Ayn Rand and the Fight to Limit Government
This is an essay Yaron and I recently wrote for Tea Party activists. -DW
Ayn Rand, author of the 1957 classic Atlas Shrugged, is one of history’s most celebrated champions of capitalism. Her books have sold in the tens of millions, and her ideas continue to be debated thirty years after her death. Many of today’s top opinion leaders, businessmen, and politicians—everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Mark Cuban to Paul Ryan—have cited Rand as an important influence on their development.
Today we need Ayn Rand more than ever. The ideals of the Founding Fathers—individual rights, limited government, political and economic freedom—are under attack, and a black cloud of government debt hangs over our economic future. If we want to put a stop to the runaway growth of government, those of us who value the Founders’ achievement need to learn from Rand’s success.
Here are four of the crucial lessons Rand offers those of us who want to fight for a freer, more prosperous America.
1. Celebrate Business
In the era before the government started intervening in the economy left and right, America’s free-market system gave entrepreneurs an open road to experiment, innovate, and compete. That is what transformed this country into an economic powerhouse, and history’s great symbol of freedom and prosperity.
Today, however, business is the scapegoat for virtually every evil. Whatever the problem or crisis, “greedy” businessmen take the blame, and the solution is always held to be more controls, more regulations, more taxes.
Instead of challenging these notions, we have all too often reinforced them. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, Republican leaders raced to blame “greedy” bankers, not government policy. Conservative columnist David Brooks has chided Americans who “think of nothing but . . . their commercial activities.” Even the great defender of the free market, Adam Smith, viewed most businessmen as, in one commentator’s words, “an unattractive lot.”
According to Rand, this is one of history’s worst injustices. Businessmen are the ones who create the medicines, food preservatives, sanitation systems, irrigation systems, and millions of other innovations and labor-saving devices that have nearly tripled our lifespans and provided us with a standard of living unimaginable by our forefathers. As she explained in 1961, the businessman
is the great liberator who, in the short span of a century and a half, has released men from bondage to their physical needs, has released them from the terrible drudgery of an eighteen-hour workday of manual labor for their barest subsistence, has released them from famines, from pestilences, from the stagnant hopelessness and terror in which most of mankind had lived in all the pre-capitalist centuries—and in which most of it still lives, in non-capitalist countries.
If we want to limit government, Rand warned, this is something we need to celebrate. To slam business is to attack a core part of what makes America great.
In Atlas Shrugged Rand shows us how to celebrate business by revealing its moral essence: the way in which it encourages and rewards creative thought, independent judgment, productive ambition, unyielding purpose, win/win trade—and the way in which it results in the progressive betterment of life on earth.
No, not every businessman is moral or even productive. Some “businessmen,” for instance, grow rich, not by producing, but by getting favors from government through political pull. But it is wrong, Rand holds, to view all businessmen with suspicion because of the bad actions of a few—and business as an undertaking deserves to be seen as profoundly good.
2. Don’t Apologize for the Profit Motive
Underneath the attack on business is an attack on the motive that drives businessmen: the desire for profits. The profit motive, we’re constantly told, leads businessmen to lie, cheat, and steal their way to a buck. It leads them to cut corners and cut throats in an attempt to line their pockets. And even if the profit motive doesn’t turn a businessman into a criminal, it does taint him morally.
What has been our response? Just look at the criticisms of Mitt Romney. His Republican challengers have criticized him, not for passing RomneyCare (a statewide program similar to ObamaCare), but for having been a profit-seeking businessman.
Well, if the profit motive is dangerous and immoral, how can we tolerate the profit system?
Rand sets the record straight. A profit, she notes, is the insignia of production: you make a profit when you produce something of value, something that others want to buy because it makes human life better, longer, easier, more enjoyable. What made Steve Jobs rich was not picking our pockets, but filling our pockets with iPhones. What made Romney rich was making companies more productive, or selling their resources to other companies that could put them to better use.
Capitalism is fueled, not by the Al Capones or the Bernie Madoffs who seek to get money by hook or by crook. It is fueled by individuals who make money by creating wealth. This is the actual nature of the profit motive: it is the desire to earn rewards through productive achievement. In the words of Hank Rearden, an industrialist in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged:
I work for nothing but my own profit—which I make by selling a product they need to men who are willing and able to buy it. I do not produce it for their benefit at the expense of mine, and they do not buy it for my benefit at the expense of theirs. . . . I made my money by my own effort, in free exchange and through the voluntary consent of every man I dealt with. . . . I refuse to apologize for my ability—I refuse to apologize for my success—I refuse to apologize for my money.
This, says Rand, is the kind of attitude toward one’s work, toward one’s wealth, and toward other people that pervades a free market. Both in theory and historical practice, a free market is dominated by men who are committed to thinking, learning, planning, acting long range, and producing to ever-greater heights. Free markets drive out of business the short-sighted, unproductive moochers who don’t create value—and a capitalist government locks up predators such as Madoff when they try to defraud others. A system of voluntary exchange, then, is not a dog-eat-dog race to the bottom, but a win/win race to the top.
Capitalism is good, said Rand, because it protects each man’s ability to make the most of his own life—and government intervention, which strips such men of their wealth and their freedom, is morally wrong.
But for capitalism to win against the push for bigger government, we need to stop attacking and apologizing for the profit motive.
3. Run from Anyone Trumpeting “The Public Good”
Government grows at the expense of individuals: at the expense of their rights, their freedom, their wealth. The supporters of bigger government have always justified this by appealing to “the public good.” How have we responded? Not by challenging the notion of “the public good.” Instead, we have accepted that notion and tried to persuade people that only capitalism can achieve it.
But the justification for capitalism, Rand stresses, is not that it serves “the public good” or “the public interest” or “the common welfare.” All of those slogans are dangerously vague: they can mean anything, and so they can be used to “justify” everything. The justification for capitalism is that it is the only system based on the individual’s inalienable right to pursue his own life, liberty, and happiness.
Society, Rand observes, is not an entity but a collection of sovereign individuals, and the essential political value they have in common is freedom.
Freedom, Rand stresses, means that individuals can exercise their rights free from coercion and compulsion. They can work to make a successful life for themselves, acting on their own independent judgment, keeping the fruits of their labor, and dealing with others through voluntary exchange to mutual advantage. The government’s role is to protect their freedom by barring the initiation of physical force. The economic system that emerges when government is limited and individual rights are secured is capitalism. This is the essence of the Founders’ achievement. Writes Rand:
The most profoundly revolutionary achievement of the United States of America was the subordination of society to moral law.
The principle of man’s individual rights represented the extension of morality into the social system—as a limitation on the power of the state, as man’s protection against the brute force of the collective, as the subordination of might to right. The United States was the first moral society in history.
All previous systems had regarded man as a sacrificial means to the ends of others, and society as an end in itself. The United States regarded man as an end in himself, and society as a means to the peaceful, orderly, voluntary co-existence of individuals.
If you want to stop the growth of the state, you have to get rid of any ounce of the idea that individuals exist to serve some social purpose or goal. Capitalism is the system rooted in the conviction that each individual is an end in himself and has a right to exist for his own sake.
4. Reject Wealth Redistribution Schemes
Today’s entitlement state keeps growing because we have not challenged its moral legitimacy. The supporters of bigger government have kept increasing their wealth redistribution efforts in the name of the idea that a person’s need morally entitles him to other people’s wealth, i.e., that need is a moral claim.
We have agreed. Representative Paul Ryan, for instance, recently defended his “government cutting” budget by claiming “it strengthens the safety net by returning power to the states.” The clear implication: anything that weakens the “safety net” is bad.
But wealth, Rand argues, is created by the rational, productive effort of individuals—and by right it belongs to the individuals who create it. Wealth redistribution, she concludes, is a profound injustice.
If a man proposes to redistribute wealth, he means explicitly and necessarily that the wealth is his to distribute. If he proposes it in the name of the government, then the wealth belongs to the government; if in the name of society, then it belongs to society. No one, to my knowledge, did or could define a difference between that proposal and the basic principle of communism.
America is a long way away from a communist dictatorship, but so long as need is believed to be a claim, it will be impossible to limit government. If need is a claim, then a man doesn’t have a right to what he earns. He is a serf who has to labor for anyone who hasn’t earned wealth.
In a capitalist country, individuals are free to use their wealth to help others if they want. But no one’s need is license to take other people’s wealth.
Ayn Rand’s winning formula: capture the moral high ground
If you wanted to boil down what makes Rand so successful and what she can teach us today, it would be that she teaches the free-market side to take the moral high ground.
We “must fight for capitalism,” Rand says, “not as a ‘practical’ issue, not as an economic issue, but, with the most righteous pride, as a moral issue. That is what capitalism deserves, and nothing less will save it.”
It never fails that anyone who opposes the growth of the state is attacked for being mean-spirited, cold-hearted, greedy, uncompromising, and selfish. In response, the defenders of capitalism generally concede the moral high ground: Yes, they say, capitalism is ugly and uninspiring, but we should tolerate it because it achieves good “practical” results, such as lifting our standard of living.
This, Rand argues, is a recipe for failure:
[T]he public is told, in net effect, that collectivism is a noble, desirable ideal, but collectivist economics are impractical. In order to have a practical economy, that of capitalism, we must resign ourselves to an immoral society, that of individualism. This amounts to saying: you have a choice, you can be moral or you can be practical, but you can’t be both. Given such a choice, men will always choose the moral, because it is preposterous to expect them to choose that which, by the speaker’s own assertion, is evil.
But how can a system driven by self-interest and the pursuit of personal profit be moral? That is the question Ayn Rand answers.
You face a choice: Are you going to watch America become a country where the state will take over more and more of the economy, restrict your freedom, violate your rights, and punish individual success? Or are you going to fight for a free country, where the individual can pursue his own life and happiness, where the government’s role is limited to a policeman, and where achievement and ambition are rewarded rather than penalized?
You can limit today’s unlimited government. But to do so you will need to mount an unapologetic moral defense of freedom. The first step is to arm yourself with Ayn Rand’s unsurpassed stockpile of intellectual ammunition, and then to speak out for freedom.