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On the Centenary of America’s Radical for Capitalism

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February 2 is the centenary of the birth of Ayn Rand, the novelist who inspired tens of millions of readers with her philosophical action stories celebrating reason, individualism, and freedom under capitalism. Her death in 1982 did not stanch interest in her work either as an artist or as a philosopher. On the contrary, that work has never been taken more seriously, and books about her intellectual and artistic contributions continue to pour forth.

What accounts for this growing interest? In her bestsellers The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Rand captured the essence of America’s original identity. On the surface that may seem ironic. She was born in Russia and was a young woman when the Bolsheviks began to turn that place into a charnel house. She was fortunate to find refuge in the United States. But there is nothing ironic in the story. It is unsurprising that a refugee from brutal “humanitarian” totalitarianism would appreciate individual freedom as no native-born American could. She never had the luxury of taking liberty for granted. My favorite story about her comes from the 1940s, when someone in an audience pointed out that she was foreign-born. “That’s right,” she said. “I chose to become an American. What did you do besides being born?”

Rand knew better than to mistake the trappings of “democracy” for actual freedom. One is not really free if the elected officeholders have the power to interfere with the lives of innocent people. Voting is preferable to violence, but how people get into office is not as important as what they can do once they get there. (Most of the commentaries on the Iraqi election have not understood that.)

Rand realized that freedom, if it is to last, requires a rock-solid foundation. Just any foundation, or none at all, won’t do. She grounded the case for freedom in the conditions required by the nature of man, who needs to live by reason in this world open to his understanding. According to Rand, for persons to be truly human they have to be free to think, to act on their own judgment, and to transform the physical world, that is, to engage in productive work. Each person has the moral authority to make the most of his life. He needs no one’s permission. These principles — rights — regarding life, liberty, and property form the basis of a peaceful society in which people cooperate through the division of labor. Since all people have these rights, force and fraud are illegitimate. They rob men and women of their humanity.

Rand’s great achievement was to give capitalism a moral justification. Too often advocates of free markets emphasized the efficiency of markets and abandoned morality to the socialists. Rand passionately declared that capitalism isn’t only efficient; it is also good because it is the only social arrangement in which each individual is free to pursue his happiness — “exist for his own sake” — without being made a beast of burden forced to serve others. Benevolent generosity is one thing; duty-bound self-sacrifice is quite another. Under capitalism the pursuit of rational self-interest and the attendant innovation produce a cornucopia of goods and services that benefit everyone. But as socialism’s history shows, the cart can’t be placed before the horse. The “common good” that arises out of rational individuals’ making the most of their lives cannot be achieved directly.

Another of Rand’s achievements follows from this. Going back to the ancient Greeks, production and trade have been seen as degraded activities, inferior to nonmaterial concerns. Rand finally gave the producer his moral due, showing that the passion, genius, and creativity entailed by the production of material goods is like the passion, genius, and creativity entailed by the production of “spiritual” goods, such as works of art. This outlook was a consequence of Rand’s rejection of the mind-body dichotomy and her embrace of man’s life on earth as something lofty.

Considering the squalor in which men lived before capitalism, and the wretched condition of today’s remaining socialist countries, Rand, the American radical for capitalism, was surely right.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.