Around the year 2000 my political thinking started to shift in small ways. I left the active libertarian movement and stayed out of it until a couple of  years ago. This change in thinking has accelerated in recent years and a couple of years ago, before I started this blog, I posted my thoughts on another blog. A recent discussion has made me think I should restate it here. It is in three parts called Past, Present and Future.  Past explains how I became a libertarian and why it appeals to me. Present explains my departure of ways with libertarianism and especially with conservatism. Undoubtedly some radical elements within the movement may denounce this as heresy. So be it. The last part, called Future, briefly describes an approach I believe can help sell libertarianism to more people. Parts 2 and 3 will be published here over the next few days.

Evolution of My Political Thinking: Past

When I entered McGill University in 1968 I had no interest in politics and no political philosophy. My days in university were checkered, with no clear direction. I started in Science with a focus on mathematics, but poor grades led me to visit a counsellor where an aptitude test showed I was best suited to be, hang on to your hats folks, an accountant. I was flabbergasted. Accounting? How dull was that? Nevertheless, I switched to the Faculty of Commerce working towards a B.Comm.

This was the late sixties, a time of radical ferment on campuses across the continent. McGill was no different. The Viet Nam War was a focal point for much of the campus politics. The McGill Daily publicized various activities and groups and I was somewhat attracted to the Maoist faction. I went to one of their meetings. Chatting with the Vice President of the Commerce Undergraduate Society, he thought this was a horrible idea and recommended reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

That summer, browsing through a book store, I came across her non-fiction book, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. I remembered the name and picked it up and read it cover to cover. It was a tough slog, introducing me to concepts like metaphysics and epistemology which I had to look up again and again. It was also the first book I ever read where I found myself agreeing with every word I read.

What was it it that captivated me in her works? Why is she so reviled by so many?

I believe many of the people who revile her do not understand her, at least not in the way I do. They grasp at her controversial advocacy of selfishness as a virtue and unbridled capitalism as a political ideal. They are opposed to both and condemn her for it.

But it is not capitalism or selfishness that captured my imagination. They are consequences but not primaries of her philosophy. In fact, she even states in the introduction to Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal that she wants to “stress that our primary interest is not politics or economics as such, but ‘man’s nature and man’s relationship to existence’ and we advocate capitalism because it is the only system geared to the life of a rational being.”

Primarily, Ayn Rand is an advocate of reason. She argues that this is the defining characteristic of mankind, that man is the rational animal.

She argues further that in order to live as a rational animal, man must be free to pursue his own good. To do that in a social context, she advocates the idea of individual rights. As she puts it, “for every individual, a right is a moral sanction of a positive – of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice.”

A man’s rights impose no obligation on his neighbours “except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.”

She argues further that property rights are essential. “Without property rights, no other rights are possible.” But she elaborates that the right to property is, like all rights, “a right to action: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object.”

Translating this into politics, she argues that the function of government is to protect our rights so defined. Nothing more, nothing less. She argues that the function of government is to hold a monopoly on the use of force in a geographic area by acting as an agent of collective self-defense.

Force, she argues, can be of three different kinds. Force can be initiated against another, in other words, one can be an aggressor. Force can be used in self-defense, one can repel an aggressor. Or force can be used in retaliation against one who has used aggression. This would be the function of the police and courts, to catch aggressors and to bring them to justice. The only proper use of force, she continues, is in self-defense or in retaliation against those who have initiated the use of force. I should add that Rand also considered fraud to be a form of aggression, force by stealth, something that a fully informed person would not voluntarily agree to.

This, to me, was the appeal of Ayn Rand’s philosophy – the advocacy of reason, the idea of individual rights that cannot be interfered with by others and the abhorrence of aggression, with the use of force confined to self-defense. A society where all actions are voluntary and un-coerced, by mutual consent to mutual advantage.

To this day, I still have not seen anyone clearly and forthrightly say, I believe it is all right to initiate the use of force against others. They advocate all sorts of state interventions, not recognizing that state intervention is an act of aggression. That any positive actions by the state in favour of some necessitates aggression against others not so favoured.

To me it is a simple either/or proposition. You are either in favour of aggression or you are against it. If you are against it, you are a libertarian. If you are for it, you are a criminal or a statist.

But let’s go on to her controversial positions. These, I believe, have been grossly misrepresented by her ideological enemies. Let’s look at selfishness first.

In her introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness, she says people ask her why she uses the term to denote virtuous qualities of character. She answers that she does so for the very reason you are afraid of it. The concept, she says, has been subjected to an intellectual package deal in popular parlance, “a synonym of evil; the image it conjures up is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.” But, she says, this is not what it means. Simply put, selfishness means “concern with one’s own interests”.

She goes on to elaborate an ethics of egoism, of rational self-interest. She argues that the self-interests of rational men do not conflict.

And she argues that altruism is a vicious and pernicious vice.

Here is where much confusion reigns. Her detractors, pointing to her opposition to altruism and endorsement of egoism, claim that her philosophy does not care about people. More specifically about helping out those less fortunate. This is a misapprehension.

Rand used terms in ways that sometimes deviate from common usage. But she was always careful to define her terms so there would be no misunderstanding. Her critics usually ignore these distinctions and stick with common usage.

In common usage, selfishness is, as Rand noted above, a synonym of evil – the hard-hearted hedonist who has no use for other people and would trample over them as he wills. And altruism is the epitome of good, the kind-hearted person who helps his neighbours, donates to charity and is an all around fine fellow.

Rand argues that altruism is focused on the beneficiary of an action, and “as long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes”. She argues that the essence of altruism is self-sacrifice. She distinguishes between altruism (demanding that people help others at the expense of self, by force if necessary) and benevolence, helping others voluntarily out of sympathy and feelings of good will towards others. Altruism is the demand for sacrifice on behalf of others at gunpoint if necessary. Benevolence is voluntarily offered help and consideration for others. The distinction is not a trivial one.

But she is careful to warn against “the kind of ‘Nietzschean egoists’ who, in fact, are a product of the altruist morality and represent the opposite side of the altruist coin: the men who believe that any action, regardless of its nature, is good if it is intended for one’s own benefit.”

The key issue here is the use of force. Altruism, as Rand defines it, endorses the use of force to compel one to sacrifice one’s interests in favour of others. Nietzschean egoism endorses the use of force against others to sacrifice them to one’s own interests.

Benevolence is the voluntary assistance of others out of a sense of good will, sympathy and common humanity. Rational egoism advocates pursuing one’s rational self-interest by engaging in free uncoerced, voluntary exchange with others.

Which brings us to her advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism. This is a natural outcome of her opposition to the initiation of the use of force and her argument that property rights are essential in order to have any rights at all.

Often overlooked by her critics, is that she not only supported the right of individuals and groups of individuals acting in concert to pursue their rational self-interest unfettered, she also opposed forcing people to support failing businesses through bailouts. She argued that government regulation of business usually favours the business being regulated by limiting competition. And, as noted, she considered fraud to be a form of force which is properly to be condemned and prohibited.

Her philosophy does not endorse or support con men like Bernie Madoff or the principals of Enron. Critics often point to such criminal enterprises as evidence of the failure of capitalism, and sometimes even as a refutation of Rand’s advocacy of capitalism (see what happens when you have unbridled capitalism, they say). But Rand did not endorse fraud by capitalists and regarded such fraud artists as criminals. In her novel, Atlas Shrugged, many of the villains are, in fact, businessmen, the type of businessmen who seek government favours to prop them up and stifle more successful competitors.

The key appeal for me has always been the idea of a voluntary society where coercion is banned. I still hold to these views, but on other issues I have parted ways with libertarians, and especially conservatives. Tomorrow I’ll post the second part where I explain how I have diverged from orthodox libertarianism.