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University of San Diego
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Monday, December 7, 2009

What is Rand good for?
Tom Smith

I haven't read much Rand and don't have any plans to do so soon, there being so many books to read and so little time.  But I've known Randians ever since I became a libertarian of sorts and believe I have a pretty good idea of what Randian views are.  And as this is my blog after all, I don't need to be terribly qualified to offer my views.

In my view, Rand has something very important going for her, and that is, she seems to be right about a very big thing.  There just is something about the state that causes it to surround and attach itself to productive and creative activity and to parasitize it.  This activity seems to emit, the way a squid emits ink, a kind of gas of moral arguments to obfuscate what it is really doing.  Many sincere people are pulled along thinking they are doing good, but there are also plenty of people, and I've met them in DC, who know or should know that they are not really helping anybody but themselves.  The preening, hypocritical, condescending, but actually ill-educated, unanalytical and unscientific mindset one sadly has come to expect from, oh, say, your average writer at the Huffington Post, is a dead ringer for a Randian villain.  You can criticize Rand's characters as shallow and unbelievable, but unfortunately, there are evidently a lot of shallow and unbelievable people out there, especially in politics.

I don't think it's surprizing that Rand should be making a comeback at a time when the federal government is trying to, for want of a better phrase, take over health care, and that's just for starters.  As Nat Hentoff has explained, this is a very scary thing.  What Rand seems to have gotten her head around is the opposition between the people who want to run things from above, the Will to Supervise, and those who oppose them, who believe in freedom and creation.  This is a very fundamental opposition and I don't think political philosophy understands it all that well.  Schumpeter obviously understood capitalism as creative destruction and the importance of entrepreneurs, but I'm not sure he grasped the importance of the anti-entrepreneurs.  But Rand alerts us to the danger to freedom posed by Progressives, which is probably as good a name as any for those who oppose freedom in the interests of their own power with the rationale of making things better for various clients groups that are supposed to have some moral claim or other on all of us.

I disagree with Rand respecting her ethical egoism (if that's an accurate term).  I do think we have moral duties to others in our society.  So I'm not a Randian libertarian.  But as soon as you recognize that thinking that there is a moral case to be made for providing medical care to the indigent at public expense, hardly means that everybody's medical care should be supervised in detail (and incompetently, but that goes without saying) by the State, you should realize that the former is not the justification of the latter, but just its rationalization.  Thus when Heather Wilhelm says, Randians sell liberty poorly because Rand is so hard-hearted, it is hard to know how to respond.  Saying, you don't care about poor people is to the slogan shouting left what you don't love your country is to the slogan shouting Right.  Whether it is better to say, of course I care about poor people, but . . . , or simply not to buy into that game at all, is a tactical question, probably best answered different ways in different circumstances, and different audiences.  But you have to include in your calculations that every time you agree to the premiss that caring about poor people is at issue, you take a big step backwards before you can take any forward.

It may be oversimplified, but I also think the Randian model of the political economy her villians want -- state supervisors siphoning off wealth from the productive class to redistribute to client groups -- bears pondering.  The weird transformation of the General Strike in Rand (going John Galt) is also interesting.  I think in the end I would probably end up regarding her as something of a kook (no hate mail please) but one with important insights especially now.  The idea of a general strike by producers is also very funny, and political theory doesn't have a lot of good jokes in it. 

Some of Rand's ideas are dated.  OTOH I'm thinking that suffocating progressivism from the elites in alliance with various client groups might turn out to be the big threat to liberty in this century the way militaristic fascism (of the Hitlerist or Stalinist variety) was in the last.  It's certainly off to a good start.  (Imagine if you will a small group of scientists, none too devoted to the truth, pushing an agenda of global economic control in order to avoid some sort of strange planetary catastophe, but one that would make certain vital players rich, but at the same time was a great sell to the ever earnest, the children, ambitious politicians . . . ah, well, that's probably too far fetched.)  Maybe it will turn out to be Progressive Confucian Market Communism or something we have most to fear.  But what makes Rand seem important now is that she was prophetic.  She seems to have identified the enemy and the direction it is coming from, which is no small thing. It's hard not to respect the person who told you, be careful on those tracks, when you see a big train bearing down on you.

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Tom Smith
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» The Special Interest State from Convergences
Law Prof Tom Smith at the Right Coast (who is consistently one of my favorite commentators) muses on the relevance of Ayn Rand's novels to the current political scene. Sample: In my view, Rand has something very important going for... [Read More]

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