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Journalistic Jabberwocky: The Classificatory Nonsense of Kay S. Hymowitz

In an article titled “Freedom Fetishists: The Cultural Contradictions of Libertarianism”— which has been published in both Commentary and the Wall Street Journal—Kay S. Hymowitz has labeled Ayn Rand a “libertarian.” This would be unworthy of comment were it not for the fact that, as Rand herself put it, “the uncontested absurdities of today are the accepted slogans of tomorrow.” So, for Hymowitz’s own edification (in case ignorance was the problem), and especially for the sake of those readers who might be misled by her piece, I wish to point out a few readily available facts that Hymowitz either remarkably does not know or conveniently ignored. (There are myriad errors in Hymowitz’s article; I will address only the most egregious of them.)

Rand was emphatically not a libertarian; she was a “radical for capitalism”—radical here meaning one who “goes to the root of” capitalism—capitalism being the social system of individual rights, including property rights, protected by a strictly limited government. Under capitalism, physical force is banned from social relationships; the use of force is delegated to the government, which may use it only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. Although, like libertarians, Rand held that the initiation of force is wrong and should be banned, unlike libertarians, she recognized that this truth is not an irreducible primary or an axiom. Rand expended a great deal of effort demonstrating that this principle is a derivative principle—a principle that presupposes and depends on an entire moral and philosophical system—a system that she developed, codified, and called Objectivism.

Rand wrote many letters, several essays, and a few books explaining that the impropriety of initiatory force is based on deeper truths. These deeper truths include, in descending order: the principle that each individual has a moral right to act on his own judgment; the principle that the only thing that can stop an individual from acting on his own judgment is physical force; the principle that each individual morally should act in his own rational best interest; the principle that the life of the individual is the standard of moral value; the principle that an individual’s choice to live is what gives rise to the possibility and need of moral principles; and the principle that man’s use of reason (i.e., his judgment) is his basic means of living. Each of these principles is integrated with and supported by an entire system of observation-based philosophy that underlies and gives rise to the principle that the initiation of physical force is morally wrong and properly illegal.

But libertarians will have none of it. All that philosophy stuff, they argue, is too complex, too controversial, too restrictive, too problematic; we need a big tent that includes all people who are for liberty—regardless of any other ideas they may embrace—regardless of whether they advocate egoism or altruism or hedonism or relativism—regardless of whether they are guided by reason or faith or feelings. In the words of twice-nominee-of-the-libertarian-party Harry Brown: “It’s a pretend game for us to discuss what is morally right and wrong…. [Libertarians] want to minimize the use of force in solving social and political problems…. and we’re not going to solve them by discussing philosophy.”

Although libertarians claim that the initiation of force is “wrong” and “should” be banned and that liberty is “right” and “shouldn’t” be impeded, they either brush aside philosophy or, if they do consider it, reject the possibility of objectivity therein. Either way, they treat the “non-initiation-of-force” principle as an irreducible primary, a starting point beneath which one need not or cannot venture. As to where concepts such as “wrong” and “right” come from and how they can have any objective meaning apart from an objective moral code that is based on an objective standard of value that is based on an objective standard of knowledge, libertarians have nothing to say. In short, libertarians pay lip-service to the political principles of freedom, but they ignore or deny the more basic philosophical principles on which those political principles depend.

Far from being in cahoots with this anti-intellectual movement, Rand identified the central fallacy by means of which libertarianism proceeds, and she condemned the movement accordingly. Libertarianism survives and propagates by means of what Rand called the fallacy of “concept-stealing,” which consists in using a concept while ignoring or denying more fundamental ideas on which that concept logically depends. Libertarians steal multiple concepts—“wrong,” “right,” “should,” and “liberty” to name just a few—by using them while ignoring or denying the entire field of ethics, the need of an objective standard of value, and the need of an objective standard of knowledge. (If you doubt this, ask a libertarian to specify the objective standard by reference to which the initiation of force is “wrong” or liberty is “right” or the like.) Indeed, concept-stealing is so essential to the movement that libertarianism is properly defined as the anti-intellectual ideology that attempts to advocate liberty while ignoring or denying the moral and philosophical foundation on which the concept of liberty depends.

That Rand condemned libertarianism on these (and other) grounds is common knowledge among intellectuals concerned with liberty. (It is even common knowledge among libertarians, but that is another matter.) So why does Hymowitz categorize Rand as a libertarian? Does she genuinely not know what Rand wrote and stood for? That would seem odd since Hymowitz has written a piece ridiculing Rand’s (alleged) ideas. Might it be the case, then, that Hymowitz knows full well what Rand actually said but chooses to evade this knowledge in order to smear Rand and avoid confronting her actual ideas? One can only speculate.

What is certain, however, is that Hymowitz’s own ideology—conservatism—cannot withstand the spread of Rand’s actual ideas. What is also certain is that, if Hymowitz’s classification of Rand as a libertarian was an honest error, then, in the light of this and other articles that have brought relevant facts to bear on her falsehoods, Hymowitz owes Rand a public apology—which should be forthcoming in the pages of both Commentary and the Wall Street Journal. If Hymowitz remains silent on the issue, her silence will speak for itself.

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