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October 31, 2011 / compassioninpolitics

Criticism of Ayn Rand, Objectivism, Robert Nozick & Libertarianism

I read two of Ayn Rand’s non-fiction books in college (Capitalism: The Forgotten Ideal and The Virtue of Selfishness, as well as a number of other like-minded individuals like Robert Nozick and Tibor Machan). Unfortunately, she’s overly idealistic. Society can’t always base itself on a pure process based version, especially if that results in hyper-individualism. Here are 8 core issues Ayn Rand gets fundamentally wrong:

1. Zero Sum & Prisoners Dilemma. Her approach at a minimum seems to see zero-sum relationships almost everywhere. She probably misunderstood how social and community oriented humans are. So ultimately she has a narrow conception of freedom and the individual. She also doesn’t seem to make distinctions in types or degrees of coercion.

2. Education. How much the government subsidizing education both at the K-12 level and the university level could both expand freedom and improve society. For instance, the development of the middle class & the massive growth we experienced post World War II.

3. Medicare & Social Services. She also incidentally may have been wrong about the absolute rejection of social services. She had to use social services (ie Medicare) on her death bed: http://boingboing.net/2011/01/28…

4. Indoor smoking is indirect coercion. Hence, why government buildings & airplanes don’t allow smoking, besides the external risk of fire. She saw smoking as the ultimate freedom. She may have also missed the boat on the overall health harms of smoking.

5. Foreign Aid. She probably didn’t fully realize that foreign aid could serve military objectives.

6. Scientific Research. The value of funding scientific research for solving diseases, ultimately expanding life, and freedom.

7. Disaster Relief. Without FEMA, entirely cities would be crushed, which would have a domino effect across regions of America.

8. Fundamental Nature of Humans. Ultimately, she was at a loss for how individual not only exist in groups…but ultimately thrive in groups (see Plato or Rousseau). Rand isn’t a prescription for societies, but rather hyper-individualist hermits. Caring and empathy are fundamental to the human experience. Communities and societies are ultimately families of families–socially, culturally, and economically.

Overall, where does she get it wrong?

1. Fundamental Assumptions. At the level of assumptions & how she describes the world. The reason it sounds mostly right is because she doesn’t deal with the world outside her theory (ie humans live in communities, the value of networks, the inevitability of crisis and market failures, inequality & priviledge. Further issues which relate to business transparency and tragedy of the commons as well as the comparative advantages of not privitizing certain public services).

2. Resolving Rights Conflicts. Rights are certainly fundamental, but it makes sense to engage them in caring and compassionate ways. The alternative leads to an atomistic, fractured, and potentially balkanized societies. This was highlighted by Mary Ann Glendon in her books Rights Talk as well as a number of feminist writers on the topic of “negative rights” Suffering in a community diminishes the entire community.

3. The Nature of Property Rights. Property rights aren’t absolute in the first order as the other negative rights are. We can try for that ideal, in many respects, but its just not true. Taxation is not theft, its a semi-reciprocal relationship. Its not perfectly reciprocal, but reciprocal none-the-less. Its government which enables the free exchange of goods and services, including transportation and resolving conflicts in the first place. It printed the money and regulated the banks and policed the roads and educated you and made sure your water wasn’t polluted with cancer or poison. Given that the government is checking your violation of life across multiple vectors including organizations like the Centers for Disease Control, this seems like a pretty fair trade. Its not that I don’t think that property rights are important or that labor isn’t important, its just that its a second order concern–given that having a government is key to transportation, health, education, and healthy communities–which are net better for everyone.

4. Voices at the Bottom of the Well/Veil of Ignorance/Golden Rule. Moreover, I think it only passes as legitimate, reasonable, and fair by WASP-type people who are in college. Very few outside that group find this to be a viable philosophy (for instance, it would utterly fail any test which resembled John Rawl’s veil of ignorance or took those principles into account). What is common with most bad theories? They ignore context and nuance. Ayn Rand’s theory does exactly that.

* Admittedly Rawls doesn’t get it right either, but its a good test for evaluating an economic framework or any method of resolving conflict or creating legislation.

One Comment

Leave a Comment
  1. compassioninpolitics / Oct 31 2011 3:29 am

    Here is a different version:

    I read two of Rand’s non-fiction books in college (Capitalism: The Forgotten Ideal and The Virtue of Selfishness, as well as a number of other like-minded individuals like Robert Nozick and Tibor Machan). Unfortunately, she’s overly idealistic. Society can’t always base itself on a pure process based version, especially if that results in hyper-individualism. Here are 12 core issues Ayn Rand gets fundamentally wrong (6 public policy choices & 6 assumptions):

    1. Education. Rand ignores how much the government subsidizing education both at the K-12 level and the university level could both expand freedom and improve society. For instance, the development of the middle class & the massive growth we experienced post World War II.

    2. Medicare & Social Services. She also incidentally may have been wrong about the absolute rejection of social services. She had to use social services (ie Medicare) on her death bed: http://boingboing.net/2011/01/28

    3. Indoor smoking is indirect coercion. Hence, why government buildings & airplanes don’t allow smoking, besides the external risk of fire. She saw smoking as the ultimate freedom. She may have also missed the boat on the overall health harms of smoking.

    4. Foreign Aid. Rand probably didn’t fully realize that foreign aid could serve military objectives.

    5. Scientific Research. The value of funding scientific research for solving diseases, ultimately expanding life, and freedom.

    6. Disaster Relief. Without FEMA, entirely cities would be crushed, which would have a domino effect across regions of America.

    Overall, where does she get it wrong assumption-wise?

    1. Fundamental Assumptions.
    At the level of assumptions & how she describes the world. The reason it sounds mostly right is because she doesn’t deal with the world outside her theory (ie humans live in communities, the value of networks, the inevitability of crisis and market failures, inequality & priviledge. Further issues which relate to business transparency and tragedy of the commons as well as the comparative advantages of not privitizing certain public services).

    2. Fundamental Nature of Humans.
    Ultimately, she was at a loss for how individual not only exist in groups…but ultimately thrive in groups (see Plato or Rousseau). Rand isn’t a prescription for societies, but rather hyper-individualist hermits. Caring and empathy are fundamental to the human experience. Communities and societies are ultimately families of families–socially, culturally, and economically.

    3. Zero Sum & Prisoners Dilemma.
    Her approach at a minimum seems to see zero-sum relationships almost
    everywhere. She probably misunderstood how social and community
    oriented humans are. So ultimately she has a narrow conception of
    freedom and the individual. She also doesn’t seem to make distinctions
    in types or degrees of coercion.

    4. Resolving Rights Conflicts.
    Rights are certainly fundamental, but it makes sense to engage them in caring and compassionate ways. The alternative leads to an atomistic, fractured, and potentially balkanized societies. This was highlighted by Mary Ann Glendon in her books Rights Talk as well as a number of feminist writers on the topic of “negative rights” Suffering in a community diminishes the entire community.

    5. The Nature of Property Rights.
    Property rights aren’t absolute in the first order as the other negative rights are. We can try for that ideal, in many respects, but its just not true. Taxation is not theft, its a semi-reciprocal relationship. Its not perfectly reciprocal, but reciprocal none-the-less. Its government which enables the free exchange of goods and services, including transportation and resolving conflicts in the first place. It printed the money and regulated the banks and policed the roads and educated you and made sure your water wasn’t polluted with cancer or poison. Given that the government is checking your violation of life across multiple vectors including organizations like the Centers for Disease Control, this seems like a pretty fair trade. Its not that I don’t think that property rights are important or that labor isn’t important, its just that its a second order concern–given that having a government is key to transportation, health, education, and healthy communities–which are net better for everyone. Government enabling policies serve as both a rising tide and a collective insurance policy which helps the market.

    6. Voices at the Bottom of the Well/Veil of Ignorance/Golden Rule. Moreover, I think it only passes as legitimate, reasonable, and fair by WASP-type people who are in college. Very few outside that group find this to be a viable philosophy (for instance, it would utterly fail any test which resembled John Rawl’s veil of ignorance or took those principles into account). What is common with most bad theories? They ignore context and nuance. Ayn Rand’s theory does exactly that.

    Finally, when various inevitable and unforeseen forces distort the market, the government provides a stabilizing force which is key to a) market functioning b) safety and survival c) exercising rights.

    * Admittedly Rawls doesn’t get it right either, but its a good test for evaluating an economic framework or any method of resolving conflict or creating legislation.

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