Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Ayn Rand is Not Enough

I see my earlier post related to Ayn Rand has created quite a debate. Here's one comment for example:
I read Mises's 'Theory of Money and Credit' because Rand recommended it in one of her newsletters. Much as I agree with Robert Wenzel's economics, his belief that we need to understand the technical details of economics is very wrong. We merely need to understand that violence and counterfeiting are wrong. We need to understand why Reardon was given a gold bar. Ten-year-old children can understand a correct moral and political philosophy. It requires years of Sunday school and government education to produce the legions of faithful war-mongering fools that make up the adult population....I find little to disagree with when I read Robert Wenzel, but I find nothing original either. And now he is beginning to stink of intellectual envy. Pretending that his academic economic minutiae is essential and that Rand's revolutionary moral fundamentalism is trivial 'cheerleading' is the precise opposite of the truth.
First, I do find it curious that a reader would come back to a blog where there is nothing original. How boring!!

More important, however, is the above commenter's view that Rand holds a correct moral philosophy "that a ten-year old can understand" and that Rand saw "moral and epistemological fundamentals so clearly". I happen to believe that Rand's philosophy, though not the worst out there, is fundamentally flawed. It's a long argument as to why she is in error and I won't go into it here. It will be covered in my upcoming book, Why I Am A Libertarian, Even Though There Is No Such Thing As Natural Rights.  But, I don't buy all of Rand's premises. They need to be checked. 

But let's assume for a minute that Rand is correct. Does this mean we can save the day for freedom, without going beyond Rand and pointing to economics?

If there is a business cycle bust, how does one explain that this occurred, not because of free markets, but because of government intervention, without using economics to explain? If there is a great price inflation, how does one explain this, when many will accuse Randian-type independent speculators, for the price inflation? Indeed, how are we to explain that Federal Reserve money printing is "counterfeiting" without first understanding what money is, how it evolved and what the regression theorem means? All economic concepts. Remember, Rand herself believed in limited government, without an understanding of economics, how can a Randian argue against a central bank being something that is required of government, just like Rand's view that law and order are a necessary government function? The battle as Rand, Hayek, Mises and Rothbard would agree is at the intellectual level. At the intellectual level, understanding of philosophy, economics and society are all important. That Cato seems to be moving in a Randian direction, thus, seems to me to be moving away from where the heavy intellectual battles must take place. As I said before, Rand is a great cheerleader for freedom, but that is not enough. Indeed, I don't even view her as being on the field, just a high kicker, in a tight skirt, on the sidelines. She will catch the eye of many in the crowd, but she will have little to do with the battle on the field. In other words, Ayn Rand is not enough.


  1. I think perhaps the reader who commented did not put as much thought into the deeper meaning of what you were saying and was perhaps led astray by his own emotional response to the 'cheerleader' title placed to Rand as if it stripped her input of any power.

    What good is an ideal without an idea?

    What good is an idea without fundamentals?

    Without the greater importance of understanding economics as well as an understanding of the workings and theory behind such concepts that bind and allow society to function why should one be opposed to collectivism or socialism? It is only on such a basis that these are found to be flawed.

    Ethics are inconsequential in economics and it is this that drove Dagny Taggart and Henry Reardon. They knew that in order for industry to work then it needed the math.

    When James Taggart was upset that Dagny had all but stripped the line to mexico he demanded to know on what grounds and she stood by the fact that they did not pay for themselves in revenue as well as the fear of loss through nationalization. James Taggart said there were higher non monetary issues at hand which she did not sympathize with.

    She knew that without revenue there would be no rail road. No greater good. Just more suffering.

    Without economics and an understanding of their function there is no greater good. Nothing but further suffering. Hence the issue. Lack of calculation.

    If this were not important then there would be no opposition to anything going on, why should there be?

    1. "Ethics are inconsequential in economics"

      While economics science can be wertfrei, the application of it definitely isn't.

      In fact, it is easy to argue that the state of economy in any society is the direct consequence of prevalent ethics in the society. No respect for property rights -> economy goes to shithole.

  2. Great post. The economics is essential. It wasn't some long-winded novelist that entrenched us into this Keynesian bog we live in now. It was a bunch of students of economics who declared that Keynes was right, which gave rise to the legitimacy of state monetary policy.

  3. I have appreciated Ayn Rand's writings and lectures in favor of individualism and private property. But she was not consistent all the time. For example, I used to have some audio tapes of her Ford Hall Forum lectures. In one of them, she was asked which candidate she preferred in the 1980 election. She didn't like Reagan, and said she would support Gerald Ford (who was not running in 1980, and no, it was not the 1976 election).

    Yes, Gerald Ford, that staunch proponent of private property and free exchange.

    Also, the other post about the possible CATO warmongering and Wes Bertrand attending an ARI lecture brings up the Randians' collectivist element. "We" have to fight those enemies of freedom, particularly by supporting the U.S. government's false flag war on terror, conflating the American people with the U.S. government.

    Justin Raimondo had this article regarding the war on terror Islamophobes and the NYC "Ground Zero Mosque," highlighting ARI founder (and Ayn Rand cult leader) Leonard Peikoff in several irrational rants against the "mosque" and promoting more killing of innocent civilians overseas.


    And in this interview with Phil Donahue in 1979, Ayn Rand displayed what I would call collectivist, anti-Arab sentiments. When asked whose side she was on, Israelis or Palestinians, she was with the Israelis and against the Palestinians, because Israel is "the advanced, technological, civilized country amidst a group of almost totally primitive savages, who have not changed for years, and who are racist, and who resent Israel because it’s bringing industry, intelligence, modern technology into their stagnation."


    Well, it would have helped the Palestinians to become more advanced a civilization had their lands not been conquered and occupied by Western governments, and had they not been made second- and third-class citizens in the apartheid that Israel had unfortunately become.


    1. "the advanced, technological, civilized country amidst a group of almost totally primitive savages, who have not changed for years, and who are racist, and who resent Israel because it’s bringing industry, intelligence, modern technology into their stagnation."

      While the wording may be a bit blunt, what part of this sentence isn't true?

      Sure it would help if the lands were not occupied; look how well the unoccupied Jordan and Syria are doing - paragons of industry and human rights they are. Don't forget that Jordan is 70% percent Palestinian, but has a Saudi king that keeps them in refugee camps. Did you mention apartheid?

      Collectivist or not, Ayn Rand makes a valid point. Siding with the Palestinian jihadists strikes me as moronic under any pretense; it is especially troubling when done in the name of nonviolence...

  4. "stink of intellectual envy?" Ouch. Can't please everybody. I love the blog.

  5. Harold in MarylandJuly 3, 2012 at 6:04 PM

    Honestly, I find this kind of edge criticism of Ayn Rand to be very deconstructive for such a libertarian/Austrian site. Rand is far closer to the libertarian ideal than apart, as she is worlds away from the mainstream Democrat/Republican mold.

    It reminds me of the recent criticism leveled at Rand Paul. Again, for all his faults, Rand Paul is still worlds better than your average politicians.

    Could this be why the libertarian movement which has been around for decades--or centuries, if the count the American Revolution--has been so politically ineffective? Are we so worried about being best/right, and so afraid of being lead astray, that we cannot form a cohesive and effective movement?

    I love EPJ just as much as I appreciate the work of the Austrians and Ayn Rand. I simply cannot understand why it is necessary to judge one against the other. Austrians focused on economics, and Ayn Rand focused on ethics and philosophical systems. Can we respect each for what they are? Can we get along so that we may defeat the real enemies who threaten our liberty?

    1. I'm so tired of hearing this cry for libertarians to forgive the failures of others ideas. Of course, we should try to find common ground where we can, but who the hell disagrees with that. But I'll be damned if I'm going to sit here and ignore the fallacies that objectivists or conservatives believe in just because they hold some libertarian ideas. If you want to play nice and ignore the errors of others because you think that will spread the message then have at it. Others would rather be like Ron Paul on foreign policy in a republican debate. Yeah, Ron Paul might have attracted more conservatives to his cause if he took a more hawkish position or stayed silent on foreign policy, but Dr. Paul wanted to bring conservatives to libertarian positions. He wasn't interested in getting people to ignore the the things they disagree with him on, he wanted them to come around to his way of thinking. He spoke the truth people needed to hear and didn't just say what people wanted to hear. Ron Paul, LVMI, EPJ, etc have been extremely successful by never backing away from speaking the truth. If you don't like their strategy then you are free to try other ways but don't get upset if we think you are wrong to do so.

    2. Here we go again...

      "Rand is far closer to the libertarian ideal than apart"

      True or not, Rand herself would disagree, judging by her words about libertarians, whom she called "scum rejected by the left".

      "It reminds me of the recent criticism leveled at Rand Paul. Again, for all his faults, Rand Paul is still worlds better than your average politicians."

      It begs the question if you base that on anything other than blind belief and his lofty words and the simple fact that his father is Ron Paul.
      But even if it were true that he is "worlds better" than the average politician (which is hyperbole in itself, especially lately), it still does not rationally explain why libertarians should pretend his very bad decisions (voting for sanctions against Iran, endorsing and praising Mitt Romney etc) aren't there.
      It's funny you say "for all his faults", and then proceed to expect us to turn a blind eye to them.
      At what point would you agree criticism is justified anyway?
      And why should people like Rand Paul even give a damn about liberty if nobody ever holds his feet to the fire?
      You want blind allegiance to someone regardless of his faults? That sounds like Team Red GOP cheerleading to me.
      Anyone but Obama, huh? Because that's certainly Rand Paul's mentality.

      "Could this be why the libertarian movement which has been around for decades--or centuries, if the count the American Revolution--has been so politically ineffective?"

      The libertarian movement has been politically ineffective, because in order for it to be "effective" it would have to be just like all the other movements and sell out principles and ideals for power.
      It is politically ineffective precisely because libertarianism HAS ideals and principles. Those being the non-aggression principle and property rights, both of which would be violated by libertarians themselves if they compromise with statists or turn a blind eye to violation of the N.A.P. by so-called "allies" for the purpose of political power (a.k.a. "effectiveness").
      The movement could spend its time criticizing the likes of Obama, Romney, Pelosi or Boehner, but that would be an entirely pointless endeavor; an exercise in futility. It would be like criticizing a scorpion for stinging you or a rattlesnake for biting you.
      It is precisely people like Rand Paul that should be criticized, precisely because he is expected to BE better and KNOW better.

      "Are we so worried about being best/right, and so afraid of being lead astray, that we cannot form a cohesive and effective movement?"

      If you don't care about being right, then there is no point in doing anything. You'd be just like all the rest. Corrupt, immoral and unreliable.

      Just answer this simple question, bearing in mind all the empirical evidence of movements and politicians that were either co-opted or were liars to begin with.
      If having power and being "cohesive" and "effective" means more to you than principles and the truth, then why should anyone trust that you want anything other than that political power for your own personal gain?
      Can you give a single logical reason, as opposed to a naive faith in the goodness of any politician, why we should trust anyone that is capable of wiping his feet on the most basic principles of liberty and peace for the purpose of having political power in the future?

      "Can we get along so that we may defeat the real enemies who threaten our liberty?"

      We have different ideas on where to draw the line between allies and enemies.
      To be perfectly blunt: Rand Paul has no excuse when he endorsed Mitt Romney for president. He knows who and what Mitt Romney is and what he would do as president.
      That makes Rand Paul an apologist for mass murder.
      And apologists for mass murder aren't allies.

    3. @ Dan

      Agree completely.
      Rand Paul isn't bringing neocons into the libertarian fold (and Ron Paul is).
      The neocons are bringing Rand Paul into the neocon fold (but not Ron Paul).

      It should be so damned obvious who is co-opting who.

      It is remarkable how certain people are not only willing to sell their souls for some alleged benefits a guy like Rand Paul would bring them, which is as baseless as the notion of Ronald Reagan being a small government character.
      Worse yet, they have the gall to complain the rest of us is not as willing as they are to sell our souls on the basis of this blind faith.

  6. I agree 100%. Most people have a decent grasp of proper morality as it applies to their own actions, but allow the state to commit all of it's evil because they believe there is a utilitarian case for it.

    Ex: Everyone knows theft and slavery are wrong, but they accept an income tax because they think that it "works" and is necessary to provide A, B and C to "society".

    An understanding of economics is necessary to show that while the evils of the state may provide A, B, and C for some group of people, it destroys D, E, and F for others, perverting the market structure and incentives that created the wealth in the first place.

    The utilitarian argument for the state cannot be countered with a moral one, because the utilitarians will always say that the utopia the state will build is the most moral result possible. It takes economics to demonstrate that the state will not build a utopia, but a dystopia, and that therefore there is no utilitarian case for the state.

  7. For someone who quotes and references Rothbard as much as you do, I'm surprised you don't subscribe to natural rights!

    1. "Natural rights" are not necessary. Why create a dependency in the theory of anarchy when none is required?

      It can easily be demonstrated that there are in fact no rights at all in nature. That includes man. All we have is the mutual agreement that having individual rights is the only means to achieve even a rudimentary civilization. The shortcut that governments love is to make that agreement mandatory; a recognition of the necessity of those rights by a complete failing of understanding of the mechanism of action of those rights.

      An anarchy, big or small, develops those rights that are necessary and trims away those that are not. This is happening all around us at this very moment, albeit at a pace that is imperceptible to most.

  8. I agree that Ayn Rand is not enough; economics is also imperative to defend liberty. However, Wenzel, you are foolish to discount the importance of Rand in making the moral and philosophic case for capitalism and freedom. John Allison's efforts to regain the rightful moral highground are valiant and necessary, and your little squabble here really does wreak of intellectual envy. You're better than this.

    That being said, Cato still sucks.

  9. Bob asks: If there is a business cycle bust, how does one explain that this occurred, not because of free markets, but because of government intervention, without using economics to explain?

    Answer: Rand is not against using economics. Her point is that making the moral argument would be necessary, and at her time people were not making that argument, and still aren't today to the degree that is necessary.

    Q: Indeed, how are we to explain that Federal Reserve money printing is "counterfeiting" without first understanding what money is, how it evolved and what the regression theorem means?

    Question: Ayn Rand writes in Atlas Shrugged: "Human relationships must be based on trade, with the initiation of force banished". So you can't send anyone to jail for using gold instead of fiat paper. Moreover, Ayn Rand sees taxation as initiation of force and that all government funding should be voluntary, so it wouldn't be possible to have legal tender laws which make central banks possible. Ayn Rand believes the government should collect fees for services, for example, when it enforces a contract. So if society accepts these arguments, central banks cannot exist.

    Freedom of contract can be defended from a moral point of view without economics, and that's enough to get rid of minimum wage laws. The same is true for freedom of association, which eliminates anti-discrimination laws.

    Question: Remember, Rand herself believed in limited government, without an understanding of economics, how can a Randian argue against a central bank being something that is required of government, just like Rand's view that law and order are a necessary government function?

    She can argue against a central bank because it requires use of force against innocents, which he opposed. Have you really read Ayn Rand, Bob?

    1. I agree with everything in this post. Suggesting that Ayn Rand was lacking in economics is like saying that Rothbard was lacking in ethics. Ethics and economics are utterly entwined since they both begin with the idea of property. Both Rand and Rothbard understood that completely.

      -John Howard

    2. Hey Bud,

      Rothbard published For a New Liberty AND The Ethics of Liberty. What did Rand publish on economics?

    3. Hey Bud,

      She published Atlas Shrugged.

  10. This discussion seems trivial. Does it matter if something like natural rights actually exist, or whether we should only pursue economic policies because of their technical traits?

    Morals, logic and ethos are manipulable to suit the speaker's condition. They don't matter. They can be twisted and contorted to change someone's perspective.

    Nobody's right, nobody's wrong as long the correct action is undertaken. What matters is action and effective policy change. Does it matter if Randists believe in an aggressive foreign policy worldview if they're willing to concede with Austrians on economic policy? Considering US foreign policy is already very aggressive, I would consider the Randist worldview far better than the status quo.

    The Austrian economist's obsession with creating a perfect world and ideological purity is the worst thing that's happening to our movement right now. We can never make the world perfect or permanently free of government; socialism will always creep up and governments will always become fascist or socialist. It's within human nature to steal from others through government.

    What matters is that we get support to pursue certain policy changes right now and we delay the advance of socialism right now. As long as we can other people to agree with our policy suggestions, we've won.

  11. Bob, please read back your post 3 or 4 years after an Allison presidency at Cato. You won't believe what a fool you were.

  12. It's not enough. But moral grounds is better than arguing in circles about historical events and how to properly view them. If people are still stupid enough to hold their ground on destruction being good for the economy maybe a little moral argument could work more effectively than theory.

  13. Robert Wenzel quotes me and asks why I visit his site if I find nothing original. My point was that he was not telling me anything in the realm of economic / philosophical import that I have not already come across in Rand, Rothbard or Mises. But there is a great deal that is original in the way of reporting and analysis of current events. I continue to recommend EPJ as one of my top sources of info and visit 'religiously' every day at the church of Wenzel.

    Archbishop Wenzel then makes the point that one must go beyond Rand and study economics. Studying economics is not going 'beyond' Rand. And nowhere did I say or imply that Rand said everything or that I agree with everything she did say. One could just as easily (and invalidly) claim that Rothbard is just a cheerleader on the sidelines wearing a bow tie and giggling, while Rand is out on the field doing the heavy lifting. There is no reason to dismiss either with such snide images and insults.

    As for the regression theorem, I would like to know why I need it to arrive at any correct political or economic position. Ten-year-old children can understand I.O.U.s and counterfeiting and coercion because they understand lying and promise breaking and bullying. It does not require 18 fat paragraphs by Rothbard, however entertaining those may be.

    Finally, telling us that Rand is wrong, but we'll have to wait for the book is sly and silly. Philosophy can fit in a pamphlet; economics in a brochure. Brevity may not make money in the publishing field, but it is a serious virtue in debate. Whatever the point, it can be reduced to a sentence or two and kids can understand it. Or it isn't a good point.

    -John Howard

    1. John,

      Thanks for making the final point in 4 sentences that, whatever the point, it can be reduced to a sentence or two or it isn't a good point.

    2. LOL. I was thinking the same thing, Bob. I look forward to his million page "pamphlet" on economics. For brevity, of course.

    3. "Thou shalt not steal" is a prime example of faulty condensation.

      It turns a sound warning to avoid acts that are destructive to civilization and turns it into a command - a command that would not necessary if the point had been presented differently. An anarchy cannot be an anarchy if its members must obey commands.

      I suggest the form be as a warning with the reason permanently attached so individuals can make their own choice to accept it or not.
      "If any society condones theft, in any form, the people will become less and less willing to cooperate with each other to accomplish goals that cannot be accomplished alone, and that society will stagnate and eventually fail."

      But that would use up all the space on the stone.

    4. @ Robert Wenzel

      Not only that, but it wasn't even a good point in four sentences. It was a dumb and baseless assertion rather than a logical argument.

      No wonder kids will understand it. They wouldn't be required to actually think.
      At least it fits right in with modern pop culture and the state of education.

    5. Bob,

      I made 5 points in 4 sentences. Wise cracks are cute, but they need to be accurate.

      -John Howard

  14. They are probably both important, but I have never read a single book by Ayn Rand. I have read books by Mises, Rothbard, Schiff, and Paul though. If you haven't, you are missing out.

  15. "Natural Rights" are still a useful shorthand for the application of the non-aggression principle. If there is a "natural right" to your life, then it is reducible to your existence in relation to the existence of others, saying you have a "right" not to be aggressed against is another way of saying you and the aggressor need not be in conflict if each acknowledges the other.

  16. I really enjoy reading these anti-Rand attack posts. Basically, this is confirming what I already thought to be true of the libertarian movement, that it is too riddled by infighting and these purity purges to ever have any sort of real impact in this country. Does the libertarian movement really have so many members that it can afford to alienate those who come to it through the work of Ayn Rand? Ayn Rand has done a lot more with her work than any of the authors and economists suggested we read here.

    1. Oh, the irony of someone coming to the defense of Ayn Rand and talking about things like "purges", alienating potential allies and infighting.


      It continues to be funny how libertarians here are expected to fall in line behind those people who have openly rejected and distanced themselves from libertarianism (Ayn Rand and Rand Paul) and even purged anyone who refused to swallow every detail of their thought process (Ayn Rand again), and when they refuse to kiss the ass of those that reject them it is *they* who are doing the "alienating" and "infighting" or "purging"

      It is either a testament to your rampant stupidity or sickening hypocrisy.
      You choose.

    2. Way to contort my words, good job. Normally, I wouldn't respond, but you're providing a great argument to back up my criticism of the libertarian movement. I merely pointed out that many people come to the ideas of the libertarian movement through the works of Ayn Rand and that to alienate those people and that pathway isn't really productive.

      Now, nowhere in my post did I go on the defensive for Rand and Objectivism. I enjoy much of her written body of work and value it because it helped me bring to the ideas I embrace today. I simply pointed out that many people are inspired by her work and that to alienate them by constantly attacked Rand is counterproductive.

      So you either you misread my post or misrepresented it on purpose. You choose.

  17. After reading these 30 or so posts, I don't see what the problem is. The divisiveness is so unnecessary.

    Ayn Rand's objectivism has libertarian elements, but they are not the same. However, you can and should cut out her philosophy and look at her take on the role of government and individual freedoms based on Atlas Shrugged as a text and not a depiction of her philosophy. She's almost prophetic in her prediction of what will happen to money and to government. Think about Francisco's money speeches...

    Practically speaking, the libertarian cause should use economics to appeal to the masses, because more and more people care about what the Federal Reserve is doing rather than what characters in a book are doing.

    However, you should also recommend Atlas Shrugged to more educated and deeply interested people. You don't have to agree with objectivism, but like I said, Rand is undoubtedly prescient and it is interesting to get her take on the progress of the US.