I have been – with some qualifications – a fan of the late Ayn Rand and her writings since I first came across her as an undergraduate student in the UK back in the late 1980s. I have read pretty much everything she wrote, even the more obscure of her non-fiction pieces, and have followed some of the scholarship and activism associated with her name. (I have also read two biographies of her and am well aware of the controversies about her life although I am also aware that some of the facts about her life and behaviour are fiercely contested by some. Just as there are Rand worshipers, there are, equally, Rand-phobes. I sometimes find the latter more repellent than the former.)
So I have been interested to see how the Ayn Rand Institute, an organisation for the “official” Objectivist movement – Objectivism is the term used by Rand to describe her philosophy – has conducted itself in recent years. After a period when the ARI approach appeared to be to avoid contact with certain other groups, such as libertarians, the ARI approach these days appears to be quite different. Yaron Brook, president and executive director of the ARI, is a vigorous and thoroughly charming advocate of the Objectivist point of view. I have met and chatted to him several times. He travels extensively and the ARI holds regular events in conjunction with the UK’s own Adam Smith Institute.
Yours truly was present, along with a dozens of other people – including a gratifying number of young people – at a book launch event this week for a book that Brook and Dan Watkins have written, entitled, Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government. Brook is a passionate speaker. He spoke clearly and persuasively, in my view, on why the battle to promote pro-liberty, free market views has to go deep into philosophy if the liberty case is to be won.
As Rand said many years ago, the effort to promote better ideas must start with the fundamentals. It is all well and good explaining the practical disasters of socialism and so on – and such explanation is valuable – but without getting the philosophy right, the other work will not achieve its results. The reason for this, Brooks argues, is that a lot of the opposition to capitalism is not that it is ineffective in delivering the goods but that it is immoral, or, at best, amoral. The notion of rational self-interest offends. And Brooks reckons that without dealing with this issue, free marketeers can only make limited headway. He argues that pro-liberty arguments are currently on the back foot in countries such as the US and argues that the problem is, at root, ideological.
Of course, this view is controversial: I know libertarians whose value system is not necessarily in the Aristotelian/Objectivist tradition of Rand. Ethical egoism has its critics who might otherwise generally like some of the conclusions that Rand arrived at but who contested the route she took. (Some critics might argue that ethical egoism could justify theft and other immorality if the perpetrator thought he or she could get away with it. But then again other ethical codes are vulnerable to the “trying to cheat the rules” objection.) There are, for example, libertarians who accept a deontological, or duty-ethic, or who are Christians, or followers of other religions and codes. (I know at least three Muslims who are libertarians.) There are libertarians who are consequentialists and utilitarians. Some, as I know, utterly detest Rand and say her contribution to the libertarian point of view is exaggerated (I personally always feel that such people are being disingenuous here. Maybe there is an element of envy at work).
But I certainly think that the activism of the ARI and the way in which Brook and his confreres are pushing their message is effective; these guys inject a fizz and element of moral passion that the classical liberal perspective needs. Another writer I have a lot of time for in this tradition is Tara Smith, who has written extensively on Rand’s ethical ideas, dealing with some of the objections and criticisms I have alluded to.
And wouldn’t it be great if another writer in the classical liberal tradition could write novels as powerful as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The use of fiction to put ideas across remains a powerful idea.