Followers of Ayn Rand call themselves Objectivists. I prefer the pejorative, Randroids. It is not usually worth arguing with hard-core Randroids, as Rand’s pronouncements are as incontrovertible to them as the words of the Bible are to a fundamentalist. However, recently I did.
In her book, The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand declares that the proper functions of government should be limited to the police, the armed services, and the courts of law. For Rand, the initiation of force is immoral. Compulsory taxation is wrong, since anyone who does not pay can be thrown in prison.
But the government would still need to raise money to pay for its legitimate services. Rand argues that the financing would involve voluntary donations. Without sufficient analytical argument, she declares it in the interests of abler men “to pay for the apprehension of criminals, regardless of whether the specific victim of a given crime is rich or poor.”
Dr. Yaron Brook, Executive Director of the Ayn Rand Institute, recently spoke at King’s College London. I posed a challenge to the above thesis using a news story in Bloomberg Business Week.
The news story explained that Walmart has fewer visible staff in its stores than Target. The police are called out far more frequently to Walmart stores than to Target stores. The accusation is that Walmart has shifted the cost of security to the taxpayer. According to one police chief, Walmart “recognize the problem and refuse to do anything about it.”
When I raised that story, Brook responded that people would boycott such a store.
I then said that this was not necessarily so. Spending less money on security could lead to a store offering lower prices. Hence it would be in the interest of the store to cut back on security, transfer the cost of it to the state, and sell goods at a lower price.
Brook would not accept this. He argued that the store with more security, hence less crime, would be a better place to shop. He was implying that it is in people’s interest to pay more for the same goods from a store with better security.
This answer is not good enough. If one store relies on police officers, it does not follow that customers will prefer the other store with in-house security. In fact, shoppers might prefer the former, because they are more likely to see a police car outside and so feel safer.
Companies might not voluntarily pay for the state services of police, armed forces, and courts of law, as they might hope to get a free ride from others who did pay. It is utopian to suggest that a state can provide such services as a police force, armed forces, and courts of law purely from voluntary donations.
Brook admitted that his vision could be seen as utopian. He was specific that he was in the business of trying to “change morality.” However, he was unfair to other utopian ideals. He said, to laughter from the audience, “I have seen socialism; it doesn’t work.” But Brook was comparing idealised capitalism to realistic socialism. Marxists would argue that we have not seen true Marxism. They too champion a change in morality.
Just as it is unfair to compare idealised socialism to a realistic but flawed capitalism, so too is it unfair for Brook to compare his idealised capitalist vision to realistic socialism.
Rand had a solid vision, but she was weak on analysis. The same is true of Randroids.
Michael Ezra lives in London. He can be followed on Twitter @MichaelEzra