Ayn Rand and International Politics

In a previous post I promised to write about Ayn Rand and her views on international politics, based on a recently published article.

I find Ayn Rand a fascinating figure in libertarian history, for a number of reasons. Her life style and ways she went about it in her life are so far distanced from me, that made me curious. Some of her philosophical ideas are great, others do not appeal to me at all. I plainly admire her for making the moral case for capitalism and individualism, which stands out in the economist-dominated libertarian tradition.

I am on the one hand annoyed by the way she fostered such cult-like circle of followers, in her own day and after her death in 1982, that led to dogmatism and intellectual isolationism, which goes against all basic academic standards I think are crucial.

On the other hand, I think the people at the Ayn Rand Institute do a great job preserving her legacy and attempting to widen her appeal. Overall, I am convinced that no matter what your take on this fascinating figure or her work is, Rand deserves to be studied in academia, because she remains influential to this day, especially in the US, and left a serious collection of writings that warrant intellectual analysis, even by people who do not consider themselves Randian.

Against this background I made a comparison between mainstream liberal theories of International Relations (IR) and the ideas on world affairs of Ayn Rand. The brief summary of the first is as follows:

  • World peace is attainable, in the belief that humans are rational enough to overcome war and conflict.
  • The nation is seen as a problematic actor in world affairs. Its room for maneuvering needs to be curtailed, including the importance of the balance of power between states, and the alleged influence of ‘war mongering’ diplomats and the so-called military-industrial complex.
  • Peace oriented foreign policies can be fostered by domestic institutional arrangements, most notably democracy (democratic peace theory).
  • In the international realm, there is an important role for intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, regimes and international law (liberal institutionalism), which aim to overcome or neutralize the effects of the logic of power politics.
  • International trade is also expected to foster peace, often in combination with the alleged pacifying influence of interest groups and public opinion of foreign policy decision-making.
  • A recent addition is the broad support for humanitarian intervention.

To keep this blog at readable length I will not go into the details of Rand’s writings, but limit myself to her main views on these ideas, which should be seen in the context of her fierce opposition to the Soviet Union and its allies in the Cold War, and her concern for America losing its super power position through internal causes, not least the loss of the individual liberty-enhancing spirit among the American people.

  • In contrast to classical liberals from Smith to Hayek, Rand did indeed think that world peace would be attainable, but only in an Objectivist world. Among rational men living according the Objectivist principles there would be a harmony of rational interests. Yet in the current world there was also abundant irrational behaviour, bad morality, and other grounds for dispute.
  • The main causes of war were not material issues, domestic interests, institutional arrangements, or the structure of the international system. Rather, war was rooted in human nature. It went back to the tribal era, when brute force was the prime rule of conduct. The (socialist) dictatorships were contemporary examples in her mind, with their lack of respect for the rights of their own citizens, and those of foreigners alike. ‘Statism needs war, a free country does not’.
  • Rand was inconsistent in her valuation of the power of public opinion. She noted that most people often do not want war. Yet the origins of war still lay with those civilians, also in non-democratic regimes, because they failed to reject the doctrine that it was right and justified to achieve goals by physical force. If people put up with a dictatorship like the Soviet Union, or decided not to flee, they were co-responsible for the deeds, and deserved the same fate as their government.
  • Rand recognized that individuals live in groups or communities, but she regarded respect for tribal roots, ethnicity, and regional languages as uncivil and, above all, irrational and a limit on individual liberty. Ethnicity was also an important cause of war. Nationalism was perhaps less abstract than Marxism, but it was at least as vicious in stirring emotions such as hatred, fear, and suspicion. Therefore rational people would altogether disregard their roots as guides in (political) life.
  • Rand had two positions on the issues of sovereignty and intervention, depending on the moral character of the nation in question. Sovereignty was a right that had to be earned, but could also be forfeited. If a nation fully respected the principle of individual rights, it’s right to sovereignty was morally secured and should be respected by other nations. However, if a state violated the rights of its citizens it would lose its sovereign rights. ‘A nation ruled by brute force is not a nation, but a horde, whether led by Atilla, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Khrushchev, or Castro.’
  • Dictatorships were outlaws and could therefore be invaded as a matter of choice for the free nations, although there was no duty to do so. The right to self-determination and sovereignty only existed for free nations, and for societies seeking to establish freedom.
  • Yet this way, anarchy loomed. Rand divided the world into three groups of countries. First, countries complying to the Objectivist principles, with full sovereign rights. Second, countries on their way to freedom, often referred to as ‘mixed economies’, or half-way houses between freedom and dictatorship. Third, countries not worth existing, such as dictatorships and tyrannies. Unfortunately, the world lacked fully free countries. The mixed economies did not have unlimited right of intervention, they could only interfere when another country seriously breached Objectivist principles, for example by establishing one party rule, enacting censorship laws, executing people for political offences without trial, or nationalizing or expropriating private property.
  • Rand acknowledged the perpetual influence of power in world politics. The character of international politics was, and always had been among states, a balance of power game.
  • The US army was under domestic, non-patriotic attack for its virtues, for being a competent and strong force. It was unwise to cut the defence budget, while -in another contrast to liberal IR thought- ‘the military-industrial complex’ was ‘a myth or worse’.
  • Statism at the international level, in the form of ‘a planetary community’ and other cosmopolitan ideas had to be rejected. The collaboration of semi-free countries with communist dictatorships in the UN was evil and stood in contrast to reason, ethics, and civilization. The UN provided the Russian camp with prestige and moral sanction, suggesting that ‘the difference between human rights and mass slaughter is just a matter of opinion’.
  • Another point of contention with the social liberals was development cooperation. Foreign aid was nothing but ‘altruism extended to the international realm’.
  • While, in contrast to social liberals, she lacked faith in international law as such, Rand did regard international treaties as firm obligations.
  • Also, Rand saw peaceful effects of laissez-faire capitalism, because it was based on the recognition of self-interest by free individuals and the non-initiation of force. Capitalism fostered a society of traders. Therefore the essence of Objectivist foreign policy had to be free trade.

To briefly sum up: Rand’s writing show that not all liberals are peace-seeking cosmopolitans, attempting to minimise the role of the nation, the balance of power, the military, and warfare in international relations. She rejected most forms of international governmental organization and other expressions of liberal institutionalism. Often her ideas lack sufficient (legal) detail, while they are also centred on America, and hence limited to the perspective of an influential super power with large military capacity. Yet her writings show that fostering liberty in international relations can be done in several ways, and that different liberals have different ideas about the route towards that goal.

In Praise of Academia

This week I got the happy news that my article on Ayn Rand’s views on international relations was accepted for publication. Once it is posted ‘online first’, I shall write a bit about its content. For now I would like to make a two other points, though.

One of the reason for my happiness is that this article took an exceptional time to get accepted. I started working on it in 2010, doing the initial reading (in this case all published works of Ayn Rand). The actual drafting started in 2011, I solicited commentary, and came to an acceptable first version in 2013. To be sure: I did not work on the paper on a full time basis, and there were many other distractions, not least my day time job, other academic projects, and family affairs. Still, the article kept nagging in the back of my head, perhaps not daily, but certainly on a weekly basis. I got the first few rejections by journals in 2013, then again a few in 2015, and another one this summer. So reason enough to be happy to get accepted and all the more exciting to see it through the production phase in the coming months, with actual printed publication still in the somewhat distant future.

I am not writing this to congratulate myself in public. My reason for this blog is to show young (aspiring) scholars, that it is completely normal to work on a project for ages, and to get rejected a few times. Yet the reward is sweet. As long as you persevere, are ready to change and edit your text, overcome your anger when you get unjust blind reviews (and believe me: writing on Rand regularly solicits angry, malicious and/or erroneous responses, also from editors and reviewers of high ranked reputed journals), and keep the faith in the possible value of your modest contribution to the world’s knowledge base.

This is a lesson I learned from experience in the past decade or so. But early on, I also greatly benefitted from one of the best and useful guides to PhD research and academic life I have ever come across: LSE professor Patrick Dunleavy’s Authoring a PhD. It realistically describes what to expect of academic life, it’s ups and also it’s downs. So get it, if you are still unsure what to expect of academic life.

The other remark I would like to make is about the unique and open character of academic publishing. It is really great, as a part-time academic, to be able to get published in reputable journals. I am sure the editors of journals and presses are more keen to see academics from highly reputed universities submitting papers and book manuscripts. Yet they first and foremost value content. If you have something interesting to say, and live up to the academic standards, you will get the same chance and treatment as everybody else. That is pretty unique, compared to many other professions.

So: academia be praised!

Highly recommended work on Ayn Rand

Most scholarship on Ayn Rand has been of mediocre quality, according to Gregory Salmieri, the co-editor of A Companion to Ayn Rand, which is part of the series “Blackwell Companions to Philosophy.” The other co-editor of the volume is the late Allan Gotthelf, who died during it’s last preparatory stages.

The reasons for the poor scholarship are diverse. Of course Rand herself is a large element. She hardly ever participated in regular academic procedures, did not tolerate normal academic criticism on her work and strictly limited the number of people who could authoritatively ‘explain’ her Objectivist philosophy to herself and Nathaniel Branden. Before her death she appointed Leonard Peikoff as ‘literary heir’. She inspired fierce combat against the outside world among her closest followers, especially when others wrote about Rand in a way not to their liking. The result was that just a small circle of admirers wrote about her ideas, often in a non-critical way.

blog ayn rand

On the other hand, the ‘rest of the academy’ basically ignored her views, despite her continued popularity (especially in the US), her influence, particularly through her novels, and large sales, especially after the economic crisis of 2008. For sure, Objectivists remain a minority both inside and outside academia. Yet despite the strong disagreement with her ideas, it would still be normal to expect regular academic output by non-Randians on her work. Suffice it to point to the many obscure thinkers who have been elevated to the academic mainstream over the centuries. Yet Rand remains in the academic dark, the bias against her work is strong and influential. This said, there is a slight change visible. Some major presses have published books on Rand in the past years, with as prime examples the books by Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (2009), and Anne C Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made (2010). And this volume is another point in case.

One of the strong points of The Blackwell Companion on Ayn Rand is that the contributions meet all regular academic standards, despite the fact that the volume originates from the Randian inner circle. It offers proper explanation and analysis of her ideas and normal engagement with outside criticism. The little direct attack on interpretations or alleged errors of others is left to the end notes, albeit sometimes extensively. Let us say, in friendly fashion, that it proves hard to get rid of old habits!

It should not detract from the extensive, detailed, clearly written and plainly good quality of the 18 chapters in this companion, divided in 8 parts, covering overall context, ethics and human nature, society, the foundations of Objectivism, philosophers and their effects, art and a coda on the hallmarks of Objectivism. The only disadvantage is the large number of references to her two main novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which makes some acquaintance with these tomes almost prerequisite for a great learning experience. Still, as a non-Randian doing work on her political ideas, I underline that this companion offers academically sound information and analysis about the full range of Rand’s ideas. So, go read it if you are interested in this fascinating thinker.

Liberty and the Novel II (Austen and After)

(Click for Part I) In Austen’s novels, we find something ‘unheroic’ in that they are concerned with the search of upper class women, bound by codes of gentility, for both a satisfying place in the world and emotional authenticity through marriage. Though there is none of the religious fervour of Pilgrim’s Progress, the message is sent that an ideal community is a small rural community guided by sincerely godly priest, concerned with the daily lives of his congregation.

There is none of the extremism of Quixote’s fantasies and adventures, but the simultaneous process of  triumph over illusion and the growth of inner authenticity, is there in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey, as the characters find marriages worthy of their growing ethical capacities in self-judgement and judgement of others.

Ethical growth means confirming a place in the landowning classes and taking a decidedly ambiguous attitude to making new money in trade. Landed property and religion are the starting points of an ethically tolerable community for Austen. We can see the growth there of what we might now think of as social and political values based on self-ownership and individual responsibility though somewhat constrained by respect for earlier aristocratic expression of these values.

We can see a version of Lukács’ split between heroic progressive bourgeoise and backward looking conformist bourgeoise there. Though it is absurdly crude to take 1848 as the line of of separation between the two tendencies, it is useful to think about the distinction as it evolved over time, including the events of 1848. Over time the basic bourgeois goals of rule of law, individual rights, representative government, and free trade tend to be achieved. The word radical is used less and less for the advocate of bourgeois individualism and more and more for advocates of a socialist state.

In literature the themes of the individual triumphing over circumstances, enduring disaster, awaking from illusions, developing individual moral strength, and finding some moment of authenticity continues. The novel keeps developing as a form, but in many people’s opinion, including my own, it reaches a peak in the early twentieth century (James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann) which it has never matched, though ambitious and admirable novels continue to be written.

The more straight forward kinds of heroism are not so prevalent as in earlier novels, but the irony and ambiguity about heroism develops what was already in the genre and intensifies individualism, even while questioning it. Some of these writers were sympathetic to socialism though born into a largely bourgeois liberal world, at least compared with developments after World War One.

Coincidentally or not, this coincides with the transitions from a limited-state individualist nineteenth century liberal politics to the welfarist-administrative state we now know and which is stronger than ever, despite all the cries of ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘market fundamentalism’ that arise in reaction to any attempt to limit the statist drift.

There is a danger of rivaling Lukács’ tendency towards a moralising tendentious Marxism from a pro-liberty point of view, but I am anyway tempted to say that the reduction of the significance of the novel is a symptom of societies which aim to remove individual responsibility in the struggle with circumstances. Or I can put it in terms more amenable to those who welcome the welfarist-administrative tendency. The novel has lost some part of its significance as individualist ways of thinking are less influential in politics.

In fact I can wholly agree with this stereotypical imaginary progressive that Ayn Rand’s attempts to revive the grand individualist heroic aspects of the earlier novel are rather embarrassing. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (Aunt Julia and the ScriptwriterThe War of the End of the World, The Feast of the Goatetc), who is an eloquent liberty advocate, is a far better novelist, and is as good as anyone currently active, so still not rising to the level of the Modernist greats of about one hundred years ago. Liberty advocates are also part of this cultural shift or loss, however you prefer to see it.

(crossposted at Stockerblog)

Declining to Wed Gay Couples: Right or Wrong?

News item: the Georgia governor has just vetoed a bill that would, among other things, have allowed ministers to decline to wed gay couples.

What a tangle. Let’s see if we can sort things out.

First of all, many decent people, your humble servant included, find the concept of “gay marriage” troubling. I believe any two adults (or three or more) should be free to make any contract they like regarding sharing assets, pledging fidelity, and so forth. I just wish they wouldn’t call it “marriage.” That term is taken.

Second, hate is not a crime. Some people express repugnance or hatred for homosexuality. Ayn Rand called the practice immoral, an attitude that is hard to fathom in this day and age but perhaps understandable given the tenor of her times. Some go farther and express hatred for homosexuals per se. But as long as these people refrain from initiating force or fraud, they should not be molested. Boycotts, shunning, and criticism are legitimate responses to such people, but forcible restraint is not.

Third, rights are not granted by governments. Rights derive from our basic nature as humans, as thinkers such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard have so eloquently demonstrated. Contractual “rights” should have a different name, perhaps “privileges.” These are actions that have been legitimized by a voluntary agreement. Thus for example, no one has free speech “rights” on a campus. Students may have free speech “privileges” on a campus if the owners of the campus have granted that privilege in a written or implied contract.

Fourth, freedom of association is a basic human right, and includes freedom of dissociation, whether in personal or business relations. Some years ago I posted a defense of the late Lester Maddox who famously attempted to exclude blacks from his chicken restaurant. My post generated considerable blowback, but I stand by it and note that in this day and age, anyone who tried to exclude blacks would not be elected governor of Georgia as Maddox was, but instead lose most of his customers and close his doors.

In summary, no minister needs permission from the state to deny wedding services to a gay couple. And religion has nothing to do with it. Anyone should free to decline business or personal relationships with anyone, for any reason whatever, or for no reason at all.

From the Comments: Ayn Rand on extremism

I’m glad you highlighted the Ilya Somin/Will Wilkinson debate [here – bc], but I just found the whole thing so damn confused. I’m not a libertarian (or an Objectivist) but I ended up leaning more toward Somin than toward Wilkinson. But the real problem is that the terms “moderation” and “extremism” are left undefined throughout. Extremism in the pursuit of clarity is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of muddle is no virtue.

In that respect, at least, I think Ayn Rand’s analysis of “extremism” makes more sense than anything that either Somin or Wilkinson are saying. As she puts it, “‘extremism’ is a term which, standing by itself, has no meaning. The concept of ‘extreme’ denotes a relation, a measurement, a degree….It is obvious that the first question one has to ask, before using that term, is: a degree–of what?…Measurements, as such, have no value-significance–and acquire it only from the nature of that which is being measured” (Rand, Capitalism, pp. 196-97). The nature of what’s being measured is the one thing that neither Somin nor Wilkinson discuss (though Somin certainly comes closer). Which is why the debate they’ve having is relatively pointless.

Wilkinson treats his youthful encounter with Ayn Rand as nothing more than that. If he took a closer look at what she said, I think he’d find that there’s more there than he remembers.

That’s from the infamous Dr Khawaja, who does his blogging at the always excellent Policy of Truth group blog. You can find a link to Rand’s Capitalism here. I think Dr Khawaja is wrong to suggest that this debate is relatively pointless, though, at least to libertarians who care about electoral politics. I do agree with him that Wilkinson should revisit his familiarity with Rand’s work, though.

So you think war can be eliminated?

You might be one of those libertarians, or you belong to some other creed, who think war can be eliminated. For example through international trade, the better use of our ratio, or more influence for regular people on foreign policy decisions. In my own work I have tried to make clear all of these claims are false, and many related ones as well. This is all in the writings of Hume, Smith, Hayek or Rand. The base line is that in human nature reason cannot overcome the emotions, at least, not with all people, at all times. This means that conflict is one of the perpetual characteristics of human action, both in domestic and international settings.

In the unlikely case you do not want to take my word for it, read this book. Coker is a professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specializing in the study of war. In this short but powerful book, he clearly sets out the different reasons why war will not be eliminated, providing evolutionary, cultural, technological, geopolitical and a number of other reasons. Buy it, and your world view and view of human nature will be even more aligned to the great classical liberals.

http://www.amazon.com/Can-War-Eliminated-Christopher-Coker/dp/0745679234/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1424447372&sr=8-1&keywords=can+war+be+eliminated