Today is the birthday of Ayn Rand, author of the 1957 classic "Atlas Shrugged," and one of history’s most celebrated champions of capitalism. Here are three of the crucial lessons Rand offers those of us who want to fight for a freer, more prosperous America.
1. Celebrate Business
Today business is the scapegoat for virtually every evil. Whatever the problem or crisis, “greedy” businessmen take the blame, and the solution is always held to be more controls, more regulations, more taxes. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, for instance, Republican leaders raced to blame “greedy” bankers, not government policy. President Obama has intensified this outlook.
According to Rand, this is one of history’s worst injustices. Businessmen are the ones who create the medicines, food preservatives, sanitation systems, irrigation systems, and millions of other innovations and labor-saving devices that have nearly tripled our lifespans and provided us with a standard of living unimaginable by our forefathers. As she explained in 1961, the businessman is the great liberator who, in the short span of a century and a half, has released men from bondage to their physical needs, has released them from the terrible drudgery of an eighteen-hour workday of manual labor for their barest subsistence, has released them from famines, from pestilences, from the stagnant hopelessness and terror in which most of mankind had lived in all the pre-capitalist centuries.
If we want to limit government, Rand warned, this is something we need to celebrate. To slam business is to attack a core part of what makes America great.
2. Don’t Apologize for the Profit Motive
Underneath the attack on business is an attack on the motive that drives businessmen: the desire for profits. The profit motive, we’re constantly told, leads businessmen to lie, cheat, and steal their way to a buck—or at minimum taints them morally.
Just recall the criticisms of Mitt Romney. Even his Republican challengers criticized him, not for passing RomneyCare, but for having been a profit-seeking businessman. But if the profit motive is dangerous and immoral, how can we tolerate the profit system?
Rand sets the record straight. A profit, she notes, is the insignia of production: you make a profit when you produce something of value, something that others want to buy because it makes human life better, longer, easier, more enjoyable.
Capitalism is fueled, not by the Al Capones or the Bernie Madoffs of this world who seek to get money by hook or by crook. It is fueled by individuals who make money by creating wealth. This is the actual nature of the profit motive: it is the desire to earn rewards through productive achievement.
That, says Rand, is the kind of attitude toward one’s work, toward one’s wealth, and toward other people that pervades a free market. Free markets drive out of business the short-sighted, unproductive moochers who don’t create value—and a capitalist government locks up predators such as Madoff when they try to defraud others.
Capitalism is good, said Rand, because it protects each man’s ability to make the most of his own life—and government intervention, which strips such men of their wealth and their freedom, is morally wrong.
3. Run from Anyone Trumpeting “The Public Good”
Today government grows at the expense of individuals: at the expense of their rights, their freedom, their wealth. The supporters of Big Government have always justified this by appealing to “the public good.” How have defenders of capitalism responded? Not by challenging the notion of “the public good.” Instead, we have accepted that notion and tried to persuade people that only capitalism can achieve it.
But the justification for capitalism, Rand stresses, is not that it serves “the public good” or “the public interest” or “the common welfare.” All of those slogans are dangerously vague: they can mean anything, and so they can be used to “justify” everything. The justification for capitalism is that it is the only system based on the individual’s inalienable right to pursue his own life, liberty, and happiness.
Society, Rand observes, is not an entity but a collection of sovereign individuals, and the essential political value they have in common is freedom.
Freedom, Rand stresses, means that individuals can exercise their rights free from coercion and compulsion. They can work to make a successful life for themselves, acting on their own independent judgment, keeping the fruits of their labor, and dealing with others through voluntary exchange to mutual advantage. The government’s role is to protect their freedom by barring the initiation of physical force. The economic system that emerges when government is limited and individual rights are secured is capitalism.
If you want to stop the growth of the state, you have to get rid of any ounce of the idea that individuals exist to serve some social purpose or goal. Capitalism is the system rooted in the conviction that each individual is an end in himself and has a right to exist for his own sake.
Ayn Rand’s Winning Formula: Capture the Moral High Ground
If you wanted to boil down what makes Rand so successful and what she can teach us today, it would be that she teaches the free market side to take the moral high ground.
We “must fight for capitalism,” Rand says, “not as a ‘practical’ issue, not as an economic issue, but, with the most righteous pride, as a moral issue. That is what capitalism deserves, and nothing less will save it.”
But how can a system driven by self-interest and the pursuit of personal profit be moral? That is the question Rand answers in her works, and it is the question we address in our book, the national bestseller "Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government."
We can limit today’s unlimited government. But to do so we will need to mount an unapologetic moral defense of freedom. The first step is to arm ourselves with Ayn Rand’s unsurpassed stockpile of intellectual ammunition, and then to speak out for freedom.
Don Watkins and Yaron Brook are the authors of the national bestseller Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, and a fellow and executive director, respectively, of the Ayn Rand Institute.