Can the Free Market Survive without Rand?

As Rand's prescient novels enjoy a modern resurgence, a counter-movement on the right has begun tearing down her ideas. Can free markets survive, however, without a sound philosophical defense?

It’s been a year since Stephen Moore’s article, “Atlas Shrugged: from Fiction to Fact in 52 Years,”seemed to ignite an explosion of interest in Ayn Rand. Sales of this prescient novel tripled; two Rand biographies have been selling like hotcakes; and references to her in the media have skyrocketed.

Yet, some free-market defenders continue to repudiate her and her ideas, as they have for decades. It used to be conservatives such as William F. Buckley of National Review trashing “Atlas Shrugged;” now the critics include libertarians, such as Heather Wilhelm of the Illinois Public Policy Institute, who penned “Is Ayn Rand Bad for the Market?”.

But in their rush to distance themselves from Rand, they succumb to a deadly philosophic trap. It results from their anxious desire to apologize for the individualistic, self-interested motives that actually drive free markets. This anxiety prompts them to defend capitalism on the opposite premise: that capitalism is good only because it is “other-directed” — i.e., that it grants certain groups, such as the poor, opportunities to acquire wealth and power.

Over the decades, this has led such apologists to launch unpersuasive and futile crusades, such as “compassionate conservatism” and “bleeding-heart libertarianism,” which are not defenses of capitalism, but embodiments of its opposite.

For example, conservatives and some libertarians plunged headlong into the moral and logical pitfalls of collectivism when, led by “compassionate conservative” Republican president George W. Bush, they created Medicare Part D, then the biggest-ever addition to welfare entitlements.

Likewise, Wilhelm summed up what too many on the right think, when she writes that free markets are best “sold” on the premise that, above all else, they help society’s neediest. She adds that “Rand’s insistence on the folly of altruism, however, tends to overshadow and even invalidate this message.”

You bet it does — and with good reason. That’s because no one can defend capitalism and free markets logically and consistently without a moral validation of enlightened self-interest as the highest good.

After all, the left didn’t rise to power because they had facts and rational arguments on their side. The empirical case for the superiority of capitalism in bringing a better life to the poor is overwhelming, whether we compare Chile to Cuba, Hong Kong to communist China, or the fully communist China of the past to itself today. So, one has to ask: Why haven’t these arguments won over all those who claim to want to help the poor?

The answer is that the left’s ascendance to power wasn’t driven by economic fact but by a moral vision thinly covered with economic claims. This vision was accepted by millions only because of the moral philosophy of self-sacrifice that dominates our culture.

That morality claims that the highest good for each individual is to live for the sake of others — for society or the collective. Ultimately, it implies that each of us is a moral slave to someone else.

Whether it’s Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” or Hitler’s admonition to live for the German Volk, or Pol Pot’s belief that “since he [the individual] is of no use anymore, there is no gain if he lives and no loss if he dies,” the morality of self-sacrifice kills liberty because it subordinates the individual’s life to the group.

This is the morality that brought us the carnage of the 20th century.

The arguments of “compassionate” libertarians and “bleeding-heart” conservatives do nothing to challenge this ethic. They merely try to slip capitalism in under the tent of collectivist moral philosophy, telling everybody, in effect: “Don’t worry; even though sinful, individualistic self-interest drives capitalism, it is good because it can be harnessed to serve groups, such as the poor.”

In other words, these would-be defenders of capitalism merely “me-too” the collectivist moral claim that our primary ethical responsibility should be the welfare of other people. In this view, they march lockstep with those on the left who revile individualism and capitalism as being anti-poor, anti-caring.

Their view couldn’t be further from the truth. Free-market capitalism arises from a social vision that cares about the smallest minority of all: the individual. That vision recognizes the moral superiority of the right of the individual to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — the very vision identified by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and fought for by the Founding Fathers.

What is this right, if not the right of each person to pursue his or her own highest self-interest? Remember, the slogan of the American Revolution was “Don’t tread on me.”

Yet, that “selfish” American Revolution established a social system that created the most productive nation the world has ever seen, with the highest level and broadest distribution of wealth. It was a system based on individual rights, limited government, and equal justice under the law, in which everyone could keep and enjoy the fruits of his or her own efforts.

This system was fair because it gave each person the equal opportunity — and the pride-enhancing challenge — to make the most of his or her life, poor and rich alike. In fact, only a capitalist society can truly serve the interests of the poor and the disadvantaged, as well as the rich and the capable, because it is at root based on justice for the individual. And justice for the individual is justice for all.

This is what makes capitalism morally superior to collectivism.

Ironically, given the prevailing presumptions about self-interest, capitalist societies such as the U.S. are also the most charitable. Our individualistic system created a nation of magnanimity due to our unimpeded productivity, overflowing abundance, and benevolent sympathy for other individuals struggling for their own lives, liberty, and happiness.

It’s amazing that in all their talk of Rand’s “harsh message” and “confrontational language,” many free-market defenders haven’t asked themselves why her writings have inspired millions to become advocates of capitalism. They don’t understand that she completes the 18th century vision of the American Revolution by presenting a morality that fully justifies capitalism and individual freedom.

Rand’s morality of rational, enlightened self-interest defends the individual’s right to his own life, the power of his own liberty, and the glory of his pursuit of his own happiness. She said: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive work as his noblest achievement, and reason as his only absolute.”

Her message — that “man’s proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads” — is a message of the glory of the individual, unshackled and free.

We urgently need Rand’s vision of the moral nobility and greatness of a social system based on enlightened self-interest if we, the 21st century advocates of freedom, are to finally free the world from the death grip of collectivism. And that is a vision we must defend with “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

Marsha Familaro Enright is a psychologist, writer, lecturer, and educational entrepreneur. Founder of the thriving Council Oak Montessori School in Chicago, Marsha’s latest venture is the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, the Foundation for the College of the United States.  Gen LaGreca is the author of Noble Vision, an award-winning novel about the struggle for liberty in health care today.

15 comments from readers  

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Ironic isn't it, that the Berlin Wall came down, Russia stopped being Communist, China is now rich and lending us money - because we buy everything from them, and all the while, our own country is turning into a socialistic monstrosity like a runaway horse.

Well, it all goes back to her book, "Philosophy Who Needs It," where she explained that the root cause of the unbelievable ignorance rampant in our country today is the popular philosophy of altruistic Christianity. Because of this, we founder.

Ayn Rand set the nation on a healing course, and I'm not sure if we can survive without her.
Maybe someone else needs to write a brilliant fictional novel explaining what happens when those in power trample the rights of the individual.
"Ultimately, it implies that each of us is a moral slave to someone else."

It may be more accurate to say the prevailing attitude implies that each of us is a moral, and in many ways virtual, slave to EVERYONE else. Moral nobility demands that the individual's "duty" to others is to ensure that no one's rights are subsumed to the "we," beginning with his own.

A well written and well reasoned article; I look forward to more like it.
The authors present a very clear and logical statement of the fundamental principles espoused by Rand and their practical meaning in today's world. Readers would do well to write letters to their local newspapers based on the fundamentals presented here.

In essence, we need to tell the world that placing the individual first is not only just and the basis for this nation that has provided so much to so many, but that we have a mission to maintain our free nation if only to continue to provide hope for the rest of the world.

The beauty of the capitalist system is that, by providing that beacon, we also help our individual and collective selves. Progressivism can make no such claim.
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I like your description of "trying to slip objectivism under the tent of collectivist moral philosophy." So true.

Unfortunately, to her detriment, Ayn Rand failed to understand two animal behavior items which would have helped her defend against this:

One, Rand still believed in authoritarian hierarchy, where someone had to be in command. In nature, populous societies are most successful when functioning in an agoric mode.

I have found that in nature, there is no true pecking order. There are rather orderly animal societies, there are unordered ones, and, in prison-like artificially-constrained settings (such as those "laboratory conditions" humans usually create in order to observe animal relations) the "Rule of the Strongest and Most Ruthless." Her unquestioning belief in top-down, command-and-control organization wound up making her the dictatorial leader of a cult which seemed to extol the virtues of "dog eat dog."

Two, That humans and many higher animals, alike, need to feel a moral imperative beyond simple self-preservation, in order to really thrive. This is why altruism remains compelling and bolsters one's self esteem, even when one accepts the principles of objectivism. Rand underestimated the need of "someone" or "something" to live for, beyond one's self, in order to feel competent and enjoy self-esteem.

She seemed to cast atruism as a cardinal sin against objectivism, so people consequently reject "pure" objectivism.
I am afraid I must disagree with some of your underlying premise, though I realise I may sound critical of your thoughts, I would not respond at all if I did not recognise their value.

The War for Independence was not fought by the Colonists for themselves (let alone for Free Markets, as you seem to imply), it was fought for those who would survive them -it was not a "collectivist" revolt per se (the Revolution had more to do with abstractions than practicalities) but there was definitely a selfless inspiration behind it. All were willing to sacrifice lives and livelihoods, not because they felt victory was assured, but because they felt inaction was intolerable. The vast majority accepted the unlikelihood of success (as testified by the fact that there were more American troops comprising the English armies than actual British which vastly outnumbered the Continental Army's numbers). In fact, without General Benedict Arnold's string of victories during the first three years of hostilities (most notably, his 1777 conquest at Saratoga which convinced the French of America's resolve [a fact which should not be dismissed as at Yorktown French troops outnumbered Americans on the field by a ratio greater than 3-1 in addition to the significant naval support lent in that same battle]) the cause would have been doomed; Had General Washington's Trenton assault not ended in a sound triumph it may well still have been even with them as morale and confidence was so precarious in those early stages.

Rand was insightful, though her thesis -while compelling- was not without inherent flaws. It is the fact her logic is sound in spite of this, not for lack of it, which ultimately lends strength to her arguments. The most glaring of which was that capitalism bred morality, which is hardly the case. It is a good system and less reliant upon individual accountability and morality than most, in fact I would staunchly maintain it is the best mankind has yet devised, but that is not to say it possesses all the answers or that we should stop striving for perfection simply because we have something more than adequate.

Free Market principles came about without Rand's influence, direction or aide, and will survive without her just as well -providing it is attentively tended and studiously safeguarded by those capable of understanding its impact and importance.

That Collectivism and Free Markets are obviously disparate schools of thought goes without saying -but a general spirit of altruism is not as diametrically opposed to Capitalist integrity as you seem to think. I would go so far as put forward the proposition they strive together in a complimentary fashion, if not existing as separate parts of a dichotomous whole. Free Market enterprise fosters independence thought, individual action and self responsibility while tempering self restraint -which is the sort of fertile soil from which collective progress grows best. One cannot, after all, care for another if they cannot first care for themselves.

I believe it is of the utmost importance we as a species do regard one another as kin and strive together in one accord, that we care -and caring, take action.
Whilst I am as disappointed as everyone else that certain libertarians are distancing themselves from Rand, I believe this article misunderstands the motives of the Rand-critics.

First, from what I've read, most of the Rand critics make the same mistake than many of her non-libertarian detractors do; they assume Rand argued for the sacrifice of the poor on the altar of the rich. As most of us know, Rand is probably the most widely misinterpreted philosopher since Frederich Neitzsche. Even very well-informed people can make mistakes about what Rand said. Even libertarians can make mistakes like this.

Also, "bleeding-heart Libertarianism" (of the Cato Institute variety) is not based in Comtean altruism, but rather a variant of Rawlsianism. It argues that Capitalism is good because it raises the "floor" (i.e. it maximizes the minimum social outcome). Note that in and of itself, this position does not damn getting richer, and it does not complain about differential outcomes; it simply says that the worst off will get better results. I have never seen the Cato Institute actually damn self-interest; from what I know they probably either 1) regard self-interest as a natural and inevitable thing and thus part of our nature (and thus amoral) or 2) privately regard it as good, but tone it down for the purposes of public relations.

I've heard Brink Lindsey was actually an Objectivist when he was younger, so I'd assume point 2 is probably correct. Ayn Rand is a very misinterpreted philosopher and in a situation where misinterpretations persist, sometimes it is easier and more effective to conceal one's actual point of view and instead argue on the basis of someone else's premises.

Yes, I agree that Objectivism is necessary for defending Capitalism. But what Objectivists need to do is calmly and slowly explain what Objectivism actually argues, and refrain from accusing misinterpreters of altruism.

Comtean Altruism is a very specific ethical position. It isn't an accusation to make lightly.
perhaps if we had teaches such as yourself, guiding workshops to help us develop a consistent method of defence, might we then address, albeit with respect, Libertarians and other advocates in the Art of Persuasionâ?? I don't object to sticking my foot in my mouth.. but the internet has taught something of developing an opposing viewpoint and refraining from personal attacks.
Thanks Marsha and Gen for your excellent description of how Capitalism provides us the means for individual freedom and personal justice and of how Ayn Rand's work was essential for giving Capitalism a moral basis. I have long argued that if you recognize and value the individuality of individuals and their need for freedom of conscience, then you must chose a society of highly limited government with the free markets of Capitalism.
The problem is the 'original sin' of Religion, which brings the germ of altruism into most discussions.

Once the Gordian knot between Religion and Politics is untied ..
.. supporters of the free market can trump the puffery of 'holier than thou' liberals by consistently stressing:

* self interest over altruism
* freedom over enslavement
* fairness/justice over entitlement

It isn't easy to take this road - the temptation to sound altruistic is all too real in a population which is (~ 90%) given to some form of religious/altruistic belief.

True 'conservatives' know that the freedom to pursue one's self-interest actually IS beneficial to society at large. But, faced with a religious/altruist population they often succumb to a sort of pragmatic defense of Capitalism, rather than making a (correct) Rand-ian ideological argument.
Selfish or selfless is not the point! Those words are used by someone who is trying to persuade me to think in a particular way. Try a different perspective. I do whatever I do as a glorious means of deciding, declaring, creating, and experiencing who I am --and who I choose to be. Iâ??m pretty sure this is how all the great men and women of history lived their lives (including Mother Theresa). They never felt victimized, powerless, or without choice. They never saw themselves as selfless or selfish. They saw themselves as freeâ?¦free to live life as they chose!
Good article. And timely.

In these heady Beck/Tea-Party days, we need to remember that no lasting positive change will happen without the proper moral defense of individual freedom. We should be pushing that defense harder than we ever have, because now, today - out here at the crossroads - it finally has a large audience that's ready for it.
Oh geez. Some of you seem to think that altruism simply means helping people out now and then. Yeah, I wish it did.

Here. I'll quote Rand herself, out of my old battered copy of The Ayn Rand Lexicon.


What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which in fact altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is SELF-SACRIFICE - which means: self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction - which means: the SELF as a standard of evil, the SELFLESS as a standard of the good.

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you DO or do NOT have the right to exist WITHOUT giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: "No." Altruism says: "Yes."

- Ayn Rand, "Faith And Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World", Philosophy - Who Needs It?


Now THAT is altruism. THAT is the idea that capitalism is good because it 'raises the floor', and other such capitulations to tyrannical ideology. (Capitulations which tempt me to ask: what if it doesn't always raise the floor? Do we then say, "rights be damned!" and promptly go on a Marxist looting spree?)

Anyway, I hope this helps everyone to understand that you can't defend individual rights on the basis that he doesn't have them.
Great clarity in expressing things defenders of personal liberty should keep in the forefront of their minds--in proper tribute to Ayn Rand.
Very well put. I have on numerous occasion run into this. I hear people considering Ayn Rand's philosophies yet are still reluctant, saying "It's almost right." It's frustrating. It is so right!
Dear Marsha and Gen,

First off, I'd like to say that I enjoyed reading this article, largely because I agree with the fundamental principles you defend in it. After all, I'm a devoted fan of Ayn Rand and the free market.

However, in a respectfully critical note, I've seen the message of your article within literature many times. Many writers, such as Rand herself, can point out why Objectivism is superior to altruism as a belief that should govern individuals, as you have. But to this day, that reality has not come to be realized in America. Instead altruism is influencing the majority of people, and thus our government. Unfortunately, while your article speaks a truth that so many Americans need to realize, it isnâ??t going to change the fact that the government operates on altruism any time soon.

I think that in the future, when Americans get more desperate, they may finally reject the altruistic tendencies that they knew for a set of beliefs closer to Objectivism. But judging from the state of our country and others around the world, we need that change now. Instead of Ayn Rand followers merely repeating the principles we know to each other, we need to make Objectivism part of the real world. We need to take action and attempt to gain influence within our government through some means.

I donâ??t believe that followers of Objectivism should distort itâ??s values to appeal to a larger group of people as the libertarians have. Instead, we should focus on the parts of Objectivism that apply to a larger group of people and just be honest. I think that lots of people in America would be fond of a movement that is entirely honest considering what theyâ??ve seen recently. No recent political movement has suggested and accepted that there are other people with a legitimate difference of opinion. Typical politicians and even people leading modern groups, such as the tea party movement, suggest that their constituentâ??s beliefs are correct and donâ??t consider other peopleâ??s beliefs to have a grain of truth.

If followers of Objectivism were honest about it to the American people, we would have to admit that capitalism, without the government intervention present today, doesnâ??t serve the neediest first. But we can also tell them that at least society will function at a basic level. Compared to today where every large problem is a giant issue for our country because no one has an incentive to fix it since capitalism is being undermined. In addition to that, the American people would have their dignity back along with their independence. And Iâ??m certain that there are Americans who still value their independence today.

This might convince people that Objectivism is a better set of values for our country to promote rather than altruism. And soon after that we would see the change within our government. But we need to address those people rather than followers of Ayn Rand if weâ??re to gain influence within a Democracy.

With that said, itâ??s a proactive approach towards the grip of altruism on our country that Iâ??d like to see.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.