The personal versus the political. Rand held that politics was an extension of morality. “The answers given by ethics determine how man should treat other men, and this determines … politics.” [PWNI, 4] Here Rand committed one of her major errors. She confounded the personal with the political. She assumed, at least implicitly and tacitly, that ethics is all one: that how men treat other people in their personal life is how men should treat each other in political life. Ironically, this is a view that many on the political Left tacitly assume; only they come from a different ethical orientation than Rand. The Left wants the state to be run on the basis of the ethical norms that govern relations between family members, particularly the relations between parents and children. Hence the so-called “Nanny state” that has long been the horror of political individualists. Rand attempted to counteract this ethical orientation by claiming that the altruistic, humanitarian ethics of big-government Liberalism and the socialist Left were evil; that selfishness was the moral ideal that everyone should embrace. Her adoption of selfishness, then, was at least partially motivated by political concerns. She wished to use ethical egoism to defend capitalism against the ethics of the political Left.
It is generally a bad idea to allow political concerns and ideological commitments to affect one’s personal conduct. A morality founded on the need to defend a particular political or economic arrangement is bound to lead to problems. The main difficulty for Rand is that, as a matter of fact, political morality and personal morality can never be one. The rules we follow in the family setting cannot be identical to the rules that statesmen, judges and legislators follow in the political and social realms. We don’t treat strangers the same as we treat family members—nor should we. There are important differences between the personal and the political, the micro and the macro. If Rand had understood these differences, she could have seen her way toward developing a moral defense of capitalism without taking the extreme step of advocating selfishness. Since even Rand herself did not advocate a pure selfishness in family relations, she had to redefine common terms in bizarre ways in order to give it a specious appearence of coherency. And so we find her defining sacrifice in a way that not merely tweaks or flouts common usage, but which stomps on and makes a mockery of it. She does the same with altruism, turning it into a caricature that fails to accurately describe even those on the Left who take their humanitarianism to pathological extremes.