POLITICAL IDEAS: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
The chilling creed of the radical libertarians
, August 21, 2010
Who today remembers the novelist and philosopher of radical individualism, Ayn Rand? Quite a few people, apparently. Although she has been dead for almost four decades, her books continue to sell in large numbers, and her ideas are still highly influential in corporate board-rooms and free-market think-tanks.
Her creed of radical libertarianism has a certain superficial attractiveness, with its call for smaller government, lower taxation and greater personal freedom. Many conservatives, particularly in the United States, and increasingly in Australia, look to radical libertarians as their natural allies.
Yet this creed, as we shall see, has a dark side, which is hostile to many Judaeo-Christian values and civilised norms.
Ayn Rand was born in Russia in 1905. She left the country when she was 21, emigrating alone to the United States.
It is understandable that she reacted against the communist system from which she had fled. Unfortunately, she then went to the extreme of advocating the virtual elimination of any role for government in society.
Rand has been the subject of an excellent recent biography by Jennifer Burns, called Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right
At a young age, Rand passionately devoured the writings of the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and eagerly embraced his militant atheism.
In early 1934, she began a private philosophical journal. In her very first entry, she concluded with the words: "I want to be known as the greatest champion of reason and the greatest enemy of religion."
She was not exactly the embodiment of pure reason herself. She responded in a bizarre manner to an atrocious murder in the US, which made headlines around the world in the 1920s. A deranged American killer, William Hickman, in December 1927 kidnapped a 12-year-old schoolgirl, then murdered and dismembered her. On being captured, he boasted of his grisly deed.
The Los Angeles Times
referred to Hickman's actions as "the most horrible crime of the 1920's".
Astonishing to say, Ayn Rand acclaimed this psychopathic monster as a hero, someone who had been misunderstood by society. She admired his supposed independence of mind and his flouting of society's conventions by his refusal to express remorse.
She scolded respectable folk for being so small-minded in their hatred of the killer. By contrast, she praised the murderer Hickman for having "no regard whatever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own". She described him as "a man who really stands alone, in action and in soul."
Ayn Rand preached an uncompromising creed of radical individualism through her novels, political tracts and a personal newsletter. She advocated a society based on completely deregulated capitalism — no constraints whatsoever — and almost zero government. She was dogmatic and intolerant. She put her personal beliefs on a par with science and coined the term "objectivism" to describe her creed. She attracted a sizeable following among leading academics and public figures.
One of her disciples was Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995), a highly influential American economist who sought to promote, through his books and articles, a similar libertarian philosophy based on radical personal autonomy with few if any legal constraints.
In his 1970 book, Power and Market
, Rothbard denounced every sort of government measure as "organised coercion" and "violence on a large scale".
In another of his works, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto
(1978), he demanded that government relinquish its control of law courts, police and emergency services, and let them be run by private firms.
He also called for the repeal of all restrictions on child labour, including laws "requiring ‘working papers' and all sorts of red tape before a youngster can be hired".
Rothbard proudly adopted the name "anarcho-capitalism" to describe his philosophy of virtually zero government.
Another Rand-Rothbard acolyte and anarcho-capitalist is Walter Block (born in 1941), who wrote a libertarian polemic of incredible foolishness, Defending the Undefendable
(1976). In his book he defends the slanderer and libeller, the person who yells "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, the drug-pusher, the employer of child labour, the blackmailer, the dishonest cop and many other social pariahs.
It is little surprise that Block in 2007 declared: "I am a devout atheist."
Rand, Rothbard and Block are all Americans, but America is not the only country where such politically extreme ideas have flourished. Britain in the 19th century, when it was experiencing the Industrial Revolution, had prominent economists and public figures who tenaciously fought against the introduction of the most elementary government measures to promote factory safety and public health.
Social reformer Edwin Chadwick established a link between unclean living conditions and the high rates of disease and death in the big cities. However, his campaign to introduce clean drinking water and better sanitation met with fierce opposition from the British Establishment's newspaper, The Times
of London. In one of its editorials in 1854, it thundered: "We prefer to take our chance with cholera than be bullied into health."
What sort of people are radical libertarians?
The 20th-century variety, exemplified by Rand, Rothbard and Block, is characterised by militant atheism and antipathy to Judaeo-Christian values.
Ayn Rand lived in an open marriage. Both she and her husband were repeatedly unfaithful to each other. During her marriage, Rand conducted an affair with one of her intellectual disciples, Nathaniel Branden, a famous psychotherapist best known today for promoting the psychology of self-esteem.
Rand loathed Christian ideals of marital fidelity, altruism, service and self-sacrifice. In one of her best-known works, The Fountainhead
(1943), she warned: "Look back at history. Look at any great system of ethics, from the Orient up.… Under all the complications of verbiage, haven't they all had a single leitmotif: sacrifice, renunciation, self-denial? …
"Just listen to any prophet and if you hear him speak of sacrifice — run. Run faster than the plague."
Rand's ideology, although seeming to extol human freedom, in fact advocated misanthropy, greed and narcissism. Some of her writings remind one of that terrible scene in Shakespeare when Lady Macbeth summons the powers of darkness to divest her of any conscience and compassion.
Rand's bleak philosophy of radical personal autonomy, however, gave her little personal consolation. She became addicted to amphetamines and smoked two packets of cigarettes a day for decades until her death at the age of 77 from lung cancer.
She admitted: "Nothing existential gave me any great pleasure. And progressively, as my idea developed, I had more and more a sense of loneliness."
Nathaniel Branden's wife Barbara recalls in her memoir, The Passion of Ayn Rand
, of how abominably Rand treated her friends and disciples. By the end of her life, Rand had scarcely a friend in the world. At her funeral in New York in 1982, alongside her coffin was a massive six-foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign
— a fitting monument to her lifelong worship of money and self.
Atheists Rand and Rothbard had no concept of the sacredness of human life and were resolutely in favour of abortion-on-demand. Rand despised conservative American President Ronald Reagan for his opposition to abortion.
She declared: "An embryo has no rights
(Emphasis is Rand's).
Her disciple, Rothbard — the one who believed in legalising child labour — spoke in similar terms on the subject. It is interesting to read Rothbard's own words on abortion because it provides a window into his soul.
In his 1978 work, For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto
, he asked: ""What human
has the right to remain, unbidden, as an unwanted parasite within some other human being's body?" (Emphasis is Rothbard's). He contended that "what the mother is doing in an abortion is causing an unwanted entity within her body to be ejected from it: If the fetus dies, this does not rebut the point that no being has a right to live, unbidden, as a parasite within or upon some person's body."
Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker, in their important study Architects of the Culture of Death
, justifiably identify Ayn Rand as a leading intellectual contributor to today's anti-life culture.
Even after death, Ayn Rand has continued to exert a formidable influence across the world of ideas. Her books — both novels and works on economics — continue to sell. In America alone, sales of her books run at 800,000 a year.
Two leading American free-market think-tanks, the Cato Institute and the Atlas Society (the latter named after Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged
), credit Rand with being their intellectual inspiration. Stephen Moore, a senior economics writer for The Wall Street Journal,
recalls when, some years ago, he used to work at the Cato Institute. He says that they used to label any new recruit who had not yet read Rand's Atlas Shrugged
a "virgin". He recalls: "Being conversant in Ayn Rand's classic novel … was practically a job requirement."
From Ayn Rand's books and from the various think-tanks that her ideology spawned, the amoral agenda of radical libertarianism has found its way into corporate board-rooms, with some business tycoons entertaining delusions that they are Nietzschean Supermen and Masters of the Universe — although perhaps not to quite the same extent since the onset of the global slump.
Occasionally, some of Rand's more intelligent followers have succumbed to the odd doubt about the reliability of radical libertarian theory when it has come into collision with the real world.
Former Federal Reserve Bank chairman, Alan Greenspan, a close follower of Rand's from his youth until her death, had second thoughts, following the global financial crisis, about libertarian ideology.
In Congressional testimony on October 23, 2008, Greenspan conceded his error on financial deregulation. The New York Times
wrote, "a humbled Mr Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the self-destructive power of wanton mortgage lending. … Mr Greenspan refused to accept blame for the crisis but acknowledged that his belief in deregulation had been shaken".
Overall, however, despite the doubters, the influence of the ideas of Rand, Rothbard and Block continue to win new adherents — and Australia is not immune to this influence.
Australia's free-market think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, recently launched a 330-page volume of essays, entitled 100 Great Books of Liberty: The Essential Introduction to the Greatest Idea of Western Civilisation
Some of the essays praised the worthwhile contributions of famous thinkers, such as John Locke, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville. However, three essays in the IPA's book actually extolled the anarcho-capitalist libertarian ideas of, in turn, Rand, Rothbard and Block.
It is a pity the IPA's book was not published as two volumes — the first one to commemorate genuinely great thinkers of liberty, and a second one to warn people against the toxic ideology of Ayn Rand and her disciples. For radical libertarians — or anarcho-capitalists as they are proud to call themselves — are as much agents of social decomposition and enemies of Judaeo-Christian civilisation as are atheistic Marxists and French postmodernists.John Ballantyne is editor of News Weekly. This article is an extract from a paper he delivered, "Which model of market economy — libertarian or Christian?", on July 22, 2010, at the Religion in the Public Square colloquium, organised by the Presbyterian Church of Australia, held during July 22-24, 2010, at the Assembly Hall, 156 Collins St, Melbourne.
Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
"Let murderers hang", Los Angeles Time
, December 21, 1927.
Cited in Burns, p.25.
Murray N. Rothbard, Power and the Market: Government and the Economy
(Menlo Park, California: Institute for Humane Studies, 1970), pp.9, 161.
Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto
(New York: Macmillan, 1978), ch.12: "The Public Sector, III: Police, Law, and the Courts".
Murray N. Rothbard, Power and the Market
Walter Block, Defending the Undefendable: The Pimp, Prostitute, Scab, Slumlord, Libeler, Moneylender, and Other Scapegoats in the Rogue's Gallery of American Society
(New York: Fleet Street Corporation, 1976).
Walter Block, "Open letter to Ron Paul by Walter Block", LewRockwell.com
. December 28, 2007.
URL: www.lewrockwell.com/block/block94.html The Times
(London) editorial of 1854, quoted in John Child, Tim Hodge, Paul Shuter and David Taylor, Understanding History: Bk 2
(UK: Heinemann, 1992), p.101.
Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
(1943), in Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual
(New York: Random House, 1961), p.73.
, Act I, scene 5, lines 40-44.
Burns, pp. 144, 274.
Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand
(New York: Doubleday, 1986), p.34.
Cited in Burns, p.263.
Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto
Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker, Architects of the Culture of Death
(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), pp.54-65.
Johann Hari, "How Ayn Rand became an American icon: The perverse allure of a damaged woman", Slate Magazine
, November 2, 2009.
Stephen Moore, "‘Atlas Shrugged': from fiction to fact in 52 years", Wall Street Journal
, January 9, 2009.
Edmund L. Andrews, "Greenspan concedes error on regulation", New York Times
, October 23, 2008.
Chris Berg and John Roskam with Andrew Kemp, 100 Great Books of Liberty: The Essential Introduction to the Greatest Idea of Western Civilisation
(Ballan, Victoria: Connor Court Publishing / Melbourne: Institute of Public Affairs, 2010).
Berg, Roskam and Kemp, op. cit.
, pp.28-30, 31-32, 314-15.