Ayn Rand’s (Unwarranted)
Animosity towards Libertarians
Ayn Rand compared libertarians to hippies—and spurned them. But was she right?
To Ayn Rand, libertarians were “my avowed enemies [who] attempt to cash in on my name and mislead my readers into the exact opposite of my views.”
She made it clear she had no connection and disapproved of “the so-called ‘hippies of the right,’ who [claim] to be followers of my philosophy and advocates of anarchism…the most irrational, anti-intellectual notion ever spun by the concrete-bound, context-dropping, whim-worshiping fringe of the collectivist movement, where it properly belongs.”
The uninitiated person reading Rand’s attacks would assume that all libertarians are anarchists. This conclusion would surprise the majority of libertarians who advocate Rand’s vision of a government restricted to the provision of defence, police and law courts.
That vision is supported by a simple reading of the Libertarian Party’s Platform. The preamble to Section 3.0, for example, is clearly inspired by Ayn Rand:
The protection of individual rights is the only proper purpose of government. Government is constitutionally limited so as to prevent the infringement of individual rights by the government itself. The principle of non-initiation of force should guide the relationships between governments.
As a statement of political philosophy, the LP’s Platform is 95+% Rand; there’s not even a hint of anarchism.
To become a member of the Libertarian Party—which was started by her admirers, and founded on her political philosophy—you must sign the following pledge:
“I hereby certify that I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals.”
This statement is clearly inspired by Ayn Rand, to whom the banning of physical force in a society is the means of recognizing individual rights (though she would certainly not agree that the non-initiation of force be limited to “political or social goals,” nor with all the wording of the LP Platform. Had she written it, it would be a much better document).
Rand’s animosity towards libertarians only makes sense when we consider her relationship with the economist Murray Rothbard, and Roy Childs’ An Open Letter to Ayn Rand.
Murray Rothbard, a student of the Austrian [free market] economist, Ludwig von Mises, was briefly a member of Rand’s inner circle, known as “the Collective,” but parted on bitterly unfriendly terms. Rothbard, once an unabashed admirer of Rand had written to her:
When I first met you, many years ago, I was a follower of Mises, but unhappy about his antipathy to natural rights, which I “felt” was true but could not demonstrate. You introduced me to the whole field of natural rights and natural law philosophy, which I did not know existed, and month by month, working on my own as I preferred, I learned and studied the glorious natural rights tradition. I also learned from you about the existence of Aristotelian epistemology, and then I studied that, and came to adopt it wholeheartedly. So that I owe you a great intellectual debt for many years, the least of which is introducing me to a tradition of which four years of college and three years of graduate school, to say nothing of other reading, had kept me in ignorance.
Rothbard was ejected from Rand’s circle over his “refusal to acknowledge Ayn as his source of some of the ideas he included in a paper he was publishing.” Rothbard insisted he got the idea from a scholar of the Middle Ages; Rand’s former associate, Nathaniel Branden, recalled “specifically how Murray had been introduced to the idea”—in a discussion he and his wife Barbara had with Rothbard.
Rothbard turned against Rand (just as Rand turned against him), later writing an unflattering portrait of Rand’s circle titled The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult. Rothbard, a free market anarchist, later became a major figure in the Libertarian Party.
This, by the way, was neither the first nor the last time someone was “excommunicated” by Rand for a perceived or real insult, deviation from her philosophy, or a failure to defend her in public.
In 1969, the 19-year-old Roy Childs wrote An Open Letter to Ayn Rand, arguing that there were fundamental contradictions in her outline of the ideal government (see her article The Nature of Government).
Rand defined government as the agency that held a monopoly of retaliatory force in a specific geographic area.
The purpose of government is to protect individual rights by banning the use of force. That ban applies equally to all individuals and organizations, including the government. Since taxation necessitates the initiation of force, even the financing of the Objectivist government must be voluntary (see “Government Financing in a Free Society, in Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness).
Childs argued Rand’s government must inevitably lead to either anarchism—or statism.
In such a free society, says Childs, anyone can start a private security service offering the same services of defence, police, and law courts, as the government. If the Objectivist government does nothing, it no longer meets Rand’s definition of a government as the agency holding a monopoly of retaliatory force.
However, if the government closes down such private security agencies it can only do so by initiating force—which it is constitutionally restricted from doing.
If Rand ever read Childs’ article, she’d have been highly insulted by its tone. But she was not a person to engage in debate with anyone, especially a critic (see more of her responses here).
However, Childs’ article convinced many libertarians. And for a time such free market anarchists, with Murray Rothbard at their head, were a significant and influential minority within the LP. Nevertheless, the party remained an organization dedicated to Rand’s vision of government (and the anarchists have since either departed or been ejected).
Given that Rand was not a person to forgive, or to forget a grudge, her comments about anarchists make perfect sense if you substitute “Murray Rothbard” for “anarchist” and “libertarian.” As her biographer, Barbara Branden put it The Passion of Ayn Rand: “The anarchist wing…was the particular source of Ayn Rand’s indignant repudiation of the party that had been formed in the image of her philosophy.”
But to paint all libertarians with the same brush was and is a fundamental error. Especially when it comes to judging the Libertarian Party and individual libertarian candidates according to “Rand’s Rules.”
In How To Judge A Political Candidate, Rand wrote: “one cannot expect, nor is it necessary, to agree with a candidate’s total philosophy—only with his political philosophy (and only in terms of essentials).”
In 1963-4, she supported Barry Goldwater for president, whose ultimate foundation for his political philosophy was faith.
Nevertheless, in keeping with her statement above—even though she viewed religion as “the greatest disease of mankind”—she judged Goldwater solely on his political philosophy, and approved.
Had Rand judged Libertarian Party presidential candidates by the same standards she judged Goldwater, she would have approved of many of them. John Hospers, David Bergland, and Ed Crane, to name just three, stood fair and square for Rand’s political philosophy. They weren’t, like Goldwater, just leaning towards political freedom on balance; they were totally committed to political freedom as Rand defined it!
Unfortunately, thanks to her personal animosity to Murray Rothbard, her vociferous disapproval of the free market anarchists’ political philosophy, and her mistaken assumption that all libertarians were Rothbardian anarchists, she missed a golden opportunity to solidify her own legacy.
Rand was “interested in politics so that one day I will not have to be interested in politics.”
Had she supported, even provisionally, those libertarians who stood firmly for her political philosophy, the Libertarian Party would, today, have an influence the major parties could not ignore—and she would have hastened the arrival of the day when she—and us—would no longer “have to be interested in politics.”