Ayn Rand’s Politics of Self-Interest

(This is part four of a four-part series on the ethics and political theory of Ayn Rand, written exclusively for The Daily Censored, by Dr. Robert Abele, professor of philosophy at Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area.)

ON RIGHTS—Rand asserts that a “free society” is synonymous with “capitalism” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 108. All quotations from this section are from this text). Furthermore, Rand asserts that one can only have rights in a capitalistic society, and that capitalism is the only type of society that can protect rights. She accuses her “opponents,” whoever they might be—they are unnamed, as is frequent in Rand—of “the gimmick” of conflating political rights into economic rights (p. 112).

Rand’s entire argument for the exclusivity of libertarian economic rights is founded on two critical pillars. First, Rand presupposes an absolutist notion of freedom, such that any individual right to life and property is sacrosanct, never to be touched by any outside agent on pain of immorality or tyranny. Second, Rand engages in a logically faulty argument: that a person’s right to something that someone else has produced directly implies that those who produce that thing “are deprived of their rights and condemned to slave labor” (p. 113). One can see several factors at work here which make for Rand’s bad logic.

ayn rand 300x210 Ayn Rand’s Politics of Self InterestFirst, there is the falsely held logical notion that the universal-rational or even “common humanity” conception that the rights of one person (e.g. to life, liberty, and equality) be fulfilled by the assistance of those who are able to do so on the grounds that humans do not switch species simply because they are unable to fulfill their rights as independently as others, through the means of inconveniencing the self-interests of another (what Rand calls “sacrifice”) automatically (and actually) “deprives” someone else (the deprivation is in her definition of “sacrifice:” “the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue;” The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 50). In this context, “sacrifice” is opposed to “the rational principle of conduct: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values…”). That there is no logical relation at all between the premise and the conclusion here may be seen by an example. This example is not abstract or hypothetical: I actually experienced this. I used to go to dinner several times a week with my colleagues in philosophy. We would meet, then walk to any local restaurant. On numerous occasions, one of our colleagues, John, would encounter a homeless person and actually walk with him or her to the nearest deli or sandwich outlet and buy that person a sandwich. “I’ll catch up with guys” was his daily line waving us on (and he always did catch up with us). When I once asked him whether he received anything other than a good feeling out of his charity, he said: “No. I just had the means to eat; he [the homeless person] did not.” When I played “devil’s advocate” with him, suggesting that he may have just taken a wealthy con man to dinner, he said: “Maybe. But it wasn’t really a sacrifice for me to help someone whom I thought could use the help.” Exactly. It wasn’t a sacrifice for him: he gave up some time and a bit of money for a perfect stranger in a non-emergency situation simply because he saw a need and had an ability to help. And that is precisely the point of all rational ethics: when one universalizes one’s personal moral code, one cannot escape reaching such a conclusion. Most importantly, one would have to argue quite dogmatically and rigidly to maintain that there was enough moral significance in my colleague’s understanding that the needs of another person outweighed his own personal inconvenience so much that it resulted in his being deprived of his self-interested freedom in any important moral sense. Rand has little appreciation of this type of rational calculation in any terms short of emergencies. Here is her take on my friend’s actions: “It is only in emergency situations that one should volunteer to help strangers” and that “illness and poverty are not metaphysical emergencies” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 55). But, then again, one would expect this out of someone who denies that a society of persons even truly exists. But the real-life example demonstrates the logic of the argument in this case: there is no relation between being “rational” and being “self-interested,” as Rand argues (see her essay “The Ethics of Emergencies,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, to see the details of her argument here). Quite the contrary: rational-practical calculation, weighing the benefits and burdens of a contemplated act, and/or my interests in comparison to another, as well as deontological ethics of universalizing one’s ethical principles, all would argue in support of what my friend did and does. “My personal choice” is only part of the ethical calculation required in such cases. If one stops there, as Rand does, one does indeed conclude the need to be selfish. But ethically speaking, reason requires us to do more than just calculate my own good, for the reasons just discussed.

Second, there is the position that deprivation of rights (“by force”) presupposes an absolutist notion of freedom, such that a freedom possessed is a freedom completely lost (to slavery) if surrendered for any other reason than by one’s free choice. But that a nuance or limit to absolute freedom becomes “slavery,” or even a significant “deprivation” is unsupportable and virtually incoherent, except as a rhetorical statement.

Further, Rand takes her two economic rights—to property and to “free trade”—and says they are also political rights (p. 115); yet, to those who extend economic rights beyond these, they are guilty of the “gimmick” of extending political rights into economic territory. Rand also defines rights as moral principles (p. 110), yet simultaneously calls them economic principles. So which are they? Or are they both? Further, on what grounds does one assert that (her preferred) economic rights may extend politically but not vice versa? Rand’s argument at best takes this position, but her reasons for allowing her own overlap of rights (from economic to political) and not the other direction are given nowhere in this essay. But rights are distinctly political—e.g. freedom, equality, etc. are not derived from, nor by necessity tied to, a specific economic theory.

Thus, Rand blurs moral rights and political rights, and holds that because the latter restrain government only, that no one has rights against others not to be treated similarly—e.g. Rand says that there is no censorship if private citizens do it, since “free speech” (i.e. the First Amendment) applies to government-citizen relations, not that between private citizens (pgs. 115-116). Rand has no use for the right of equality or equal treatment, and in this regard at least, Rand could use some instruction from John Stuart Mill on what democracy looks like—even more, on what individual liberty really looks like in a democracy. Regarding speech, Mill maintains that democratic liberty requires that opinions not widely shared be “encouraged and countenanced” since “only through diversity of opinion…is there a chance of fair play to all sides of truth (On Liberty, Chapter II, p. 46). Further, in America there has been a long and robust debate on the freedom of expression under the First Amendment notion of “free speech” that has not yet concluded. From the Federalist-Republican debate on what free speech meant, to the numerous Supreme Court cases concerning what counts as free speech in society, and we are still debating it today, most recently with the notorious Court decision in the Citizens United case in 2010. Justice Brandeis, in Whitney v. California (1927), gave four values protected by free expression: the search for truth; promotion of personal development—e.g. art, literature, etc.; respect for liberty—individuals are better able to judge what will make them fulfilled more than government; and enhancement of democratic process/political participation, which allows the political process to work effectively.  As the first and second reasons demonstrate, speech as a right absolutely does indeed involve the relationship between private citizens.

Moving on, contrary to Rand’s view, laissez-faire capitalism puts notions of equal rights under the boots of those who climb to the top of the economic ladder, and thus such types of rights cannot be held to be moral within a full-blown rights perspective. We would rather want to see a political and economic system that together enables all citizens, even those who are least advantaged in society, to manage their affairs within a context of both social and economic equality (see John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pgs. 137-140).

Furthermore, Rand’s political theory puts things backwards. Rather than having what Rand calls “inflated” (i.e. expanded) notions of human rights threatening capitalistic (“true”) rights, one would have a fuller analysis if one argued that capitalism had actually restricted democracy. In fact, if we look at the development of the relationship between American capitalism and American democracy, the former has overtaken the latter, and taken control of the public sphere, as the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls it, while citizens have become just consumers of corporate goods, having their opinions formed by the dominant elites of the country (see Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, pgs. 41-49).

In her defense of her version of rights, once again we see Rand committing a significant logical error: she claims to deduce rights from the Principle of Identity. We have already seen how, from this rule of thought, nothing may be logically derived. So immediately Rand’s theory of rights is a suspicious one. Also, we see Rand in her understanding of rights confuse two notions: “right” meaning “correct,” and “right” meaning “a moral category of protection” (p. 111).

Finally, Rand demonstrates no familiarity with the tradition and debate concerning rights. By limiting rights exclusively to individual freedom and to negative rights against another, Rand ignores the fact that equality was as fundamental to rights as was autonomy; that without equality, women and blacks would not have the same rights as men. This fundamental emphasis on equality resulted in the recognition of such rights as the right to an adequate standard of living, seen in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Additionally, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), which mandates that States must take appropriate action to ensure the rights to adequate standard of living and to education, for example. This understanding of rights necessarily calls upon others to be responsible to and for their fellow world citizens. As a consequence, it mandates moral accountability of those who have toward those who do not have. Rand misses this idea entirely in her understanding of rights as limited to individualistic autonomous ones.

ON GOVERNMENT-According Rand, “man’s own life [is] the ethical purpose of every individual man” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 27). This assertion is based on her understanding of “rationality,” which means “that one must never sacrifice one’s convictions to the opinions or wishes of others…that one must never grant the unearned and undeserved, neither in matter nor in spirit.” This is what Rand calls “the virtue of Justice” (p. 28). This, for Rand, conjoins with the virtue of pride, which is the recognition “that as a man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul” (p. 29).


Rand’s approach to government takes a minimalist form: the only proper task of government is to enforce individual rights (p. 128). For Rand, this applies to government in the following ways. First, “the only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect his rights” to life, liberty, and to own property. The last of these rights is the most fundamental one, according to Rand: “Without property rights, no other rights are possible” (p. 36). Thus, Rand’s ethics of individualism, which maintains that each person must value him or herself primarily, becomes a society of independent atomistic individuals who have negative claims on others not to interfere with their independent liberty and wealth accumulation. In fact, Rand says, no society may rightfully take what a person has earned for himself. If it does, it is not a society, “but a mob held together by institutionalized gang-rule” (p. 126). Thus, “if men are to live together in peaceful, rational, productive society…the basic social principle…[is] the principle of individual rights.” As a consequence of this philosophy, “taxation…would be voluntary” (p. 135). Any government that has for its mission to elevate individual citizens by educating them, or providing assistance for their wealth or health, violates rights—i.e. the rights of the true individualists, who should be permitted to maintain the property—all of it—that they have obtained for themselves. Taking anything from them violates their primary right of property. There is only one socio-political system that can maintain and fulfill these individualist rights properly, and that is “laissez-faire capitalism—with a separation of state [regulation] and [from] economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church” (p. 37).

This has become the primary philosophical platform of contemporary neoliberalism, even though they and Rand distanced themselves from each other.

However, Rand and her disciples miss something quite critical in taking this position, and that is the U.S. Constitution. Obviously, Randians have either never read it, don’t take it seriously, or just skipped over Article 1, Section 8, in which it states unequivocally that the philosophy of U.S. constitutional democracy is precisely the opposite of the Randian one. In Section 8, n. 1, it says: “To lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay for the common defense and general welfare of the United States…” Add to that n. 3: “To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.” Thus, the idea that is often asserted by Randians that the Founders would have agreed with her philosophy is a bogus claim.

Examining this further, contrast Rand’s philosophy to that of Thomas Jefferson, who not only borrows directly from, but is himself philosophically much closer to Aristotle than is Rand. Jefferson says that “man was made for society,” and that humans “are endowed with a sense of right & wrong” in relation to this society.[1] Thus, both Aristotle and Jefferson grounded our social proclivities, our need for others and concern for others, in human nature itself. More to the point for Rand versus Jefferson, the latter took direct issue with Egoism by name, but rejected it on the grounds of Natural Law. We do things for others, Jefferson said, “Because nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct.”[2]

Rand and her followers also steadfastly ignore the Federalist, which is, of course, where the philosophy underlying the U.S. Constitution really is. In Federalist n. 10, Madison states that enlightened leaders will not always be at the helm. As a result, the structures of government must be in place “to secure the public good” as well as individual rights (my emphasis). Furthermore, Rand ignores the fact that all through the Federalist, there is deep and abiding concern with the “common good” and the need to balance it with individual rights (e.g. n. 42 & n. 46). There can be no doubt that Madison and Hamilton sought to balance individual rights with a conception of the common good, or as Madison called it, “the public good.” Thus, there is no cogent argument that can be made that the Founders were individualists, economically or otherwise.

As usual with Rand, much of what she has to say about the function of government is unobjectionable per se. Where she runs into problems, as she does in her ethics, her ontology, and her economic ideas, is taking one part of the proper concern at issue and inflating it to the “essence” of that issue. Once one takes account of other dimensions of human existence, one immediately sees the superficiality of Rand’s position.

Concretely, the blame pattern of growing inequity we see in the West today can be laid at least in part at the doorstep of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of self-interestedness, which in its political-economic manifestation asserts that monopolies and depressions result from government interference in the free market: “It is a free market that makes monopolies impossible” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 26; 72). Standing in direct polarity to this position is Karl Marx and his analysis of capitalism. Rand really does not refute Marx in her theory, in part because she rarely mentions him, in part because she never develops his position, and in part because she does not properly focus where Marx spent most of his analysis of capitalism, and that is in the chronic crises of overproduction. Marx describes these crises as follows:

“The quantity of commodities created in masses by capitalist production depends on the scale of production and on the need for constantly expanding this production, and not on a predestined circle of supply and demand, on wants that have to be satisfied. Mass production can have no other buyer, apart from other industrial capitalists, than the wholesaler. Within certain limits, the process of reproduction may take place on … an increased scale even when the commodities expelled from it did not really enter individual or productive consumption….[If this occurs], commodity-capitals compete with one another for a place in the market. Late-comers, to sell at all, sell at lower prices…[and] their owners must declare their insolvency or sell at any price…. Then a crisis breaks out” (Capital 2: 75-76).

This distinctive feature of capitalism is endemic to it, according to Marx, so the capitalists will not profit from paying workers more, and the cycle of crises will continue; or as Marx describes it in the Grundrisse:

“The highest development of productive power together with the greatest expansion of existing wealth will coincide with the depreciation of capital, degradation of the laborer, and a most straitened exhaustion of his vital powers. These contradictions lead to explosions, cataclysms, crises, in which by momentous suspension of labour and annihilation of a great portion of Capital the latter is violently reduced to the point where it can[not] go on. These contradictions, of course, lead to explosions, crises, in which momentary suspension of all labour and annihilation of a great part of the capital violently lead it back to the point where it is enabled [to go on] fully employing its productive powers without committing suicide. Yet, these regularly recurring catastrophes lead to their repetition on a higher scale, and finally to its violent overthrow” (Grundrisse, p. 23).

Rand essentially does an “end run” around Marx by not taking him on directly.

Rand’s political ideas also run into logical problems. Politics is not rational if institutional arrangements are not legitimated by inclusive distribution patterns, since a truly rational politics must encompass universal concerns, and universals by definition include all facets of institutional arrangements. That is what is meant by “the good of the people” as being fundamental to democracy. Short of such inclusive concerns, political arrangements regulate only by protecting individuals as they increase their self-interested ends. But if some individuals are able by benefit of circumstance, inheritance, or race to advance their already advantaged self-interested pursuits beyond those of others, and as a consequence of that pre-given advantage detract from the ability of others to engage in the same pursuits, that can in no way be a fundamental part of a rational or universal conception of justice.

But rational-logical universality as class inclusion must include the issue of a fair distribution of goods to be rationally inclusive. While self-interest is to a degree rational and legitimate, it is not fully rational unless such rationality is seen to extend to all dimensions of society and its structures, and this means taking the interests of others into account (i.e. inclusion), not exclusion of others under some notion of rationality being defined in terms of self-interest alone.

Ayn Rand’s conception of justice is to give people what they deserve in terms of merit, not in terms of being human and having needs and interests. Because for Rand, injustice is giving people what they do not merit (or taking more than they merit), it serves as a perfect rationalization to dismantle equitable institutional arrangements which were set up to rectify social structures that advantaged some over others. This is the situation we find ourselves in today. Thus, the rational question we should be asking ourselves is: Do we really want to follow the direction we see the Rand philosophy of objectivism leading us to? Her philosophy certainly will be good for the few (e.g. “the 1%” as they are currently called), but for a philosophy that includes the ethical value of equity—that includes “the many”—we will need some kind of conception of a common good. That Rand totally rejects this value demonstrates the intellectually vacuous nature of her philosophy. Democracy has never been simply about freedom, as the writings of Madison, Jefferson, et. al. have demonstrated. Thus, a purely libertarian form of democracy is one that comes up short of what the “full flowering of democracy” would look like, if only we would let it grow by setting Randian individualism aside in favor of a form of democracy that truly values equitable relations between persons, instantiating mechanisms to prevent inequality of distributions that result in economic crises such as our current one, and ultimately result in oligarchy. This will be the legacy of Ayn Rand unless we wake up to it and reject it decisively right now, by opting for mutuality and solidarity against the individualistic preferences of those who already have more than their fair share of social goods, while simultaneously using those social goods for their private advantage.

As I was watching a Labor Day program on the brutality corporate managers used against American dockworkers in the 1930’s, it occurred to me that for someone who held Rand’s philosophy, there would be no reason not to support such violence toward another human being provided that it enhanced the self-interest of the brutalizer. We see the same thing happening today from corporate managers, albeit more frequently on an economic level than on a raw physical level. However, with some employment situations in an economy of scarcity, it may well take on the physical form, such as brutal working conditions, abuse of workers by heavy work, low pay, mandatory overtime, refusal to pay insurance for workers when injured, etc.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS-As I have been arguing all along in this series of articles, the entire point of ethics and particularly of justice is to take into account the good of the other. To the extent that Rand does this at all, it is strictly on the grounds of individualistic presuppositions. And in this regard, she fails to instantiate a workable theory of justice. Quite the opposite, actually: the fact that Randian selfishness is the admitted philosophy of the people in charge of both our economy and government (to the degree that they profess or even care to think out a philosophy of sorts at all, apart from acting strictly on the insatiable desire for more) shows why we are imploding as a nation right now.

I think it is important to add here that if we take Rand at her word—i.e. that there is no human nature or essence and no ethical responsibility to another short of our self-interest—then what we really have is a form of radical subjectivism, not a form of “Objectivism” in the sense in which she seeks it. As Rand puts it: “…men are born tabula rasa, both cognitively and morally…” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 54). For if there is no essence, no duty or responsibility toward others qua human, nor a common good or community of persons, then Rand’s use of the phrase “man qua man,” although borrowed from Aristotle to refer to human essence, for Rand means literally what it says: “each individual person qua each individual person.” This can in no way argued to be objective, even in Rand’s quirky way of defining the term, if there are no real universals, no ethical universals, and no necessary inter-human connections, the latter expressed either in terms of compassion or in terms of positive rights and responsibilities. Instead, it is really an attempt to make intellectually palatable the Rand ethics, synopsized by the assertion with which she entitled one of her essays: “leave us alone!” In short, I see no way that a philosophy of mutual exclusion, defined here as separating the communal ties that bond humans (e.g. language; compassion, universal extension of constructed axioms, reason as necessarily inclusive [universal] and discursive, etc.), can ever result in anything that could be called “a fully human life.” Aristotle instructed us as to why that is the case, and that need not be repeated here, since we dealt with this in Part II.

Rand’s philosophy is at best incomplete, a cherry-picking of aspects of the philosophical tradition chosen in order to defend her ethical viewpoint of selfishness. At worst, is a philosophy either for adolescents, who are still socially maturing, or sociopaths, who never will understand their inter-relations with other people (qua people). But with its complete disregard for the rational, compassionate connection with others that underscores all our actions anyway, it is ultimately a philosophy for individual people and nations that have a suicidal urge. Persons or groups that follow Rand, to use Rand’s own evaluation against her (emphasis hers): “Theyare the men who march into the abyss, trailing after any destroyer…”


[1] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814.

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