To Win the Battle for Freedom, We Must Win the Battle of Ideas

This election season has laid bare a deep divide in America — but what’s tearing our nation apart is not political conflict. It is philosophical.

On one side, we can glimpse what a future of reason, progress and freedom looks like. And it is awe-inspiring. Pick up your smartphone, and minutes later you’re riding in an Uber. Watch TV whenever you like, anywhere, streaming the video over the air to your iPad. Just the other day I read about a quadriplegic man who, with the aid of scientists and computer programmers, regained the use of his arm! With even a modest degree of freedom, technology is galloping forward.

On the other side of the divide is our intellectual and political climate — marked by regression. The views we’ve heard on the campaign trail are throwbacks to the ruinous irrationalism of Europe’s socialist and fascist past. We’ve seen prejudice against racial minorities, but also — in the attacks on the so-called 1% — an antibusiness prejudice and a hatred of productive achievement.

What about the individual’s right to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of his own happiness? Our culture’s intellectual and political leaders say: Give back! Pay your “fair share”! Or else.

What about the freedom of speech to challenge establishment views, to advocate freedom and rational ideas? Ominously, there’s a drive to punish critics of the global warming orthodoxy — to say nothing of the push on college campuses for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” lest the truth hurt someone’s feelings.

Neither freedom nor prosperity can long survivelet alone expandamid a culture that turns away from individualism and reason.

What we’re witnessing goes far deeper than the current election cycle. Today’s political scene — especially the sight of Americans flocking to embrace these candidates — reflects our culture’s dominant philosophic ideas.

“The present state of the world,” Ayn Rand observed decades ago, “is not the proof of philosophy’s impotence, but the proof of philosophy’s power. It is philosophy that has brought men to this stateit is only philosophy that can lead them out.”

We share Ayn Rand’s view that politics and cultural trends are products of a nation’s deepest, philosophic premises

The Founding Fathers were geniuses of political theory, and their achievement was world-changing. It was a magnificent beginning. But the philosophic foundation of America was left on shaky ground.

The Founders refused to accept the view that individuals are mere subjects of king, church, state or collective, and upheld instead the principle of individual rights. Everything “that America achieved, everything she became, everything ‘noble and just,’ and heroic, and great, and unprecedented in human history,” Ayn Rand noted, “was the logical consequence of fidelity to that one principle.” That ideal shaped the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

So how did we get from “Give me liberty or give me death” to “hands off my entitlements” — and the vast welfare system of goods produced and paid for by some and “redistributed” to others? How did we get from a government delimited to protecting our rights to an unlimited government?

It was the result of philosophy. To underpin the Founders’ revolutionary political system of rights, we needed a revolution in moral ideas. We needed a moral code of individualism and reason. Instead, our intellectuals pushed the opposite ideas: irrationalism — collectivism — statism. They paved the road for the vast growth of government and the undercutting of reason, especially in the schools. 

Ayn Rand’s philosophy provides the foundation America has long needed. It is the philosophy of freedom, progress, happiness, success. It is the philosophy that champions reason — the means to achieving your own happiness, and the motor of scientific and technological progress. It is the philosophy that champions the political sanctity of an individual’s life and property — and therefore the prosperity only achievable under capitalism.

That’s why the Ayn Rand Institute works to tell people about Ayn Rand’s writings. We challenge the prevailing ideas, we offer a rational alternative and we demonstrate the real-world, life-enriching value of Objectivism.

At ARI we believe that the single most important way to advance Rand’s ideas is through education. This requires promoting her work, teaching, speaking and writing. It requires in-depth explanations of her philosophy and its relevance to the essential issues of our time. Here are some ways we do this:

  • Through our Free Books to Teachers and Essay Contest programs, ARI provides millions of students with a chance to read — and think in depth about — Ayn Rand’s Anthem, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
  • ARI Campus, our online education platform, gives anyone anywhere in the world free access to more than a dozen courses on Rand’s novels, philosophy and life — and more courses are added all the time. Beginning through advanced students gain a deeper understanding of her ideas and their application. We believe that ARI Campus will one day be the leading educational hub for millions of students of Objectivism. In various courses and lectures we highlight and concretize the role of philosophy in every aspect of our lives, including politics. For example, in the course The Morality of Freedom, Onkar Ghate explains how and why basic philosophical ideas determine whether a culture values freedom or not.
  • The Objectivist Academic Center seeks to find, train and aid new Objectivist intellectuals. The OAC offers free distance learning, with feedback from ARI intellectuals. Students hone critical thinking and writing skills, train in the art of objective communication, and develop a proper approach to philosophy. Our purpose is to help the best and brightest in their careers — as future philosophers, historians, economists, journalists, artists, documentarians and columnists. Students who demonstrate the greatest potential may qualify for ARI as junior fellows, where they will receive more rigorous training and join us in our ideological battle for reason and freedom.
  • Connecting with students is a major priority for us at ARI. At colleges and high schools across the country, and internationally, our speakers have given talks to students, including a series organized by the Federalist Society. Moreover, in November 2015, ARI and STRIVE (Students for Reason, Individualism, Value pursuit, and Enterprise) co-hosted the Leven Foundation student conference on the theme of the morality of value creation and trade, featuring several ARI intellectuals. Plans are underway for another Leven Foundation student conference this fall — with the goal of increasing attendance by 40 percent.
  • We are also working on advancing the cause of liberating education, which is one precondition for creating a market for alternatives to the government school system. For example, ARI research associate Carl Svanberg has begun giving talks on educational freedom to American and European audiences.

But that’s not all. Here are other examples of how ARI intellectuals raise awareness of our distinctive perspective on the issues of the day:

  • ARI senior fellow Onkar Ghate takes part in panel discussions about how to liberate education. He also speaks to audiences about groups throughout history that have had the courage to speak out against injustice — people who overcame insurmountable odds, from the Founders resisting British tyranny to nineteenth-century abolitionists opposing slavery in the American South. He points out that today’s businesspeople are in no less need of a moral defense, as a matter of justice.
  • In the midst of campus free-speech controversies, Steve Simpson, ARI’s director of Legal Studies, has been speaking to audiences about the connection between freedom of speech and freedom of thought. 
  • Finally, Don Watkins and I co-authored a new book, Equal Is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality, in which we explain that freedom is what made America the land of opportunity, and that those crusading for economic equality are destroying freedom and thereby robbing us of opportunity. Response to the book is encouraging. We’ve taken part in thirty talks and debates at such venues as Chicago Ideas Week, the Federalist Society, and the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. We’ve given more than a dozen interviews including CSPAN, the Glenn Beck Program, and Stossel. The book was the #1 bestseller for the Conservative Book Club for the month of April. Our own outreach via YouTube generated 17,000 views in the first month alone. We’ve also sent hundreds of copies of the book to key influencers in the media, and to policymakers, business leaders and student activists.

In Equal Is Unfair we expose how the inequality debate hinges on philosophic ideas. We show that the Left’s inequality narrative is completely false — reflecting altruism and egalitarianism — and that the only disagreements offered by the Right are non-philosophical. Instead we provide an Objectivist perspective that celebrates achievement; we recognize the moral virtue of producers and thinkers.

Not only in the inequality debate, but across the culture, on every issue, what’s needed is better ideas. There is no shortcut: the only solution is to fight for objective, rational ideas. Politics is a product of philosophy.

The most practical thing we can do today is to advance Ayn Rand’s ideas. The best way of doing that is to show people positive examples of how Objectivism as a philosophical framework not only helps us understand the world and guide our lives to success, but also how it helps us to evaluate and solve the concrete problems and challenges we face in society.

This is a costly battle. It requires resources that involve time, effort, money and action. And time is running short. We must build a rational society, one predicated on reason and individualism, if we want a future of freedom, progress and prosperity.

To achieve that future, I ask you to support the critical work of the Ayn Rand Institute.