Ayn Rand, Left-Libertarianism, Selfishness and Freedom

Just read Michael Gerson’s piece, “Ayn Rand’s adult-onset adolescence”, from the Washington Post opinion page. I am not familiar with Ayn Rand‘s work directly, but have read some discussion of it and her foundational status among some contemporary libertarians. Short of reading her book Atlas Shrugged, I’ll at least have to watch the movie version on Netflix. I’m intrigued how much her conflation of liberty with selfishness have perhaps demeaned the former in some progressives’ view.

Article author Michael Gerson writes…

Rand is something of a cultural phenomenon — the author of potboilers who became an ethical and political philosopher, a libertarian heroine. But Rand’s distinctive mix of expressive egotism, free love and free-market metallurgy does not hold up very well on the screen. The emotional center of the movie is the success of high-speed rail — oddly similar to a proposal in Barack Obama’s last State of the Union address. All of the characters are ideological puppets. Visionary, comely capitalists are assaulted by sniveling government planners, smirking lobbyists, nagging wives, rented scientists and cynical humanitarians.

Hey… I’m all about ideas, and even the nasty gnarly ones can have germs of truth or focus on a particular concept that can be turned on its head or otherwise torqued into something useful. I keep remembering Sally and my wedding video, when our friends Ladd and Stephanie pointed the camera at my mom and asked her for her thoughts on her son. My mom said that even in nursery school, though I was a shy kid, that I was the “idea man”. I like to entertain ideas, even ones my comrades and fellow travelers steer way clear of, and try them on for size at least to some degree and incorporate what I can before I move on.

This is exactly the case with my whole flirtation with libertarianism, at least with a “left” prefix attached to rip it out of its conventional set of assumptions (particularly around property rights). It was initially John Taylor Gatto‘s ideas that challenged the orthodox liberalism of my youth, growing up in the progressive college town of Ann Arbor Michigan. Gatto, a former public school teacher turned unschooling advocate, challenged the limitations on human self-directed learning and agency in general of the social-engineering championed by John Dewey and other progressive educational thinkers. I am no “Gatto-ite”, but there are enough germs of truth in his discomforting libertarian ideas that made me want to try some of them on for size.

I encountered a similar discomforting mentor forty years ago in my mom’s radical feminist friend Mary Jane Shoultz, who challenged a lot of other conventional liberal wisdom and my white male privilege. Some of her ideas stuck with me, and bore fruit decades later in my emerging world view.

And my mom herself was never completely comfortable with conventional liberal wisdom of the mostly male academia. She always bristled at the male privilege and lukewarm talk-the-talk-but-not-walk-the-walk support of most of her progressive political comrades from that community.

But getting back to Rand, as alluded to in the title of his piece, Gerson sees her ideas as “adolescent”, because they feature “testing moral boundaries and prone to stormy egotism” that most of us grow out of. He sees her as a conservative enigma because she disdained Christianity and disliked Ronald Reagen.

Though his take on Rand may be right on, I don’t resonate with his adultist view of adolescence, and am also a believer in a life-long effort to test all sorts of boundaries (at least in terms of thought and conventional wisdom). I would have encouraged Gerson to consider presenting a more nuanced analysis of Rand’s ideas, rather than putting her up as a strawman to define himself (and presumably his fellow progressives) as everything that Rand is not.

Here is Gerson’s summary of Rand’s “Objectivist” philosophy…

Reason is everything. Religion is a fraud. Selfishness is a virtue. Altruism is a crime against human excellence. Self-sacrifice is weakness. Weakness is contemptible. “The Objectivist ethics, in essence,” said Rand, “hold that man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself.”

Though I am an atheist like Rand, I would disagree with her that reason is “everything” and religion is a “fraud”, along with parting company with her on her negative take on altruism, self-sacrifice and weakness. But in her statement, “The pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself”, I see at least the germ of an idea, which I believe to be at the heart of libertarianism. As much as possible we should be free to make our own choices and leave others free to make theirs.

I resonate with putting a premium on liberty and freedom. I have always rankled at being defined and pigeonholed by others and not being seen for who I uniquely am. The heart of my belief system is that human beings are at their best as free autonomous consciousnesses who develop their own agency and freely choose to express who they are and make community with each other, and are not coerced (even gently) to do so by community norms or some other external imperative. I would prefer not to interact with a person who is in community with me because convention says they should or they must and it is not fully of their own choosing.

I find at least some common ground with the portion of Rand’s statement that the pursuit of a person’s own happiness is the highest moral purpose, though I would substitute “development” for “happiness”. For me, the pursuit of ones own development (and evolution) and allowing others to do the same is a very high moral purpose. Though I believe in community, giving of oneself to others, and in a safety net; I am not my brother or sister’s “keeper”, and can only make myself of assistance if asked to do so. I do not believe in telling people (whether youth or adult) what to do “for their own good”.

Gerson offers what sounds like a blanket criticism of libertarian thinking based on Rand’s approach…

But both libertarians and Objectivists are moved by the mania of a single idea — a freedom indistinguishable from selfishness.

I suspect Rand was a provocateur who liked to say outlandish things to shake people out of their predefined “boxes”, including the above quote. As perhaps a “left-libertarian” (or at least experimenting with that personae), and not quite so much of a provocateur, I would say I am moved by the idea of a freedom distinguishable from selfishness.

2 replies on “Ayn Rand, Left-Libertarianism, Selfishness and Freedom”

  1. I really enjoyed this read! Rand has always intrigued me. Great blog. There is a Donhue interview with her on youtube where she talks about how women should not run for president and how the Middle east is nothing but a bunch of barbarians. She is right on sometimes and then completly insane with other topics.

  2. Johann… good to hear from you! She does seem like quite the enigma. Seems like there always a lot of people that can’t resist an enigma.

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