Features, Politics

One Way Ayn Rand Aficionados Are Unrealistic

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 @

13 Comments

  1. Uri Harris says

    There’s very little substance to Rand’s work, beyond the basic ideas. That said, I’m not sure why you chose this example as a problem for libertarianism. After all, it’s a problem in our current society too, which is why the newspaper article was written. Pointing out a problem and saying ‘this will continue to be a problem under libertarianism’ isn’t exactly a fatal blow to libertarianism.

    • Uri,

      Randroids believe they are “rational.” The issue that I have highlighted is a logical flaw in their argument. On the one hand they are championing rational self-interest and “The Vitrue of Selfishness,” yet, on the other hand, they think it is in people’s rational self-interest to voluntarily pay tax. I put it that there is a conflict between rational self-interest and voluntary paying tax. If they at least acknowledged this problem in their argument I think it would be helpful. The problem is, as I said in my opening paragraph of the article, Randroids treat Objectivism (Ayn Rand thought) in the same way as religious people treat the Bible. For them, the flaw cannot possibly be with Rand’s argument, it must be with those criticising Rand.

      • Uri Harris says

        Fair enough Michael. I took your article as more of a general criticism of libertarianism. If that was the case, I think there are more challenging problems than the one you mentioned, ones that our current society at least is somewhat able to address, for example child abuse. But if you’re just pointing out the incoherence of Randroids, that seems like easy pickings to me 🙂

  2. Peter says

    1.) You lose credibility by beginning with a pejorative.
    2.) Followers of Objectivism are objectivists.
    3.) Your argument against this guy is essentially that his utopian predicted future state is “not necessarily so?” Wow. You really demolished his argument.

    • Peter,

      1. In terms of losing credibility, I do not see why beginning with an admitted pejorative makes me lose credibility. If being nice to those you disagreed with was a necessity for credibility, Ayn Rand and her chief followers such as Nathaniel Branden would have lost credibility by that standard alone. In fact Ayn Rand has no credibility in the academic world. This can be compared to Robert Nozick whose book, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” champions the minimal state restricted to similar functions to Rand’s vision. Nozick has credibility because he was analytical in his argument. Rand doesn’t because she isn’t. Moreover, Rand never acknowledged a debt to any other philosopher than Artistotle and this is despite the fact that it was plainly obvious she was influenced by Nietzsche.

      2. Objectivism and objectivists, in the context of Ayn Rand thought, are made up words and not necessarily known by those not familiar with the works of Ayn Rand. My article was not written for a specialist journal dealing with Ayn Rand thought.

      3. My argument is that neither Ayn Rand nor Yaron Brook have analytically explained why there is rational self-interest for someone or a company to voluntarily pay tax. As The Economist pointed out, the argument “is faintly ridiculous.”

      • “Ayn Rand and her chief followers such as Nathaniel Branden would have lost credibility by that standard alone.”

        Why, did they start off their essays with pejorative terms too?

  3. Sloan says

    Curious to what your reaction would be to a more “credible” observer of the functions of government – Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman. Surely he was no unlettered free thinker, and he had the exact same reply when asked about the role of government: police, military, courts. Also, for Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, political enterprise presupposed morality; which they held to be “man’s life” as the standard of ultimate value from which an objective framework could be built from.

    So what is your moral justification for using physical force against someone who has not initiated upon you? As the libertarians put it, when does the non-aggression principle end in the evolution of your life? In a different philosophical sphere but maintaining a similar premise, Sam Harris even posits the standard of objective morality to be the “well being of conscious creatures.” Incidentally the realm in which this question becomes scrutinized shelters some fiercely intellectual figures.

    • Hi Sloan,

      My argument is not against Rand’s position as to the functions of government or the initiation of force, but that her view of the functions of the government and how the government is financed for those functions are at odds. It is utopian to suggest that people will voluntary pay for the government services she views will be provided.

      Imagine a population at large were told the following: “The state will provide a police force, the armed services and courts of law. It would be very nice if you behave in the way we consider rationally self-interested and voluntarily contribute to help pay for those services. However, if you do not pay, there will be no punishment. We will not force you to pay. It is purely voluntarily.” My contention is that the state would not receive sufficient donations to be able to finance those functions. If we take corporations, they might decide if they do not voluntarily finance the state they will have more cash available and that means they could reduce prices, gain market share, and be more profitable compared to their competitors who voluntarily contributed. Which company is the rational one? The Randroids want to claim the latter. I do not believe they have justified this.

      • David says

        You are presuming what the results of the corporation’s self-interest or rationality will be and over-generalizing from your specific answer.

        You have the benefit of asking Brooks a prepared question that he was unprepared to answer, and I have the benefit of hindsight to respond, but I agree that your question raises valid concerns. My problem with this is that I think your characterizations of corporations is overly simplistic. It is also in the self-interest of corporations to do business in a society of laws. Corporations will have to decide for themselves the value they put on profits versus public or private protection. Individuals will have to make similar decisions. I would expect that over time, there would be a continual re-balancing, as increased crime rates would result in higher voluntary payments and decreasing crime rates result in lower payments until the society determines what the it believes is the acceptable balance or values and results.

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  6. The behavior is predictable. Walmart is “boycotted” by people who value high security, while people who value low prices more tend to favor Walmart. Therefore one more often sees Target stores in wealthier suburban neighborhoods, while Walmarts tend to cater to poorer neighborhoods and are situated closer to them. Similarly, in cities like Detroit where “free rider” problems and municipal corruption has helped to neutralize the Detroit Police, large supermarkets and the like have been looted out of business, leading to a proliferation of smaller, much more expensive “convenience” stores (where shoplifting and slippage is worked into the cost of products). And so on.

    Do Target stores pay more for security than Walmart stores? If Walmart tax payments are higher, it might be the reverse – with Target receiving the benefit of government police forces that have received much more money from Walmart. This sort of free rider problem is common to any service that the government provides. I think Milton Friedman’s “Four Ways To Spend Money’ speech would be most appropriate here.

  7. Ian Albert says

    The difference between the Marxism and laissez faire capitalism in why you can dismiss Marxism is that Marxism seeks to change human nature while capitalism works with human nature.

    Marxism requires that the individual gives up himself to others. It is necessary for the individual to give up seeking personal flourishing, to work for free, to become slaves to everyone else in order for it to work. Humans are not a hive mind. They will not be changed into that. Pure Marxism is basically break human will, make them slaves to each other, create a hive mind, or in other words make people no longer human.

    Capitalism on the other hand works within human nature. Humans will seek personal survival. Humans are also competitive by nature. They will seek to better their own life. Capitalism takes this drive and uses it to advance all. This can be seen in Yaron Brookes example with cell phones. There is a demand for better and faster communication devices. An engineer or company can make a device, the brick phone, to do this. They make money and both parties do better. Because there is money in this, other parties that are capable of doing so as well as the original company will attempt to make a more effective and cheaper product to better themselves since they can make capital with it and they themselves will thus better their own lives with said capital. This will lead to a cheaper service, so more people who have a need for communicating will buy the product. This is why the original cell phone cost $4000 with horrible signal and horrible battery life while the current iteration of the iphone has an amazing signal, better battery life, and has more computing power than computers of the era of the brick phone at price of $649.

    This is why it is not unfair to give the utopia of communism a bad rap but not the “utopia” of capitalism even without implementing the true form. Communism requires humans to not be human. Capitalism works because of how humans are.

    When Brooke says change morality, he means having people stop being contradictory. Think about hardcore right-leaning Christians in the US, they are very pro Capitalism. They praise the people closest to Rand’s heroes. Those very people would not fit into the perfect moral being in Christianity. This is contradictory. By nature, it is good for the individual to seek a better life, so make make that the basis of morality, as most do but do not realize. Even Marxists think that people themselves should not die, they just do not realize that they are killing a part of them. They are restricting peoples ability to better themselves and stealing away a part of their life. They take our only true resource humans have, time, and prevent them from using it as they see fit. So stealing money from someone is taking their time, thus stealing a part of their lives. So again, he is working within human nature with his philosophy.

    Now, as for the free rider problem of voluntarily paying for the legitimate parts of government as Rand puts it, think about this. Why do you pay your taxes? Part of it right now is that you have a gun pointed at your head in essence if you do not pay taxes in our current government, but why do you defend it? You want the security of a police force, of an army, and of the rest of the justice system. If you did not want these services, you would not be defending the necessity of them. So you want these services and would be willing to pay for them as you do now. Imagine if you did not pay for a police force. in your example of a Walmart not having enough security with out the police, you would not be safe in the Walmart. Hence you would choose Target, which has better private security than Walmart. In this scenario of nobody voluntarily paying for a public police force, target would get more consumers if security is an issue. Thus it is in Targets best interest (you could say their rational self-interest) to pay for the security that they use. If the issue of security is moot and unnecessary, you would not need a police force through involuntary taxes anyways.

    I do not know why you would say that Objectivists are not worth arguing with. I changed my stance on many of these things because I argued with one. I put my ideas to the test, and they failed. I was willing to change my stance through logic and objective reasoning. If you are teaching someone and they do not get your explanation, you modify your explanation until they understand it. If you think your arguments are sound, and somebody does not agree, then you should seek another way to make your case. If you do not, then you do not care to convince them of your position in first place, and thus why would you want to argue with anyone?

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