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Force versus Egoism and Happiness: Response to Will Wilkinson on Ayn Rand

Commenting on the recent revival of interest in Ayn Rand, libertarian blogger Will Wilkinson recently asserted that while “Rand’s emphasis on the role of individual rights in generating creativity and entrepreneurial effort remains enlightening,” her moral justification for individual rights fails. Wilkinson, himself a former Ayn Rand enthusiast who became disenchanted with Objectivism, dismisses Rand’s argument with stunning brevity:

On the face of it, Rand needs to solve the compliance problem—why should a rational egoist comply with constraints on self-interested action?—and the way to solve the compliance problem is to show that mutual restraint is generally to mutual advantage. But I don’t think Rand ever shows this. Instead she goes off the rails trying to argue that rational thought, and therefore a distinctively human life, is impossible in the absences [sic] of a strong version of the non-coercion principle, and that predation or parasitism are never in an individual’s self-interest. None of that is convincing. (A strong version of the non-coercion principle is not in effect, but we’re doing fine thinking rationally and living human lives. Lots of people live long and satisfying lives of institutionalized parasitism and predation, especially in and around Washington, DC.)

Wilkinson’s objection unjustly attributes a bizarre kind of naiveté to Rand’s argument. Does Wilkinson really believe that in Rand’s view all rational thought and happiness must cease immediately in a society that adopts even the tiniest amount of coercion? This interpretation is difficult to square with Atlas Shrugged, in which John Galt, Hank Rearden, and Dagny Taggart make important discoveries, produce innovations, and at least at times draw substantial happiness from these achievements, in spite of the coercion to which they are subject.

Rand’s point, quite obviously, is that the greater the extent of force used against individuals, the less they are able to act on their own judgment, and thus the less happy they can be. As Leonard Peikoff summarizes in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand

In all its forms and degrees, from private crimes to the incursions of the welfare state to full dictatorship, the principle is the same: physical force, to the extent it is wielded or threatened, denies to its victim the power to act in accordance with his judgment.

In the context of the present mixed economy, Wilkinson’s contention that we are “doing fine thinking rationally and living human lives” is ridiculous. Surely we are doing better than cave men and Medieval serfs, but as the present financial crisis illustrates, we could obviously be doing a lot better—and the crisis is demonstrably a result of government coercion.

Wilkinson’s only remotely plausible objection is his allegation that Rand’s egoist has no reason to refrain from coercion because it seems as though he can profit from predation and parasitism. The example of comfortable beltway bureaucrats feeding off the public trough could lend one pause. But how are we to evaluate Wilkinson’s smug contention that these people live satisfying lives—and his implication that they would not live better lives if they were producers rather than plunderers?

Wilkinson is a fan of empirical “happiness studies,” which measure people’s self-reported happiness under different social and economic conditions. He is happy to trot out empirical evidence alleging that people in richer countries are happier than those in poorer ones, that those in less-religious countries are happier than those in more-religious ones, and that those in more-individualist cultures are happier than those in more-collectivist cultures. On one occasion, Wilkinson even provided evidence in support of the idea that people who earned their wealth reported greater satisfaction than those who inherited it or otherwise obtained it through luck. Why would this not bear on our evaluation of the happiness of those comfortable beltway bureaucrats?

Of course all of this data comes to little, because happiness is not merely the short-term feeling of satisfaction one might enjoy while sitting in comfortable house, or the elation of winning political power over the producers—and self-reported happiness is far from objective data. Wilkinson himself admits that we can be wrong about how happy we are. If that’s true, then we’d better not measure the self-interest of an act by the extent to which it affords us temporary material comfort or superficial self-satisfaction. Instead we must appeal to philosophic principles that measure the value of an action or policy to the life of a being who survives by reason—principles such as the virtues of independence, production, honesty, and integrity—none of which support the initiation of force.

Happiness is not a fundamental standard of value, though it is a consequence of the achievement of values. Contrary to Wilkinson’s claim that Rand never sought to understand the relationship between the use of force and the achievement of one’s own happiness, her most crucial passage on the matter defines happiness as “a state of non-contradictory joy” and connects directly to the question of predation or parasitism on others:

Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions.

Just as I support my life, neither by robbery nor alms, but by my own effort, so I do not seek to derive my happiness from the injury or the favor of others, but earn it by my own achievement. Just as I do not consider the pleasure of others as the goal of my life, so I do not consider my pleasure as the goal of the lives of others. Just as there are no contradictions in my values and no conflicts among my desires—so there are no victims and no conflicts of interest among rational men, men who do not desire the unearned and do not view one another with a cannibal’s lust, men who neither make sacrifices nor accept them.

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