the imaginative conservative logo

Burke_Statue_Closeup_by_Steven_ChristeSince the 2012 election, a wide-ranging and helpful debate about the direction of conservatism has broken out among conservative commentators seeking to re-brand the movement. Key in this debate is how far conservatism should transform itself into libertarianism. Ben Domenech championed what he calls “populist libertarianism,” echoing Peter Suderman’s generous appraisal of what libertarianism can offer. Ross Douthat gave it a cautious critique, while Pascal-Emmanuel Gorby steered towards a slightly more traditional conservatism. The appeal of libertarianism is that, as political theories go, it is simple, consistent, and easy.

It is also radically unconservative, politically infeasible, and would result in awful public policy. It will never work in the real world—for which we should be grateful, because a pure libertarian state would be a terrible dystopia. But the irony is that because actual conservatives have failed to articulate the ideology of full-blooded, well-rounded, non-libertarian conservatism with any clarity for several decades, libertarians are, effectively, the only advocates left standing for limited government, meaningful checks and balances, and limits to state power. Though I may vote for its candidates, I will never hope for the triumph of libertarianism as an ideology.

I. The Theory of Libertarianism

Libertarianism argues that the role of government is to uphold order, maximize personal liberty, and… pretty much nothing else. Government has no role to play in providing social services like Medicare or Medicaid, fostering economic growth (because the economy grows best when government does not meddle), promoting or even having a social policy. Issues like abortion and marriage are best left to the states or even to civil society.

For example, Senator Barry Goldwater argued in his seminal (though misleadingly-titled) book, Conscience of a Conservative (1960), that politics is “the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order” (5). The “overriding political challenge” of the times is “to preserve and extend freedom” (6). In the face of the overriding imperative for liberty, any grant of power to the state beyond the barest minimum is tyranny. Goldwater says that any expansion of federal power is “the first principle of totalitarianism” (8).

821px-Milton_FriedmanSimilarly, libertarian economist Milton Friedman argued in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom that the purpose of government is “to protect our freedom both from the enemies outside our gates and from our fellow-citizen: to preserve law and order, to enforce private contracts, to foster competitive markets.” Anything beyond those minimalist functions “is fraught with danger” (2).

Libertarianism usually advances two arguments in its defense, one moral and one utilitarian. It argues that personal autonomy is the highest good of human life, and thus all other aspects of human social and political organization should be subordinate to liberty. As a fundamental assertion, you can argue neither for nor against this principle. But we can at least observe that no religion in the history of human civilization has ever commanded its adherents to worship their own liberty (no religion, that is, except libertarianism), and no political philosophy aware of the proclivities of human nature has ever dared entrust so much to human freedom. Given this history, we should be at least suspicious of the idea of absolutizing personal autonomy.

The best that can be said is that libertarianism, in its moral defense of personal liberty, is a useful corrective to the assumption that prevailed for the rest of human history: that people are made unequal, and that the rich and strong have more rights than the poor and weak. That idea, which was widely presumed to be true for millennia, is tripe, and libertarianism is right to crusade against it. Libertarians would have you believe that they are the only soldiers courageous enough for this particular crusade; that you must accept their philosophy in toto to guard against tyranny; that no other philosophy has ever effectively checked the power of government. Their claim is more than tripe; it is propaganda. You do not have to be a libertarian to be against monarchy.

The other argument in defense of libertarianism is that it is efficient. We should protect human liberty above all else and minimize the role of government because it leads to the best outcomes for everyone. A laissez-faire market creates the most wealth. Free expression creates a free marketplace of ideas in which the truth will prevail. Market-based solutions are the best way to protect the environment because if people want a clean environment, all they have to do is pay for one. The competition of the private sector drives companies to greater heights of efficiency, productivity, and quality, which is why we should entrust everything from mail delivery to space exploration to them and not to the government.

Against these arguments are the fairly standard counterclaims about market failure, moral hazard, and the tragedy of the commons. Sometimes a marketplace of ideas does not result in truth if evil propaganda is shouted more loudly and frequently, especially by well-armed thugs. A free market for environmental goods is impossible because I cannot buy my own individual slice of clean air. And the efficiency of the private sector is only true when all parties have full, free, perfect information—which they never do unless the owners of information are compelled to disclose it by the government. These arguments boil down to the fairly obvious point (obvious to everyone except libertarians, that is) that sometimes working in groups and vesting power in a central authority is more efficient and productive than working in competition.

Libertarianism has the appeal of a personal organizer, or cargo pants, or a trapper keeper. It is a total organization system for all your ideas, convictions, and beliefs about society and politics. When you put libertarianism on, you have a tidy little place for every little thought and opinion. Even better, you can automatically generate an opinion on any issue by pure deduction with very little knowledge of actual facts. Take the first principle of libertarianism—personal autonomy is the highest good to which all other goods should be subordinated–and you can quickly Tweet about school choice (good), the Affordable Care Act (bad), NSA surveillance (very bad), and Miley Cyrus (who cares as long as she is a rational adult?). There is a pleasant empowerment in the comprehensiveness of libertarianism. Like every all-encompassing ideology, it gives you the ability, with very little thought or knowledge, to explain everything. As much as I hate the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was on to something when he wrote that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

II. Libertarianism and History

And libertarianism is certainly the product of little minds. By “little minds” I mean those so enamored with their own ideas that they have shrunk inwards to the point that larger ideas and facts simply float by, unobserved and unexamined. How else to explain the regular and distressing gap between libertarian ideas and reality?

For example, one of the more frustrating aspects of libertarianism is the yawning vacuum that exists where historical awareness should be. Friedman argued that “the great advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science or literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government” (3). This is simply embarrassing. Friedman was an educated man. He was either being maliciously deceptive or was stupefyingly blinded by his own ideology to write such a sentence. It is further embarrassing that many of his followers believe it today.

In fact, princes and kings have always been among the biggest patrons of the arts and literature. In architecture, many of the great wonders of the world, from the Hagia Sophia to the Taj Mahal to Versailles, were built by kings and emperors, not private individuals or corporations. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel on retainer from Pope Julius II (the head of the Papal States). William Shakespeare’s company was called The King’s Men because his patron was, literally, the King of England. More recently, at least twelve Pulitzer prize-winning books were written by authors supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, including James McPherson’s magisterial history of the civil war, Battle Cry of Freedom.

The biggest scientific endeavors of the last two centuries have been government-funded. The Manhattan Project was overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Apollo Program was designed, funded, managed, and executed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration: The moon landing was the triumph of federal bureaucratic efficiency. The technological foundation of the internet was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Human Genome Project was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The Tevatron supercollider, which enabled scientists to conduct experiments in particle physics, was built with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy; the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which discovered the Higgs Boson in 2013, is funded by twenty governments. Much of the funding for Norman Borlaug’s research (father of the “Green Revolution” in agriculture) came from the Mexican government. Government funding for science and exploration is not new. Congress appropriated funds to support Samuel Morse’s development of the telegraph in 1843. The Lewis and Clark expedition was a U.S. Army reconnaissance operation (Meriwether Lewis, that dashing Byronic hero, was an army captain). Christopher Columbus’ voyage was funded by the King of Spain. Marco Polo’s travels were undertaken at the behest of the Khan of Beijing.

The free market almost certainly would not have led the way towards any of these discoveries because they required massive overhead and incalculable risks with no immediate prospects for returns. I do not deny that private enterprise and individual entrepreneurship have also produced great works of art, science, and civilization; of course they have. But Friedman’s assertion that such achievements have never come from central government is nakedly, willfully false.

III. The Ayn Rand Problem

AynRand1A lack of historical awareness is not the only illustration of the intellectual littleness of libertarianism. Libertarianism is linked, historically and philosophically, with the work of Ayn Rand, yet another reason that conservatives should give libertarianism a wide berth. Ayn Rand was a mid-twentieth century Russian-American novelist, screenwriter, and self-proclaimed philosopher. She was an ardent anti-communist—though not, as is sometimes assumed, a persecuted exile from her native Russia. She is most widely-known for The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), a pair of philosophical novels or, to put it another way, fables. They are thin, melodramatic, faux epics in which Rand’s protagonists (Howard Roark and John Galt, respectively) parade about thundering forth Rand’s philosophy in self-serious monologues.

Rand’s philosophy (which she called “objectivism” but most people call Randianism, because “objectivism” is vague and nonsensical) is the moral and anthropological companion of libertarian political theory. Rand argued that the highest ethical value is selfishness, or the imperative to pursue one’s own happiness and fulfillment. This ethical egoism looks down on altruism as one of basest vices. Living sacrificially for another is a betrayal of the obligation to live, first and primarily, for oneself. The flip side is equally true: We should never ask and never expect someone else to live for us. Accepting someone else’s help is degrading; offering help to another is insulting. Each individual should strive to achieve what they can on their merits.

It is easy to see how Rand’s political philosophy grows from this anthropology. A political system should simply allow individuals to strive and achieve and do little else. High achievers are the main drivers of civilization. Entrepreneurs, risk-takers, businessmen, inventors, and the like are the heroic, creative geniuses who make society function and thrive. The role of government is, by and large, to get out of their way. Progressive income tax rates, capital gains taxes, inheritance taxes, and environmental and safety regulations are barriers to achievement. By hurting the high achievers, such policies hurt everyone, since we all depend on the few demigods for continued progress. Meanwhile, government programs that help the poor, sick, elderly, or handicapped are degrading, and, worse, by engendering a culture of dependency, social welfare policies might actually prevent one of the poor and downtrodden from pulling himself up by his bootstraps and discovering that he, too, is one of the intellectual and creative elite.

Rand’s work has become popular with conservatives. It offers a veneer of philosophical justification for policies that business groups favor for their bottom line. Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012, told a group in 2005 that “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” (He later repudiated Rand.) Justice Clarence Thomas hosts a screening of the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead for his new clerks each year. Senator Ron Johnson is outspoken in his admiration for Rand’s work.

Ayn Rand’s influence in conservative circles is an embarrassment. Conservatives who routinely denounce the influence of postmodernism in American life should recognize, with only a moment’s thought, that Rand is little more than a populist mouthpiece for Friedrich Nietzsche, the forerunner of conservatives’ favorite philosophical bete noir. It may seem odd to compare Rand, who insisted on the objectivity of truth, with Nietzsche, who insisted on its subjectivity. The similarity lies in their egoism—and Nietzsche’s subjective egoism was at least softer than Rand’s objective one. Absent a traditional, religious moral framework in which to embed her belief in objective truth, it had nowhere to go but towards the individual. That is why Rand and Nietzsche, despite their different paths, ended up at the same mountain, worshiping at the altar of the übermensch.

Conservatives, who made their name championing the equal dignity of all people, should be disquieted by Rand’s celebration of aristocracy. But Rand’s Nietzschean admiration of superior men is not the only flag that should warn off conservatives. Rand was quite clear about her atheism and contempt for Christianity, making her an odd philosophical hero for a movement made up of many devout believers. It is bothersome that Paul Ryan, for example, a publicly devout Roman Catholic, could be so fervent in his admiration of Rand despite the obvious contradictions between the two belief systems. Nor can you simply jettison Rand’s atheism and graft the rest of her thought onto a Christian worldview, as so many of her disciples claim they do. The entire premise of egoism and dislike of altruism is, shall we say, in tension with the ethic of Christianity’s founder.

Some Christian Randians might claim that they are Christians in their private lives and Randians in politics while mumbling something about the separation of church and state. Such a stance plays into the state-sponsored secularism favored by the progressive left; assumes that, theologically speaking, it is unproblematic to essentially stop thinking like a Christian once you start thinking about politics; and accepts, uncritically, explicitly anti-Christian premises as your political foundation—a trifecta of questionable intellectual shortcuts.

IV. Libertarianism and Conservatism

But the most damning thing about Randianism, from a political standpoint, is that it is not conservative. The ultimate reason to reject libertarianism (and Randianism) is that it bears little resemblance to actual, historical conservatism. Some readers may be confused, thinking the two terms are synonymous because they have been used interchangeably in some circles. They are not synonymous. They are, in fact, radically divergent ideologies.

Kirk_at_typewriterIn Russell Kirk’s classic formulation, conservatism respects custom, tradition, and continuity with the past. The libertarian view of the role of government would be a radical break with the past. Conservatives believe strongly in the authority of precedent. Libertarians, who lack precedent for most of their favored policies, are bold to advocate untested, unproven policies. Conservatives are cautious and patient, happy to work for justice and order incrementally, by degrees. Libertarians, with their complete blueprint for the country, are pitchfork radicals ambitious to fight the system as a whole. Conservatives are comfortable with inconsistency, variety, and local solutions. Libertarians have an ideological cookie cutter they want to slap down on every policy issue in every jurisdiction. Conservatives have lower expectations of people and politics because of their understanding of human nature; libertarians betray a naiveté about nature of the world and its inhabitants when they wax utopian in their zeal to remake the world.

Some readers may object, or be confused, because they believe that libertarianism is simply calling for a return to how the United States was governed before the New Deal, or before the progressivism of the early twentieth century. Libertarians are the truest conservatives, according to this view, because they are reaching back to America’s real roots and consulting its oldest precedents.

This is either disingenuous or ignorant. As I argued above, the United States government has always been involved in supporting the arts, sciences, and humanities. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America was not a libertarian paradise. Alexander Hamilton was the first champion of a strong, active, limited government to foster economic growth through federalized fiscal policy. Henry Clay and his Whig Party made a major contribution to American development in the early nineteenth century through the policy of “internal improvements”—building roads, canals, telegraph and railroad lines, something Dwight Eisenhower would continue a century later with the interstate highway system. The Republican Congress of 1862 passed the Morrill Land Grant Act, which gave land to states under the mandate that they be used to established agricultural colleges—the foundation of America’s unrivaled system of higher education. Conservative Republicans were the first civil rights advocates in America, from the abolitionists of the 1830s to the reconstructionists of the 1870s. Republican Congressmen passed the Civil Rights Bills of 1866, 1875, 1957, and 1964. They understood that equality under law is a fundamentally conservative ideal, and government had a duty to enforce it even against popular prejudices. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt almost single-handedly invented the idea of environmental conservation (which is as literally conservative as you can get) in his drive to preserve wilderness and wildlife for future generations.

These examples—investment in infrastructure, advocacy for civil rights for persecuted groups, investment in science and technology, and preservation of the environment—are conservative policies that require an active, capable, energetic government. Most of them required taxes to pay for them and bureaucracies to administer them. Nineteenth-century America was many things, and its government was certainly smaller than today’s, but it was not libertarian. Conservatives have long recognized that government can play a small, limited role in “promoting the general welfare.”

Conservative luminaries like Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk would be aghast at the idea of trying to impose an ideological blueprint on society alien to its history and culture. True conservatism has often, and rightly, warned against the idea of trying to shape society with the power of the state. Libertarianism would radically reshape society by removing government from it. Libertarianism goes against centuries of tradition about what “government” means. The effort to govern along libertarian lines would amount to a radical experiment in social engineering. No society on earth, let alone the United States, has ever been governed along purely libertarian lines. Governments have always involved themselves in economic life, including, in America’s case, in the promotion of capitalism. They have always had social policies to promote one model or another of national culture. And representative governments have been building social safety nets since the mid-nineteenth century. Libertarianism is not a return to the past.

IV. Political Suicide

barry_goldwaterFinally, libertarianism is politically suicidal. The American voters know that government can occasionally achieve good things, which is why libertarianism has a long and distinguished history of humiliating electoral losses. The most libertarian Republican presidential candidate in American history was Barry Goldwater, whose landslide loss in 1964 remains one of the most decisive in history: Goldwater lost the electoral vote 486 to 52, having won only six states. The margin of victory in the popular vote—nearly 23 percent—is the fifth largest in American history. A Libertarian Party has run presidential candidates in every election since 1972. Its all-time best performance was in 1980, when it won 1.06 percent of the vote. Ralph Nader and Ross Perot did much better in their day; even among third-parties, libertarianism hardly competes. The electoral success of conservatism still depends on social conservatives, whose agenda is inimical to libertarianism.

Reforming conservatism is an important effort, but libertarianism is a dead-end. In its extreme forms, it is simplistic, rigid, and ideologically naïve. It rests on a view of human nature—that we are best understood as autonomous individuals defending our rights against others rather than responsible members of families and communities—that is unrealistic and even damaging. Libertarianism has an unhelpful association with the juvenile and destructive philosophy of Ayn Rand, which every self-respecting conservative should denounce. The heart of conservatism is self-government that is limited, accountable, devolved, and effective. We can get there without the help of libertarianism.

Unfortunately, the conservative movement has largely failed to produce an articulate, winsome, and competent spokesman for its ideals for many years. If the trend continues, libertarians may have their day after all. As the most outspoken and consistent champions of limited government, libertarians are earning the respect and even loyalty of many Americans who are mistrustful of liberalism and who yet see no viable alternative conservative philosophy. The virtue of America’s political paralysis is that it constrains individual policymakers and limits the impact one ideology can have. While libertarians are philosophically misguided and would pass awful public policy if given unchecked power, the reality is that they will never have unchecked power in the United States. A libertarian president would either pass his time in office maintaining the purity of his ideology and accomplishing nothing, or he would make compromises and cut deals with conservatives and moderates in Congress to pass policy that would probably turn out to be quite good.

I will never vote for a Rand Paul in a primary election, but if the next election comes down to a libertarian and a liberal progressive, I will hold my nose and do my duty. But do not expect the libertarian to win.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
47 replies to this post
  1. I am stunned, at times, at the lack of understanding of Ayn Rand–here as elsewhere.

    Atlas Shrugged is anything but “thin”–and I say this as someone whose favorite authors include James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov (everything minus Lolita), Lawrence Durell and Robert Musil. Not exactly the company I think she would choose to Keep.

    The political-economic situations presented in the work are anything but “fables”. They describe a gripping denouement of Socialism-Communism on the march, working its wreckage across a country built on individualism (as she philosophically defines it) and self-sufficient, productive capitalism (as she too defines it, which is decidedly not the gangsta-banksta casino “capitalism” we see today).

    Several of those “melodramatic” scenes and speeches of hers–such as the scene on the train where the heroine encounters a homeless engineer– illustrate the consequences of perverse social engineering and state-run management in such refined, excellent detail, they should be studied on their own.

    Or perhaps by “melodramatic” the author means the grown-up, eloquent relationships between the characters? No ditzy girl-speak? No four-letter coolness? No bathroom humor?

    I have never seen that book as anything but a high-minded celebration of the potential of the human spirit. And how refreshing, how nice, to have leading characters who are as beautiful on the inside as on the outside and represent great moral standards. Conservatives are just too often too off-base regarding Rand

  2. ‘Governments have always involved themselves in economic life, including, in America’s case, in the promotion of capitalism. They have always had social policies to promote one model or another of national culture. And representative governments have been building social safety nets since the mid-nineteenth century. Libertarianism is not a return to the past.’

    Mr Miller, I agree wholeheartedly with this position. But I’m confused by your unusual argument focusing strictly on economics. You are correct; Conservatism has never historically meant minimal government. But nor has it meant ‘moderate government intervention’ either. Until the 18th century (and well after, though not so definitively) Conservatism did indeed mean Monarchy, though you speak so derisively of that institution.

    In fact, this has a great deal to do with your comment, ‘… no political philosophy aware of the proclivities of human nature has ever dared entrust so much to human freedom. Given this history, we should be at least suspicious of the idea of absolutizing personal autonomy.’ Yet what do you propose in its place? There’s no difference between, (a) individuals wielding near-unlimited power; (b) individuals electing politicians who wield near-unlimited power; or (c) dividing near-unlimited power between individuals and politicians.

    Rather, we return to *institutions*. As Enoch J. Powell wrote, ‘Tory is a person who regards authority as immanent in institutions… a respecter of institutions, a respecter of monarchy, a respecter of the deposit of history, a respecter of everything in which authority was capable of being embodied…’ (Toryism is, of course, the oldest extant conservative philosophy in the English-speaking world and, right or wrong, must be regarded as the ‘Conservatism’ from which all other ‘conservatisms’ are only relatively conservative.)

    This, if we’re speaking in terms of historical fact, is what Conservatism is: a recognition of mankind’s essentially fallible nature, and a desire to invest the power of government directly in the living wisdom of a society. This is why Conservatives *have*, to be quite exact, overwhelmingly supported Monarchy—which is essentially the breeding of an individual to practice statecraft according to received custom and precedence. This is why Conservatives have historically supported an established church: in the words of Eliot (roughly), the purpose of a National Church isn’t to degrade Christianity to nationalism, but to raise nationalism to the level of Christianity. That’s why Conservatives have historically supported Aristocracy: which is a meticulously trained and highly specialized class of statesmen, un-beholden to public opinion (venal and unreliable as the public is in its decision-making). And I hardly need discuss the benefits of a constitution.

    Tory ‘institutionalism’ is the only safeguard against human folly: it alone ensures the passage of accumulated insights, cultural developments, and moral and social norms. It alone removes the bulk of power from ignorant and venal human beings. Of course, when one strikes and burns the institutions themselves (as was the case with Britain, under the influence of Irish socialists and American progressives) the whole scheme falls apart. But this is a necessarily deliberate act. In the U.S., it’s been arguable and gradual, because the U.S. was founded on specifically ideological (that is, Whiggish) principles. Britons can accept what historically has been a ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’ event. They know Thatcher wasn’t as Conservative as Disraeli, but many self-identifying British Conservatives still appreciate Thatcher.

    We can even see the fallacy in a written constitution: the writers of that constitution are necessarily working in a period of less than a decade, being a single generation with no concept whatsoever of the future and no experience firsthand of the challenges of the past. The British system of unwritten constitutions alone realizes the Burkean ideal of the social contract between the living, the dead, and the unborn. The American Constitution is a compact between a group of upper-middle class Whigs who lived in the late 18th century.

  3. Interesting read and critique all-in-all. One minor quibble, or rather question: can we call Kings and Princes who patronized arts and culture “states”? They were often owners of their estates, not modern states.

  4. For most of human history there has been little regard for natural rights and government has been through monarchs and tyrants. The idea of natural rights was a radical departure from history and tradition. Also, the American revolution was radical due to its break from human history, I find it curious that you praise Burke after criticizing Rand for allegedly celebrating aristocracy when Burk himself believed in aristocratic rule. Conservatism as you describe has no core values. It is merely a sentiment of cautiousness and preserving the status quo for the sake of order. The rights of men do not come from conservatism.

    If you were born in communist Russia, being “conservative” would mean supporting the communist government. If you were born under the Taliban in Afghanistan, being “conservative” would mean preserving their rule. If you wanted to broaden the analysis to encompass all of human history, being “conservative” would mean wanting to ruled by a monarch – as that form of government has encompassed the majority of the history of man.

    I cannot imagine a bigger form of political suicide than adopting what you define as conservatism at this time. You also fail to mention that Ronald Reagan supported Barry Goldwater and ran largely on a libertarian platform both in 1976 and 1980. Your article is not well thought out and quite frankly, I believe it is dishonest as you try to set up a straw man argument with your description of the libertarian philosophy – which is nothing more than what was described by Jefferson, the Federalist Papers (even by Hamilton before he decided to ignore everything he wrote in them), and many of the founders of this country.

  5. While I find myself in the somewhat embarrassing position of disagreeing with Marcia Christoff-Kurapovna and Peter Strzelecki Rieth, both of whose writings I greatly admire, I cannot give any credence to the faux-philosophy of Ayn Rand, nor of Libertarianism. (Both sides would deny a relationship, I believe.)

    The reasons why I take this stance are somewhat too long and convoluted to express well in a short rejoinder.
    Only to note the Bolshevism and nihilism which Ayn Rand left behind in Russia was ever with her; the philosopher she claimed was Aristotle, while as the essay above correctly asserts, her true guide was Nietzsche (and I say this as one fond of FWN); and the cult of personality over which she presided was as contradictory of her expressed opinions as it could possibly have been (and since Objectivism was noting if not the opinions of Ayn Rand, her life does indeed give the lie to her “philosophy”.)

    Secondly, a desire for, and proclamation of, Liberty does not make one a Libertarian any more than sitting in a garage makes one a car. A great many adolescent young men, who have confused their desires with the nature of the Universe have seized on Libertarianism as a rallying point, without properly thinking through the “unintended consequences” of such a politico-economic shambles. If one were to substitute the word “anarchy” it would display readily the faults of “libertarianism”.

    It is perhaps my youthful years of enamorment with Libertarian thinking which led me to as through an investigation of it as I was able to make. After several years of searching, I found no solid nourishment, only political cotton-candy. And so, I came back to the conservatism of Kirk and Chesterton (and certain others). Strangely, I find the monarchist tendencies of our Mister Davis rather appealing. But, unless the Danes or the Dutch are willing to share their Monarchs with the rest of us, we shall have to do with what we have on hand.

    • I had the same personal experience: a young libertarian, influenced by Rand, who turned more conservative with time. As I’ve said below, I still can go back to Atlas Shrugged and recognize what really made me like the book. Probably, not what Rand thought it would, but when does the writer know what he is actually writing about, anyway?! 🙂 My best wishes.

  6. It is totally plausible to make a Conservative reading of Ayn Rand, especially in Atlas Shrugged. Although, I believe she could disagree with it, when she is dealing with practical matters, a conservative pattern emerges: monogamy, family, friendship. They are all there. Nothing could be more paradigmatic than her stance on sex. Dagny could be seen as a mature liberal woman, not afraid of having sex with different men, even married ones. However, once you confront her behavior with D’Anconia speech on sex, and her later comment that she was “behaving like a wife” at Galt’s home, Rand puts herself against meaningless frivolous sexual relations, in favor of a monogamist couple. D’Anconia is a celibate, himself, since he thought those gorgeous but empty women that threw themselves at him to be repulsive.

  7. “Libertarianism usually advances two arguments in its defense, one moral and one utilitarian. It argues that personal autonomy is the highest good of human life, and thus all other aspects of human social and political organization should be subordinate to liberty.”

    This first point is manifestly false; libertarianism argues that personal autonomy/individual liberty is the highest good of political life. The highest good of individual life is best left for individuals to decide. By failing to make this distinction, the author is obscuring one of the fundamental pieces of libertarianism. Libertarianism is agnostic regarding religion, art, personal relationships, and nearly all other aspects of human life, other than politics, for which libertarianism prescribes a minimal state.

    In fact, Ayn Rand’s primary quarrel with libertarianism was that it was only a political ideology that did not have answers for issues of art, (non-political) ethics, etc. The author also straw man’s Rand repeatedly, and demonstrates no more inclination to grapple with her ideas than the average leftist partisan at Salon would with, say, a pro-life thinkier. This attitude is made plain by referencing Paul Ryan as a devotee of Ayn Rand without making the obvious connection that Ayn Rand would have been appalled at anyone linking her philosophy with “public service,” as Ryan is quoted as doing above.

    “Conservatives are comfortable with inconsistency, variety, and local solutions. Libertarians have an ideological cookie cutter they want to slap down on every policy issue in every jurisdiction. Conservatives have lower expectations of people and politics because of their understanding of human nature; libertarians betray a naiveté about nature of the world and its inhabitants when they wax utopian in their zeal to remake the world.”

    I wonder at the author’s assessment here as well. While it is certainly the case that libertarians have a certain idea of how to deal with every policy issue (nearly always, laissez faire), they do not wish to impose a “cookie cutter” ideology. Rather, they wish for decision-making to be as localized as possible (ideally, individuals would make decisions for themselves, but better a community than a county, better a county than a state, better a state than a national government, etc.). Such a political paradigm should be embraced by the same type of conservative who lauds Tolkien and his conception of the Shire, which is virtually anarchic, as an ideal political and social unit. Moreover, it is the nationalist (conservative, neo-conservative, socialist, etc.) who wishes to impose an ideological cookie cutter on everyone by mandating a single standard on everyone. Libertarians are not utopians; to the contrary, they recognize mankind’s proclivity to sin as much as any conservative. And, this recognition is reflected in their distrust of coercive political authority. True, this authority can be wielded for good, and in support of Christian ideals and to protect individuals and communities from harm. But, the greatest atrocities have been committed by leviathan states (Nazi German, Maoist China, etc.). Returning to Tolkien, the power of a coercive state can be likened to the One Ring, which Gandalf wisely denies himself, acknowledging,”With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly….Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.”

  8. Mr. Davis: Your point is well taken regarding the role of institutions within Tory Political Thought. Your observations regarding the essence of conservatism within the West (understood that is as a post-renaissance phenomenon) with respect to the reverence for institutions and the proper role of the Monarchy was largely expounded upon as you know by the Scottish Counter-Enlightenment Philosopher David Hume. In some respects, he may be said to have antedated Edmund Burke within the History of English Political Thought if Conservatism intellectually is basically understood as “skepticism” toward any “rationalist (enlightenment) ideology.” I was reminded of Hume’s voluminous work on “The History of England” while reading your response. No one scholar has written better on this concerning the role of Toryism within Hume’s own Political Thought than Donald W. Livingston.

  9. Ayn Rand was a radical for capitalism and atheism. Her portrayal of relationships between men and women is founded on trading pleasure for pleasure with a subtext of violence under the cover of reason. Her writing on children, and families in general, makes it clear that they are unnecessary at best. She said that babies in the womb are parasites so abortion is a perfectly reasonable choice. She ruined her own life and the lives of most of those in her inner circle. This was not because she didn’t follow her own philosophy but because she did. Ayn Rand was not a conservative and conservatives should only recommend her writings to those who are preparing a valid defense of conservatism against the dangerous power of her novels.

    Please my imaginative conservative friends, please, do not recommend any of her books to any young person with conservative inclinations. I know that many potentially wonderful Christian conservatives have been completely derailed from truth, goodness and beauty by the false conservatism offered by Ms. Rand. I know this from personal experience. She was the enemy of true conservatism, she was the enemy of the followers of God. Don’t be fooled by the fact that she hated big government and welfare. She was most assuredly not an imaginative conservative, not a fellow traveler and not a friend of conservatism.

    Conservatives cherish faith, family and local community. Ms. Rand was no admirer of these essential elements of true conservatism.

  10. Where is your condemnation of Menger, Mises, and Rothbard and Hayek? The work of these men is what gave rise to libertarianism. Without the these men Atlas Shrugged could not have been written. Atlas is a masterful dramatixation of Austrian Economics. This article is a fallach from start to finish. What is the reason why the so called conservative movement is failing? Moral relativism… Conservatives live in the gray area, their consciences are never clear.

  11. All of the vices and tragedies of Ayn Rand can be summed up thus: she remained closed to God and subsequently to others as well as to joy. This is visible in her books and in her life. Nevertheless, here and there, one can learn something worthwhile from her or recognize the limits of human reason through her.

    Rand is, however, a better avenue than much of the economic libertarianism which, though often good economics, is terribly reductionist insofar as it does not take moral questions seriously. Rand at least tries to awaken the moral imagination (before bludgeoning it with rigid ideological guidelines).

    Personally, I am most frustrated by Public Choice theory, if we’re going to complain about libertarianism, because I have never, in my political activity, found myself making self-interested decisions, only attempting to see the common good. A theory which states there is no such thing makes it difficult for citizens to arise who might be inclined to deliberate about what it is and how to reach it in politics.

    More than anything, libertarianism thrives because our public life is so horribe. We now have a theory explaining why and telling us to abandon politics to evil because it is evil. A self fulfilling process.

  12. A few more thoughts on Rand:

    The abortion issue is an example of Ayn Rand at her worst.

    I have dabbled in all sorts of political ideas and ideologies, but I was pro-life before I was anything and never changed that position. I cannot understand how anybody, from a communist to a conservative, from an atheist to people who worship fairies and tree-gods could ever be “pro-choice”. From as far back as I could remember, it just seemed plain as day that if the baby in the womb did not have an inalienable right to life, then none of us did.

    If the weakest “individual” could be terminated at will, then no individual had any rights and the Strong made right. Of course pregnancies which endanger the life of the mother are cause for moral reflection, but these do not invite an exception to the general principle (just as infanticide cannot be justified by saying “it was either the baby or grandpa who is sick and needs medicine and we can’t afford ‘two parasites'”). Each individual – young or old – must be cherished.

    Where there is moral ambiguity, the duty of rational thought is to apply logic with charity and in the spirit of care – (and now, as a Christian, I have understood that this duty has its source outside of our reason), not make logical excuses posing as arguments for infanticide. It was really a shock to me that the writer of the Fountainhead disagreed with this concept.

    I remember being shocked when I discovered Rand was in favor of a “right” to abortion, and when I read the application of Objectivist philosophy to this argument I thought a) this is illogical, b) I guess if somebody actually thinks this is logical then it demonstrates the poor state of moral reasoning and the extent to which despite our pretense to reasonableness, all of us need Moses coming down to us with God’s Commandments lest we get lost.

    That is to say – people, alone, can make mistakes in their moral reasoning, big mistakes, mistakes which cost many lives and much grief. This is why religion, in its most basic form, often saves us from ourselves.

    So certainly, I am not arguing that Rand is wonderful as such. I do, however, firmly believe that a Christian ought to run fastest towards those who are furthest. I believe this because along my journey, so many Christians, seeing how far away I was, took the time to run in my direction, even though it is far nicer to run towards God without making detours.

    Many young people are drawn to Ayn Rand because they are morally alarmed and confused about the apathy and evil omnipresent in our world. Christians should welcome the sentiment of moral alarm as a deeply Christian insinct and encourage those who follow Rand to always nurture this sentiment of moral alarm. Those lost to ideology, Randian or otherwise, are those who “succeed” in silencing the instinct of moral alarm by applying “logic” which births the ideologue.

  13. Right on, friend Winston! I have, in over fifty years of teaching, never known one student who was helped, intellectually or morally, by reading Rand. Recovering Randians are rather like recovering alcoholics–it’s a hard thing to do, and in some senses one never gets over it. But she was as evil as the forces she supposedly opposed.

  14. And the debate on Rand continues among those of the conservative temperament. This article and comments upon it reminded me of some paragraphs George Nash wrote in his book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America : Since 1945. In his book, pg. 145, Nash wrote of the conservative debate about Rand:

    “When the furor over Ayn Rand eventually subsided, it became clear that Chambers (Whittaker) and Wills (Garry) had won: Objectivism did not take conservative by storm. As William F. Buckley, Jr. reflected in the early 1960’s, Rands’ desiccated philosophy was inconsistent with “the conservative’s emphasis on transcendence, ” while her harsh ideological fervor was profoundly distasteful. Rand herself was similarly aware of the unbridgeable gap. National Review she declared in 1964, was “the worst and most dangerous magazine in America”; its mixture of religion and capitalism represented a sullying of the rationally defensible (freedom and capitalism) with mystical, unconvincing obscurantism.”

    For myself, I understand separating the wheat from the chaff but I first look at who’s doing the separating. I tend toward Kirk and Modern Age, not Buckley and National Review. Of Rand, Kirk wrote, “Denouncing “altruism,” or charity, she attributed to men of business a curious sort of sanctity that resembles Marx’s exaltation of the abstract proletariat….As a reaction against the ugly insensate collectivism that menaces mankind today, this flight to an extreme individualism is understandable: but it is consummate folly, for all that, and even more disastrous to the conservative cause than is the policy of unprincipled trimming.” Kirk wanted no part of conservatives inbibing what he called “cosmic selfishness.” Rather conservatives seek the eternal order and “to ascertain its nature and to conform to that order, which is the source of the Permanent Things (Prospects for Conservatives, pg. 36).”

  15. A word on economic growth in the heroic period, the 19th century: it had nothing to do with Henry Clay and government programs and projects. These were impediments and distortions to growth and development. The tariff-internal improvements system was a patronage machine, as the voluminous debates in Congress from the time reveal at every turn.

    The secret to the success, as it were, of the American System, was its natural tendency towards self-limitation. Since the tariff could be easily refused by not shipping goods into the country, the rates had to be kept where they could encourage importation. In the era of the income tax, the government has the person, and thus tax rates and assessments are higher than they were in the 19th century. (I have mused that thus is the income tax is a violation of habeas corpus.) The reason that the 19th century was more successful than the 20th/21st, in terms of economic growth, is that the government finance-spending apparatus constrained itself more in the former than the latter period. It is a category-mistake to associate the spending that the feds did undertake in the 19th century with that era’s superior performance.

    It also is clear that “the foundation of America’s unrivaled system of higher education” has always been private philanthropy.

  16. Simplest argument against libertarianism is the Red Tory argument. Libertarians simply take civilization as a given. All of the structures, moral and civil, needed as a foundation for anything approaching libertarianism to succeed would be swept away by the abstract system “libertariansim”. That is why Red Tories refer to it as a proto-socialist doctrine. It would create a level of social chaos that the state would have to rush in to address. Ayn Rand leads to Marx.

  17. Ayn Rand was not a Libertarian; she was not an advocate for abortion, and she does not “lead to Marx”.

    • “An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn). Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?” –Ayn Rand, (“Of Living Death” The Objectivist, Oct. 1968, 6)

      “Never mind the vicious nonsense of claiming that an embryo has a “right to life.” A piece of protoplasm has no rights—and no life in the human sense of the term. One may argue about the later stages of a pregnancy, but the essential issue concerns only the first three months. To equate a potential with an actual, is vicious; to advocate the sacrifice of the latter to the former, is unspeakable. . . . Observe that by ascribing rights to the unborn, i.e., the nonliving, the anti-abortionists obliterate the rights of the living: the right of young people to set the course of their own lives. The task of raising a child is a tremendous, lifelong responsibility, which no one should undertake unwittingly or unwillingly. Procreation is not a duty: human beings are not stock-farm animals. For conscientious persons, an unwanted pregnancy is a disaster; to oppose its termination is to advocate sacrifice, not for the sake of anyone’s benefit, but for the sake of misery qua misery, for the sake of forbidding happiness and fulfillment to living human beings.”– Ayn Rand (“A Last Survey” The Ayn Rand Letter, IV, 2, 3)

  18. Indeed, Rand was not a libertarian (she opposed both the party and the philosophy, noting once that Objectivism was not Hedonism nor a free for all as morality).

    However, unless I am misinformed, there is evidence of her favoring abortion in public forums like the Ford Hall Forum in 1968, amongst other things. It is possible I am misled on account of Piekoff and Co., but that is what I have gathered over the years.

    Indeed, Rand cannot lead to Marx because Rand rejects all collectivist notions, such as “class consciousness”

    So, two out of three… Granted, her views on abortion did not make up the brunt of her philosophy, but they do indicate what I consider one of several moral hazards of Objectivism.


    Indeed. And what is most disturbing about the quotes Mr. Elliott provides, and all of the others, is not even Rand being po choice, but the nauseating vehemency of her advocacy.

    I read Carl Sagan (and his life partner’s) long, interesting article, rooted in science, generally pro-choice and liberal, but Sagan understands how painful and delicate the issue is. He wrote with great respect for proponents of life and understanding of their concerns. That is the kind of liberalism I can understand – even though I oppose legal abortion.

    Rand wrote and spoke about abortion as if the legal ban on abortion were akin to chattel slavery, and even the abolitionists in their day were concidered extreme. How Rand could romantically and forcefully argue pro-choice is beyond me.

    Not even the Democrats do that. It’s supppsed to be “safe, legal and rare”, not a categorocal expression of individualism and freedom…

    It is just like Rand’s praise for some psychotic murderer in the 1920s because he was an “individualist” – not good, to put it mildly.

  20. I am defending the Ayn Rand of Atlas Shrugged (and The Fountainhead and We The Living) as well as her major non-fiction works (on capitalism, on romantic art). I am not referring to this obscure newsletter or off-the cuff comments at Ford Hall.

    I am talking about the work she is most famous for, the work that represents her philosophical views at their best, the work that has had the enormous following it does: Atlas. And nowhere–absolutely nowhere in this book–is there a single line about abortion; any favorable “insinuation”; there is no defense of it, discussion of it, or “speech” about it. (Same with The Fountainhead).

    In fact, the main characters are adored as children. Three of them come from celebrated, ancient, close families. A Mother, worried about the influence of the world on her children, is one of the few select individuals in the famous Valley ( a huge statement on the part of Rand). A great, ethical businessman becomes a kind of surrogate father to a lost young boy done in by poor influences and poor teachers. There is nothing anti-child, hateful to families, anti-“community”. It is a book that is anti-Idiocy and anti-incompetence.

    In her little-known and wonderful novel about life in Soviet Russia, “We The Living”, there is a scene that involves one character’s abortion and it is a gruesome, cold scene—certainly not put in any kind of positive light.

    Also, Mr. Strzelecki Rieth: she defended that “individualist” when she was still in her 20s, in an unformed phase of detesting-the-mob (that went after this guy). A bit of youthful stupidity, never ever expressed in her mature work. We all have beliefs at a young age we later regret, no?

    • The two publications quoted were not “obscure” publications. They were the official “house” publications of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. Nothing appeared in them of which she did not approve. They were used for instructional purposes in her approved classes on Objectivism. These statements were not off the cuff or spontaneous. They were completely consistent with Ms. Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism and she would defend them as so until the end of her life.

      While there are appealing aspects of Ms. Rand’s writings at the very core of her philosophy are atheism and “the virtue of selfishness.” The statements quoted represent her philosophy at its most hideously consistent height. The true conservative can, and should, recommend much better books by much wiser authors.

      • I admire your noble defense of this article Mr Elliot. Ayn Rand was an “intellectual freak” which I believe Russell Kirk said. She is more Nietzchean than Nietzche himself was in a sense. She hated the community and loved the Individual. She did not hold anything beliefs that can be called ( or should be called) conservative.

  21. It is true that we say and do things we end up regretting when we are 20. But please note that Ayn Rand, a few months before her death, was criticizing President Reagan – and notice that the topic of choice for her, the principle thing which indicated that Reagan was a bad President was – as this speech shows – his pro-life view:

    Really? Really – a radical for liberty can’t find anything better to criticize about President Reagan than the fact that he believes helpless babies in the womb have a right to life? Not the Gold Standard (lack thereof), not abolishing income taxes or anything – no – it’s that Reagan has allied himself to Christians and denied the right to abortion.

    As to the quotes that Mr. Elliott has presented – please notice this portion (which struck me as the most horrible):

    ” One may argue about the later stages of a pregnancy, but the essential issue concerns only the first three months.”

    Now – you do not have to be a Christian or believe in God to know for a fact that a baby in the mother’s womb develops a heart beat around the 5th week of Pregnancy. Naturally – everything – all of the processes that take place prior to the 5th week – lead up to that heartbeat.

    Now – you will say “but the brain – when does the brain develop?”

    And I will say: well – we can plausibly argue that a) it is a life-long process, b) around the age of 3

    My point being only this: a human being is by definition a process – even after birth, the human being grows, develops – and really never stops.

    It is totally arbitrary to say that only when a baby is born is the baby “human” – or only in the “third month” or the “2nd month”.

    What is a human? While we certainly do not have any scientific answer to that question – in full – we ought not think ourselves wise enough to cut off the point at which we proclaim some person’s humanity.

    Rand – for all of her “reason” and “logic” – seemed oblivious to this. She behaved as if only a “mystic” or “religious person” could be opposed to abortion, as if it was “obvious” that it was ok.

    I mean – she didn’t even take the time, in her defense of “reason” – to familiarize herself with science. She might have, for instance, started talking about the philosophical dilemma of ectopic pregnancies – what then?

    But no – she just blandly states that below 3 months is not a human.

    It is true that this subject was not the focal point of either the Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged – but for someone who proclaims to have the be-all-and-end-all philosophy of Reason – it is a prety unreasonable stance to take.

    For somebody who proclaims to be a Romantic, and writes a Romantic Manifesto – it is the coldest, most ruthless, least romantic thing to believe – that a small 6 week old baby – whose heart beat we can see and hear – is not a human being because its’ brain happens to be at an earlier stage of development than mine or your or a 1 year old or a new born’s?

    The fact that she was so uncompromising about abortion, so “matter-of-fact-next-question-please” about it is very disturbing.

    Finally – in that short Reagan speech (or anti-Reagan speech) – she openly contrasts two positions:

    On the one side – family, community and God

    On the other side “reason” and “businessmen”

    Now – I have nothing against businessmen (I am a super-small-microcosmic businessman and admire enterpreneurs greatly) – but if there’s one thing that is wrong in todays world it is that the family, the community and God are not even close to being cared for in politics – and the only thing that anyone cares about is money and business. This is a gross over-generalization – I know – but it is true.

    And when she says that business people just need to “gain philosophical awareness” – well: through who? Through her? Or maybe they gain it – as was traditionally the case – through their families and communities and churches (all of which modern society is in the process of destroying in favor of crass commercialism which will soon be selling nooses for us to hang on at this rate).

    I do try to treat Rand’s thought fairly – and give her credit where I think it’s due – but all in all, I don’t think her stance on abortion is a “small thing”

    It actually says alot about her – and about her contempt for the human person – which is a shame. She clearly – no matter how much older she got – learned nothing from experience, and did not think to even re-examine her previous views.

    • She probably just heard from someone else that we’re not human until three months. Scientists (and I’m a scientist) come up with ideas, such as the three-month cut-off date, and that becomes fact. Just look at global warming. Belief in anthropogenic global warming can help you get your funding. Deny it and you risk being an outcast.

      Now your comment about money—how true it is! I wrote a book on Christian education, and mentioned that we start with the Bible but don’t often follow through with the Bible. I was talking in my book about politics, and how we even do this in Christian education. How often have I heard, as a Christian school teacher in math and science, the most difficult subjects that we teach in K-12, comments such as, “The parents vote for us at the end of the month with their paychecks”, or, “You’ve got to keep the parents happy”?

      Our society is doing things by the business model more and more. People often see family and community as only means to that end. A corporation’s department of personnel is now called human resources, as if we’re water, oil, or electricity. Multi-level marketing schemes and even school fundraising turn our family and friends into potential clients.

  22. Would anyone like to address my point that absolutely nowhere in Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead or in We The Living–her major works, what she is known for, what she is read for, but especially the first–does she glorify an anti-family or pro-abortion outlook.

    Nor are her hero-businessmen in these novels anti-family.

    Rand does not preach a philosophy of atheism as the main purpose of her work. She preached a philosophy of the glory of Man and his capacity for rational genius.

    Rand was an atheist with a deep sense of the sacred. Anyone who extolls Thomas Aquinas as she did; who says tthat reading Victor Hugo was like standing in a beautiful cathedral, is not someone who is a militant atheist. She corresponded with Catholic priests and had a generally respectful attitude.

    As for The Virtue of Selfishness which I have many times, one must read it before commenting on it. Her sense of the word “Selfish” is not what we take it to be. She meant self-sufficiency, self-respect, and self-esteem. As Lord Tennyson might have put it (and did).

    • I have read all of Ms. Rand’s books, fiction and non-fiction, many times. I have taught classes on them. I once performed a “marriage” ceremony reading selections from “Atlas Shrugged.” I have discussed her philosophy, and personal behavior, with former members of her inner circle. I don’t state any of this with pride but only to respond to your suggestion that I am criticizing what I do not know. You are mistaken. I know very well the philosophy, novels and non-fiction writing of Ayn Rand. Taking her body of work as a whole I stand completely behind my previous comments on this page. The quotes I posted from Ms. Rand regarding abortion are completely consistent with her view of man. She had no use for persons who were broken, lost or irrational. Be productive, be rational or be gone is her approach to the dignity of the human person. This is not conservative. It is most certainly in opposition to the teachings of Christianity. Christians recognize the powerful effects of original sin. They offer an opportunity for love and forgiveness. Not condemnation. Ms. Rand did not accept this basic truth of the human condition.

  23. Mr. Elliott,

    With all due respect, I disagree completely with your statement that Rand’s views on abortion are consistent with her views on Man. They are anything but.

    Also, I sought to clarify the statement/title “Virtue of Selfishness” which is not what it appears at first glance and, said in passing, prompted me to respond.

    And it is emphatically not true that she had no use for individuals lost or broken, as two of her most outstanding characters–Steven Mallory and Cheryl Taggart–embodiments of her philosophy–were extremely “broken” and irrational, and treated with the utmost compassion in her works. Rand, in her private life, was also hugely charitable.

    I am sorry you had to perform a marriage ceremony from Atlas–I find that kind of obsessiveness with the book totally ridiculous–or that you have met members of her inner circle–which, starting with the Branden con artist–strike me as the “lost and irrational” types you are talking about.

    By the way, I wish to make clear from all that I have written, that I am not personally pro-abortion, nor neutral about it. I am appalled at the casual way it is regarded “more and more”, as if it were akiin to getting a flu shot.

    But I have a question for the gentlemen here: given the twisted, screwed-up, doped up, violent, sexually perverted, lost, murderous, and poorly educated state of children/young people today, is the “pro-life” stance really so pro-life as it regards itself? Where are the Mothers? Many of whom run around blathering abut “values”?

    How is a living-dead child better off than a dead one?

  24. Where there’s life, there’s hope…

    As to this:

    “it is…not true she had no use for individuals lost or broken, as two of her most outstanding characters”….

    That pretty much sums up the political problem with Rand: in seeking for proof that she cared about people who were broken, we need to look to her fiction.

    We are, after all, talking about politics, not Rand as abstract literature. In her politics, she did not see people. Some folks, possessed of a good sense of humor (Rothbard, Block) appeared able to take what was good and regard the bad with humor.

    But many people would likely be horrified. For me, the Howard Roarke of the world is the unborn child – that Rand despised pregnancy and saw abortion as a right and even duty of the selfish individual because motherhood was parasitical and “altruism” is disturbing.

    That her 1000 page books dedicated a few sentences to a happy mother or some kids is beside the point.

    I am not even going to go into the fact that she portrayed the pride and joy of men as anything and everything but being a good husband and father.

    Rand’s view of the family was shallow.

    That she corresponded with Catholic priests says more about the care of the priests than about her. For an intellectual, she seemed authentically uninterested in learning about the religions she rejected, she seemed uninterested in reading and thinking.

    Rand’s life sounded sad, tragic and cold, largely because she made it so. Her ideals of romanticism, self respect, individualism – are all good but impossible without religion. They also presumed a universe of rational people, but humams are anything but usually.

    As a philosopher, her penchant for thinking about a world and a humanity that does not exist anywhere except in her head made her – ultimately boring.

    I find Atlas Shrugged a terrible book. The Fountainhead is average-to-good literature. Atlas Shrugged is intellectual regression. It reads like a computer programming manual, which would be interesting if it were about computers and not people.

    As anyone can see from my two essays on positive aspects of Rand, I am all for taking some concrete good from her and appreciating her for it, but if we’re speaking in broad generalities then frankly I find her life and work tragic and sad. It is all like Frankenstein, but poorly written.

    I wouldn’t “ban” her or ignore her, nor am I allergic to her, but I think she is not as original, interesting or amazing as she is sometimes made out to be. Here and there, some of her insights are worthwhile. She can be and is supremely amazing for people who do not read history and philosophy but seek dome understanding of the world – this also sometimes makes her dangerous.

    • “I find Atlas Shrugged a terrible book.”

      But when we read your very first reply to this entire thread….

  25. So Libertarians don’t know much about history? And they have pat answers for everything? Welcome to human nature. But I know we can do better than that.

    Let’s face it, most people know far too little about politics, or history, or religion, or anything else that they talk about. I’m a Bible school graduate who trained for the pastorate, and this certainly exists in religion. A Jewish convert to Christianity, I realize that most Jews know little of real Jewish theology and philosophy, despite their experiences and their Hebrew school training. I was told by a Catholic theologian online that 99% of Roman Catholics do not understand Catholic theology. Now take my fellow evangelical friends who get involved with politics. Few know much history, but in typical evangelical style, they sure know how to quote others. I remember especially how pastors became overnight political experts during the presidential elections of the early 1980s. How many of us can take in relevant information and think for ourselves? Thinking for yourself will get you into problems in many circles today, because our friends might look too much to the experts for their viewpoints.

    Maybe we should all go through real “think-training”. I would tell a professor during my chemistry PhD training that the textbook says this or that, and he’s say, “You’re [becoming] a PhD, what do YOU think?” We would take our “cumes”, or cumulative exams (qualifying exams), three hours a morning, eight Saturday mornings a year, until we passed six of them. We had to know our material. We had to read chemistry journals and stay caught up with the literature, but we didn’t know who was writing today’s cume, or what it was going to be on. In our organic chemistry division, we learned that we had to know, to REALLY know, organic chemistry. We were NOT told what pages to read out of a certain journal to prepare for the upcoming Saturday morning cume, which at least one other division of chemistry at my university did. Just plain studying for our coursework and doing our research was not enough. Now how prevalent is this thinking in religion or politics today?

    I once trained for an organization that sells second mortgages and life insurance policies. We had lines to memorize. It was like a cult, but with money instead of religion. We need to stop turning our friends into salespeople with answers for every objection, and we need to learn to be thinkers, to get beyond just winning arguments and to really understand both sides of an issue. We have to learn to spot gray areas, to know what we can know for sure and what we really don’t know for sure. Now why was Socrates REALLY executed?

  26. Well, I was generally agreeing with you that Rand is not totally worthless and that Atlas Shrugged was not “thin”. I was also trying to be charitable to Ayn Rand.

    It’s always hard to be charitable to Rand because she herself seems to confront readers with an ‘either-or’ proposition. We must all worship and bow at her feet, or we must denounce her like Goldstien.

    I tend to rebel against being forced to worship or denounce a write in whole – with Rand, it’s almost impossible not to be compelled to do so.

    Atlas Shrugged was a let down – I called it a terrible book because compared to the promise shown in the Fountainhead, it was.

    It’s the same with most of what passes for libertarian thought – libertarians are often times radically dogmatic about their ideology, and suddenly – if you think that the Gold Standard is a good thing (as I do), then surely you must also think we need to live on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where there are no laws.

    I know I’m caricaturing now – but sometimes it does feel a bit like the entire libertarian philosophy, as well as the Randian philosophy are basically saying “we have the absolute truth about everything and so you’re either with us or against us”

    The discussion of Rand in this comments section is sort of indicative of this.

    I think one of the BIG reasons people raise Rand’s abortion views and her views of the family and of religion more than anything positive in her individualism is because Rand herself was so forceful about the subject.

    From time to time, I think I miss what I THOUGHT Rand was when I first read the Fountainhead – a romantic, principled advocate for mature, responsible freedom and human happiness – but then Ayn Rand, every time I re-read her non-fiction – reminds me that she was also quite a few other things which, in the main, are not interesting and tedious. In my 2 years or so of writing political philosophy, I have found myself twice inspired to reach back to Ayn Rand’s works for something interesting – as a percentage of everything I’ve written, that is quite small as compared to how fascinating other writers are to me, or other interests are. That is largely because Ayn Rand is pretty much an open-shut case – at her own behest.

  27. I have become very successful owing to Atlas Shrugged, to its mental influence. Rand’s more radical views not making a whit of difference. And I like kids and I am compassionate.

    This is all I will say on the matter, and leave this thread in peace.

  28. I agree with much of the article. However, like M.W Davies, I find the opposition to monarchy and aristocracy in the article somewhat strange. It can argued that conservatives believe in spiritual and moral equality (though they are not the only ones who do so, by any means), but I don’t believe conservatism is necessarily wedded to full legal and social equality. Conservatives have been, as Mr. Davies points out, just as likely to champion monarchy and various forms of aristocracy as oppose them. It is unqualified democracy and populism they have tended to be more weary of, in fact

    I’m not saying a conservative has to believe in monarchy (depending on their nation and background – I’d have trouble taking a British republican conservative seriously, but not an American republican conservative) or titled aristocracy (all conservatives, surely, believe in what Burke and John Adams called natural aristocracy, though). But why he would be absolutely opposed to these I’m unsure.

    Perhaps it is just because of its American orientation, but more exploration of monarchism would be interesting on this site. For example, it would be interesting to see a (not hostile) treatment of American Toryism or Loyalism alongside all the focus on the Whig founders.

  29. I came to this interesting discussion late. It makes me think about the possible good definition for conservative. To me that would mean one who did not ascribe his existence to himself, but to a Creator, and who thus had the attitude of worship and humility before a standard greater than himself. And thereafter, a conservative has respect for the ground rules laid down by the Creator, what we call nature, natural. The clouds obey the wind. Plants reach toward the sun. It rains. A conservative tends to value solutions or axioms or medicines reflecting the behaviors of creation. At the very least, the conservative assumes there are natural rules and appreciates the virtue of obedience to them. The conservative does not celebrate rebellion. (But ah liberalism.)

    I wish this conversation could continue, what really is a conservative?

    • A conservative is someone who holds to old values, and doesn’t want them to change. Or a conservative is a right-winger. OK, so maybe those aren’t the best definitions, but they’re the ones I seem to have gotten over the course of my life. Maybe these definitions are the result of a secular media, and maybe that’s just the problem, we haven’t really thought that much about what a conservative really is.

      Three decades ago, Jerry Falwell popularized the idea of conservatism among evangelical Christians. Pat Robertson also contributed. But the debate should continue. What IS a conservative? I’ve considered Libertarianism, but even talks with Libertarians turns me off. They have a strange take of the Bible, for one thing. I don’t like hearing that you can’t legislate morality, for morality was legislated with the stone if need be when God actually told us how to run a society. Libertarianism as I see it is really rule by popular vote. It’s neither right wing nor left wing, but a third angle in a triangle. Add the Bible, and you’ve really got a quadrilateral.

      So what is a conservative? Good question. Any other ideas out there, besides one holding to old values, or one leaning to the “right”?

  30. Thank you, Mr. Elliott–I was holding my breath for the philosophical roll out of the circle.

    I checked the link to Russell Kirk, in these few moments I have before leaving for mass, and I find I do not like them better than my own. At least the first one I came to is as culture-bound as using the terms ‘right’ or ‘left’ and is rather like a principle you just got through dismissing. Here is is:

    “Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.”

    If you lived in say 18th century England, using that definition, the ‘conservative’ position could easily be the Anglican tradition and I protest, Anglicanism is liberal. It is liberal. Just because an error feels old and is higher up the liberal slippery slope than say, socialism, we almost all call it conservative, when it is not.

    • Dear Ms Baker and Mr Elliott,

      If I might ‘butt into’ this conversation (and stir the pot a bit), I’d argue that Roman Catholicism is the liberal faith, and Anglicanism the conservative. Anglicanism is grounded in the Seven Ecumenical Councils, as well as those institutions and customs that existed during the Primitive Church. It’s the most scriptural and authentically apostolical Christian tradition. The Roman Catholic Church has indulged in any number of irrational, un-Biblical, and un-Traditional. As Austin Farrer wrote,

      ‘I dare not profess ay belief in the great Papal error. Christ did not found a Papacy… Its infallibilist claim is blasphemy, and never has been accepted by the oriental part of Christendom. Its authority has been employed to establish as dogmas of faith, propositions utterly lacking in historical foundation. Nor is this an old and faded scandal—the papal fact-factory has been going full blast in our own time, manufacturing sacred history after the event.’

      I can hear the crackling blood vessels of Roman Catholic readers. ‘But… but…’ they stammer. Yes, good! Object!

      Conservatism doesn’t believe in political dogmas—or, rather, tries not to believe in political dogmas. We try not to be too radically optimistic or pessimistic about the nature of mankind. We try not to be too compulsively in favour of either ‘change’ or ‘not-change’. All we have is a shared set of guiding principles (be they yours, Ms Baker, or Kirk’s) with which to argue through the particulars.

      ‘The conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.’ What do we mean by that? I don’t know. No one really knows with absolute certainty. That’s why we have to talk it through.

      Is Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism the more traditional religion? Well, that depends on how we define ‘tradition’, how fixed we believe tradition is, and so forth.

      Should conservatives support or oppose nationalized healthcare services? Of course, that comes back to the question of individual freedom. But Conservatism challenges us not to idolize liberty, as libertarians tend to do. This is why Conservatism and Libertarianism aren’t compatible: Libertarianism clings to an abstracted value and holds it as an absolute socio-political good—that is, of course, liberty.

      Conservatism doesn’t do that. It recognizes that each social value *and* its supposed antithesis—individual liberty and social welfare, privacy and security, etc.—can both be employed to excess. Conservatism seeks to strike a balance between those competing goods, understanding that each has its place and refusing to latch on to any single one. That’s why Burke and Kirk both lauded liberty and yet opposed libertarianism. It’s the same rationale as human love: to love one’s spouse, child, parent, etc. as a human being, with his/her limitations and weaknesses, is more meaningful and authentic than deifying him/her. Libertarians deify liberty; Conservatives love liberty, understanding her limitations and weaknesses.

      • As an ex-Anglican (and not a Roman Catholic) I sort of agree that Anglicanism is as traditional as Roman Catholicism, though neither of them have anything on Orthodoxy.

        But it is only some strains of Anglicanism which are as traditional, namely, the High Church and perhaps Cranmerian strains. Much Anglicanism is Calvinist, Low Church, and/or modernist, and cannot claim to be as traditional. Alas, Henry VIII did not listen to Bishops Stokesley and Tunstall and turn the Church of England into an English Orthodoxy.

      • With all due respect Christ did found a Papacy, and Saying Catholicism is liberal is utter nonsense. Yes it may not be conservative in that sense of the word but rather reactionary and counter revolutionary. This may sound odd on this blog but Catholics do not have to be conservatives to be true Christians, rather the former things I just mentioned. As a reactionary myself I ally myself with this type of Consevatism because I feel it can bring a truly Christian social order. The Catholic faith is Marcel Lefebvre’s it is Edmund Campions it Belloc’s it is Chesterton’s it is the paintings of Davinci and the Masses of Palestrina it IS Western Civilizaton! It is a faith that interprets Sacred Scripture Literally! The Catholic Faith is for all people. Conservatism is not an end in its self, it is not a matter of which ones liberal or which ones Consevative. It IS a matter of Dogma and if that cannot be called “conservative”. Unlike many people on this site I Am Christ’s servant first and a conservative second.

        • Dear Nate, thanks so much for taking the time for saying all this, I wore out on the silliness of the premise. However, may I say regarding your statement that Catholics to not have to be conservatives to be true Christians–No, it’s that the definition of conservative operating on this blog and it would appear throughout the world, although huge sections of the world are cut off from me by my slavemasters, is wrong. Does not serve. Catholics are neither conservative nor liberal in the sense those words are being used here and elsewhere. It may be truer to say that Catholics are unique and unclassifiable as Christ is unique. Although I don’t believe that myself–that’s what categories are for.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: