This week, Doug French discovered Ayn Rand’s love of America as it could be and should be—and, for a time, was.
It was not a slow news week in America. What with Ed Snowden and a red panda from D.C.’s National Zoo both eluding the government’s grasp, George Zimmerman’s attorney beginning his defence with a knock-knock joke, and Paula Deen trying desperately to save her bacon with an apology.
For whatever reason, President Obama chose this week to say it’s time to save the planet. He claims 97% of scientists say man is causing climate change and, therefore, destroying the planet. Government must step in and do something about it, the president asserts. Fossil fuels might add to our prosperity, but what about saving the planet for his daughters, he wonders.
Of course, nothing is worse for the planet than collectivism. The environmental devastation left behind by the Soviet Union is legendary. However, the bigger point, made by Ayn Rand, is that bowing to environmentalists is anti-human. An unabashed fan of the United States, Miss Rand couldn’t imagine back in the 1970s that Americans would succumb to the “latest assault on human life — the ecology crusade.”
In a closing essay entitled “Don’t Let It Go” included in Philosophy: Who Needs It, Rand writes,
Americans will enthusiastically clean their streets, their rivers, their backyards, but when it comes to giving up progress, technology, the automobile, and their standard of living, Americans will prove that the man-haters ‘ain’t seen nothing yet.’
Anyone thinking a philosophy book isn’t their cup of tea should give this one a whirl. It’s an assemblage of 18 articles and speeches that not only explain Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, but allows her to sell it in bite-size pieces. As Leonard Peikoff writes in the introduction, Rand was the “greatest salesman philosophy has ever had.”
You probably just think you don’t like philosophy because no one of Rand’s calibre has bothered to sell it to you. We tend to think of philosophy as an abstraction that overeducated and underemployed guys with bad hair and bad clothes argue about over espressos.
We all have a philosophy. You’re either conscious, logical, and practical, or, as Peikoff writes, “random, unidentified, contradictory, and, therefore, lethal.” (Come to think of it, the latter describes the Obama administration, or politics in general.)
Rand gets a bad rap for the supposed selfishness of her philosophy. But she makes the point that altruism — the idea that man has no right to exist for his own sake — makes kindness and respect for others impossible.
The reader really gets to know Rand with some of the stories she tells. Her love of America, its people, and its sense of life is a constant. She writes that
It was a European who discovered America, but it was Americans who were the first nation to discover this earth and man's proper place on it, and man's potential for happiness, and the world which is man's to win. What they failed to discover is the words to name their achievement, the concepts to identify it, the principles to guide it, i.e., the appropriate philosophy and its consequence: an American culture.
I’m not sure what Miss Rand would think about the government’s hunt for Edward Snowden and spying on innocent citizens, but she does remind us of what made America great once upon a time.
Rand relates the story of a visiting European woman who spoke little English and needed to buy some things at the five and dime. Miss Rand offered to go with her and help her out. “But wouldn’t that embarrass you?” the woman asked. “You are a famous person, and what if somebody sees you in the five and dime?”
Rand writes that she just laughed. But in Switzerland, where her friend was from, unwritten rules called for different classes of people to shop at different places. Eve Curie, a French woman that Rand met in Hollywood, always talked of how Americans are all so happy, unlike Europeans. “Except the intellectuals,” Curie said, “Oh, the intellectuals are unhappy everywhere.”
Americans instinctively take the initiative, while Europeans are occupied by obedience. It is that sense of life Americans have that will save the country from destruction from dictatorship, according to Rand. We often complain about government tyranny getting the upper hand, but Rand reminds us of the underlying spirit for freedom that Americans have.
There are those who loudly bash Wal-Mart and business in general for supposedly driving people into poverty. Low-paying jobs either here or abroad are termed slave labour. A race to the bottom, those on the left sniff. But what was here before capitalism? Poverty was here. “Capitalism did not create poverty — it inherited it,” Rand explains. “Compared to the centuries of pre-capitalist starvation, the living conditions of the poor in the early years of capitalism were the first chance the poor had ever had to survive.”
In a book full of fascinating chapters, the most interesting is “An Open Letter to Boris Spassky.” Spassky, you may remember, was the Russian chess grandmaster who famously duelled America’s Bobby Fischer. Rand constantly refers to Spassky as “Comrade.” She makes the point that Russia creates many chess champions because the game is “make-work” for intelligent men who have nothing else to employ their minds.
Rand calls the chessboard a substitute for reality. Chess grandmasters are allowed to focus all their intellectual prowess on the 64 squares. But once they leave the game, they are “confused, anxious, and helplessly unfocused.” The precocious young player understands the logic of chess, but is confused by people and their illogical behaviour. “In your world,” Rand addresses Spassky, “you do not have to be concerned with them: All you have to do is think.”
She illustrates the point with Bobby Fischer: a confident, brilliant player who was completely irrational in the real world. But the bigger point was about her and Spassky’s homeland. Socialism is the political version of irrationality. An individual’s power of logic is turned upside down by government’s arbitrary rules and theft.
It’s as if pawns were declared the most valuable pieces while kings and queens were sacrificed. What if “winning were regarded as a symptom of selfishness, and the winner were penalized for the crime of possessing a superior intelligence, the penalty consisting in suspension for a year, in order to give others a chance?” Sadly, some little league sports in today’s America operate this way.
It is our minds that are our basic tools of survival. While our lungs and hearts work automatically, we must fill our minds with reason. If we do, we prosper. If we don’t, we fall prey to the mysticism espoused by tyrants. For humans, the question, says Rand, is not “to be, or not to be,” but “to think, or not to think.”
Laissez Faire Today readers are thinkers who wonder about our overbearing government. But we won’t lie down. “Defiance, not obedience, is the American answer to overbearing authority,” writes Rand. “The nation that ran an underground railroad to help human beings escape from slavery, or began drinking on principle in the face of Prohibition, will not say ‘Yes, sir,’ to the enforcers of ration coupons and cereal prices. Not yet.”
Go to any freedom function and people wonder who will inspire millions as Rand did. Sure, there’s a place for pining for sound money, less government, and learning about economics. But reading Rand makes your capitalist self sit up a little taller. There is no reason to hide your logical mind any longer. Read Ayn Rand’s Philosophy: Who Needs It and shout “Reason” from the rooftops!
Doug French is is president of the Mises Institute and author of Early Speculative Bubbles & Increases in the Money Supply and Walk Away: The Rise and Fall of the Home-Ownership Myth.
This post first appeared at Laissez Faire Today.