Capitalism & Selfishness
To the Editor:
In “Capitalism and Selfishness” [December 1986], André Ryerson offers a crisp and lucid argument against my theory of the morality of capitalism. But I reject his assertion that I am “asking too much of economics.” I do not claim to be making an “economic” argument. I say that economics—any system based on a concept of a rational homo economicus—is inherently incapable of explaining the success of capitalism. I believe that the triumph of capitalism can be understood only as part of an integrated hierarchical theory of human life, with religion at the top.
Self-interest is ubiquitous among humans under all economic systems. The extremes of self-interest—selfishness and greed—lead to a desire for unearned benefits and to organized pressure on the state to provide them. Thus I argue that self-interest, like an invisible hand, leads not to capitalist prosperity but to socialism, or an ever-growing welfare state. Without a pervasive moral and religious order, any system of self-interest degenerates into predatory rivalry and suspicion, corruption and conflict—“negative externalities” to the economist—which cannot be remedied by any triumph of self-interest alone and which require increasing interventions by the state that finally destroy the system itself.
My view of capitalism is closer to Ayn Rand’s than to Adam Smith’s. Reflecting the Newtonian science of his day, Smith called the economy “a great machine,” and he believed that entrepreneurs, guided by self-interest, somehow reacted to preexisting markets and opportunities. It was in response to this concept that I offered the unfortunately inadequate anthropological material quoted by Mr. Ryerson (describing the feasting and pot-latching of tribal “entrepreneurs”). My main intention in the anthropology was not to sum up capitalism but to sketch its origins.
Contrary to Adam Smith, there could be no market before the initial entrepreneurs created artifacts that others desired. It is the creative initiative, launching desirable products, that induces others to make reciprocal efforts and creates a market. Before these initiatives, there is no market and it is a fundamental mistake to imagine that “demands” or “wants” which are ubiquitous constitute a market. The Smith error is continued by most analysts today, who are also trying to establish a complete mechanical science of economics based not on creative men but on mathematical optimizations. Economists persist in reducing entrepreneurs to “opportunity scouts” and economic activity to “exchange” or “trade,” and ignore the long preparations, investments, sacrifices, and spontaneous acts of creation that precede market transactions and make them possible and important.
Ayn Rand, for all her celebrations of self, correctly focused on the heroic and self-transcending feats of entrepreneurs as the driving force of economic growth and correctly saw that capitalism itself reflects and embodies a moral order. Ayn Rand’s hatred of existing religions and their mush-minded leaders (cf. the Catholic bishops today) led her to confuse the issue by condemning altruism as somehow the essence of both socialism and religion. Condemning all religions, she then hubristically tried to create a new religion of her own, with her own disciples, her own philosophy, and her own parables, populated by heroic and self-sacrificing entrepreneurs. But she was correct to see and celebrate capitalism, not as some mathematical system of markets or some limited domain of autonomy, but as the vessel and vital essence of all human morality and creativity; she was correct to see the free and moral individual as the prime source of all prosperity and progress; and she was right to describe socialists as the envious adversaries of all human excellence and achievement.
Mr. Ryerson prefers Michael Novak’s treatment of the subject in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, a book I picked up with high enthusiasm and read with great admiration. But, strangely for a theologian, Novak fails to recognize the absolute primacy of religion. Religion expounds and embodies the highest moral truths; Michael Novak and André Ryerson somehow want to relegate economics to another domain, as if this most pervasive human activity were somehow autonomous and only tangentially related to religion or ethics. Capitalism as a central human activity can succeed only to the extent that it reflects and observes the moral truths of religion.
Mr. Novak also seems to find capitalism commendable in moral terms largely for its relationship to democracy and welfare-state reforms. I too like democracy, but capitalism itself, both allowing the creative exercise of freedom and responding to the most meaningful “votes” of consumers, is more fully democratic than any electoral system. Without capitalism, moreover, most of the democrats would starve, and there would be little wealth to redistribute. Politics did not generate the welfare state; entrepreneurs of insurance initiated all the central programs. By ignoring the limits of insurance, the welfare state began aggravating the very problems (such as poverty and family breakdown) that it attempted to solve. Charity succeeds only to the extent that it is based on an imaginative understanding of the real needs of others and on the disciplined and laborious service of others. Entrepreneurs are more charitable than most so-called “charities” that merely make the givers feel good but damage the recipients (i.e., Ethiopian aid, socialist clerics).
Nonetheless, Mr. Ryerson’s article represents a valuable advance in the argument. Although his concept of autonomy does not explain capitalist success, it indeed captures a prerequisite of capitalist prosperity and defines both the role and the limits of government in upholding the rule of law. At the end of his article, moreover, Mr. Ryerson moves on to quote and celebrate moral and religious teachings. He would do better to put first things first. I begin with moral and religious teachings and show that the success of capitalism depends upon them and cannot be separated from them. I believe that the contrary approach, making economics in some sense amoral, demeans both morality and capitalism.
To the Editor:
André Ryerson’s excellent article, “Capitalism and Selfishness,” illuminates one of the false dichotomies that socialists and like-minded utopians have laid on us. As they would have it, we must be either capitalists, therefore selfish, or socialists, therefore virtuous.
This dichotomy is only one (though probably the most important one) of many such invidious constructs. Examples include: property rights versus human rights—property rights are human rights; the capitalist (master) class versus the working class—what worker these days doesn’t have, at the least, a share in a pension plan, and most likely a few investments besides?; and production for profit versus production for use—there can’t be much profit in goods that no one can use.
The collectivists exploit our vulnerability to guilt by equating capitalism with greed. They lead us to misperceive capitalism as a zero-sum game—which it most emphatically is not. Mr. Ryerson deserves our gratitude for exposing this semantic chicanery and showing that there are other factors that need not be excluded from our dialogues.
Charles H. Chandler
To the Editor:
André Ryerson flies up into an utterly unnecessary altitude of abstraction. The good that he wants to do, he cannot do from up there.
As Mr. Ryerson observes, Marxists and their sympathizers often argue that “capitalism is evil because it depends upon the sin of selfishness.” To this, Randians respond that capitalism does indeed depend upon selfishness and that selfishness is the “unknown virtue.” George Gilder, on the other hand, responds that capitalism is actually an ethic of altruism, in that success must “spring from an understanding of the needs of others.”
All of this has, and . . . I mean no disrespect, a cloud-cuckoo-land sound. One rises into those clouds, alas, whenever one accepts the premise that there is, in the merits of an economic system, such a thing as a “moral issue” distinct from the issues of practice or, as our Marxist friends prefer to say, praxis.
The only issue is this: what system works, in the long run, for the most complete reconciliation of the conflicting needs within a population? That issue may be divided into others: how may undeveloped nations gain an industrial base? How may already industrialized nations preserve upward mobility? How may all available information on resources and consumer demand be reflected into an efficient system of prices? What economic institutions preserve incentives for technological innovation?
I cannot understand how the capitalism-versus-socialism debate ever got itself abstracted from such questions as these. If capitalism is best on every test, if it is the only real route for development, the guarantor of mobility, the conduit for efficient prices, and the spur to beneficial innovation, then what moral question remains? . . .
I concede that Mr. Ryerson’s invocation of autonomy is a sensible verbal answer to the verbal problems he has set for himself. But how did those problems arise? Why work to untie such a Gordian knot? Why not chop through it with the Alexandrine sword of pragmatism?
Christopher C. Faille
To the Editor:
André Ryerson’s response to the charge that “ours is a social system based on selfishness” is surely the correct one: the enlightened egoism or self-interest that characterizes the ethos of a capitalist, free-market economy need not be selfish. For even if it is true that people always act to satisfy their desires, it does not follow that these desires are always selfish ones. Consideration for others, like honesty, may be the best policy to follow. The business transactions occurring in the marketplace between free and independent persons presumed to be rationally seeking their own advantage, can, in this respect, be exemplary. For each party may be enabled to benefit from the other in the free exchange of goods and services. . . .
Mr. Ryerson admits, however, that “capitalism is not enough,” and that enlightened self-love does not provide capitalism with an adequate moral basis. But what that moral basis is, for him, is not wholly clear. Neither altruistic nor selfish, the capitalist ethos of autonomy and of “legitimate” self-interest is nevertheless presumed to be consistent with ethical norms. The deficiencies of egoism as an ethical theory of the desired kind are clear enough, though Mr. Ryerson does not make these explicit: egoism is only unproblematic if what is to one person’s advantage coincides with what is to the advantage of all others. And the assumption that there is such a “preestablished harmony” in the world is a doubtful one. (Games theory has acquainted us with cases where individual self-seeking by each will demonstrably produce an inferior outcome for all; and in actual situations involving public goods, as, for example, public transportation, individually self-interested decisions can issue in a “cumulative irrationality”). . . .
The root of Mr. Ryerson’s difficulty is his vacillation between egoism, or autonomy, and utilitarian considerations. There is, first of all, the factual (not ethical) claim that capitalism or market distributions and market methods of production and exchange will promote utilitarian goals, i.e., will maximize the common good. Each businessman tries to maximize personal success, hence business practice is egoistic. But it is also utilitarian in that advancing self-interest is thought to maximize the total good. Thus Mr. Ryerson declares that “we expect from the businessman the highest level of performance of which he is capable,” because “that is what serves the greatest social good.” At the same time he seems to think of autonomy as an ethical doctrine: the pursuit of self-interest is not merely a natural tendency, nor is it a factual claim about how the general good is to be attained, but a norm, behavior we morally ought to engage in. (On this account, an act of deception may be “rational” or “right” on self-interested grounds and quite the opposite on utilitarian grounds). . . . But the ethical egoist or autonomist cannot argue that each of us should promote his own greatest good because if we do this the greatest general good will result, for then he is no longer an egoist.
A final comment. Mr. Ryerson, like Michael Novak, sees capitalism as embedded in a pluralistic structure that includes the “moral-cultural sphere” as well as the political sphere of government. Now we might ask what kind of signals emanate from the moral sphere? Are these moral opinions or shared moral beliefs? If so, business decisions cannot ignore these any more than they can ignore the laws and customs of society. But as one writer concerned with corporate morality has observed, moral opinions and attitudes can be regarded in terms of their effectiveness in achieving business objectives, i.e., as empirical data to be taken into account on a par with the information that goes into cost-benefit computations. But if it is a moral basis of capitalism that we are after, such factual considerations do not function in our reasoning as ethical premises at all and morality as such is irrelevant (morality is concerned with objectives themselves).
I am uncertain whether Mr. Ryerson has fallen into either of these two traps: thinking that one can be at once an ethical egoist and a utilitarian, or mistaking factual premises for ethical ones. But these are points that should be settled before we attempt to underwrite a capitalist ethos with an ethics.
University of North Carolina
Greensboro, North Carolina
To the Editor:
In his article, “Capitalism and Selfishness,” André Ryerson acknowledges the importance of Ayn Rand, but his description of her views and his own attempt to provide an alternative prove faulty.
Mr. Ryerson confuses Ayn Rand with anarcho-libertarianism, despite the fact that even a cursory reading of her works reveals that she held the opposite view. She was an intransigent opponent of anarchism, insisting that government is the necessary means of protecting man’s rights. She described anarchism as “the most irrational, anti-intellectual movement ever spun” by “the collectivist movement, where it properly belongs.” And as an advocate of reason and objective morality, she scorned libertarians as “hippies of the Right,” who “subordinate reason to whims.” Contrary to Mr. Ryerson’s claim, Ayn Rand has no anarcho-libertarian followers, because it is capitalism not anarchism that follows from her ethical philosophy.
Mr. Ryerson is equally misinformed in his claim that rational selfishness sanctions businessmen seeking special favors from the government. Contrary to Mr. Ryerson, looting, or sacrificing others to oneself, is not in anyone’s rational self-interest. (See Atlas Shrugged for a dramatization of this point.) Contrary to Mr. Ryerson, the defense of the West against Soviet aggression is in men’s rational self-interest. Contrary to Mr. Ryerson, self-interest means acting on principle, not grabbing whatever you want based on some feeling of the moment. For Ayn Rand, the standard of self-interest is not whim but “man’s survival qua man,” which means “the terms, methods, conditions, and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his life—in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice.”
Mr. Ryerson does seem to recognize one of Ayn Rand’s major intellectual achievements: pointing out that the ethics of self-sacrifice is what leads to tyranny. However, he thinks that she goes too far and that he can provide a “middle ground” between selfishness and altruism. But his compromise term (an arbitrary usage of “self-interest”) merely vacillates between the two opposing positions, as it must, because no compromise, no middle ground, is possible.
Injecting a little self-sacrifice into egoism does not “temper” egoism; it destroys egoism. Either one’s life belongs to oneself or it does not.
In his attempt to “discipline” selfishness, Mr. Ryerson asserts that we have a duty to assist the poor. But any unchosen duty to others constitutes a rejection of the principle that one has a right to one’s own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. The slightest “disciplining” or compromising of the ethics of rational selfishness leads to increased government control and ultimately to tyranny. Just as there is no compromise between freedom and slavery, so there is no compromise between selfishness and self-sacrifice.
Michael S. Berliner
Ayn Rand Institute
Los Angeles, California
To the Editor:
Ayn Rand’s ideas have unquestionably achieved a degree of popularity and influence, as André Ryerson notes. Yet discussions of her philosophy, Objectivism, remain few and infrequent. By publishing such a discussion, COMMENTARY has certainly burnished its reputation for open-mindedness. Nevertheless, I believe that Mr. Ryerson’s portrait of Ayn Rand’s thought requires some correction.
1. Mr. Ryerson calls Rand’s concept of individualism “Nietzschean.” In fact, Objectivist individualism is the opposite of Nietzschean:
As an ethical-political concept, individualism upholds the supremacy of individual rights, the principle that man is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others. . . . Too often, the ethical-political meaning of individualism is held to be: doing whatever one wishes, regardless of the rights of others. Writers such as Nietzsche and Max Stirner are sometimes quoted in support of this interpretation. . . . Individualism does not consist merely of rejecting the belief that man should live for the collective. A man who seeks escape from the responsibility of supporting his life by his own thought and effort, and wishes to survive by conquering, ruling, and exploiting others, is not an individualist (Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness).
2. Mr. Ryerson says “Rand’s libertarian followers” believe in “a bizarre sort of anarchism,” in which “government . . . will be abolished” and everything including the justice system will be arranged “by private contracts alone.” The phrase “Rand’s libertarian followers” is an oxymoron, rather like “Judaism’s Christian followers” or “Platonism’s Aristotelian followers.” In each case, a later movement emerged from an earlier. But that emergence involved a denial of the earlier movement’s essence.
The theory Mr. Ryerson describes is libertarian, and is a variant of anarchism. It is called “competing governments,” and Ayn Rand opposed it. “A recent variant of anarchistic theory, which is befuddling some of the younger advocates of freedom, is a weird absurdity called ‘competing governments.’ . . . One cannot call this theory a contradiction in terms, since it is obviously devoid of any understanding of the terms ‘competition’ and ‘government’” (The Virtue of Selfishness).
3. Mr. Ryerson criticizes this libertarian fantasy by noting that, like the Marxist fantasy, it “comes quite simply from asking too much of economics.” This is exactly Ayn Rand’s criticism of it:
Accepting the basic premise of the modern statists—who see no difference between the functions of government and the functions of industry, between force and production, . . . the proponents of “competing governments” take the other side of the same coin and declare that since competition is so beneficial to business, it should also be applied to government (The Virtue of Selfishness).
4. Mr. Ryerson also criticizes Rand’s supposed anarchism by noting “the obvious impracticality of a modern society operating without a government.” Here again from The Virtue of Selfishness:
A society without an organized government would be at the mercy of the first criminal who came along and who would precipitate it into the chaos of gang warfare. But . . . even a society whose every member were fully rational and faultlessly moral, could not function in a state of anarchy: it is the need of objective laws and of an arbiter for honest disagreements among men that necessitates the establishment of a government.
5. Mr. Ryerson says: “One wonders, in fact, how much of the erosion of traditional concern . . . for defending the West can be attributed to [Rand's] influence.” Of course, Rand did not believe in a weak government, only in a government limited in its purpose—and supreme among those legitimate purposes was national security. Moreover, like many of COMMENTARY’s writers, Ayn Rand believed strongly in the lesson of Munich and its present applicability. “The ultimate result of appeasement is a world war, as demonstrated by World War II; in today’s context, it may mean a nuclear world war” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal).
6. Mr. Ryerson says that “the very ills which Randian libertarians deplore in the current state of things—such as businessmen avoiding competition and seeking special guildlike advantages for themselves or their industry—are themselves the products of a highly rational selfishness.” This is a question of philosophical anthropology, and Mr. Ryerson is entitled to his view. But Objectivism explicitly considered and rejected the idea that guildlike protectionism and passivity could in any way serve the interests of a rational human self. . . .
7. Ironically, if Mr. Ryerson had read Ayn Rand more closely, he might have seen how near he is to paraphrasing her. For Mr. Ryerson’s thesis is that “we need to transcend the easy opposition of selfishness and altruism and find some third or middle term to describe the ethos of capitalism.” To do this, Mr. Ryerson comes up with three moral categories: selfishness (self-interested action that abuses the rights of others); autonomy (legitimate, self-interested action); and altruism (self-sacrificing action).
But this schema is virtually Ayn Rand’s. Her moral categories were: selfishness (legitimate, self-interested action—Mr. Ryerson’s autonomy); and sacrifice—(a) of others to oneself: Nietzscheanism (Mr. Ryerson’s selfishness), and (b) of oneself to others: altruism (Mr. Ryerson’s altruism).
To the Editor:
I wholeheartedly agree with André Ryerson’s starting premise: without a moral defense, capitalism will not survive. Mr. Ryerson correctly summarizes Ayn Rand’s view that altruism and self-sacrifice are incompatible with capitalism and lead to totalitarianism.
However, Mr. Ryerson ignores and distorts Ayn Rand’s views of politics, views she derived logically from her ethics and outlined in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Only a religious ethic would consider “private” selfishness a prescription for amorality. Ayn Rand stood outside the Judeo-Christian tradition in defining her moral code. She held that man was the rational animal. She argued that rational self-interest required a government to protect men from force and fraud, at home or abroad. She agreed with the original American system, a constitutional republic.
Ayn Rand repeatedly attacked and rejected anarchism and libertarianism. Though libertarians borrow random ideas from her, they are not Objectivists, which is what her followers call themselves. The libertarians made every attempt in her lifetime to have her endorse them or join with them on any level. They continue to this day—fruitlessly—to try to obtain some endorsement from my husband, Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand’s heir.
Ayn Rand defined an integrated philosophy, including metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. It is unpopular today to believe in the classical idea that philosophy must be an integrated system. This last was part of Ayn Rand’s achievement, and this is why her views are taken out of context by the intellectuals of our age.
South Laguna, California
André Ryerson writes:
George Gilder nicely clarifies and reduces the minor differences of interpretation between us on what makes capitalism a system of which its beneficiaries should be proud.
My preference for Adam Smith over Ayn Rand begins with the small fact that Smith came first and stated truths on which all economists of wit have had to stand and finishes with my admiration for the balance of Smith’s overall vision (balance was not Ayn Rand’s strong suit). Smith favored public works for tasks where private enterprise would find no profit, admitted the narrowing effects of factory work but advocated education for all to compensate for this, and saw no contradiction in defending impulses of human sympathy in one great book and the ethos of capitalist individualism in another.
Adam Smith’s view of society approximated the model recently offered by Michael Novak with three spheres—the economic, the political, and the moral-cultural—each usefully acting upon the others. Mr. Gilder seems to want these categories blurred, and to perceive morality of a high order on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, beyond what I observe or find necessary. (I do not mind “cutthroat” bidding on an attractive stock issue.) Conversely, I do not see how the marketplace alone can teach the young about the beauty of art, the need for constitutional government, or why in an emergency young men should submit to the unpleasantness of military discipline, cease in certain respects to be individuals, and risk death on the battlefield to preserve a free society. That is why economic libertarians are often weak in theory when public or foreign-policy issues arise. These issues are simply of a different order from the norms of peaceful commerce.
I agree, however, with Mr. Gilder (and with Ayn Rand) on the creative, bold, and even courageous character of those who venture into uncharted waters, a respect we grant explorers but begrudge the men who invented and marketed the first printing press, electrical system, and mass-made car, individuals of genius who deserve better from academic chroniclers of Western civilization. Mr. Gilder’s writing in this connection offers an excellent start for the remedial education of our elites. But their ignorance comes not from reading too much Adam Smith, but from failing to read him at all.
As to where religion belongs in our “integrated hierarchical theory of human life,” this is a rather personal matter, and I certainly do not object to Mr. Gilder placing it “at the top,” or even reproaching me for not putting “first things first.” I confess to being something of a moral empiricist, and if a religion teaches human sacrifice, or the persecution of capitalists, or of Jews, I am inclined to challenge these practices from the standpoint of secular morality and common sense rather than by determining whether a scriptural text has been incorrectly interpreted. Religions vary, whereas the claim that capitalism permits society to prosper is an empirically provable fact, a secular truth that a Taiwanese Confucian, a Moroccan Muslim, a Russian Jew, a French atheist, and even possibly an American bishop should with modest effort be able to grasp.
Yet I think we understand each other. A free society is not one that is “free” of moral constraint, but the contrary. For as Tocqueville remarked concerning the benefits of American Puritanism, only a high degree of private morality can foster an unprecedented freedom in economic and social relations, with minimal interference from the state. If private morals decline, the state increasingly finds reason to step in and take over from individuals. America has long been sustained by a moral capital that is not bottomless, and has its own “supply-side” requirements. Ayn Rand and her libertarian relatives, regrettably, by glorifying selfishness, treating with sarcasm the very idea of the “public good,” and by defining capitalism in a manner to delight its enemies, have not added to that fund of moral capital, without which, Mr. Gilder and I seem to agree, free societies will break apart and suffer conquest by barbarians.
I appreciate Charles H. Chandler’s remarks. He correctly cites the false dichotomies that socialists contrive to see in capitalism, which began when Marx claimed in Volume I of Capital that manufactured goods and money (like capital and labor) are “antagonistic forms,” an assertion so absurd that only anti-business intellectuals could be expected to take it seriously.
Christopher C. Faille is puzzled that anyone should bother to inquire into the moral bases of capitalism, since pragmatism alone informs us that the system works extremely well. But Mr. Faille seems willing to dismiss what most humans cannot: some commitment to a moral life. At the least, he should be intellectually curious about a system that works well yet is routinely denounced by moralists and theologians as “scandalous.” If they are correct, capitalism is a most peculiar phenomenon, like the squared circle or a perpetual-motion machine. But the most sophisticated analysts of democratic capitalism believe such critics are wrong, and believe it is important to show why. The reason is that moral perceptions are a powerful force among men, and if we allow the myth to stand that free societies are inherently immoral, we shall, sooner or later, lose our freedom. And that is a “pragmatic” issue about which even Mr. Faille, I suspect, is concerned. Far from divorcing morality and praxis, I sought to pursue the complexities of each, and to show that under democratic capitalism the two are made to operate in harmony.
Robert Rosthal notes my support of the dictum that “capitalism is not enough,” but claims I do not offer the larger ethical basis that such a position assumes. I find the accusation odd, since I quoted the Bible, Hillel, Aristotle, Hume, and cited Luther and Adam Smith, all of whom held there to be no contradiction in their morality (whether Jewish, Greek, or Christian) between caring for the self and caring for others. We can do both. I do not see such a statement as “vacillation.” Mr. Rosthal seems to have missed the central point of my article, which is to note the futility of radically opposing the interests of an individual and those of other lawful individuals in the society where he works and lives. Hence my solution to the old puzzle of egoism versus altruism is: to distinguish abusive egoism from non-abusive egoism; to condemn the first and sustain the second; and to preserve the injunction of traditional Western mores that we assist others where in need, and bear arms to defend the nation from attack, despite private sacrifices either duty must entail.
To the defenders of Ayn Rand published above—Michael S. Berliner, Roger Donway, and Cynthia Peikoff—and to the many others who wrote in her defense, making essentially the same arguments, I concede a minor point. It was not my project to analyze the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and my rather loose phrase, “the libertarian followers of Ayn Rand,” was intended to cover the several splinter groups that worship private property as an absolute, as did Ayn Rand, leading them to accept her view that taxation, however modest, amounts to “robbery.” The idea that citizens deserve the benefits of government, without suffering to pay taxes for them, would seem to be the Ayn Rand version of socialism (getting something for nothing). Its spirit of radical individualism is anarchistic, and the wilder libertarians have gone the further step of actually imagining the end of government.
Ayn Rand modestly proposed selling off all public property (including streets and highways) to private bidders and abolishing all taxation (lotteries and voluntary “contract insurance” would presumably suffice to pay public expenses). She wanted government preserved, but solely for stopping criminals, repelling foreign invaders, and enforcing contracts. Randians are therefore entitled to say that “anarcho-capitalists” are deviants who go beyond the strict program of the prophetess, and perhaps to bristle at my treating the two schools as one.
Closer to the substance of the article, Mr. Berliner complains that I am “equally misinformed” in my claim that rational selfishness sanctions businessmen seeking special favors from government, for (as he puts it) “looting, or sacrificing others to oneself, is not in anyone’s rational self-interest.” I disagree. It most certainly is in the rational self-interest of the looter, and all the more so when the profit gained by this device is legal. Here George Gilder and I stand together against the Randians: special favors sought from government by this or that business are driven by selfishness, by contempt for the common good, and are bad not because they fail to serve the selfishness of the beneficiary (which they obviously do), but because they distort fair conditions of business competition.
If Randians were more honest, many would confess their marginal regard for the common good, and concede that society has collective interests worth defending. Mr. Berliner almost does this when he states, “Contrary to Mr. Ryerson, the defense of the West against Soviet aggression is in men’s rational self-interest.” By saying that this is in men’s, rather than in the individual’s, self-interest, Mr. Berliner admits the group, or collective, nature of that interest. This is contrary to the Randian conceit that only solitary individuals exist, hence one can never formulate policy for the collective good of all. Although a wise society will seek to minimize the sacrifices that individuals must bear, it cannot survive without demanding some, the smallest being taxation, the largest being the risk of death on the battlefield. (I have never read a coherent account by Ayn Rand or her followers of how it can be in the “rational self-interest” of an individual to confront death on the battlefield so that others may reap the benefit and live in freedom. Only by moving closer to traditional Western morals will Randians grasp the necessity, at times, of such acts of bravery and sacrifice.)
Of Roger Donway’s well-presented points, I have conceded some and refuted others. His seventh and last, however, is problematic. Flattered though I am to learn that in proposing three basic moral categories, my “schema is virtually Ayn Rand’s,” I note that for once Mr. Donway’s ability to quote his mentor fails him. The fact is that Ayn Rand was a glaring victim of the binary simplicities of the selfishness-versus-altruism model. She opted for selfishness, as we know, then tried to reshape the word to her taste. But the term is defined in all dictionaries as a concern for the self that abuses, or grossly ignores, the interests of others. Since such behavior is a fact of life, and is justly censured, I see no reason to subvert the definition, much less join in elevating a human weakness into a moral system.
The good in Ayn Rand, her love of creative individualism, can be saved by her admirers, in alliance with the larger community of the West, if they would simply recover their moral balance, grant their leader’s fallibility, and concede that selfishness is bad, legitimate self-interest (or autonomy), is good, and personal sacrifice for the maintenance of free societies is necessary, and even, occasionally, noble.