Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ayn Rand and Compromise

[Cross-Posted at Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature]

Ayn Rand is often admired for her devotion to principles and unwillingness to compromise. In her biography of Rand, Barbara Branden tells the moving story of how Rand fought heroically to prevent changes to the script of The Fountainhead during its filming. (Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, pp. 208-209.)

Rand’s most important discussion of compromise is a brief three page essay in The Virtue of Selfishness entitled “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?” She boldly proclaims that “there can be no compromise on basic principles or on fundamental issues.” (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 80.) She highlights the mixed economy as an example of an unacceptable compromise on moral principles. “There can be no compromise between freedom and government controls; to accept ‘just a few controls’ is to surrender the principle of inalienable individual rights . . . .” (Id., pp. 79-80.)

As is often the case with Rand, she is good on principles, but weak on specifics. She gives examples of acceptable compromises (such as coming to a mutually agreed upon price with a vendor) and unacceptable compromises (attending a religious ceremony to placate one’s family). These examples make sense from the Randian perspective, but why not discuss situations that are more likely to confront the average Objectivist? For example, Rand considered taxation immoral. Yet she faithfully paid her taxes. By paying taxes one isn’t one “sanctioning” the welfare state? What about working for the government? Isn’t this a compromise on moral principles? A state employee’s income comes from money immorally seized by the government. Many Objectivist professors, including Leonard Peikoff, have taught at state run universities. Some, such as Robert Mayhew, have taught at religious schools. Voting appears problematic as well. Unless there is a consistently Objectivist candidate, isn’t it a compromise to vote? Wouldn’t the prudent course be to abstain from voting? Rand, however, voted for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. (During the 2006 elections, Leonard Peikoff went so far as to claim that anyone who refused to vote Democratic or abstained from voting “does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism.”)

Throughout her life Rand had little use for economists and conservative intellectuals who were not consistent supporters of the free market economy. In her recently published question and answers, she described Milton Friedman as a “miserable eclectic.” (Mayhew, ed., Ayn Rand Answers, p. 43.) In her marginalia, she launched a nasty attack on Friedrich von Hayek calling him, among other things, a “God damn fool” and a “vicious bastard.” (Mayhew, ed., Ayn Rand’s Marginalia, pp. 149 and 151.)

Interestingly, one compromising free market economist whom Rand admired was Alan Greenspan. Greenspan met Rand in 1951 and remained close friends with her until her death in 1982. He contributed three essays to her anthology Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, one supporting the gold standard and two criticizing, respectively, antitrust laws and consumer protection regulations.

In 1974, Greenspan was chosen by President Richard Nixon to head his Council of Economic Advisors. After Nixon resigned, President Ford re-nominated him. Rand attended Greenspan’s swearing-in ceremony in the White House. Greenspan states in his memoirs that by this time he had disagreed with Rand’s belief in government financing through voluntary contributions and hints that he had come to reject consistent laissez-faire policies.

Shortly before Rand’s death, Greenspan accepted an appointment by President Ronald Reagan to head the National Commission on Social Security Reform, which recommended large tax increases. The culmination of his career was his lengthy chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Board. As Chairman of “the Fed,” Greenspan, in effect, repudiated his three essays in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. The Fed sanctions the printing of paper money, oversees anti-trust laws with respect to bank mergers and heavily regulates consumer transactions. “Compromise,” he now says, is “the price of civilization.”

Rand, of course, had no way of knowing that her friend and disciple would become the enabler-in-chief of the mixed economy, but she could not have been unaware of his partial betrayal of Objectivist principles by 1974. Ten years earlier she had written in “The Cult of Moral Grayness” that a mixed economy is “an immoral war of pressure groups, devoid of principles . . . whose outward form is a game of compromise.” (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 91, emphasis is the original.)

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