The Latest Rand Bashing

Thursday, September 13, 2007

What happens when a writer obviously ignorant about, but hostile to Ayn Rand is handed a convenient set of stereotypes by a group of people who claim to be on her side, but repeatedly demonstrate that they don't know anything about her, either?

Thanks to an email from reader Bill Spears yesterday, I learned that you get articles like this.

Like Ayn Rand, whom I admire and who repeatedly denounced libertarianism, I am not a libertarian and I will not defend libertarianism, which is an anti-intellectual movement that pretends that one can advocate liberty without even bothering to be clear about what one is talking about. Libertarianism deserves no defense from anyone who actually values freedom and capitalism.

When a political movement seeks, as libertarianism does, to expand its membership at the expense of that membership actually knowing what it is talking about or agreeing about anything important, what you get is a such a motley collection of fools -- who claim to be fans of so many random intellectuals -- that even a five-year-old could figure out how to drag intellectual X through the mud with their unwitting help.

All such a brilliant polemicist would have to do is find someone who obviously hasn't a clue about anything -- and pretend that this person somehow does have a clue about the intellectual she wishes to smear. Here is author Kay Hymowitz channeling her inner five-year-old with a libertarian stereotype:

More than perhaps any other American political group, libertarians have suffered the blows of caricature. For many people, the term evokes an image of a scraggly misfit living in the woods with his gun collection, a few marijuana plants, some dogeared Ayn Rand titles, and a battered pickup truck plastered with bumper stickers reading "Taxes = Theft" and "FDR Was A Pinko."
After saying that this stereotype is "not entirely unfair", Hymowitz then goes medieval on capitalism and Ayn Rand through the convenient surrogates of libertarianism and such luminaries as Brian Doherty and Murray Rothbard.

And her attack is a moral attack against the "cultural contradictions of libertarianism". As just one example, she cites Brian Doherty, editor of Reason Magazine and author of a recent history of the libertarian movement (which also wrongly includes Rand as a libertarian):
Despite Mr. Lindsey's protestations to the contrary, libertarianism has supported, always implicitly and often with an enthusiastic hurrah, the "Aquarian" excesses that he now decries. Many of the movement's devotees were deeply involved in the radicalism of the 1960s.

Nor should this come as a surprise. After all, the libertarian vision of personal morality--described by Mr. Doherty as "People ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, as long as they aren't hurting anyone else"--is not far removed from "if it feels good, do it," the cri de coeur of the Aquarians. To be sure, part of the libertarian entanglement with the radicalism of the 1960s stemmed from the movement's opposition to both the Vietnam War and the draft, which Milton Friedman likened to slavery. But libertarians were also drawn to the left's revolutionary social posture. [bold added]
Had Hymowitz a deeper familiarity with Ayn Rand, she would have demonstrated some inkling that Rand made a major distinction between morality and politics, which plenty of libertarians are happy to paper over just like Doherty does above. It is one thing to uphold the political right of someone to do what he wants as long as he does not violate the rights of someone else, but it is quite another to say that it is moral to do whatever one wants to do.

Ayn Rand, well-known (and condemned among libertarians) as a moralist, wrote an entire book about morality called The Virtue of Selfishness. Her philosophy is unique, as Tara Smith recently demonstrated in her academic (but still quite accessible) Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist, in making a strong case for the necessity of the morality of egoism for human life and well-being.

Why does one get the impression that Hymowitz either does not know or does not care that Rand holds a radically different view of morality than the collection of hippies she tosses out in the same essay? At the very least, if one is going to call Rand a libertarian, one ought to show some modicum of surprise that this is one "libertarian" whose view of morality is uncharacteristically fastidious. Rand understood that one must grasp morality before formulating a theory of politics. This goes unmentioned, along with the fact that her ethics is just as far from the Christian morality espoused by conservatives as it is from the hedonism of hippies.

One would think that Hymowitz is afraid for her readers to learn that Rand offered a serious, rational, and revolutionary alternative to the old "choice" between mindlessly obeying allegedly divine commands -- or mindlessly doing "your own thing"!

And if Hymowitz had bothered to look more closely into Rand's moral thinking, she would have seen how it ties in with her political thinking, and furthermore how, as a result, while libertarians parrot many of the words of Rand's capitalist political theory, they clearly do not understand its actual meaning.

For example, she cites the apparent disconnect between the recent return of momentum towards the expansion of big government and the optimism of many libertarians:
[D]espite Bill Clinton's declaration that "the era of big government is over," antistatist ideas like school vouchers and privatized Social Security accounts continue to be greeted with widespread skepticism, while massive new programs like the Medicare prescription-drug benefit continue to win the support of re-election-minded incumbents. A recent New York Times survey found increasing support for government-run health care, and both parties are showing signs of a populist resurgence, with demands for new economic and trade regulation.

And yet, judging by their output in recent years, libertarians are in a fine mood--and not because they are in denial. However distant the country may be from their laissez-faire ideal, free-market principles now drive the American economy to a degree unimaginable a generation ago. [bold added]
But school vouchers are not fundamentally "anti-statist". Privatizing the educational system is anti-statist, while the government taking control of part of your (and others') income and dictating how it is spent is just another form of statism. Ditto for the government having anything whatsoever to do with the business of retirement planning. If people look askance at capitalism because of such measures, it is plainly because the word about what capitalism really is hasn't been put out quite accurately.

In other words, not only is there a recent buildup of new momentum for big government, the efforts of libertarians which Hymowitz agrees are attempts to make America more capitalistic were not in fact anything of the sort!

Hymowitz is technically (and accidentally) right about libertarians not being "in denial" about any of this: How can one be "in denial" about one's asessment of the facts on the ground if one is dead wrong about how he assesses them? Libertarians advocate measures as "capitalism" all the time on the basis of nonessential details that look on the surface like capitalism. For example vouchers look good to many libertarians because they fixate on greater school "choice" -- while dropping the context of the unchallenged state near-monopoly on education and the fact that vouchers also increase state involvment in religion by sending tax money to religious schools.

Objectivists and others who actually understand Ayn Rand's ideas understand that the "anti-statist" measures Hymowitz mentions are actually quite statist, but revealingly, neither do Hymowitz nor too many libertarians. Indeed, City Journal, to which Hymowitz is a contributing editor, recently lauded a massive wave of "privatization" of infrastructure which, as I pointed out, is not really privatization at all!

To the degree Hymowitz's mischaracterization of that revolutionary champion of capitalism, Ayn Rand, carries any water, it does so because Hymowitz has a reputation as an intellectual ally of capitalism. It would seem that both her moral criticism of this intellectual giant and Hymowitz's reputation as an advocate of the free market are wide open to question.

-- CAV

Updates

Today
: Corrected some typos.

6 comments:

Jim May said...

Spot on, Gu.

The only thing I would add, as I said on the Volokh Conspiracy and in a letter to OpinionJournal, is that the reason Hymowitz lumps Rand in with the libertarians is because if Rand's work is allowed to stand on its own, it blows to smithereens her equation of individual rights with amoral whim-worship.

With that gone, her article's payload -- the tired old conservative shibboleth that too much freedom is a threat to the family -- would be exposed for the rationalization of expanding government power exposed for what it is.

And she can't have that. After all, that Hymowitz' criticisms of the libertarians echoes Rand's own doesn't make the former appear too forthcoming, does it?

Gus Van Horn said...

"[I]f Rand's work is allowed to stand on its own, it blows to smithereens her equation of individual rights with amoral whim-worship."

Excellent point, as is your notice of the conservative desire to expand the welfare state.

There was so much wrong with this article I hardly knew were to start. I decided to home in on the fundamental error. Otherwise, there was just too much to address and too little time to do so.

Rational Jenn said...

Awesome. I am sending my readers over here to read your excellent piece.

I posted a quick bit about it, too, focusing on the entirely unnecessary snarky lie about how Ayn Rand considered families "soul-killing prisons." Where in the world did that come from? I'll be sending in a LTE, just for fun, too.

When I can chill out enough to read the entire piece with a coherent mind, I intend to blog more about it. This needs fighting.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the linkage, Jenn.

I stopped by earlier today and saw what you mentioned. I'm glad you raised that issue as that's a whole other dimension of how people who think reason and emotions are incompatible like to slam Objectivism.

As I said earlier, there was way too much wrong to deal with it all at once.

Joseph Kellard said...

I also read this essay today and was delighted to see that the author noted correctly that libertarianism takes the moral view “do whatever you want.”

But then, as a typical conservative is wont to do, she goes on to essentially criticize the libertarians for not recognizing that capitalism is based on “tradition” and “family values.”

Here’s just a few examples:

* [About a particular libertarian she spotlights]: “He has read his Max Weber and knows that middle-class norms are the indispensable cultural infrastructure of free-market economics; he appreciates the irony that, without Protestant self-discipline and respectability, Americans would not be enjoying their Napa Chardonnay and Internet porn.”

What are those “norms”? All she offers is “self-discipline” or “self-responsibility.”

* “The complex, dynamic economy that libertarians have done so much to expand needs highly advanced human capital—that is, individuals of great moral, cognitive, and emotional sophistication. Reams of social-science research prove that these qualities are best produced in traditional families with married parents.”

What great morals and what traditions? Again, she mentions virtually nothing beyond what I mentioned just above. And what are the ideas of these married parents? Traditionalism, in whatever form, I guess.

* “Children do not come into the world respecting private property. They do not emerge from the womb ready to navigate the economic and moral complexities of an ‘age of abundance.’ The only way they learn such things is through a long process of intensive socialization—a process that we now know, thanks to the failed experiments begun by the Aquarians and implicitly supported by libertarians, usually requires intact families and decent schools."

“Socialization,” i.e. conformity, leads to a respect for private property rights? What makes schools “decent”? I guess that they primarily aim to “socialize” children.

Oh, brother! And this is presented as an alternative to libertarianism, an intellectual and political movement that the author does not, and mostly likely cannot, identify as essentially amoral and thus anarchist.

Libertarians are all over the map, including offering “traditionalism” and religion as a basis for capitalism. But you won’t find that in this essay.

As to the author tying Rand to libertarianism, calling her a “guru” of the movement, those that have a basic, clear understanding of her philosophy could not write the following mistakenly (and, note again, the author’s focus on “the family”):

“Libertarianism was complicit, too, in the vociferous attack during the 1960’s on the bourgeois family. After all, blood relationships are involuntary, and parents with any interest in rearing and educating their children are unlikely to look for guidance in Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand was predictably wary of kinship ties and, like radical feminists, saw the family as a soul-killing prison.”

The paragraph continues, but that’s all she has to say about Miss Rand. Notice that there’s no explanation for her comments about her. I guess you’re suppose to assume that there no parenting presented in Atlas Shrugged, despite that Galt’s speech is a fundamental guide for life, including childrearing. And what evidence is there for writing that Ayn Rand was “wary of kinship ties” and believe the family is a “soul-killing prison”? There isn’t any such evidence, that’s why. I guess I should be happy she doesn't attempt to provide any, otherwise this post would be longer.

I'll end here by saying that, once again, Commentary has smeared Ayn Rand, by allowing such nonsensical comments and by linking her with libertarianism. I think a letter the editor maybe in order.

Gus Van Horn said...

"[A] letter the editor maybe in order."

Good! The more, the better!

And thank you for leaving your further thoughts here.

This woman's approach to smearing is like Mel Brooks' approach to humor: toss out everything you can come up with and hope something sticks. You could write a book in rebuttal to this hatchet job.