Conservatives Should Stop Taking Ayn Rand Steroids

Rand believed in an elite class of producers that was beset by "mooches."

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Jonathan Chait spotlights this long and compelling reckoning, by Slate’s Stephen Metcalf, with the work of Robert Nozick, one of libertarianism’s intellectual godfathers.

It’s well worth your time.

[Check out a roundup of GOP political cartoons.]

The late Nozick was a brilliant and important thinker; his work represented a full-throated and serious response to modern liberalism’s intellectual powerhouse, John Rawls, whose book A Theory of Justice defended the voluntary egalitarian state. What kind of society would we construct, Rawls asked, if we didn’t know what was in our self-interest? What if we were “blindfolded” and couldn’t be sure if we’d be brilliant at math, a superior athlete, or physically beautiful?

Nozick, says Metcalf, retorted that the Rawlsian social compact unjustly instrumentalized the human person; it violated the “underlying Kantian principle that individuals are ends and not merely means; they may not be sacrificed or used for the achieving of other ends without their consent.”

Metcalf doesn’t go into this, but that last point rang a bell. It’s been years since I read Nozick, but I seem to remember that he didn’t advocate for a singular libertarian utopia. Rather, he proposed a sort of constellation of voluntary utopias. Under a just political order, if a group of citizens wanted to form a Rawlsian minisociety, they would be free to do so. But no one could be compelled to join. [See a gallery of cartoons about the Tea Party.]

This, to my lights, is what separated Nozick from the pernicious nonsense of Ayn Rand. She saw the concept of egalitarianism as inherently evil. Liberty and equality weren’t competing goods—they were oil and water.

TNR’s Chait frequently has made the point that Randianism represents an “inverted Marxism”: In both worldviews, there are producers and there are parasites. For Marx, the workers were producers, and the owners parasites. Rand believed in an elite class of producers that was beset by "mooches."

On a practical level, this is exactly right. None of us is wholly one or the other. We, or the great majority of us, are a bit of both. But Rand was even worse at the conceptual level—and it’s this grand mistake that has made her so toxic, and so alluring, to the American right.

When the Declaration of Independence referred to “certain inalienable rights,” it implied that, when human beings enter into a social contract—into society—they necessarily give up some measure of freedom. There are, in effect, “certain alienable rights,” too. (Of course, in any free society, they will argue over to what extent those rights are alienable.) [Vote now: Will you see the Atlas Shrugged movie?]

Under Rand, the individual gives up virtually nothing. Indeed, the maximal satisfaction of his self-interest is what makes society possible, rather than the other way around. The very idea of sacrificing anything is an affront to Randian morality. There is no sense of limits here, or of trade-offs.

It’s a wonder that this philosophy isn’t even more popular than it already is, in post “Me Decade”-America. It takes the idea of self-satisfaction and shoots its rear-end with steroids: Not only do I get what I want, when I want it, everybody else is better off when I get what I want! I’m the motor of the world, baby!

Michael Kinsley, in a 2007 Time column, observed: “The computer revolution has bred a generation of smart loners, many of them rich and some of them complacently Darwinian, convinced that they don’t need society—nor should anyone else.” 

And then he predicted: “They are going to be an increasingly powerful force in politics.”

He couldn’t have known just how right he’d turn out to be.

  • Check out a roundup of GOP political cartoons.
  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the Tea Party.
  • Vote now: Will you see the Atlas Shrugged movie?