Is Ayn Rand Utopian?
In a recent video for PJTV, Bill Whittle and Andrew Klavan answer a question from a viewer: “Why is Ayn Rand nonsense?” To their credit, they largely reject the premise of the question, and while they are very critical of Rand (and annoyingly snarky about it), their criticisms are on the whole thoughtful if tremendously confused.
Take their claim that Ayn Rand is utopian. According to Bill, Rand upholds some “enlightened anarchism,” which assumes that if you just leave people alone they will act in their rational self-interest and therefore no regulations would be necessary, “which is as utopian as Communism.”
I have to say, I’m a little surprised by Bill’s comments. He has publicly praised my first book, Free Market Revolution, in which Yaron Brook and I address this very issue from Rand’s perspective.
Rand’s argument for freedom is not that if we just leave people alone, they’ll be rational and so no government will be necessary.
Freedom doesn’t make people automatically rational. First and foremost it makes it possible for people to live rationally by barring others from using force. The kernel of truth in Bill’s account is that, when left free to act rationally, individuals have every incentive to act rationally, since that’s what brings you rewards: the people who flourish and prosper aren’t moochers, frauds, and criminals, but those who choose to think and produce. It isn’t in a businessman’s interest to, say, create a building that collapses on the heads of his tenants.
But irrational people — people who choose not to pursue their rational self-interest — will always exist. There will be businessmen who create unsafe buildings in order to earn a quick buck. This is why, contra Bill, Rand was not an anarchist, but a defender of limited government. You need such a government, she held, precisely because people won’t always be rational (and because even rational people can have legitimate disagreements over things like contracts that need to be resolved peacefully). The government’s role is to stop and punish those who, like the negligent builder, violate others’ rights.
So Rand is not a utopian. Utopians are people who design systems that contradict the facts about human nature and who defend their systems by declaring that human nature will magically change to fit their systems: men may work for their own good under capitalism, say the Marxists, but under Communism they will become selfless angels eager to work for the sake of society.
Rand was no utopian but something far rarer and more seminal: a principled defender of an ideal — laissez-faire capitalism.