Monday, June 28, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 56

Ayn Rand contra Libertarianism 1. Rand’s view of libertarianism speaks volumes about the Objectivist politics. When asked, “Why don’t you approve of the Libertarians, thousands of whom are loyal readers of your works?” Rand responded:

Because Libertarians are a monstrous, disgusting bunch of people: they plagiarize my ideas when that fits their purpose, and they denounce me in a more vicious manner than any communist publication, when that fits their purpose. They are lower than any pragmatists, and what they hold against Objectivism is morality. They’d like to have an amoral political program.


Here’s some of Rand’s other choice remarks about Libertarians:

All kinds of people today call themselves “libertarians,” especially something calling itself the New Right, which consists of hippies, except that they’re anarchists instead of collectivists. But of course, anarchists are collectivists.... [Libertarians] sling slogans and try to ride on two bandwagons. They want to be hippies, but don’t want to preach collectivism, because those jobs are already taken. But anarchism is a logical outgrowth of the anti-intellectual side of collectivism. I could deal with a Marxist with a greater chance of reaching some kind of understanding, and with much greater respect. The anarchist is the scum of the intellectual world of the left, which has given them up. So the right picks up another leftist discard. That’s the Libertarian movement.

[The Libertarian Party is] a cheap attempt at publicity, which Libertarians won’t get...

Further, [the Libertarian’s] leadership consists of men of every of persuasion, from religious conservatives to anarchists. Moreover, most of them are my enemies: they spend their time denouncing me, while plagiarizing my ideas. Now, I think it’s a bad beginning for an allegedly pro-capitalist party to start by stealing ideas.

Now here is a party that plagiarizes some of my ideas, mixes it with the exact opposite—with religionists, anarchists, and just about every intellectual misfit and scum they can find—and they call themselves Libertarians, and run for office.

...to form a new party based in part on half-baked ideas, and in part on borrowed ideas—I won’t say from whom—is irresponsible, and in today’s context, nearly immoral.


These remarks are so intemperate and over-the-top that it is hard not to suspect that Rand is merely looking for a pretext to despise and hate Libertarians. Summed up, here are what her allegations against Libertarianism amount to:

Libertarians are bad and evil because:

  1. Libertarians are a “monstrous, disgusting bunch of people.”
  2. Libertarians are “plagiarists” who stole Rand’s ideas without giving credit.
  3. Libertarians are anarchists.
  4. Libertarians are anti-intellectual collectivists, worse than Marxists.
  5. Libertarians are hippies and scum and intellectual cranks.
  6. Libertarians are worse than the New Left, because they want to combine anarchism with capitalism.
  7. Libertarians are led by men of various persuasions, including “religious conservatives and anarchists.”
  8. Libertarianism is based, in part, on “borrowed ideas.”
  9. Libertarians denounce Rand when it fits their purpose.
  10. Libertarians would like to have an amoral politics.
  11. Libertarianism is a cheap attempt at publicity.


Let’s examine each of these charges one by one:

1. Libertarians are a “monstrous, disgusting bunch of people.” This is merely an ad hominem slur with no logical or objective value whatsoever: simply Rand letting off emotional steam. But for someone who prides herself on rationality and objectivity, this sort of display hardly inspires trust or admiration. It makes one, rather, suspect that Rand’s hostility to Libertarianism has its root in irrational passion.

2. Libertarians are “plagiarists” who stole Rand’s ideas without giving credit. This is a deeply problematic charge against Libertarianism, especially considering the goal of Objectivism to spread Rand’s philosophy as far as possible. If Rand were merely complaining that Libertarians misrepresented her, that would be one thing, but the fact that she actually uses the word plagiarism raises questions as to Rand’s ultimate commitments. If Rand had to choose between (1) achieving widespread influence for her ideas but not being given credit for them, or (2) never suffering plagiarism but never achieving widespread influence, which would she choose? Her bitter complaints about plagiarism suggest that she would prefer the latter, that, in other words, unless she were given credit for her ideas, she would rather her ideas had no influence at all.

There is another side to this question as well. By complaining about plagiarism, Rand is implying that ideas are the exclusive property of their originators, but this is not the case at all. In the first place, there are very few new and original ideas out there: most ideas are simply the elaborations of other ideas. There is very little in Rand’s political thinking that is altogether new. Moreover, Rand seemed to have gotten many of her ideas, both political and otherwise, from Isabel Paterson. Rand’s entire theory of history (which is very important aspect of her politics) is merely an elaboration of what she learned from Paterson. [See Goddess of the Market, 112]

3. Libertarians are anarchists. This is merely guilt by association. Some libertarians are anarchists, therefore Rand implies that all Libertarians are anarchists. Basic intellectual honesty necessitates making this obvious distinction.

4. Libertarians are anti-intellectual collectivists, worse than Marxists. Really? While it is not entirely impossible that at least a few Libertarians are anti-intellectual, the notion that Libertarians are collectivists is simply absurd. Are the Cato institute, the Reason Foundation champions of collectivsm? Are Charles Murray, Milton Friedman, Ludwig Von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, and Robert Nozick collectivists? Rand made a number of questionable assertions during her career as a polemicist. I can’t recall anything more dubious and irresponsible than this assertion.

5. Libertarians are hippies and scum and intellectual cranks. More ad hominem chatter which reveals more about Rand than it does about Libertarianism. That she must resort to name calling reveals the poverty of her claim to be a champion of reason and rationality.

I’ll cover 6-11 in my next post.


18 comments:

Neil Parille said...

Greg,

In this post I mentioned some of Rand's political ideas shared by others before her:

http://aynrandcontrahumannature.blogspot.com/2008/02/ayn-rands-originality-part-2-social-and_22.html

According to Rand, libertarians plagiarize her ideas. But her ideas have nothing in common with theirs. Which is it?

-Neil Parille

Neil Parille said...

She seems to associate all libertarians with Rothbardian anarcho-capitalists. But even Rothbard didn't advocate most of what she associated libertarianism with.

-Neil Parille

Neil Parille said...

So far as I can tell, the plagiarism claim started with Rothbard, who used some Randian language in article of his. He probably should have mentioned Rand, but it wasn't plagiarism as even George Reisman conceded.

Jim Valliant also says that Reason Magazine using the subtitle "Free Minds and Free Markets" is a sort of plagiarism.

Rey said...

Two names to explode the anarchism=collectivism canard: Emma Goldman; Lysander Spooner. The former was a collectivist, the latter was a capitalist, and both were anarchists. Anyone who has spent 10 minutes reading their respective writings would grasp this. If they were honest.

gregnyquist said...

Ray: "Two names to explode the anarchism=collectivism canard: Emma Goldman; Lysander Spooner."

I'm not sure whether this is meant as criticism of Rand or the post. In any case, the question is not whether anarchists are or can be collectivists: on the contrary, the point of debate hinges on whether a libertarian can be a collectivist (in the political sense of the word). Libertarians dream of a political order that protects its citizens from the initiation of physical force. That rules out any kind of involuntary, political collectivism right from the start.

gregnyquist said...

"So far as I can tell, the plagiarism claim started with Rothbard..."

I think an argument could be made that it started, not with Rothbard, but with Paterson. In a letter, Rand accused Paterson of using Rand's views of self-interest and altruism without giving Rand credit. The irony of this is two-fold. In the first place, Paterson's attack on "altruism" (Paterson uses the word "humanitarianism" instead of altruism) in The God of the Machine is more subtle, sophisticated, and plausible then any of Rand's screeds on altruism. So Paterson improves upon what she borrowed. Yet Rand borrowings from Paterson (far more extensive than Paterson's from Rand, BTW) involve the reverse: Rand makes Paterson's ideas less plausible, less sophisticated, less grounded in knowledge of the relevant facts. Paterson's notions, however eccentric, were at least based on wide reading, which enabled Paterson to avoid lapsing into embarrassing distortions of the views of philosophers she disliked. Rand, having read little or none of the relevant source material, entertains no such inhibitions, but makes one reckless accusation after another.

Curiously, even Rothbard's initial plagiarism (his essay "The Mantle of Science") improves upon the material upon which it is allegedly based (i.e., the Objectivist defense of free will). Just read Rothbard's essay and compare it to Peikoff's obscure and muddled defense of free will in OPAR. While both defend a problematic conception of free will, Rothbard does it more convincingly.

Anonymous said...

"Libertarians are a monstrous, disgusting bunch of people..."

Probably about the only time Ayn Rand an me would agree on something.

To me this just sounds like one bunch of bandits falling out with another ;)

If you libertarians fell that Ayn Rand has got you all wrong well you can hardly complain as I'm here to tell you, you guys get socialism wrong. I've tried to tell you and others what it is and what is isn't but do you listen? No you do not. I've done my level best to show that nationilization, 'socialised medicine' (WFT??), public schools (US version) etc have got nothing to do with socialism but it all falls on deaf ears.
So I'm sorry I've go no sympathy...except that when Rand attacks anybody my natural instinct is obviously that a) she is wrong and b) whoever she is attacking automatically gets my sympathy.

Steven Johnston
UK

Anonymous said...

"Libertarians dream of a political order that protects its citizens from the initiation of physical force."

Politicians from which part of the political spectrum dream the opposite?

Steven Johnston
UK

Rey said...

"I'm not sure whether this is meant as criticism of Rand or the post."

I meant it as a criticism of Rand's argument (anarchists=collectivists, liberatarians=anarchists, therefore libertarians=collectivists) by pointing out there there are collectivist schools of anarchist thought and capitalist schools of anarchist thought.

Re: Greg Nyquist

"Libertarians dream of a political order that protects its citizens from the initiation of physical force. That rules out any kind of involuntary, political collectivism right from the start."

Could you elaborate on what you mean by political collectivism as opposed to other types of collectivism.

Neil Parille said...

Rand's statements almost cause me to question her mental stability.

Why not say something to the effect:

___

My political views are similar to those of libertarians. However I prefer not to use the term because many libertarians support anarchism and few understand the necessary moral basis for capitalism.

____

Right or wrong it's at least plausible.

-Neil Parille

Anonymous said...

"Right or wrong it's at least plausible."

True, but by the time she said that she was probably into her LRH type cult leader phase and it's the nature of that beast to make these outrageous, over the top statements of which were her stock-in-trade.

Phrasing it like do seems a bit tame for her at least. As one poor chap who attended a lecture of hers (free) found out when he tried to ask a question, she described him as a "fraud and a cheapskate" as only paying atendees were allowed to ask questions. Surely all she needed to say there was "I'm sorry only those who have paid are allowed a question or answer" or even "This once I will answer it but no more questions from those who have not paid to attend"

No, I think with Rand the performance was just as important as the words.

Steven Johnston
UK

gregnyquist said...

"Could you elaborate on what you mean by political collectivism as opposed to other types of collectivism."

The term "political collectivism" is nearly redundant, as nearly any attempt at collectivism is going to need political force to make it persist. Voluntary, non-political collectivism is a bit more difficult to define, because, presumably, it could be used to describe just about any voluntary social unit, such as a private club or the group that collected around Ayn Rand (which, ironically, was called "the collective"). Stronger examples of voluntary collectivism might be those old socialist communes like Brook Farm or a Kibbutz.

Rey said...

"Stronger examples of voluntary collectivism might be those old socialist communes like Brook Farm or a Kibbutz."

It's around the basis of such projects or voluntary social units that the "collectivist" anarchists (Goldman, Kropotkin, Malatesta, the Wobblies, CNT-AIT, etc.) believed society could be reorganized, creating confederation of industrial and agricultural collectives, but only "from below," that is, without the State forcing collectivization as in the Bolshevik model which Rand experienced.

I have a hard time delineating when she's jumping to conclusions based on her experience and when she's being straight-up dishonest.

In my more charitable moods, I think that the trauma suffered during the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War causes her to associate "collectivism" only with the Bolshevik variety.

In my less charitable moods I'm inclined to think that she intentionally conflates the political collectivism practiced by Bolsheviks and Nazis with the voluntary collectivism advocated by anarchists, using that equivocation, in this case, to tar her libertarian rivals with a Bolshevik brush. It's much easier than enaging their ideas on their own terms.

Anonymous said...

"Stronger examples of voluntary collectivism might be those old socialist communes like Brook Farm or a Kibbutz."

If you are going to write ruddibhs like this about socialism then don't moan about the objectivists getting Libertarianism wrong. If you can't tkae it don't give it.

Steven Johnston
UK

Xtra Laj said...

Rey,

Broadly speaking, I think Rand's primary error is similar to that of most Objectivists who follow her: they are rationalists. They confuse mathematics and logic with science. They try to make the world fit their ideas, rather than making their ideas fit the world. If their ideas and the world are in conflict, the world must be wrong, and the reason is (usually) free will!

It's the difference between someone who is always trying to show he or she is right and someone who is always trying to show that he or she truly understands you. Of course, everyone falls somewhere in the middle, but Objectivist tend to be more like those who are trying to show they are right.

DocBadwrench said...

LTTP because I was on vacation. It never ceases to amaze me how vociferously Rand could alienate even people who were sympathetic to her.

I can't imagine why Objectivism never caught on...

gregnyquist said...

Steve: "If you are going to write ruddibhs like this about socialism then don't moan about the objectivists getting Libertarianism wrong. If you can't tkae it don't give it."

Steve, in all fairness, do you really believe that calling Libertarians "a monstrous, disgusting bunch of people" is the same as describing Brook Farm as socialism? In Rand's case, it's a sharp, biting, demeaning insult; in the latter, it's merely a description, following common usage. It's no insult to either Brook Farm or to socialism to link these terms. You may not like calling Brook Farm socialist, but that's a usage nearly everybody accepts, including the Brook Farmers themselves (e.g., Nathaniel Hawthorne).

Xtra Laj said...

It's no insult to either Brook Farm or to socialism to link these terms. You may not like calling Brook Farm socialist, but that's a usage nearly everybody accepts, including the Brook Farmers themselves (e.g., Nathaniel Hawthorne).

Actually, to a believer like Steve, it is. Steve likes to maintain that "true" socialism has never been tried before, and that systems that have failed and are described as socialism have nothing to do with "true" socialism. So whenever you associate anything in the real world that has failed with "socialism", which for Steve has a specific meaning, Steve considers it a great insult. If you point out that Obama has socialist sympathies, Steve will ask you to point out how what Obama is doing aligns with what Marx described in the Communist Manifesto and that kind of thing. We have to adjust reality to the Marxian ideas, not the Marxian ideas to reality.