Neil Parille follows up on his previous post concerning Ayn Rand’s view of human nature by looking at parallels with other social and political thinkers
Rand advocated laissez-faire capitalism. She was not, of course, the first. Like Rand, previous thinkers supported freedom of contract, private property, private roads, the gold standard and opposed censorship, the draft, and anti-trust laws as incompatible with a free society.
The Non-Initiation of Force Principle
A central tenant of Objectivist politics is the non-initiation of force principle. She accused libertarians of “plagiarizing” her on this. However, classical liberal thinkers including Lysander Spooner (1808-1887), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) taught similar versions of this principle.
Rand opposed taxation and believed that, ideally, government should be financed by voluntary contributions. Auberon Herbert (1838-1906) was a well-known advocate of voluntary taxation who, like Rand, was not an anarchist.
Government Coercion Generates Conflict in Society
Rand argued that excessive government was a central source of friction in society. She was not alone in this. As Auberon Herbert’s said, “So long as force is paramount, so long must men stand in hate and fear of each other . . . the old saying, homo homini lupus, remain true.” (Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and Other Essays, p. 176.)
Society of Contract
A staple of libertarian and classical liberal thought is that a free society is one of contract, replacing the previous societies of class and status. Isabel Paterson (1881-1961) writes: “In a Society of Contract, man is born free, and comes into his inheritance with maturity. By this concept all rights belong to the individual. Society consists of individuals in voluntary association. The rights of any person are limited only by the equal rights of another person.” (Paterson, The God of the Machine, p. 42.) Compare this to Rand: “In a free society, the ‘rights’ of any group are derived from the rights of its members through their voluntary, individual choice and contractual agreement, and are merely the application of these individual rights to a specific undertaking.” (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 102.)
Rand stated “there is no such entity as ‘society’, since society is only a number of individual men. . . . “ (Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 320.) This is, in essence, the theory of methodological individualism, which had been developed in greater detail by Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and other thinkers in the Austrian tradition.
Pyramid of Ability Principle
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand advances what Objectivists call the “pyramid of ability principle,” namely that those less capable benefit when the more capable are allowed to advance to the limit of their abilities. (Rand, For the New Intellectual, pp. 185-86.) This concept is not unique to Rand, being found in numerous classical liberal and conservative works. For example, in 1894 book Labour and the Popular Welfare, W. H. Mallock writes: “Equality benefits no one. It frustrates men of talent; and it reduces the poor to a poverty still more abject. . . . For inequality produces the wealth of civilized communities: it provides the motive which induces men of superior benefit to exert themselves for the general benefit.”
As an aside, George Reisman in his treatise Capitalism claims that Rand “first indentified” the pyramid of ability principle. (Reisman, Capitalism, p. 357.) It is rather surprising that someone could be so uninformed about the general tradition in which he writes.
Capitalism Is Based on Reason and Self-Interest
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Rand’s defense of capitalism is her claim that it is the political system consistent with reason and self-interest. Even here, it appears that Rand had predecessors. Jeff Walker points to books from the 1920s such as Charles Fay’s Politics in Business and Garet Garret’s novel The Driver which anticipated Rand’s portrayal of the businessman as the rational, selfish hero. (Walker, The Ayn Rand Cult, pp. 288-89, 305-07.)
- Neil Parille