Are Objectivists Also Libertarians?

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The second Atlas Shrugged movie has now come out. Should this be viewed as a cause for celebration within the libertarian movement? Well, to know that we must first answer whether Objectivists are also libertarians. Is Objectivism a part of libertarianism?

Many people who claim to be Objectivists vehemently say No, it is not. My first reaction, on hearing them say that, is to think, “This is preposterous!” But it is hard to “answer” the question, because there is so much political and intellectual baggage caught up in it. In order to say “Objectivism is a type of libertarianism” you would need to define the two terms, and definitions vary so much that most people won’t agree on any two you give. And naturally, one doesn’t want to start a fight.

But let me put on my Objectivist hat for a moment and say: “In the next part of this essay I am going to demonstrate that reason and reality say that Objectivism is, in fact, a form of libertarianism, and I will be presenting the objective, neutral honest Truth.”

Here goes.

1. If “libertarian” means “extreme and radical defender of capitalism,” and “Objectivist” means “a follower of Ayn Rand,” then because Rand was an extreme, radical defender of capitalism, all of her true followers must be this type of person also. So all Objectivists are libertarians.

2. If “libertarian” means “a believer in the idea that aggression should never be initiated and violence should be used only in self-defense,” and this thought can be seen at the heart of Rand’s politics (consider the Project X episode in Atlas Shrugged, for example), then she was a libertarian and those who accept her philosophy are libertarians.

3. If “libertarian” refers to a belief that property comes from natural rights and human nature, a belief that mirrors one of Rand’s core beliefs, then the same conclusion can be drawn: she was a libertarian and her followers are also libertarians. Rothbardian libertarianism and Objectivism are like brother and sister, and Rothbard’s anti-Rand play “Mozart Was a Red” was merely a case of brother being mean to sister.

4. If “libertarian” refers to a belief that property rights are practical, pragmatic, and utilitarian, in the tradition of Hayek and Friedman, then yes, on the surface one might say that this is different from Objectivism. But let’s look more closely. The utilitarians say that capitalism will produce wealth and make people happy. Objectivism holds that capitalism is the system for “life on this Earth.” Translation: capitalism will make people happy. Rand bases her ethics on what will work in practical reality, although she takes this practicality and dresses it in the language of strict, almost puritan “morality.” Utilitarians like to say that they will obey whatever idea works best, whether it be capitalist or socialist, but in practice Hayek and Friedman were some of the most passionately idealistic and principled of capitalism’s defenders. Libertarian utilitarians take practicality and mold it into a theoretically consistent ideology based on the idea that capitalism will make people happy. Even in this sense, Objectivism is a type of libertarianism, if interpreted correctly.

5. If “libertarian” refers not to specific ideas but to a historical political movement and that movement’s members, then how can anyone ignore the steady foot traffic from Rand’s novels to the libertarian movement, during at least the past 50 years? This is the reason why It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand was so popular among libertarians. I suspect that an accurate poll of movement libertarians would reveal that at least 25% to 30% are post-Randian Objectivists, which is probably just as many as are Rothbardians or Ron Paul fanatics.

The truth is that the “official” Objectivist movement is a subset of libertarianism that, unfortunately, seeks to exclude and cast out anyone who disagrees with it, in an effort to preserve its ideological purity, which revolves around the quasi-worship of Rand; and that the “unofficial” Objectivist movement is overtly libertarian. Another truth is that many, perhaps most, of the other subsets of the libertarian movement are also obsessed with ideological purity and seek to cast out nonconformers. Anarchists hate minarchists, and vice versa, and some followers of Rothbard and his vision of anarchy are as stubborn as any Randroid. A more detailed account is beyond the scope of this essay, but can be found in Brian Doherty’s history of libertarianism, Radicals for Capitalism.

But all these people, including the Objectivists, are libertarians, whether they like it or not. Any contrary belief is illogical, self-contradictory, and blatantly irrational — precisely the type of thinking Rand preached against, although she herself had a spotty and checkered history of applying her theory of strict rationality in her personal life.

Some Objectivists reason in this form:

  1. Rand defined Objectivism.
  2. Rand said that Objectivists are not libertarians.
  3. Therefore Objectivists are not libertarians.

This sequence of assertions has a remarkable simplicity, of the kind that often appeals to the young. But, of course, the truly Randian thought would be: what matters is not what people believe or say, even about their own ideas; what matters is what exists in objective reality. I couldn’t agree more with this essential Objectivism. And I hope I have selected an appropriate way to provide an “unanswerable” question with an objective and obvious answer.




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Comments

Dan Litwin

I listened to Objectivist Leonard Peikoff when he had his radio show in the 1990s. One night, Peikoff branded libertarians with a pejorative adjective that escapes me. But it wasn't the adjective that bothered me. It was when he said that his adjective applied to "every last one of them". Hardly objective.

I eventually came to believe that some very prominment Objectivists were blind Ayn Rand fanatics, first, last, and in-between. And if libertarians were to succeed in politics, then it would be a horrible thing, because it would mean that Rand's prophecy of the collapse of society might not come true. This would explain the illogical divide between Objectivists and libertarianism.

If a fictional "prophecy" is more important than trying to save our children from distaster, Objectivists just, well, aren't.

JEyon

Russell -

a more pressing question is whether you're libertarian - since you can't seem to let another group of individuals - similar in broad strokes - but different in detail - define themselves

it's easy to encompass diverse groups with broad stroke similarities - but every group can be distinguished in the details - it's okay for statists to blur those distinctions - but it's just plain weird that a libertarian would want to

Russell Hasan

JEyon,

Thank you for reading my essay. However, I think you misconstrue my purpose. The Objectivists who say that they are not libertarians have every right to say that and to believe it. They are free to express themselves. I would not hold a gun to their heads like a statist and force them to agree with me. But my personal opinion is that Objectivism is a type of libertarian, for the reasons I presented. I think I have the right to have my opinion and, if Liberty chooses to publish it, then I have the right to express my opinion. In a sense I am trying to define myself, not other people. What is statist or non-libertarian about that? You apparently disagree with my thesis, but this is a debate worth having.

Also, I think that "libertarian" is a term with a broad definition, whereas "Objectivist" or, for example, "Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist" are more narrow detailed terms, so I don't think I have mistakenly grouped different groups together. But you are free to disagree.

Jim Henshaw

re this: "13) A moral government must therefore guarantee that:

No person shall initiate the use of physical force or threat thereof to take, withhold, damage or destroy any tangible or intangible value of another person who either created it or acquired it in a voluntary exchange, nor impede any other person's non-coercive actions."

According to this definition, "moral government" is an oxymoron, since following this statement would preclude taxation and allow people to opt out of enrolling in a "government" -- turning it into a private defense agency, not a government.

Rand did not follow this statement to its logical conclusion.

Michael M

There in the middle of #4 is the Achilles heel of your analysis: pragmatism.
You said: Rand bases her ethics on what will work in practical reality, although she takes this practicality and dresses it in the language of strict, almost puritan "morality"

No. Rand bases her ethics on a specific set of facts about the nature of man, like this:
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1) The existence of living organisms is conditional on selection and exercise of certain actions in the face of alternatives.

2) The most fundamental of all alternatives for all living creatures is life or death.

3) Man can and must initiate his selection of which of these alternative to pursue and the actions with which to pursue it (= the capacity of volition).

4) The choice (deliberate or implied in all other choices) to pursue the most fundamental alternative of life implicitly makes life one's most fundamental goal.

5) One's most fundamental goal is inherently one's most fundamental value (that which one acts to gain or keep) and the standard of measure for all less fundamental goals/values one acts to gain or keep in its pursuit.

6) Therefore, that which contributes to one's life consistent with one's nature (not a mere vegetative existence) is necessarily "the good", and that which detracts from it is "the bad".

7) Since the identification and evaluation of goals/values is slow and deliberative while everyday life is spontaneous, the long run pursuit of life necessitates a hierarchical code of values in principle (ethics) to guide (by programming emotions) one's spontaneous choices in any alternative faced, and it requires one to opt in each concrete instance for that which is the higher value per that code in lieu of the lower one (= morality of egoism).

8) Man's singular means to fulfill these requirements of his nature in the pursuit of life is by applying the product of his reason to his actions in the production and exchange of values needed to survive and flourish consistent with the nature of the human being he is.

9) The extension of that individual ethic to the social context of an individual living in a society of other volitional (and therefore fallible) men requires that one seek to preserve one's own autonomy over the application of one's own reason to one's own action in the pursuit of one's own life (= the goal of freedom from the fallibility of others).

10) The only threat to a man's pursuit of his life in that context would be the initiation or threat of physical force by others to coerce certain choices of action against his will thus diminishing or negating the above defined individual autonomy.

11) The single most fundamental political alternative is therefore not left vs. right, or liberal vs. conservative, but rather: freedom vs. force (= liberty vs. coercion, autonomy vs. servitude).

12) The sole moral requirement for any government of a society of men must therefore be to remove the use or threat of physical force from human interactions. (= Rand's radical capitalism in which every individual retains his morally justified autonomy while being prohibited from interfering with the autonomy of others).

13) A moral government must therefore guarantee that:

No person shall initiate the use of physical force or threat thereof to take, withhold, damage or destroy any tangible or intangible value of another person who either created it or acquired it in a voluntary exchange, nor impede any other person's non-coercive actions.

Note that practicality is not mentioned. The resulting code of morality does not dress up practicality, it trumps it. Morality is the primary prerequisite of practicality. Nothing can be practical without first being moral.

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Then you said: Libertarian utilitarians take practicality and mold it into a theoretically consistent ideology based on the idea that capitalism will make people happy.

And that is why Objectivists are not libertarians in the present context of political philosophies. They are libertarians only in the generic historical sense of being pro-individual rights. The fact that libertarians today share/adopt most of Rand's political positions does not alter the much more fundamental and important differences. Objectivists are neither utilitarians nor pragmatists. No matter how passionately, idealistic, and principled Hayek and Friedman are, they have no fact-based ethics to prevent them from sacrificing those principles on the altar of practicality.

Russell Hasan

Dear Michael M,

Thank you for your presentation of Rand's morality--seriously, I found it to be as concise and accurate a distillation of the Randian argument as I have ever seen. However, I think that you don't see the forest for the trees. The trees are all the different moral commandments and virtues and logical deductions in Rand's "morality", and the forest is the fact that when Rand says that life is the basis of her morality, it means that her moral code is designed to make life livable, pleasant, and enjoyable. For Rand, morality is a means to practical success. Please note that I was not trying to say that Objectivists are pragmatists or utilitarians in the pure sense of those words. In my mind, there is one thing, practicality, which means the ability to live life with happiness and satisfaction in reality. Rand recognized that this "practicality" requires capitalism. The libertarian pragmatists and utilitarians agree with her only in the sense of knowing that capitalism creates happiness. Obviously Rand did not espouse the truly utilitarian view of the greatest good for the greatest number, nor the pragmatist theory of never having principles or sacrificing one's principles for convenience.

Let me examine your quote: "6) Therefore, that which contributes to one's life consistent with one's nature (not a mere vegetative existence) is necessarily "the good", and that which detracts from it is "the bad"." I view this step in Rand's ethical argument as being indicative of what I was trying to say, namely, that practicality, the usefulness of one's beliefs for the purpose of being happy, is really the hidden premise of Rand's entire moral system.

Two other brief comments:
1. Emotions are not robots which can be "programmed"--your #7.
2. Most libertarians are not pragmatists, they are moralists, so the whole focus of your critique of me looks at one of the less important sections of my essay.
Thank you for reading my article!

Michael M

1) The practicality of libertarians is not the same as the practicality of the moral. The libertarians, with few exceptions, still believe something can be "good in theory (moral) but bad in practice." Objectivism does not. What is good in theory is always good in practice, even when the short term results appear to be terrible. Libertarians have no firewall against that.

2) Emotions are indeed the robots of the mind. Their function is to transform our slowly acquired deliberative values into our spontaneous actions and after each act to return feedback to our value system. Every screwed up emotion can be traced to contradictions between two or more of our deeper seated values. And since the process of "programming" them comes from repetition over time, a correction of a value conflict will only manifest itself in one's emotions gradually.

3) While moralists among the libertarians do have an ethics, none are fact based. Theirs is faith based—either faith in the supernatural in the case of the religious ones, or faith in their feelings in the case of the secular pragmatists. Neither can show the unequivocal link between their ethics and the facts of of their own nature and relationship to the rest of reality.

Robert K. Stock

Libertarians and Objectivists are like Bolsheviks and Menshaviks. Each group intensly dislikes the other, but anyone on the outside of these groups cannot distinguish between the two.

Russell Hasan

Libertarians and conservatives are like that too. Leftists honestly can't tell the difference between conservatives and libertarians. Isn't that horrible?

Ted Levy

I'm not sure you should refer to Objectivists who believe "objective defense" justifies nuclear incineration of much of the MIddle East as libertarian...

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