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Study Notes

Ayn Rand (1905−1982)

AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 2 Jun 2020

Ayn Rand was a passionate advocate of economic freedom at a time when such ideas were deeply unfashionable. Keynesian economics and state intervention were very much in vogue. It was a time of high levels of progressive taxation and an emphasis upon reducing the level of inequality (even in the United States). Ayn Rand however offered an insightful rebuke to the received wisdom of the time.

The most obvious starting-point towards an understanding of Ayn Rand’s political philosophy stems from the money speech outlined by the fictional character Francisco d’Anconia’s speech in Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. In a lengthy passage, he links the pursuit of money to a worthy goal. He also offers a moral justification for capitalism. In response to the widespread comment that money is the root of all evil, d’Anconia asks “Have you ever asked what is the root of money? … Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is that what you consider evil?” He goes onto say that “to trade by means of money is the code of the men of good will.” Without trust, any system of trade would surely collapse.

According to Rand, Atlas Shrugged considers “the role of the mind in man’s existence [and] the morality of rational self-interest.” As rational entities, Ayn Rand claims that we have a duty to be selfish and put our own interests first. She praises wealth-creators on the basis of the Biblical notion that he who does not work shall not eat. In contrast, altruism and self-sacrifice is immoral. Ayn Rand believes that those who create wealth should be revered at the expense of moochers and those who seek to take it off others by force.

Atlas Shrugged outlines a scenario in which the most creative and talented go on strike in protest against expensive welfarist policies. They retreat into a mountain hideaway and build an independent economic structure. Without their financial clout, the government cannot fund their welfare programme. The ideas explored in ‘Atlas Shrugged’ hold contemporary relevance due to the ability of the super-rich to transfer their assets within the global economy. Equally, welfarist governments have used the tax receipts provided by lucrative sectors of the economy to fund an ever-increasing largesse from the state. We live in a world where the top 1% can effectively go on strike at any time whilst governments need the revenue generated by the most economically-productive. As such, they are wary of imposing overly-restrictive regulation and excessive rates of taxation.

Another significant work from Ayn Rand is ‘Anthem’ in which she depicts a dystopian future. Under totalitarian rule, the word “I” is banned and replaced by “we.” The hero of the novella (Equality 7-2521) fights the imposition of collectivism. He seeks to choose friends among men (but neither slaves not masters) as in the temple of his spirit, each man is alone. It is here we can quite clearly identify the impact of her earlier life, in which a comfortable middle-class life was turned upside down by the Russian Revolution. Her father’s property was confiscated by the state in the name of collectivist goals, which gave her the insight that such words were the excuse men in power needed to take from those who had earned and created their own wealth. She also sought to praise the creation of wealth above attempts by the state to redistribute that wealth. Whilst the basis for such actions may be one of altruism, wealth invariably goes towards electorally-important groups or those with the most political muscle.

In a more philosophical context, Ayn Rand advanced the theory of objectivism which stipulates that we can attain objective knowledge via reason and logic. Secondly, the prime moral purpose of life is the individual pursuit of happiness. Objectivism thereby favours a political and economic system consistent with both individualism and laissez-faire capitalism. Rand also contributed greatly towards our understanding of egoism. Rational egoism stipulates that it is rational to act on the basis of self-interest, whereas ethical egoism argues that we ought to act in our own self-interest. Ethical egoism may also be contrasted to ethical altruism, which claims that moral agents have a duty to help our fellow man. Ethical egoism could therefore be placed along the right of the political spectrum, whereas ethical altruism is associated with those on the left.

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