Saturday, May 28, 2011

Was Ayn Rand a Conservative?

Note: A 2005 Essay from Rebirth of Reason


Some years ago I consulted a biographical dictionary for information on Ayn Rand. The dictionary described Rand as a “conservative.” Rand, as we know, did not consider herself a conservative. She called herself a “radical for capitalism.” In addition, many of her views were contrary to those of mainstream conservatism. She was an atheist and a fierce critic of religion. She advocated abortion on demand and refused to support Ronald Reagan because of his ties to the religious right. (Letters of Ayn Rand, p. 666) Nor can one forget that National Review rejected Rand in 1957 with Whittaker Chambers’ scathing review of Atlas Shrugged, entitled “Big Sister is Watching You.” To Chambers, Objectivism was just another variation of atheistic materialism.

At the same time, the occasional references to Rand as a conservative call for explanation. As I hope to show, while the term “conservative” is inappropriate for Rand, her similarities to conservatism should not be ignored either. There is a broad “conservative ethos” which pervades Rand’s writings, particularly when read in the context of the Cold War and the 1960s.

Ayn Rand’s “Conservatism”

The idea that Rand was a conservative probably results from a focus on her advocacy of capitalism in isolation from the rest of her thought. Certainly, belief in free enterprise is a staple of most conservatives' thought, even if they don’t advocate consistent laissez-faire. In addition, Rand supported free enterprise because she believed in rational self-interest. She also thought that the individual pursuit of self-interest would lead to social and economic improvement. This theme (which goes back to thinkers such as Adam Smith) has echoes in conservative thought, with its opposition to a centrally planned economy. In addition to supporting free enterprise, Rand was staunchly opposed to communism, socialism, and the Soviet Union. During the charged days of the Cold War, anyone denouncing communism would likely be called conservative.

Another reason Rand might be considered a conservative is that some of her views on moral theory and individual moral issues also find echoes in conservative thought. Rand advocated moral absolutes and rejected cultural relativism. In spite of her irreligion and her contempt for supernatural ethics, many of her views were fairly conventional. She opposed homosexuality, considering it “immoral” and “disgusting.” She famously stated that a rational woman would not want to be president since “the essence of femininity is hero worship—the desire to look up to a man.” (The Voice of Reason, p. 268) And, say what you will about Rand’s affair with Nathaniel Branden, she was not a “libertine” in her private life.

It is also interesting to observe how Rand allies herself with the middle class in opposition to the intellectuals and the “counter culture.” In her essay “Apollo and Dionysus,” Rand discussed Apollo 11 and the Woodstock music festival, and placed herself on the side of the middle class. “[T]he people are reality-oriented, commonsense-oriented, technology-oriented ...” (Return of the Primitive (“ROP”), p. 102) She denounced the “hippies” who attended Woodstock. In fact, “hippie” seems to have been a favorite term of derision for her, used for both Kant (“the first hippie in history”) and anarcho-capitalists (“hippies of the right”). (ROP, p. 105)

There are other issues on which Rand sided with conservatives and the middle class. She opposed modern art for its reduction of “man’s consciousness to the level of sensations.” (Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, pp. 76-77) The conservative critique of modern art is often similar. Richard Weaver discusses contemporary art's focus on the artist’s desire to escape “form,” “responsibility,” and “direction.” According to Weaver, much contemporary art is “nominalistic” and attempts to free the lower levels of the mind from constraint. (Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, pp. 87, 89, 90-91)

Rand also attacked progressive education and its chief theoretician, John Dewey, both frequent targets of conservatives. (ROP, p. 68) Incidentally, Russell Kirk begins a critique of John Dewey with a mention of Rand. Kirk’s description of Dewey is reminiscent of Rand’s critique of progressive education:

Dewey was bent, though perhaps only half-consciously, on creating an impersonal society: that is, a society in which strong personalities would be eliminated. For there is no personality, really, except inner personality, subjective personality; if, then, its perfection is denounced as rotten, human beings are expected to efface personality altogether. They become “other-directed men.” Lacking belief, loyalty, and self-reliance ... they are moved only by fad and foible, and are blown about by every wind of doctrine. Objectivity of this sort terminates in pusillanimity. (Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, p. 159)

Not only did Rand denounce progressive education, but also sided with government authority and private property in the context of the student “rebellions” of the 1960s.

It is important to remember that most of Rand’s philosophical essays were published in the 1960s and therefore during the Cold War and the rise of the “counter culture.” In this context, someone such as Rand who defended private property, educational standards, and self-restraint was likely to be seen as conservative, if not reactionary. A superficial reading of Rand probably led many conservatives to believe that Rand was a fellow traveler or even a fellow conservative. In fact, a member of the Young Americans for Freedom wrote to Rand in 1965 asking for permission to name a chapter of the YAF after her, which she refused. (Letters, p. 635)


In my essay “A Common Thread: Anti-Egalitarianism in Objectivism, Conservatism, and Libertarianism,” I argued that Rand, along with conservatives and libertarians, holds human inequality to be fundamental. She argues that in a free society, those with superior ability will inevitably form something of an elite based on merit. This hierarchy, however, does not work to the detriment of the less able: in fact, it works to their benefit. She called this the “pyramid of ability” principle. The following statement, by British conservative W. H. Mallock in 1894, could have been written by Rand:

Equality benefits no one. It frustrates men of talent; and it reduces the poor to a poverty still more abject .... For inequality produces the wealth of civilized communities: it provides the motive which induces men of superior benefit to exert themselves for the general benefit. (Mallock, Labour and the Popular Welfare, p. 233)

A belief in hierarchy is central to conservative thought as well. In Continental thought, Church and aristocracy are predominant; in its American version the self-made man (often a businessman) is upheld for praise. I recall that, during the 1980s, the Left denounced Ronald Reagan for his “Horatio Alger” belief that the “little guy” could rise to the level of a successful businessman. Rand, of course, disagreed with traditional state-imposed hierarchies such as existed in Europe. An Objectivist society would be a hierarchy of merit, but it would be no less hierarchical.

The State

Libertarians, particularly those of the anarcho-capitalist variety, have on occasion called Rand a conservative. Rand advocated laissez-faire capitalism and a minimal state. She was, to use the recently coined term, a “minarchist.” She considered anarchy highly impractical and ridiculed the idea of “competing governments” as worse than a “floating abstraction.” (The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 131-32)

Rand certainly was not an apologist for the state. At the same time, her discussions of government don’t reveal the depth of hostility (or even skepticism) toward the state that characterizes many libertarians. Consider the well-known statement of Albert Jay Nock:

Taking the State wherever found, striking into its history at any point, one sees no way to differentiate the activities of its founders, administrators and beneficiaries from those of a professional-criminal class.

It is difficult to find a statement by Rand as critical of the state as this one, and many Objectivists have adopted her attitude.[1] Contrary to anarcho-capitalists, Rand viewed the state as an improvement over anarchy. (See Nicholas Dykes, “Anarchism and Objectivism,” JARS, Vol. 7, No. 1)

In libertarian critiques of Rand as a conservative, reference is often made to Rand’s belief that big businessmen were America’s “persecuted minority,” and the essay of that name published in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. As her libertarian critics point out, it is difficult to describe big businessmen—with their tax-subsidies, restrictive tariffs, and the like—as “persecuted.” Leftist and libertarian historians have shown that many interventions in the economy were first introduced at the behest of big business. Murray Rothbard argues that most big businessmen have long made their peace with big government out of self-interest. As Rothbard concludes:

Persecuted? With a few honorable exceptions, big business jostles one another eagerly to line up at the public trough. Does Lockheed, or General Dynamics, or AT&T, or Nelson Rockefeller feel persecuted? (For a New Liberty, Rev. ed., p. 309)

It should be mentioned, however, that at times Rand was skeptical about the goals of businessmen. In essays such as “The Roots of War” and “The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus,” she understood the role many businessmen played in undermining capitalism and advocating imperialism. Rand may seem conservative to many libertarians[2], but as a description of her political theory this is imprecise. Chris Sciabarra has shown that Rand’s views on this question are reasonably close to the standard libertarian critique. He urges Objectivists to reclaim Rand’s “radical” legacy.


Ayn Rand was not a conservative. However, certain conservative themes pervade her work.[3]

Consider, for example, that much of Official Objectivism accepts the government’s rationale for the war in Iraq.

[2] For example, Rand’s support for intellectual property, laws against slander and libel, and (from what I’ve read second-hand) compulsory subpoenas probably place her on the “conservative” spectrum of minarchist opinion.

[3] Rand’s limited conservatism is not unusual in the libertarian movement. Ludwig von Mises was something of a social conservative, as was Murray Rothbard. Friedrich von Hayek famously wrote an essay entitled “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Yet when asked by how he would classify his politics, he responded “Old Whig.” (Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination, pp. 198-99)

A Common Thread: Anti-Egalitarianism in Objectivism, Conservatism, and Libertarianism

A 2004 Essay From Rebirth of Reason


Matthew Humphreys, in an interesting article, draws attention to the fact that many Objectivists and libertarians feel a greater affinity to the contemporary Right than the Left. Mr. Humphreys notes that there are various “currents of thought” found in the Right with which Objectivists and libertarians can make common cause.
One current of thought (which Mr. Humphreys doesn’t discuss) between these three traditions is their opposition to egalitarianism. Although not an easy concept to define, I take egalitarianism to mean the belief that all people are (or can be) equal in intelligence and worth and that society should attempt to promote equality (particularly of income) among people. On a cultural level, egalitarians often assert that all societies and cultures are of equal value.
I will discuss the opposition to egalitarianism focusing on the works of three American authors who each represent one tradition: Russell Kirk, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard. In spite of their differences on many issues of fundamental importance, there is a common thread of anti-egalitarianism running throughout their writings.

Conservatism: Russell Kirk

The twentieth century’s leading American conservative author was Russell Kirk (1918-1994). Although Kirk was a frequent critic of Rand and Rothbard, his critique of egalitarianism was similar. In one of his later essays, Kirk rejects the concept of “equality of condition” by which he means the “equality of incomes and other awards.” (Kirk does not reject the idea that people should be equal before the law.) [Kirk, Redeeming the Time, p. 217.] He states:

In short, I have been arguing that it is profoundly unjust to endeavor to transform society into a table land of equality. It would be unjust to the energetic, reduced to equality with the clack and indolent; it would be unjust to the thrift, compelled to make up losses of the profligate; it would be unjust to those take the long view, forced to submit to the domination of a majority interested chiefly in short-run results. [Id., p. 225.]

According to Kirk, the drive for equality has resulted in high taxation, a decline in educational standards, and multiculturalism.

Objectivism: Ayn Rand

Needles to say, Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was not an egalitarian. Her novels depict a world divided between the good and the evil, the intelligent and the stupid, and the strong and the cowardly. Although she was skeptical of genetic and racial differences in character and intelligence, she was clear that human beings and cultures differ in many respects and equality was neither possible nor desirable.
Perhaps Rand’s fullest exposition of her anti-egalitarianism is found in her 1971 essay “The Age of Envy.” Her criticism of egalitarianism is somewhat similar to Kirk’s and she sees similar consequences, including multiculturalism (although she didn’t use the term) and a decline in educational standards. [Rand, Return of the Primitive, pp. 140-49.]
In “Galt Speaks,” Rand advances what Objectivists call the “pyramid of ability principle,” namely that those less capable benefit when the more capable are allowed to advance to the limit of their abilities. [Rand, For the New Intellectual, pp. 185-86.] This concept is not unique to Rand, and Kirk quotes the British conservative W. H. Mallock to the same effect in his 1894 book Labour and the Popular Welfare: “Equality benefits no one. It frustrates men of talent; and it reduces the poor to a poverty still more abject. . . . For inequality produces the wealth of civilized communities: it provides the motive which induces men of superior benefit to exert themselves for the general benefit.”

Libertarianism: Murray Rothbard

Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), the last century’s most important libertarian thinker, was likewise a staunch opponent of egalitarianism, who attributed to egalitarianism many of the same ills as Kirk and Rand. Indeed, two of Rothbard’s most important essays were “Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature” and “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor.” Rothbard sees similar results flowing from the egalitarian agenda:

Equality of condition would reduce humanity to an anthill existence. Fortunately, the individuated nature of man . . . makes the ideal of total equality unattainable. But an enormous amount of damage – the crippling of individuality, as well as economic and social destruction – could be generated in the attempt.

[Rothbard, Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, and Other Essays, p. 279.]
Throughout Rothbard’s vast cultural criticism, he exposed the egalitarian fallacies behind “Women’s Liberation,” multiculturalism, and “progressive education.” In particular, his attack on progressive education mirrors Rand’s critique, focusing on the political, cultural, and “epistemological” aspects of this movement. [Rothbard, Education: Free and Compulsory, pp. 53-55.]


How this common opposition to egalitarianism “plays out” in contemporary politics is beyond the scope of this brief article.[1] Yet, anti-egalitarianism constitutes a common thread among the Objectivist, libertarian, and conservative traditions.

[1] Likewise, there is not space to discuss the common influences on these thinkers. Kirk, Rothbard, and Rand each read (and approved) of Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses. They also read Schoeck's Envy (although Rand didn't appear to approve of it, judging from the Marginalia).

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Can Objectivism Be Criticized?

Recently, on Diana Hsieh’s podcast, a listener asked Hsieh and her co-host Greg Perkins a question about criticisms of Objectivism and their opinion of Scott Ryan’s 2003 work, Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality. Hsieh holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Colorado. Both Hsieh and Perkins are (or were) supporters of the Ayn Rand Institute.

Hsieh said she hasn’t read Ryan’s book. Perkins said that with “no exception” all the criticisms he had read of Objectivism are either “blatantly dishonest” or “based on a misunderstanding.” Perkins went on to say that he read parts of the book and concluded that Ryan was not dishonest but rather, you guessed it, didn’t understand Objectivism.

Hsieh said that criticisms of a philosophy have limited value. What is most important is whether a philosophy corresponds to the “facts of reality” and whether its principles fit with “my experience.” She did make the point that, regardless of what one thinks about established philosophies such as Kantianism and Utilitarianism, there are certain legitimate criticisms that provide a good jumping off point for discussion. On the other hand, she maintains, Objectivism hasn’t been around long enough for good critiques to develop. She then agreed with Perkins that none of Rand’s critics understand Objectivism well enough to critique it.

This is a rather striking assertion. Objectivism has been a complete philosophy since at least 1968, when the essays making up Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology were published. In the forty-three years following Objectivism has been studied by numerous supporters, sympathizers and critics. Many of these people have Ph.D.s in philosophy. Is it really the case that no one other than a philosopher associated with the ARI understands Objectivism well-enough to comment on it? Rand’s supporters always tell us (as Leonard Peikoff put it) that Rand was the greatest “salesman” philosophy ever knew. She wrote in a clear language understandable to the common man. Yet at the same time her writings are apparently so difficult to understand that not even professional philosophers can understand them. Which is it? I’d also add that it’s not as if Rand wrote a tremendous amount of pure philosophy. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is 163 pages. The Virtue of Selfishness is 144 pages. The Romantic Manifesto is 187 pages. Throw in Galt’s Speech and the non-dated pieces in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and it’s not more than 800 pages. Compare this to the vast corpus of John Dewey (thirty seven volumes in the collected works) and Bertrand Russell, two writers on which Rand opined without reading more than a small fraction of their relevant work. Most of Rand’s critics have probably read her key essays several times over, so if they don’t understand them maybe it’s because Rand isn’t as clear as her acolytes claim.

That being said, I think it’s the case that two of the earliest critiques of Objectivism by philosophers, William O’Neill’s With Charity Toward None (1971) and John Robbins’ Answer to Ayn Rand (1974), did not always show the best understanding of Objectivism. However, things got much better with 1986’s The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, a collection of essays edited by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen. All of the essays were written by professional philosophers, some of whom are well-known such as Antony Flew and Wallace Matson. In 1999 the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies began publishing, providing a forum for scholars of diverse perspectives to dialogue on Rand’s philosophy and related matters. In 2002 Greg Nyquist published Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature. In 2003 Scott Ryan published Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality: A Critique of Ayn Rand’s Epistemology. While neither is a professional philosopher, both are well read in philosophy and, in their own ways, expand on the various critiques others have made.

I won’t summarize all the criticisms of Objectivism, but I think there are a number of stock objections put forward by more than one philosopher that are reasonable based on any “objective” reading of Rand’s philosophy

1. Theory of Concepts. This has been one of the most commented on aspects of Objectivism, in part because it is supposedly Rand’s greatest breakthrough. Just some of the objections: Rand presents no evidence that her theory is true; Rand provides no evidence to support her speculations about how the mind of children and animals work; Rand confuses the problems of universals with the different question of abstraction and concept formation; Rand’s theory of measurement omission cannot explain how certain abstract concepts such as “justice” are formed, nor can it explain the formation of mathematical or logical concepts.

2. Epistemology. Rand’s epistemology doesn’t seem all that well developed. However a standard critique is that Rand’s use of the stolen concept fallacy may show that skepticism is self-refuting; it does not show that the senses are generally reliable or provide us with the means of determining when our judgments about the external world are accurate. (As at least a couple of critics have mentioned, Rand herself became irate when informed by Joan Blumenthal that the tree she thought she saw outside her hospital window was really an IV pole.)

3. Ethics. This has gathered a lot of attention as well since it may be the most novel part of Objectivism. The standard critique is that Rand switches between life as the standard of value and a certain kind of life (rational and non-parasitic) as the standard. Rand is thus able to ignore obvious counterexamples such as the rational parasite who lives off the independence and intelligence of others. It also leads Objectivists to the rather odd conclusion that certain people who are apparently alive and well are “not really living” or even “dead.”

4. Politics. Perhaps the most common objection is that Rand’s advocacy of selfishness cannot provide a foundation for respecting the rights of others. There are various other criticisms such as whether voluntary contributions are sufficient to fund even a minimal state and why anarcho-capitalism is not more consistent with Rand’s politics than limited government.

5. Religion. Here the standard objection is that Rand (and most of her followers) don’t understand religion and theistic arguments well enough to critique them. Rand’s positive arguments for naturalism are weak, e.g., “existence exists” doesn’t preclude the existence of God or gods.

There is, I think, a more fundamental problem. Although Objectivists tell us how stunningly original Rand was, most of her ideas and even the way she defends them are quite similar to other thinkers and schools of philosophy. For example, as Harry Binswanger once admitted, “Objectivism is a version of empiricism.” As such it is subject to the standard criticisms of empiricism, in particular the difficulty of explaining necessity, mathematics and logic without the aid of a priori knowledge. Another example is Rand’s belief that man’s mind is tabula rasa, which makes it subject to various objections from evolutionary psychology.

As I final point, in light of all the schisms, excommunications and denunciations in Objectivism since 1968 it’s not clear who really does understand Objectivism. Recently Leonard Peikoff denounced historian of science John McCaskey over the application of Rand’s theory of concept formation to the problem of induction and its role in the history of science. Travis Norsen, who holds a Ph.D. in physics, came to McCaskey’s defense. If an Objectivist historian of science and an Objectivist physicist can’t get issues right in their own field whereas Leonard Peikoff (who has expertise in neither) can, what’s the hope for the rest of us? Indeed Peikoff has in recent years said that Objectivists who believe Moslems have a right to build an Islamic community center containing a Mosque in New York City or were considering voting Republican or abstaining in 2006 don’t understand Objectivism. Apparently Hsieh doesn’t understand Objectivism because she dissented over the Mosque issue and at least partially sided with McCaskey. Peikoff slammed Hsieh in a statement he since removed from his website.

I would mention that Hsieh and Perkins are a little extreme even by orthodox Objectivist standards here. As readers of ARCHN blog might recall, ARI scholar Onkar Ghate debated philosopher Michael Huemer a couple of years ago over Rand’s ethics. Last year saw the publication of a first volume in a series of papers arising out of Ayn Rand Society meetings. The first volume, edited by orthodox Objectivist Allan Gotthelf and James Lennox contains essays by non-Objectivists Paul Bloomfield, Christine Swanton, Helen Cullyer and Lester Hunt. ARI associated scholars Tara Smith and Darryl Wright engage in friendly dialogue with their essays.