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Should Tea Partiers Abandon or Embrace Ayn Rand?

This essay is part of a compilation ebook, Objectivism, available at Amazon.com or free with any subscription to TOS.

In a recent Christian Science Monitor editorial, Vladimir Shlapentokh suggests that the popularity of Ayn Rand among Tea Partiers should “concern all Americans” and recommends that Tea Partiers distance themselves from the 20th-century philosopher and novelist. Why?

According to Shlapentokh, Ayn Rand was an “elitist” who held that “the American nobility” and “Ivy League graduates” should have “the decisive voice in American politics.” This “oligarchic philosophy,” claims Shlapentokh, “is both fundamentally antiAmerican and deeply at odds with the tea party’s own ‘we the people’ cause.” In fact, says Shlapentokh, Rand and tea partiers “have very nearly opposite views on the desired political system”:  Whereas Rand “sneers at democracy and majority rule,“ Tea Partiers defend “the fundamental principles of democracy as they were promulgated in the American Constitution—a fundamental point of departure from Rand.”

But Shlapentokh’s account of both Rand’s and the Founders’ political views is patently false. In fact, far from being “nearly opposite” as Shlapentokh suggests, they are essentially the same.

It should come as no surprise that Shlapentokh does not quote Rand regarding her political views, because nothing she ever said or wrote could honestly be taken as championing the elitist politics he ascribes to her. Rand’s political philosophy, as she makes clear in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and other works, is not founded on oligarchic rule but on the principle of individual rights. According to this principle, each individual morally must be left free to pursue his happiness so long as he does not infringe on the freedom of others to do the same. In Rand’s words, an individual’s right

is the moral sanction of a positive—of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights (source).

Because she recognized that “rights can be violated only by means of force,” Rand advocated laissez-faire capitalism, in which government protects rights by banning physical force from human relationships.

In a capitalist society, no man or group may initiate the use of physical force against others. The only function of the government, in such a society, is the task of protecting man’s rights, i.e., the task of protecting him from physical force; the government acts as the agent of man’s right of self-defense, and may use force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use; thus the government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of force under objective control (source).

Thus, a cursory investigation of Rand’s thought reveals that her actual political philosophy is completely incompatible with the social system Shlapentokh attributes to her—one in which political elites are empowered to violate the rights of others.

Shlapentokh’s characterization of the political philosophy at America’s founding is also inaccurate. He suggests that America’s distinguishing characteristic is “democracy and majority rule,” when its distinguishing characteristic is, in fact, the same as that of Rand’s politics—the principle of individual rights. As is clear from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Founders’ writings, America was established as a rights-respecting republic, not a democracy. The democratic element of the original American system was merely a procedural aspect of government, not a means by which a majority may impose its will on individuals. In a true democracy, as James Madison, the father of the Constitution, noted,

there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property . . . (source)

The Founders recognized that there is no fundamental difference between a single tyrant (monarchy), ten tyrants (oligarchy), or two million tyrants (democracy)—and so they engineered the United States as best they could to avoid such tyranny. Unfortunately, as many Tea Partiers and other Americans recognize, America has, through no fault of the Founders, drifted away from their rights-respecting ideal and toward the right-violating majority rule of which Madison warned.

Shlapentokh notes that “Tea partiers portray themselves as ordinary Americans fed up with an out-of-control, deeply indebted welfare state” whose leaders “talk about restoring America to the vision of the founding founders [sic].” If this is indeed what Tea Partiers want, then they should study Ayn Rand’s politics rather than dismiss her on the basis of Shlapentokh’s mischaracterizations. In doing so, Tea Partiers will find that there is no better intellectual underpinning for their movement than that provided by Rand, the only prominent intellectual of the past century to recognize and champion the moral significance of the principle of individual rights: the fact that it enables every man, from magnates of industry to hourly laborers, to pursue his happiness without the interference of political “elites” or a political majority or anyone else.

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