I once said that the greatest philosophical achievement of the last fifty years was John Rawls’ A Theory Of Justice. Ayn Rand lived during a more creatively fertile period (Freud, Einstein, etc), so I can’t give her the distinction of being the greatest philosopher of a fifty year period, but I will grant that she was the most important American philosopher of the mid-twentieth century. Her contributions to social ethics– in originality and rationality– are (considering this a field of thought going back thousands of years) outstanding and astounding.
Rand’s philosophy is a moral one. Her two over-riding concerns are 1) Freedom and 2) Justice. More specifically, she is concerned for the Freedom and Justice received by TALENTED people. It greatly distresses her that people born, taught, or otherwise blessed with Ability are not getting back from society as much as they are contributing. She stands up –not for the downtrodden poor– but for the unworshipped not-as-rich-as-they-should-be’s… Give me your intelligent, your gifted, those yearning to cut throats… She is the patron saint of the business-minded… of the sly ones, the sharp ones, the productive ones. Gladly will she bless the graspers, the takers, the pushers, the drivers, the me-firsters, the I-got-mine-now-you-get-yours-ers.
I get the impression that when Rand considers her adopted minority-group, the Talented Ones, she has in mind something rarer than, say, W.E.B. DuBois’ “talented tenth.” I would guess, in fact, that the constituency Rand wishes to serve with her philosophy is more like the “one-in-ten-thousand geniuses.”
The only system Rand could find or devise for making sure that her constituency is being kept in the manner to which they SHOULD have grown accustomed is a system built –not on a legal or religious core– but on an economic one. The economic core her social philosophy revolves around is Capitalism– not just any color of Capitalism, mind you… but a hands-off version in which government does not intrude for the benefit of the “public good.”
The mission of Rand’s life was to provide the philosophical and– more importantly– moral underpinning that Capitalism had always lacked. She rightly felt that even supporters of Capitalism had never come up with a system of ethics which could entirely embrace Capitalism. They were constantly attempting to defend Capitalism by claiming that it was the best thing for everyone. Rand never pretends that providing for the public good is what Capitalism is about. And she is adamant that we should not be ashamed to admit that. Capitalism is about making sure each one of Rand’s one-in-ten-thousand geniuses gets what’s coming to him.
The ethical system she proposes is so foreign to anything we whiney Welfare State subjects are taught by our families or schools or churches that I think Rand suffers a knee-jerk pushback from people before they even give her proposals a serious and sympathetic study. Something similar happened to Nietzsche– especially after he was adopted as a mascot by the Nazis. Also like Nietzsche, Rand and some of her followers, write in language that is often acerbic and meant to shock, which perhaps excites and amuses those already prone to support her beliefs, but assuredly repels many others.
Rand’s philosophy does not assign Equality and Democracy paramount values. Outcomes in the market are not designed to produce equal results for everyone, and captains of industry do not gather employees round for a group vote when its time to make a decision. No, for Rand, Ethics boils down to two things, Freedom and Justice. Of course, part of what one must understand about Rand’s philosophy if one is to examine it earnestly, is that neither “Freedom” nor “Justice” may mean to the average person what it means to her. Defining terms is fifty-one percent of making a winning argument.
For Rand, Freedom means “voluntary choice.” She is not talking of, say, the Four Freedoms of FDR (freedom from fear, from hunger, etc). Rand means the Freedom of the marketplace. The Freedom to take it or leave it, sell it or hold it. Of course, the choice to be made may mean having to choose between feeding one’s family or pursuing one’s artistic dreams… but, hey, it’s a choice, and a voluntary one at that– at least in superficial and practical way.
And Justice for Rand means being allowed to obtain any and all property one can get without using force (at least direct force), and being guaranteed by government exclusive and protected use of that obtained property.
Personally, concerning this use of force thing, I wonder if there exists a difference in kind or merely in degree between crushing a man’s livelihood via economic means and incapaciting a man by direct physical means. Sometimes, as I’ve mentioned before, it feels to me that by allowing subjugation by one method and not another, we are merely establishing rules of game– a game in which we delude ourselves as to what the goals and outcomes really are.