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Ayn Rand’s Political Label

In 1985, three years after Ayn Rand’s death, some of her former associates founded what they called the Ayn Rand Institute. It soon became apparent that the views of these “official” Objectivists on many of the most important issues of the day were indistinguishable from those of the Neoconservatives. For example, in response to Iranian clerics’ 1989 attack on Salman Rushdie and his publishers – an attack that proved ineffectual in the U.S. and was primarily an immigration problem – Leonard Peikoff urged that the U.S. take military action against Iran (“Religious Terrorism vs. Free Speech” New York Times 30 March 1989).  In “What to Do about Terrorism” (The Intellectual Activist May 1996) – that is, what to do about terrorism overseas – Mr. Piekoff wanted President Clinton to threaten Tehran with “the most massive air and missile attack that our military can launch.” [1]

In response to 9/11 Ayn Rand Institute writers immediately urged bombing Iran, with the rallying cry “We are all Israelis now.” Quickly realizing the political inexpediency of bombing Iran they switched their target to Iraq. After getting that war they’re back to bombing Iran.

ARI writers support the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act and other rents in the American fabric, by a refined silence. They demand that the U.S. government support Israel unquestioningly. They advocate U.S. torture as a moral imperative. Name a particular political stand of theirs and chances are you’ll find it in Norman Podhoretz or Irving Kristol.

Thus going on thirty years leading Objectivists, unmoored from what they claim is their source (Ayn Rand believe it or not), have been following the Neocon path in foreign policy and related domestic policy. An entire generation has grown up thinking Objectivists must be little better than Neoconservatives, because these days the leading, self-proclaimed, Objectivists are little better than Neoconservatives. [2]

Jeff Riggenbach, setting aside whatever baggage he comes with, reaches the same conclusion in his podcast of 11 August 2011, one of a series called The Libertarian Tradition hosted by the Ludwig von Mises Institute – which is rather better at promoting its cognomen than ARI is its. [3]  Mr. Riggenbach begins his talk by recalling a recent conversation he had with a “younger libertarian” – that’s a small ‘L’ by the way, to distinguish it from the Libertarian Party—

... Boo, hiss

Please Froggy, no vulgar interruptions.  Mr. Riggenbach had told his friend that true Objectivists were “libertarians” broadly construed, and it turned out this was news to his friend. In what follows we leave off our external quote marks:

My young friend ... was surprised to learn that I thought of Objectivists as libertarians at all. Based on what he had seen of the positions they took on political issues, especially foreign policy, he had concluded that they were just another kind of Neocon.

I refer to this younger libertarian as “my young friend” but the fact is he’s no kid. He’s in his early 40’s, which tells you how long the situation with respect to Objectivism ... has been going on, that a man in his 40’s cannot remember a time when leading Objectivists didn’t talk in such a way about questions of U.S. foreign policy, and about other questions as well ..., that they become hard to differentiate from certain kinds of conservatives, and hard to see as any sort of libertarian.

Which brings us to that pesky label “libertarian.”  In the original, authentic sense of Objectivism, are Objectivists a refined species of libertarian, or must the word be shunned as ineradicably soiled by a few nuts professing to be libertarians?

The word “libertarian” means little by itself, you can define it pretty much as you wish. The root – “liberty” – properly construed is a good word, and many fine people call themselves libertarians. The trouble is that a few nuts say they’re libertarians too, so at times it might be wise to define libertarian before calling yourself one. Since there’s no single libertarian movement the word must be qualified, at least implicitly, if it is to be meaningful.

We should judge people by what they say and do, not by a label demonized by Peter Schwartz. The argument that leading Objectivist makes in his essay “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty” (first published in 1985) completely misses its mark. Mr. Schwartz considers a few crazy people – let’s grant him that they are crazy – calling themselves libertarians, then concludes that anyone calling himself a libertarian is crazy – a gaping non sequitur. If you want to show that a movement is no good you show that its best representatives are no good. That way your reader can conclude: if the best are so bad the whole lot must be rotten.

To repeat, we’re using “libertarian” with a little ‘L’ to distinguish it from the so-called Libertarian Party, which is a specific group whose platform changes from election to election. Ayn Rand held a very low opinion of the (U.S.) Libertarian Party, saying they go into battle on an intellectual shoestring. Since then and speaking for myself I would say some election years have been better than others. Harry Browne gave excellent speeches when he ran for president in 2000 and again in 2004. The mainstream media broadcast a number of them which doubtless helped educate some people away from statism even if they didn’t vote for him.

It may surprise the reader to learn that Ayn Rand herself once advanced the word “libertarian” to describe her philosophy’s political branch. This intriguing bit of history comes from the reminiscences of Joan Kennedy Taylor. Born into a prosperous family in 1926 and well educated, Joan Taylor met Ayn Rand at the latter’s invitation in 1957 after Joan Taylor sent her one of the first fan letters about Atlas Shrugged. Joan Taylor, who lived and worked in New York city at the time, became a personal friend of Ayn Rand’s and a frequent guest in her home. All this is described by Jeff Riggenbach in a talk based on Joan Taylor’s writings and also interviews with her in 2004 a year before her death. [4]

... during the 1964 Barry Goldwater for President campaign, Joan told interviewer Duncan Scott ...

“My husband, David Dawson, and I were two of twenty-five students of Objectivism who went down to Republican Headquarters and signed up and registered as Republicans and petitioned to form a Young Republican Club. We did. We formed the Metropolitan Young Republican Club, which was an Objectivist front for Goldwater. We were all students of Objectivism.”

Within a few months, the Metropolitan Young Republican Club established a newsletter – ... called Persuasion – and Joan Kennedy Taylor was named editor.

The election, held a few months later, negated the newsletter’s original reason for existing. Still, Joan Taylor enjoyed being an editor and wanted to continue it.

Rand had already let Joan know that she admired her work on Persuasion. As Joan described their conversation to Duncan Scott many years later, “She told me, ‘You’re a good editor. … I can tell that because [an editor of such a small publication] might have just one or maybe two good writers, but all of your writers are good and that means the editor’s good.’ ”

... She also had a suggestion. If Joan wanted to keep Persuasion going, Rand told her, “Take it out of the Young Republican Club – buy it from them or something like that. Set up a corporation, so that I can endorse you in The Objectivist [Newsletter]. Because I wouldn’t want to endorse anything that was specifically of a political party.”

Joan saw [the opportunity] and took it. She established an independent corporation, Persuasion, Inc., and took over the magazine from the Metropolitan Young Republican Club.

Rand’s endorsement, the only one she ever extended to any political magazine, appeared in the December 1965 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter under the headline “A Recommendation.”

Ayn Rand endorsement – qualified with the statement “One cannot recommend a magazine or a periodical over whose future content one has no control, except conditionally or provisionally.” – resulted in about a thousand new subscriptions and ensured the newsletter’s success.

In that same series of conversations in which Rand advised Joan to take her magazine out of the Metropolitan Young Republican Club and make it an independent publication, Joan asked her mentor’s advice on how she should portray Persuasion publicly. As she told a couple of interviewers in later years, the members of the editorial staff of Persuasion “were all students of her philosophy … but [Persuasion] was to deal entirely with politics.”  So she put the question directly to Ayn Rand: “What do I call the view that we hold?” she asked.  “It certainly isn’t Republican. On the other hand I can’t say it’s Objectivist; we have no position on art, epistemology, metaphysics, whatever, only on politics.”

... “That was when she explained to me,” Joan wrote decades later, “that the name for her political philosophy, considered by itself, was libertarianism, and [she] suggested that Persuasion should call itself a libertarian publication. And so we did.”

Four years later, soon after the breakup of Ayn Rand’s inner circle in 1968, Joan Taylor ceased publication of Persuasion.

So there you have it. In 1965 Ayn Rand had no problem with the label “libertarian.”  After all it had etymology going for it. And still does. Why let a few nuts spoil an appropriate word?

Nuts engraft themselves onto every movement, just look at ARI !

A question about this argument might occur to those who know more about the history of Objectivism. When Ayn Rand was considering what to call her philosophy she thought “Existentialism” – as in “the primacy of existence” – would be appropriate. But that word had been co-opted years earlier by Sartre and others to designate a certain kind of nihilism, rather the opposite of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. So she settled on “Objectivism” – as in “objective reality” – to avoid confusion.  Shouldn’t we avoid “libertarian” for the same reason?

The situation with “Objectivist” differs from, and is similar to, the situation with “libertarian.” The difference is that “libertarian” was never co-opted by any one group; those who use it are all over the map, from French anarchists of the 1890s who used it euphemistically to hide from the police, to Ayn Rand per above, to Milton Friedman (though he preferred the term “classical liberal”) whom Ayn Rand once described at a Ford Hall Forum Q&A as “almost my exact opposite.”

The similarity (between Objectivist and libertarian) is that “objectivism” – small ‘O’ – was around long before Ayn Rand, however vague and unsatisfactory its formulation. Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, is a particular kind of objectivism. Her political philosophy, whatever you want to call it, is a particular kind of libertarianism, however vague and unsa—

... Do I have to read it again?

Unsatisfactory its formulation.  Froggy, beat it.  A libertarian, broadly speaking, is someone who values liberty, that is freedom from unjustified restraint, where the standard of justice is individual rights as briefly described in the Declaration. It all requires fleshing out of course, and that’s where various factions differ.

All of which is rather obvious.  Maybe there’s something more interesting in the footnotes.



1  Mr. Peikoff was cavalier about the initial target:  instead of bombing Iran “Libya would do.”  Apparently Reagan’s bombing of Libya in 1986 – about forty hapless civilians killed – wasn’t massive enough.

2  Not only do ARI writers share with neoconservatives many of their ideas, they recommend their articles, and associate with them personally.  For examples ad nauseam see  Birds of a Feather  on this website.

3  Mindful of the aphorism “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” I’m not going to give the source.

... Come on, you gotta give the source !

Well, OK Froggy.  “Robert Bidinotto’s Hunter”  by Jeff Riggenbach, The Libertarian Tradition,  11 August 2011.  It’s a review of Mr. Bidinotto’s novel and you can hear it at
www.mises.org/media/6585/Robert-Bidinottos-Hunter

Mr. Riggenbach might start off too egocentrically and redundantly but the remainder is worth a listen, about 25 minutes in all. He ends by observing that the novel:

... as a guide to real life and the real world it is sorely skewed. It’s too bad really. From what small dealings I’ve had with him I’d say that Robert Bidinotto is a good guy. He’s highly intelligent, with a genuine knack for putting words together, and on top of that he has the good sense to grasp the truth about the importance of private property and free markets to civilization. It’s damned inconvenient for the rest of us in the libertarian movement that he and so many others like him are so damned terrified.

That is, falling for the terror of terrorism. Another problem with the novel must be emphasized:  it insinuates that the CIA is here to help us. According to Mr. Riggenbach’s review the story presents one good CIA agent as normal and one bad CIA agent as “rogue,” as if to say corrupt agents are rare and isolated, the CIA itself is legitimate. Ignored are the CIA’s major activities: cocaine trafficking in the U.S. and the installation and support of dictators in foreign countries.

A powerful enemy does seek to destroy us, however the attack comes not from without but from within, from our own government. Nor is fear the correct emotional response. Our emotion should be righteous wrath based on the certainty that the enemy is strong only by feeding on us.

As for active response, this government corruption must be strangled and overcome or indeed we are doomed. In that regard Mr. Bidinotto’s novel might as well be enemy propaganda. Keep them scared, keep them controlled, we’re here to help you.

4  “Joan Kennedy Taylor (1926-2005)”  by Jeff Riggenbach
The Libertarian Tradition,  28 December 2010

We can’t follow all Mr. Riggenbach’s work, principally because he’s an anarchist, though we must say that proper governments (city, county, state, federal) would be so miniscule compared with those today that it would look like anarchy to most people.