Attacking Ayn Rand Is Easy, If You Distort Her Ideas: Jonathan Chait Edition
At ARI, we have caught a lot of flak for our criticisms of Donald Trump. In particular, there was a lot of blowback for Onkar Ghate’s essay, “One Small Step for Dictatorship: The Significance of Donald Trump’s Election.”
Some people wrongly saw the piece as an attack on anyone who voted for Trump. But that was not Onkar’s point. His point was that we should be alarmed by how many Americans responded positively to Trump’s authoritarianism — and, more widely, by how many Americans are attracted to the authoritarianism increasingly exhibited by both Democrat and Republican political leaders.
So you can imagine my surprise when I read a recent New York piece by Jonathan Chait, blaming Ayn Rand for inspiring conservatives to overlook Trump’s authoritarianism.
Chait’s argument is that conservatives think authoritarian threats to economic liberty are as or more alarming than authoritarian threats to political liberty. And so they are willing to overlook Trump’s praise for dictators like Putin and his vows to punish his opponents because they believe Trump will fight back against threats to economic liberty, such as business regulations and high taxes on wealthy Americans.
But, according to Chait, equating threats to economic liberty with threats to political liberty is “insane.” How could conservatives reach such an “insane” conclusion, and thus embrace Trump? Well, by reading Ayn Rand.
And, true enough, Rand does argue that political and economic liberty are equally sacrosanct. In Rand’s view, man’s survival depends on his ability to act on his own rational judgment — his judgment concerning intellectual, political, and economic matters. In her essay “What is Capitalism?” Rand writes:
Man has to work and produce in order to support his life. He has to support his life by his own effort and by the guidance of his own mind. If he cannot dispose of the product of his effort, he cannot dispose of his effort; if he cannot dispose of his effort, he cannot dispose of his life.
Thus, Rand’s support for capitalism — a social system that protects intellectual, political, and economic freedom.
It is the basic, metaphysical fact of man’s nature — the connection between his survival and his use of reason — that capitalism recognizes and protects.
In a capitalist society, all human relationships are voluntary. Men are free to cooperate or not, to deal with one another or not, as their own individual judgments, convictions, and interests dictate. They can deal with one another only in terms of and by means of reason, i.e., by means of discussion, persuasion, and contractual agreement, by voluntary choice to mutual benefit. The right to agree with others is not a problem in any society; it is the right to disagree that is crucial. It is the institution of private property that protects and implements the right to disagree—and thus keeps the road open to man’s most valuable attribute (valuable personally, socially, and objectively): the creative mind.
Elsewhere, Rand summarized the point this way: “Intellectual freedom cannot exist without political freedom; political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom; a free mind and a free market are corollaries.” (For a detailed exploration of this argument, I highly recommend Onkar’s “A Free Mind and a Free Market Are Corollaries,” published in the recent collection A Companion to Ayn Rand.)
But notice that Rand’s argument is that economic liberty is an inseparable component of liberty — and that capitalism is a social system that protects economic, political, and intellectual liberty. No doubt Rand has led many conservatives to worry about threats to economic liberty, but given her staunch, uncompromising opposition to authoritarianism, there’s no way her ideas could cause anyone to overlook Trump’s authoritarian tendencies.
How, then, does Chait pin the blame on Rand? Well, he actually says nothing about her view of the relationship between economic, political, and intellectual liberty. Literally nothing. Instead, he claims that
the core of her vision is that politics consists of a class struggle between makers and takers. This is inverted Marxism — politics pitting a virtuous class of producers against a parasite class that exploits the wealth they create, the difference being that Rand saw the makers as the capitalists and the takers as the workers. (“The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time,” explained her character, John Galt. “The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.”)
The argument, then, is that reading Rand leads conservatives to adopt a class warfare perspective, and merely take the other side of the Marxist coin: conservatives love Trump because he is fighting for the economic freedom of capitalists against the exploitative workers.
Chait may be right that many Trump supporters are motivated by some sort of class hatred, although I doubt it — but they couldn’t have gotten that from Rand. I mean, if you put Atlas Shrugged in a blender, maybe you could come up with something like Chait’s account, but it would have to be a powerful blender.
Rand, as I noted earlier, champions laissez-faire capitalism because it protects each individual’s right to live by his own judgment, and so allows every individual to pursue and achieve happiness. When Rand speaks of the pyramid of intellectual ability in the quote Chait cites, she is addressing a Marxist objection to capitalism: that under capitalism, “the strong” exploit “the weak.” Her response is that no one exploits anyone under capitalism — and that in fact it is “the weak” who gain the most from freedom.
Here’s her quote in context:
Look past the range of the moment, you who cry that you fear to compete with men of superior intelligence, that their mind is a threat to your livelihood, that the strong leave no chance to the weak in a market of voluntary trade. What determines the material value of your work? Nothing but the productive effort of your mind—if you lived on a desert island. The less efficient the thinking of your brain, the less your physical labor would bring you — and you could spend your life on a single routine, collecting a precarious harvest or hunting with bow and arrows, unable to think any further. But when you live in a rational society, where men are free to trade, you receive an incalculable bonus: the material value of your work is determined not only by your effort, but by the effort of the best productive minds who exist in the world around you . . . .
Every man is free to rise as far as he’s able or willing, but it’s only the degree to which he thinks that determines the degree to which he’ll rise. Physical labor as such can extend no further than the range of the moment. The man who does no more than physical labor, consumes the material value-equivalent of his own contribution to the process of production, and leaves no further value, neither for himself nor others. But the man who produces an idea in any field of rational endeavor—the man who discovers new knowledge—is the permanent benefactor of humanity. Material products can’t be shared, they belong to some ultimate consumer; it is only the value of an idea that can be shared with unlimited numbers of men, making all sharers richer at no one’s sacrifice or loss, raising the productive capacity of whatever labor they perform. It is the value of his own time that the strong of the intellect transfers to the weak, letting them work on the jobs he discovered, while devoting his time to further discoveries. This is mutual trade to mutual advantage; the interests of the mind are one, no matter what the degree of intelligence, among men who desire to work and don’t seek or expect the unearned.
In proportion to the mental energy he spent, the man who creates a new invention receives but a small percentage of his value in terms of material payment, no matter what fortune he makes, no matter what millions he earns. But the man who works as a janitor in the factory producing that invention, receives an enormous payment in proportion to the mental effort that his job requires of him. And the same is true of all men between, on all levels of ambition and ability. The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains. Such is the nature of the “competition” between the strong and the weak of the intellect. Such is the pattern of “exploitation” for which you have damned the strong.
Rand’s point, in short, is that under capitalism there is a harmony of interests among all productive individuals, regardless of ability — and that those with less ability benefit the most relative to their productive contribution. This is why her novels abound with positive characters that include not only business titans but workmen, secretaries, and laborers.
In other words, Rand rejects any notion of class warfare. The interests of capitalists and workers don’t clash — so long as they live in a free society, and so long as neither side demands the unearned.
But there is a clash, on Rand’s view, between “makers” and “takers” (although she never uses those terms), if one understands “makers” to refer to every productive person and “takers” to refer to anyone who does demand the unearned — including crony businessmen (like, say, Donald Trump) or authoritarian politicians (like, say, Donald Trump).
I wish Chait would have taken the time to get Rand right. If he is genuinely alarmed by rising authoritarianism, then there’s much of value to be found in Rand’s work. Above all, Rand calls our attention to the fact that authoritarianism is not primarily a political phenomenon, it is a philosophic one: when people surrender reason, then they will demand an authority.
Fans of Ayn Rand eagerly embracing Trump, meanwhile, should return to her work as well. It’s possible that he was better than the alternative — though that’s certainly debatable — but we do nothing to further the fight against authoritarianism by pretending that Trump is on our side. Not if our side is fighting for reason and freedom.