, and possibly your actions. A similar scenario plays out in the relationships between individuals and religion, parental figures, teachers, etc.
Outside of Objectivism
Of course the points I’ll be making here do not only apply to the philosophy of Ayn Rand. These same concepts apply to any closed system of thinking – religions, economic systems, political parties, etc. So as you’re reading, even if you don’t have a background with Objectivism, try to see how these thoughts could apply to you. No matter what we’re into, I think we can improve our thinking, improve our lives, and question what we know. We might find what we think to be right, and in that case, bravo. Or we might find flaws in our thinking or knowledge, and in that case, all the better to gain more knowledge and clarity.
Rand was wonderful in explaining metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. That is the foundation of philosophy. I think it was a misstep to brand and package her philosophy and create a movement. It put the centrality of it all on her, Rand, as the authority figure. It detracted from the raw ideas and put the emphasis on the brand, “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand”. I think leave people with a good philosophical foundation to perceive the world, and they will be fine. The world will be a better place. Peace, order, and free markets would inevitably take form in a world full of people who know how to think and live and gain their own self-esteem through achievement of their values. She accomplished that. Nothing else had to be done.
A great thing was done in integrating those basic studies. Her metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics have a great deal to offer us, but just because she was brilliant there, we should not easily accept everything else she advocated without full critical thought. Once you breach into Objectivist politics especially, the contradictions start to come out. Essentially orthodox Randians have a philosophy AND a separately derived world view and a view of how they want society to look, and they bundle it all together and call that a unified, coherent philosophy. As I’ll argue, I think possibly the political worldview was independently derived based on experience, background, news, etc. – rather than being logically figured out through rational, ethical thinking. I think this does great harm. You start with a perfect foundation of how to think, sense, perceive reality, use reason, live and gain self-esteem, and work productively – AND she does a better job of explaining all that together than anyone else. If you left it at that – that alone is what the world needs. But instead, we lump a bunch of other stuff in with all of that and make it a package deal. “Oh you see the value of reason, intelligence, and living by objective standards? That’s great! But, you’ll also have to accept this kind of music, this kind of lifestyle, this kind of foreign policy, this stance on drugs, this government, (and so on)…otherwise you’re not rational, we’ll break with you, and you’re not one of us”.
By lumping worldview, cultural desires, artistic preferences, and political ideas all together with the basic philosophy, it ends up sort of watering down and turning people off from the metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. With Ayn Rand’s metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics alone, the culture of the world would start to change for the better. With that kind of foundational thinking you would get “laissez faire world” – give it a good method of thinking, and hands off after that. What Objectivism ends up doing though is turning off people who already have some other opposing worldview. If you’re a conservative, liberal, socialist, communist, racist, left anarchist, religious fundamentalist, or whatever else – it is going to be that much harder to come to the good ideas within Objectivism and start to change minds – since it is sold as a total package. It’s like using force to institute the results, rather than feeding good philosophy and letting the results take form over time. There are all these different people of the world, who currently don’t think in terms of philosophy – but in terms of politics, and culture, and what is going on around them. They might not exactly outwardly oppose Objectivist metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics; since they don’t think in philosophical terms. So if the ideas that we think of as Objectivist metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics were spread independently, without lumping in all sorts of ideas about how Ayn Rand wished to see the world operate, we would have more philosophical thinkers on our side already – and fewer people thinking in terms of news and events. Of course Rand is right about most of her conclusions, but not all of them.
The contradictions come out with aesthetics, economics, and politics. Cats, Rachmaninoff, Victor Hugo, Jazz, murder mysteries, and cigarettes are not objectively the best things in the world. I think objectivists confuse and confound the distinction between subjective/objective thinking and morality with subjective/objective preferences. In other words I think it is right to think and act with consistency, and to have an objective base of what is good and what is right and wrong. But an individual’s preferences about how they want to live life are something else entirely. For example if a person liked chihuahuas, heavy metal music, marijuana, and native american art; they’re not wrong, or immoral, or irrational.
As Hayek made famous in his idea of the pretense of knowledge, it is quite a presumption to think we know enough to plan out society. We, Ayn Rand included, are not able to say with exact and precise certainty how the world should organize itself, and what people should value more than other things. Again, philosophy can tell us it is better to pursue purposeful action because it furthers my life and my happiness, or that it is correct to perceive the exact nature of objects around me using my senses, and that it is wrong to kill people, or that we shouldn’t live entirely for other people or expect them to live for us. But the foundations of philosophy cannot tell us exactly, precisely how everything in the world should be ordered. Some culture that hasn’t achieved a great rational, free market society might be incorrect; as in inefficient, but not morally wrong because of that. Every person on the planet has the potential to discover good ideas, or move from one geographic area to another to better create the life they value.
Just like it is not government’s job to ensure outcomes, it is not philosophy’s job to enforce and ensure equal outcome of success. Its job is to be there to show people how to think and live, and it is the person’s choice to seize upon the ideas or not.
I wouldn’t call myself any particular philosophical title or student of one person, or member of some party. Be a philosopher. Be a scientist. Be your own independent thinker. There is either good or bad philosophy. But, think it on your own, use your reason and senses to determine for yourself the best way to act and organize your own life. I don’t want to see a world where everyone is a “student of Objectivism”, but I would like to see a world where everyone thinks and lives with reason, virtue, and consistency.
The Outcomes of Groupthink
What I get from orthodox Objectivists is that they end up trusting authority across the board, since inherent in the politics part of the philosophy is the premise that we must have government to protect us and do certain things, and without it we would have Mad Max gangs roaming around, and all of a sudden no one would want to live peacefully and provide services on the market. Their idea is that order, economics, and the market itself, come from government, not the other way around. So they trust government as a starting point. They just want to make it better (and chase after unicorns). And thus they end up putting a lot of other misplaced trust in different aspects of government, business, and society. It would seem to them, it’s better to have an all-encompassing, fascistic, leviathan police state than to even entertain the thought of providing services without the government all together.
That concept then, stifles new thought, new ideas, or of questioning what is really going on in the world. If they started to question one thing, it would lead to another, and another, and thus independent self-education into the real workings of society would take off. Ultimately they’d have to end up confronting possible fundamental tenants of their own politics and worldview. So, it’s easier to just stay away from new ideas. It ends up entrenching flawed ideas and self-inflicted ignorance on certain topics. Any kind of closed system like this leads to a sort of conservatism, which in practical realization ends up closely aligned with religious and neocon politics.
Orthodox Objectivists don’t tend to look into the most cutting edge, new ideas. At times they slowly catch up, and sometimes they never do. That sort of thinking doesn’t lead to the greatest results. For instance, Objectivists don’t tend to be on the cutting edge of health; like nutrition, herbs, vitamins, exercise, yoga – i.e. really learning about how our bodies work, and what makes them last. They instead endlessly repeat the wonders of giant, crony corporations who make “medical technology” (the latest drugs); in other words the newest ways to “fix” the health issues they’ve already caused for themselves, instead of exploring real health and avoiding issues in the first place. They don’t tend to investigate toxins in our food and water, like fluoride and weed killer. They don’t tend to objectively and factually explore history, and the true cause and effect in world affairs; in other words, not exploring what happened yesterday to cause what is unfolding today. Instead they are for the most part in line with the “court historians” and the US government narrative of history and world events. They tend to turn a blind eye to the police state that is rising up all around them and the abuses that go along with it; because to question this at all, would bring their very notion of government law into question and they can’t go there. So we’ll hear the “law and order” sort of excuses, and condemnation of any “criminals” who are breaking government “laws” as immoral scum who deserve whatever they get. They don’t tend to push the bounds into new disrupting technologies, like alternatives to government monopolies, or various internet services – or most importantly bitcoin and blockchain technology. They tend to champion banks and finance, without really delving into the centuries of corruption and control between banks and government – and I’ve even heard them speak in support of the bailouts of 08/09′ – driven of course by their incessant fear of impending doom if the status quo isn’t held together – such radicals for capitalism! And most of all, and most immoral, they blindly accept anything they’re told about the rest of the world, foreign policy, the history of wars, and the starting of new ones – with the irrational insistence that America (though they really mean the American government, since of course we are not our government) is always in the right, and it is always okay for the US state to meddle with other people and governments to “protect American interests” and our “freedoms” (Freedom that leads to surveillance, control, and taxation at home.)
Orthodox Objectivists think that if you’re not a sort of practicing Objectivist – then you must reject reality, reject the senses, and practice some sort of world destroying nihilism. They think everyone who isn’t an Objectivist is either a mystic or a relativist. Well my mind is not clouded with mysticism. It is not filled with subjective morality. I do not live whim to whim. I employ independent thought; objective right and wrong, and uphold reason in my every action as best that I can. I seek my highest values and strive to create, produce, and live a vibrant life. To Ayn Rand’s credit, I learned to understand the importance of all of that from her. Before reading her I had not been exposed to these sorts of ideas. There is a great need for this in the world. But, when I studied Ayn Rand, I didn’t stop there. For a brief time, I thought I had it all figured out and I was done learning. But, that didn’t last long. So many people have given us so much to learn from. And I’ve very much figured out since; never assume that you have everything, exactly, perfectly figured out. This doesn’t mean the truth is unknowable, it just means we’re still figuring it all out. Over time, humans are always learning new things and making revisions to what we once thought was objective truth about health, history, science, and more. We can start with the type of philosophy that Rand conceived of, and continue on with the work done by others to have a full, true understanding of life and the way the world works.
Rand and her followers are very hostile to Libertarians, which is strange, because across the whole political spectrum of thought, they match up most closely to Objectivists – if one takes the time to understand philosophical libertarian thought. But Objectivists typically don’t do that. If one does, they’d shortly no longer be an Objectivist. This of course stems from what I mentioned in the previous section, that Objectivists seem to think ALL people who aren’t Objectivists reject reason, and that Libertarians are apparently worst among them, because they “want chaos”. Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia article “Libertarianism and Objectivism”.
“Rand condemned libertarianism as being a greater threat to freedom and capitalism than both modern liberalism and conservatism. Rand regarded Objectivism as an integrated philosophical system. Libertarianism, in contrast, is a political philosophy which confines its attention to matters of public policy. For example, Objectivism argues positions in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, whereas libertarianism does not address such questions. Rand believed that political advocacy could not succeed without addressing what she saw as its methodological prerequisites. Rand rejected any affiliation with the libertarian movement and many other Objectivists have done so as well.”
The biggest issue there is of collectivizing people. While some people, especially members of the big L Libertarian Party, see it as a political philosophy, and “confine [their] attention to matters of public policy”, there is a much greater number of individuals who might identify as libertarian, but who do seek the “methodological prerequisites”, many of whom have learned from people like Ayn Rand and apply similar methods of rational thinking.
Rand said of libertarians that:
“They’re not defenders of capitalism. They’re a group of publicity seekers…Most of them are my enemies…I’ve read nothing by Libertarians (when I read them, in the early years) that wasn’t my ideas badly mishandled – i.e., the teeth pulled out of them – with no credit given.”
In an 1981 interview, Rand described libertarians as “a monstrous, disgusting bunch of people” who “plagiarize my ideas when that fits their purpose.”
Responding to a question about the Libertarian Party in 1976, Rand said:
“The Trouble with the world today is philosophical: only the right philosophy can save us. But this party plagiarizes some of my ideas, mixes them with the exact opposite – with religionists, anarchists and every intellectual misfit and scum they can find – and call themselves libertarians and run for office.”
Again, the same concept applies, she’s collectivizing individuals and assuming they’re all the same, based on the word “libertarian”, which she is misunderstanding.
I would say Libertarians are greater defenders of markets than Objectivists, because they don’t compromise. Part of the philosophical foundation of Objectivism is non-contradiction. It is important to be consistent, and logical, and if you find something to be true, you shouldn’t stray from that and make excuses based on non-philosophical arguments such as utilitarianism, fear, the argument to authority, pragmatism, etc. In other words, something is either correct or it isn’t, and we should use the ideas that we find to be true to build our views on the world, and the structures of society.
But in Objectivist politics, there are a lot of “buts”. Libertarians simply take the ideas of the market to their logical ends, with pure consistency, no buts. It is the Objectivists who compromise out of fear, poor understanding, and self-constrained limited research into non-Objectivist thinkers. Libertarianism does not confine itself to matters of public policy. She’s collectivizing millions of people and equating them all with the Libertarian Party. We don’t even have to call it libertarianism. Analyze someone’s ideas, not the group you think they’re a part of. I don’t think single labels for everything we think are very accurate anyway. It’s confining and limiting to a single source of information when we cling to a certain group or dogma. There are countless thinkers who are not Objectivists and have made valuable, original contributions to the world of ideas. Many of these look pretty similar to Ayn Rand in their philosophical foundations. In fact, many people actually reject public policy and politics altogether in favor of changing the world through improvements in thinking, consistent rejection of irrational beliefs, advocacy for better philosophy from the ground up, and pursuing innovation in many areas of life.
When Rand says “I’ve read nothing by Libertarians (when I read them, in the early years) that wasn’t my ideas badly mishandled—i.e., the teeth pulled out of them—with no credit given”, I start to wonder if there were actually some psychological problems going on there. Because apparently any person who we might call a libertarian, never had anything intelligent to say, or if they did, they had just stolen it from Ayn Rand.
It’s like arguing that if you advocate rationality, reason, egoism, markets, etc. but you don’t strictly worship everything Ayn Rand said, then you must be plagiarizing rationality, reason, and egoism, since apparently she is the only person to ever come up with those ideas. That’s not a very rational plan to successfully spread good ideas around the world.
Her Libertarian Influences
Ayn Rand had many influences in her life. She did not come up with everything out of nowhere on her own. She grew up, learned from experiences, went to university, and read many great thinkers. I think a very important point is that she was mentored by Isabel Paterson, the author of the great book, The God of the Machine. Rand acknowledged this relationship, but not very loudly, especially later in life. Ayn Rand said of Paterson’s book that it “is the first complete statement of the philosophy of individualism as a political and economic system. It is the basic document of capitalism”, and she called it the greatest book written in 300 years. Like Rand’s use of railroads, energy, motive power, etc.; in Paterson’s work, published in 1943, she talked much of circuits of energy, railroads, and the dynamo of human action that moves the world forward. Paterson had contacts in the railroad industry that she connected Rand with for Atlas Shrugged book research. I’ve read of how they would sit for hours and Rand would pick Peterson’s brain with questions.
Another interesting possible influence on Ayn Rand was the great writer Garet Garrett, whose most famous work was a book called The Driver, written in 1922. To my knowledge, she never admitted to reading Garrett, but it is plain enough if you read his work that she had been exposed to it. He was writing books when Rand was still a young girl in Russia. His conclusions came pretty close to what she came to later on – free markets, individual achievement, man’s action as the source of happiness and productivity, and extremely limited government. In The Driver, the main protagonist hero character was a man by the name of Henry M Galt (possibly inspiration for both Henry Rearden and John Galt). This man had exceptional ability, valued intelligence, and never stopped working, even while bedridden. He was a speculator, a businessman, and would become a great railroad man. He was “the driver”, the man of exceptional ability who made the world move, similar to Rand’s men of the mind, the producers who created value in the world. He would end up running his railroad, and making it successful, despite dealing with constant government and crony meddling, as in Atlas Shrugged. The cover of the book featured a train engine coming straight at you, just as with the Atlas cover. There were many other subtle similarities you can gather from reading his books and hers. A last obvious example is that Dominique in The Fountainhead was strikingly similar in many ways to one of Galt’s daughters, Vera, in The Driver. In one scene she even buys a piece of art simply to destroy it, just as Dominique did. Some have said, including Nathaniel Branden, that Ayn Rand might have just read Garrett when she was younger, and then years later subconsciously and innocently incorporated his writing into hers. Others obviously think she had read him, and for whatever reason, consciously used some of his ideas, but never mentioned the influence in her life.
The Government Issue
The big problems for me are her conclusions about politics and her general world view – and importantly that it basically contradicts her fundamental ideas. “The basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. No man—or group or society or government—has the right to assume the role of a criminal and initiate the use of physical compulsion against any man.” (The Objectivist Ethics, The Virtue of Selfishness) She is right about this. In more common phrasing, we would just call this the NAP, or non-aggression principle – that it is never right to initiate aggression against others. To me this point is very important. Within Objectivism, non-contradiction and logical consistency are core ideas. In addition, it’s important to form your views and philosophy based on ideas, concepts, principles, etc. – rather than events, slogans, situations, etc. In other words, we want to take an objective, principled view on things, not a subjective, relative, utilitarian view. So we start with certain primary first principles – or rather take certain ideas as “a priori” (existing to begin with, taken as a given without having to figure them out), and then we should continue without contradiction in formulating our views. If one of these first principles is the non-aggression principle, how about we just stick with it?
We can figure things out through thinking. We can use logic and the scientific method, and other tools to determine best ways to live, interact, eat, etc. So if we start with the non-aggression principle, the non-contradictory end result is a free, voluntary society. It’s not a system. There is nothing to implement upon people. There is no need for a leader. I don’t know exactly what society will look like. This will all be figured out. Just like we didn’t know what Starbucks, automated farm equipment, or a SpaceX rocket looked like before they were invented. We should spread good ideas, and trust in people and the order of the market to provide all of our needs. We do not need to form and order society in advance. That is the very thing that has happened now. The world’s nation state system serves those in power and is made possible through violence and coercion, in order to achieve the illusion of peace, order, and morality. This has been done on faulty philosophy, immoral ethics, unworkable economics, and a political “system” that at its very core, in practice and justification, is a contradiction and uses aggression against everyone. We need to avoid making utilitarian arguments or rationalizations based on fear. If the NAP is the foundation of our ethical system, let’s seek to form relations, partnerships, and organizations based on that concept and do the best we can from there.
Here is my speculation about Ayn Rand. As I said before, she formed her ideas on politics and government first, before she formulated all the tenets of Objectivism. She saw the horrors of Soviet Russia; she saw the contrast that America offered. She knew of the Czars, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and she saw the contrast of the American founders. She saw the economy of the Soviet Union, and she saw the contrast of the American system. So, relative to other places and time periods, America really did look like the shining city on the hill. The American founding became her ideal when she was young. Thus, I think she had pre-formulated her basic political philosophy early on before she fully developed Objectivism . (Which could be interesting since Objectivists specifically criticize libertarians for not basing their politics on a philosophical foundation, which isn’t true anyway.) The branches of philosophy sort of go in order; metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. When she was building her Objectivist system then, she already had the fourth branch, politics, “figured out”. But here is the difference. With her metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, with rigorous logic, she took the time to slowly think and come to non-contradictory conclusions on those topics. But, she didn’t do the same thing with politics. She already had in mind what she wanted society to look like, based on her life, her view of America, her time with Paterson and others, etc. Instead of pure logic, reason, and consistent thinking, a part of her politics was based on circumstances, experience, utilitarianism, and pragmatism. So there was a logical fallacy between the first three branches of philosophy and politics. It was a divide that she had to reconcile. To make it all match up we get very loose, after-the-fact justifications for the politics that she advocated. It’s all based on history, precedent, relativism, fear, and contradictions with other aspects of her philosophy. J. Michael Oliver sums this idea up in his recent book The New Libertarianism: Anarcho-Capitalism –
“Some students of the philosophy concluded that Rand and the ‘orthodox’ Objectivists had failed to develop a political theory that followed from the more basic principles of Objectivism. It was at that time that Rand’s advocacy of limited government began to come under attack from a growing number of deviant ‘objectivists.’ The libertarian-objectivists … declared that government, limited or otherwise, is without justification, and that the only social system consistent with man’s nature is a non-state, market society, or anarcho-capitalism.”
Contradicting the NAP
It is immoral to initiate violence against others. So in devising a theory for how we should all get along and provide services to one another, why begin that theory with initiating violence against others? There is no way to evade this fact. A violent monopoly provider of certain services (the state) by definition initiates aggression as part of their standard operations. “Oh you want your property and rights protected? Ok, well we are going to dictate the terms of this agreement. We will violate your rights and steal as much of your property as we see fit – so that we can then protect your rights and property.”
There is an article called “The Ethics of Emergencies” in Ayn Rand’s book “The Virtue of Selfishness”. In this article she lays out the idea that we shouldn’t derive our ethical philosophy from emergency situations. These are the sort of scenarios we are presented with in intro philosophy classes to illustrate situations where we can apply different ethical ideas. And I agree. We shouldn’t base our ethics on these scenarios. To do so would be to disregard principles, and to derive our ethical system case by case, without any standards. A common example is something like this – you’re on a runaway train headed for a crowd and it will kill 10 people – but, if you switch the tracks you will change course and only kill one person, but that one person is your mother. So the point of her article was to say these situations are not representative of real, everyday life, and we shouldn’t base our entire ethics on something that might happen once in a lifetime like disasters, sinking ships, etc.
Recently I was listening to a debate between Stephen Kinsella and Objectivist Jan Helfeld. Kinsella was trying to pin him down on the use of aggression. He was asking point blank if Helfeld could justify states initiating aggression against their citizens. Of course he couldn’t do it. Helfeld’s only attempt at getting around this was to attempt to use unrealistic, hypothetical emergency situations. So Rand said we shouldn’t use these sorts of silly scenarios; that we should have an objective standard of right and wrong, and stick to it. But the only response Helfeld could muster up to Kinsella was to ask him if he would steal from someone if he was thirsty, or kill someone if he could save lives, etc – to attempt to show that sometimes aggression is necessary, in order to justify the need for government aggression. Needless to say, full of fallacies.
Government ≠ The State
Another fallacy Objectivists use when justifying their politics is to equate government, government services, and the state all together. When someone advocates anarchy, the Objectivist will say “oh you want chaos”, or “you don’t want any government” or “you don’t want any rules”. Of course none of that is true. (Though there are the left-anarchists, who don’t have much of a rational plan for how they think things would work. And there are the “anarchists” we see on the news with bandanas and Molotov cocktails. I would venture that these people are either confused communists, angry punks, or even agent provocateurs. This is the “anarchy” that the state and media program people to think of when they hear the word anarchy.)
Anarchy seen properly and philosophically does not mean chaos. It stems from the philosophies of anarcho-Capitalism, voluntaryism and agorism. Or I like to think of it as the market economy, just taken to its logical conclusion; that free, intelligent people will develop ways to get along, trade, and order their business with one another. In its root meaning anarchy means “without rulers”, not without rules. So we are simply advocating a world without arbitrary hierarchy, masters, leaders, etc. – but with objective laws, agreements, contracts, and standards. We do not need a state to give us law, and thus be the prerequisite for a peaceful society. Just like all other aspects of society, where the ordered chaos of the market provides what we desire – so will it provide systems of law, order, and peace-keeping.
We do want government. Government is not the state. An anarchist is against the state, because the state is the institution that creates the arbitrary rulers, authoritarian laws, and initiates aggression. Governance is a system of rules that I think can be peacefully and voluntarily devised, to order business and all aspects of society. This might come from many areas like trade organizations, home owner associations, professional organizations, universities, security firm agreements, private contracts, and so on. Thus, properly understood, the anarchist does desire order, rules, and forms of governance – but they do not desire a violent monopolist state “providing” these things. See here for an excellent appeal to Ayn Rand to see some of the arguments for a stateless society.
Here is an excerpt from an article by David Gordon on J. Michael Oliver’s recent book –
But must not Oliver overcome an objection? The standard response of Objectivists to anarchism is that there cannot be a market in law and defense. To the contrary, the free market presupposes the existence of a fixed legal order, not subject to competition; and this only a government can provide.1
Oliver not only answers this difficulty but turns it against the objectivist defenders of the state. It is entirely true, Oliver says, that the free market presupposes objective law; but the requirements of objective law are fixed by human nature. Far from requiring a state, objective law correctly understood precludes its existence. “There is no need for a legislative process. Law is inherent in the nature of things — including man’s nature. Thus, discovery of law rather than the fabrication of law is called for. … Because capitalism/voluntarism is based upon a recognition of the necessity of freedom of thought and action, it makes no sense to create a monopolistic agency for the discovery of truth and law.” In an anarcho-capitalist society, the basic elements of law would not be “up for grabs,” contrary to the claims of the Randian critics of anarchism.2
It is state-created law, not anarcho-capitalism, that conflicts with legal objectivity. “One deleterious effect of governmental law is the suppression or obfuscation of concern for objective law. After generations of living under an omnipresent legal system, men could easily come to view government as the source of law, thus losing sight of natural, objective law.”
Over Fondness for the American government
First, a state and a country are not the same thing. The country of Peru is a place, with cities like Lima, and people called Peruvians, and so on. The government of Peru is its state. Thus, America, the land of the 50 states, the people, the businesses, our culture, our art, our families, and food – these are things that make up this land. The government in Washington is something entirely different. You are not your government, and we are not our government. This is important as a starting point when discussing government. See The Anatomy of the State for more on this.
Objectivists (and mainstream statists, i.e. Republicans and Democrats) tend to have an over inflated positive view of the American government. Again, in 1789, relative to most other states in the history of the world, the United States federal government was a great improvement. It attempted to limit itself. It initially gave itself very little authority. It initially mostly left people alone to live and prosper. But, none the less, it was a state. We need to turn off our blinders and look at all things objectively. Just because it was better than most other states, doesn’t mean it was without flaws. Just because it is “our” government and “my” country does not mean it was without flaws from the start. Don’t get me wrong, I love my country (the places, the people, the food, the industry, the science, the entertainment, etc.), and I’m grateful I was born in a place, that in a world full of states, was founded as one of the better states.
Now let’s get objective. Something is not the be all and end all because it is better than other things. We should be able to analyze the good and the bad of something, and seek to improve what could be improved. Some people look to the “founders” as if they’re one united thing, that they all had the same vision, and were all united in founding a limited government to provide defense and protect property rights. Well that wasn’t the case. Among the founders there were those who had no interest in a small limited state. And some of their views made it into the new government. Immediately people were pushing for a central bank to control the economy. Immediately slavery was okay. Ayn Rand said things like “They [the founders] started with the premise of the primacy and sovereignty of the individual.” Yet, immediately Washington was marching off to Pennsylvania to forcibly demand every last cent of tax money from the new subjects who actually did see themselves as sovereign and wished to be left alone. Immediately a group of men created a system that wasn’t approved or accepted by anyone except themselves. That system was limited by “limits” those men put in place. And as part of that system, those very same men gave themselves (and their successors) the ability to change the “limits” and grant themselves more power. Yes it was pretty good to begin with, but if all of that was part of it, I think we can do better. Again, J. Michael Oliver –
“The new libertarian concludes that the internal checks and balances on governmental power and the alleged mechanisms for the defense of minorities are … flimsy constructs. … Genuine competition, whether from another coercive agency or from a non-coercive business, can serve as the only real “limit” on State power, and it does so precisely by depriving government of its status as a ‘government.’ Logically, then, if government exists, it is unlimited and self-determining.”
The big problem with this over fondness of the founding is that it carries over to an over-inflated positive view of everything else the government has done since. This leads to nationalism. Then rather than universalizing philosophy to all people and places, this creates a “we” mentality with America and with the US government. I think its important to remember that it is the ideas that really matter. I don’t swear allegiance to some particular gang, and I don’t care where good or bad ideas are located. I just care to promote good ideas, and would love to see freedom and reason spring up anywhere in the world.
Objectivists and others have a hard time looking at the policies and actions of the US government truthfully. They see the dangers in some domestic economic policy. But they seem to miss the boat when the government sinks their own ships to start wars, kills hundreds of thousands of civilians in wars started on false pretenses, tests innocent people with the effects of various diseases, drops radioactive munitions all over mid-east countries, drone bombs weddings and playing children, routinely kills people in American streets and homes with no due process, carries out a war on plants, literally funds and creates terrorists, is in bed with banks and defense contractors, and takes actions to enrich those interests by any means possible. Really this is a whole other topic, worthy of much more attention. The tiny, limited state that Objectivists and others have delusions about is now the largest, most overbearing, most controlling, most violent institution to ever exist on this planet. And I would argue it has gotten this way not because something has gone wrong, or that we have “strayed from the founders intention” – but because this was the goal of people like Alexander Hamilton in the first place. It was designed this way. It is a state. Let a state take hold of a geographic region, whether it starts big or small, sooner or later it will be doing some pretty bad things.
The main issue to be addressed here is that we should not give a pass to our own government for their actions. We should look at the Constitution, the entire system of government, the military, all presidents, etc. just as critically as we look at some congressman, or some new health law. We should love our country, and love the moral ideas and principles that we know to be true, and go from there. We should be critical of the US government because we love our country, because we hold firm to our principles, and because we want to see the best world absolutely possible, not just the best world within the current paradigm.
Rand’s political ideas are not entirely original or unique either. It is basically the classical liberal, “limited government”, American republic view, which she learned from Isabel Paterson, John Locke and others. The logical foundation for systems such as these is not fundamentally different than other nation state systems like communism, welfare states, democracies, etc. If you reverse engineer these systems back to their philosophical roots you end up with arbitrary power, arbitrary “authority”, initiation of aggression, logical fallacies, pragmatism, utilitarianism, and violation of the freedom of the individual. In other words, different groups want to achieve different goals (limited republics, communism, welfarism), but all these different groups use the same basic principles and systems to institute their plans on others. Rand’s metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics included wonderful, original ideas. To me it is an integrated, logical system to help us think and live happy lives. And if we forward engineer those ideas to their logical conclusions in the political realm, we get a free, voluntary society, ordered not by “leaders”, but by the market and moral principles of human action.
What Rand gets wrong is the definition of government. Government, by its most basic fundamental nature is physical compulsion against men. It can be no other way. That is how states do what they do. States exist for their own benefit, maintaining power over their subjects by being the monopoly of force in a geographic area. Objectivists parrot the notion that we just need to have this magical “proper government”, funded by “voluntary taxation”, which is as absurd as saying you’re going to have a proper handshake with a crocodile. It isn’t going to happen. It isn’t in its nature. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be a government. It would be a voluntary transaction between two willing parties. And if that were the case, it’s just a market, where firms can compete for our business – in all areas of life, not just some. It’s the free market taken to its logical conclusion. We don’t need to be “lead”. We don’t need a violent monopoly as a prerequisite to peaceful existence and free markets. That is the contradiction. We should stick with Rand’s conclusions for thinking, perceiving reality, living on this earth, and of the NAP. Then we can plow on to a better understanding of what truly moral governance could look like through individual action, spontaneous order, and the “chaos” of the market.
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand described an ideal community where people voluntarily got along and prospered. She was able to envision this, but she would not let herself identify what this community meant. Galt’s Gulch was anarchy. So this scenario of the gulch is basically what any voluntaryist or anarcho-capitalist advocates, yet anytime a Randian is approached with the idea of anarchy in the real world they immediately declare anarchy impossible, unworkable, tantamount to chaos, “gang-warfare”, etc. So in a hypothetical situation like Galt’s Gulch Randians can imagine anarchy (a functioning orderly society based on the market, agreements, and contracts), but as soon as they discuss real world applications they drop the idea of Galt’s Gulch, drop their own principles, and resort to pragmatism in defending authoritarian governments.
Rand’s conclusions on politics lead her followers to think that is it merely BIG government that is bad, i.e. communism, mixed welfare states, etc. But in truth states are fundamentally all equal, all playing the same game, and on the same side. Different types of governments are merely different quantities of the same evil, of the same bad premises. No matter the form they take, governments are based on the same principle; the idea that a man or group of men can claim “authority” and dictate to others what they must do. Government in general is the greatest violator of rights and initiator of war now or at any time in history, no matter the size. Through a sort of conservatism, Objectivists seem to be weary of looking into matters that might question their conclusions. If they did they might not be Objectivists anymore, as they’d see that governments, even the “good” ones, violate their rights more than they protect them; that governments have started countless wars on false pretenses; that governments, even the tiniest examples, are rights violators (given they’re violent monopolies), that many governments we think are enemies actually work together behind the scenes; and that many of their business heroes past and present are and were indeed government connected cronies. And after discovering all that, to not consider even imagining any other way of protecting rights and providing safety I think is absurd. When you continue on from Ayn Rand and read the countless thinkers who have done amazing work in history, politics, and social and economic theory, this all makes much more sense. As an Objectivist you think you have it all figured out already (I thought I did for a time), so you might not read these other writers, and so naturally you might be antagonistic to what you don’t understand, and that which contradicts what you think you know. To me, this wouldn’t defy or reject what makes Objectivism special. You start with a rational base with the Objectivist theories of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics – and you just keep on going from there – not compromising at all, and not accepting any contradictions. In fact I see it in line with the essence of Objectivism – to use our minds, to figure out new ways of prospering, of doing things better, and of providing services in ever creative ways.
Two Types of Objectivists
There are libertarians (generally adhere to the philosophy) and Libertarians (members of the political party). Despite Objectivist’s dislike of this idea, I think there are objectivists (people who adhere to reality and reason, act in their self interest, and favor free markets) and there are Objectivists (members of the group, followers or admirers of Ayn Rand). And coming full circle now, I think we should follow reason, rationality, and our own minds, rather than following people (or parties, or groups, or movements, etc.)
So here is my final suggestion. If you have not read Ayn Rand, do it. Go in with an open mind and soak it up. I think her writing will benefit you. Start with something short like Anthem. Then try The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Some of my favorites of her non-fiction are For the New Intellectual, The Virtue of Selfishness, and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Don’t start calling yourself an Objectivist though. You don’t have to be part of the group to learn and utilize good ideas. Think for yourself. Use your mind, and don’t compromise on that.
If you already know Ayn Rand, consider there is more to learn. Think about what is important about the philosophy of Objectivism: valuing reason, rationality, accepting reality, promoting self-interest and free markets. Consider the idea that you can remain firm in those areas and continue your self-education. There are philosophers, economists, and historians you can learn new things from. And yes, when you learn enough, you might find you disagree with Ayn Rand on some of her conclusions. But you’ll also find that these new ideas can remain consistent with the foundation of Objectivism, and one day you’ll wake up and realize you’re an independent, objectivist-minded, rational, free thinker – but, not an Objectivist.
Some objectivist-Minded Thinkers
Below will be a list of resources for further learning. Some of these are great thinkers who are little “o” objectivists. These people are fantastic examples of objectivists, or just rational thinkers, but who aren’t Objectivists. There will be some other resources that shine a light on some of the flaws and inconsistencies with Objectivism as a complete philosophy.
And to start I am including a recent podcast from the School Sucks Project. This is not specifically concerning Objectivism, but deals with the thought processes of challenging ourselves on what we know. They discuss analyzing ideas, utilizing our own rational ability, and many other topics. It is called “Scientific Consensus vs. Dissent“. This is Part 1 in what will be an ongoing series. If you find it enjoyable or helpful, check back on their site for future parts.
Wes Bertrand – Wes runs the website and podcast Complete Liberty. He comes from an Objectivist background, and has a great deal of helpful content, especially on self-esteem, communication, and applying objectivist ideas to all areas of life and philosophy. On his website, among other things, he has a book titled Complete Liberty, available for free; and a series of podcasts, numbering over 200.
Stefan Molyneux – Stefan hosts a podcast and Youtube channel called Freedomain Radio. Many of his ideas are Objectivism based, and he’s developed his own system of objectively defined and rationally derived ethics. He’s done great work in many areas including government, mental health, psychology, current events, general philosophy, and more. He has around 3000 episodes and many more youtube videos. Here you can find his videos tagged with Ayn Rand. Find his full body of videos here, or his website homepage here, or his list of free books here.
Brett Venoitte – Brett runs the School Sucks Project, which includes a podcast and youtube channel. He came out of being a teacher and administrator in public schools. He has a great deal of content focused on the origins of public schooling, the difference between education and school, and methods of thinking and organizing for healthier, more productive lives. He covers many other topics like American History, The Trivium, and with the help of many guests like Wes Bertrand and Carlos Morales, they cover objectivist ideas applied to life. Here are his episodes tagged with “Ayn Rand”. This one might be a good place to start. Here are his youtube videos. Check this one out for a good starting point for his contents and methods exploring history.
Carlos Morales – Carlos runs the “Truth Over Comfort” podcast. I became familiar with Carlos through his appearances on the School Sucks podcasts with Brett and Wes, and look forward to hearing more of him. He deals with ethics, children in the statist system, and other topics. Here is his Facebook page. Here is his website where you can access his book and podcasts.
Lauren Rumpler AKA “Objectivist Girl” – Lauren discovered Objectivism when she was growing up and found that objectivist ideas could help her directly in her life. She went on to find voluntaryism and anarchy as well, but continues to integrate objectivist philosophy into her work. She writes, and runs a podcast and youtube channel. Here’s a recent article on Objectivism. This is her old website, Objectivist Girl. Here is the youtube Channel. Here is her new website, LaurenRumpler.com.
Stephan Kinsella – Stephan has a background in objectivism. In the late 80s and early 90s he met Murray Rothbard and Hans Hermann Hoppe, getting involved with Austrian Economics, Ethics, Libertarianism, and Intellectual Property. He became an IP lawyer, but ironically eventually became one of the foremost anti-IP thinkers. With his background and knowledge of objectivist ideas, he has a unique and logical perspective on many topics. You can find his blog, podcast, and links to other work at his website stephankinsella.com. Here is a specific page from Kinsella on Objectivists and War. Here is a page regarding Randians coming around on IP. Search on his site for other Ayn Rand tagged content, or find his work elsewhere like on youtube or mises.org where he regularly references Rand’s ideas.
I didn’t make the case against IP in this article, but that is another thing I now think Rand got wrong. It took me a while on this one, because it is such a standard part of Objectivism and mainstream capitalist (read: crony capitalist) ideas that I used to subscribe to. Here are a few resources on the topic: Stephan Kinsella is one of the leading voices on IP. You can find his book, Against Intellectual Property here (of course freely available) and the audio version, or on Amazon if you wish to purchase it. Here is a recent interview with him where you can get his ideas on the topic – or just search around on his website. The Libertarian Critique of Intellectual Property by Butler Shaffer – also freely available here. Or another article by Shaffer here. Browse here for more on the topic from Mises.org. Here is an interview between Stephan Kinsella and Stefan Molyneux discussing IP.
Anarchobjectivist – I do not know the name of the writer for this blog, but it is an excellent resource for learning of contradictions within Objectivism, and for meshing market anarchy with objectivism. You can find the website here.
Nathaniel Branden – Nathaniel is the most well-known person who Ayn Rand and the Objectivists “broke” with. He was the main spokesperson for Objectivism in the 1960s. He never broke with the foundations of objectivist philosophy. But he did go on to do brilliant work in psychology, self-esteem, and combining objectivist ideas with those disciplines to help apply these ideas to our daily mental processes. Basically Branden was the first Objectivist who decided to just be an objectivist-minded thinker, and kept on going on his intellectual journey. Sadly he passed away in December of 2014. You can find some of his work here, including two excellent pieces he released, one on what he saw as the main benefits and hazards of Objectivism, and the other an insightful look into Ayn Rand the person, later in her life. And here are his short views on Objectivism. Here you can find all of his books on Amazon.
Murray Rothbard – Though he was very much disliked by Ayn Rand, he respected her ideas. After she published Atlas Shrugged, he wrote a glowing letter to her complementing the book. He was not exactly an objectivist, but he certainly was not mystical. He was an atheist. He was rational, and rigorously logical in his writings. Some have said he had a very Aristotelian way of explaining things. Rothbard was a sort of autodidact – delving into multitudes of topics and becoming expert at each one. His masterwork was the book Man, Economy, and State, dealing with economics and human action. He also did amazing work with history and ethics, and he very much valued rationality, and an objective ethical system for living. You can find much of his work here at the Mises Institute. Here is an article he wrote concerning the Randian Collective – The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult.
Wendy McElroy – Wendy is a well known individualist anarchist, who has done a fair amount of writing on Ayn Rand. She comes from a very rational perspective, a al Rothbard. Here are “Ayn Rand” tagged posts on her website. And here is another good article on “going galt”.
Walter Block – Walter is not an objectivist, but does have some interesting stories to tell of his time in the 60s meeting Rand and Branden, and spending some time in those circles. In the 1960s Block was a young jewish leftist in New York. He met Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden at an event – and that’s where he got his start as a free-market economist and libertarian thinker. He describes those events in this talk. In the 90s when a Peter Schwartz wrote an attack of Libertarianism from the Randian perspective, Walter Block wrote an excellent response, which you can find here.
And here is another response to that same article by Kevin McFarlane. “A Restricted Critique”
George Reisman – George Reisman was introduced to Ayn Rand by Murray Rothbard when he arranged some meetings with her back in the mid-1950s. He describes this time period here. He was taken with her ideas and became part of the Randian inner circle from then until the 1990s. He identifies as an Objectivist, though he was officially kicked out of the “movement” by the leadership. From an economics standpoint Reisman is a giant. This is a man who got his doctorate under Ludwig Von Mises and spent decades studying Objecitvism. He has never fully made the leap to more anarcho-capitalist ideas, but he is a great example of an objectivist who is his own independent thinker as well. Here is his website and here is his blog. Here is his profile on Mises.org.
Per-Olof Samuelsson – Samuelsson is an objectivist for sure, but not part of the official movement. Here is his About Page on his website, here are some of his articles, and here is one explaining why he’s not part of the official Objectivist movement.
J. Michael Oliver – Oliver considers himself an objectivist and an anarcho-capitalist. He has just published a new book called The New Libertarianism: Anarcho-Capitalism. At the following link you can listen to an interview with Oliver called Can Anarcho-Capitalism and Objectivism Be Reconciled? As a commenter on the Mises.org posting of this said “Very enlightening and heartening. “Rand and Rothbard combined”, as Michael puts it, is a better idea than the two of them in conflict.”
Richard Sloman – I haven’t had time to read this one yet, but looks promising; another bridge between Objectivism and Anarchism.
Barbara Branden – Here is an interesting article by Barbara Branden titled Rage and Objectivism.
David Kelly – Here is the full text of Kelley’s book The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand.
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