Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed, edited by Marlene Podritske and Peter Schwartz. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009. 270 pp. $29.95 (paperback).
People today sense that something is wrong with the world and are searching for answers. What they generally find is disappointing. Skeptics tell us that there is no clear-cut right and wrong in any issue, that all issues are “complex,” that wisdom consists of dropping the notion that there are absolute truths. The most prevalent alternative to the skeptical, relativist position comes from religionists, who accept the existence of absolute truths but insist that they may be found only within a religious framework—a belief in a supernatural being who is the source of truth and morality. Both camps agree that absolutes cannot be discovered by a rational process. Both camps agree that morality consists of selfless service to others. Both camps support the welfare state.
Ayn Rand rejects all these claims and sweeps aside both skepticism and mysticism. Her philosophy, Objectivism, holds that reality is an objective absolute, independent of anyone’s beliefs or feelings; that reason, based on the evidence of the senses, is our only means of knowing reality and, consequently, our only proper guide to action; that each man is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others, and, therefore, that the pursuit of his own rational self-interest and happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life; that the proper political system is that of laissez-faire capitalism, in which men deal with one another as “traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit.”1 The reader may find the elucidation of her philosophical principles and their application in her novels, essays, and cultural commentary.
Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed is a recent addition to this body of work. It is a collection of radio and television interviews conducted with Ayn Rand from 1932 to 1981, in which she applies Objectivism to current events. Starting with her earliest known interview at age twenty-seven, it goes on to include a series of interviews conducted with her at Columbia University from 1962 to 1966, in which students and professors asked her questions on the principles of Objectivism and their application. It also includes a series of interviews in various media, ranging from the 1959 interview with Mike Wallace to her final public appearance, a 1981 interview with Louis Rukeyser. The epilogue is an interview with Dr. Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s best student, heir, and the leading exponent of her philosophy, in which he recounts his thirty-year professional and personal association with her.
Among the topics Rand discusses in her interviews are the political structure of a free society, the American constitution, objective law, the nature of capitalism and various myths about it, why political conservatives are worse enemies of capitalism than the leftists, the crucial need for a free press, proper foreign policy, the moral nature of businessmen, education, the arts, the nature of humor, the foundations of morality, individual rights, and many others.
For example, in one interview from the 1960s, during a discussion of the origin of individual rights, Rand is asked to elucidate her rejection of various alleged “rights,” such as rights to a minimum wage, free education and medical care, and the like. She explains that because jobs, education, medical care, and other goods and services do not grow on trees but are produced and provided by individuals and businesses, a “right” to these things means that the providers are to be forced to serve those who allegedly have a right to the largesse, which is slavery. “Nobody can have a right to the unearned. . . . [These things] can only come from other men—and nobody may claim the right to enslave others” (pp. 154–55). She explains that the only political-economic system in which force is banished from human relations is the system of laissez-faire capitalism, in which men deal with one another as traders, voluntarily exchanging value for value to mutual benefit.
Discussing the nature of capitalism and debunking the myths that surround it, Rand answers the allegation that government must regulate the economy in order to prevent financial crises: “Depressions and panics are the result of government intervention in the economy—specifically, government manipulation of credit and money. That was the cause of the Depression of 1929. Once more, it is capitalism that is taking the blame for the evils created by its opposite: statist intervention” (p. 42). In order to prevent financial crises, she counsels, the government must stay out of the economy.
In discussions of current events, Ayn Rand does not dwell on irrelevant details of a given situation, but immediately penetrates to its root. For instance, in her comments on the cause of the Great Depression, she does not regard the differences between this particular crash and others as important, but identifies the common cause of all economic crises: government intervention in the economy. Because she identified fundamental causes, Rand’s commentary on the Great Depression is just as pertinent to our current financial crisis eighty years later. Similarly, her recognition of the fact that people are not entitled to free goods and services is just as pertinent to President Obama’s current medical care proposal—or to any other intrusive plans by future political administrations. Rand’s method of illuminating the fundamental of a specific problem allows her to find solutions to other problems that share the fundamental, even if they greatly differ in detail from the initial problem.
Because she is an unequivocal defender of the free market, Rand sometimes has been mistakenly lumped together with political conservatives. She is quick to dissociate herself from them, arguing that, in fact, conservatives cause great harm to capitalism.
Many conservatives tie their political views to religion. They claim that a belief in God provides the justification for rights, freedom, and capitalism. Nothing could be more disastrous to the cause of capitalism. Tying capitalism to faith means that capitalism cannot be justified in reason. A conservative who claims that his case rests on faith declares that reason is on the side of his enemies—that one can oppose collectivism only on the grounds of mystical faith. To the extent that anyone accepts this argument, he is forced to reject capitalism—if he is a man who wants to be rational. Therefore, these alleged defenders of capitalism are pushing potential sympathizers to the exact opposite side (p. 16).
Religion is harmful, she argues, because it is a rejection of reason, an embrace of a supernatural realm and ruler for whose existence there is no evidence, and a consequent rejection of this world and this life: “Religion [necessarily leads people into abandoning the rational method] because you cannot be rational and at the same time believe in something outside the power of your reason” (p. 218).
Religious belief has existed throughout recorded history, and today it is again on the rise. In a 1967 interview with Johnny Carson, Carson proposes a possible explanation for the widespread presence of religion: Perhaps religious belief fulfills some deep-seated psychological need. Rand counters that human beings do, in fact, have a certain need but that religion does not fulfill it: “The actual need is for a conscious philosophy of life. Man is a conceptual being. He can’t exist range-of-the-moment. He needs a larger view, a long-range plan. By default of rational principles, he falls on religion, because that is all that is offered to him” (p. 192). She argues that what we need is not the invention of a mystical universe, but instruction on how to navigate our lives in the only universe that exists: the one apprehended by our senses and understood by reason. Such instruction is the proper purpose of philosophy, but most philosophers had only bred confusion rather than clarification. Objectivism, by contrast, offers just the instruction needed—which is why Rand calls it the philosophy for living on earth.2
Objectively Speaking will be of great value to readers ranging from those unfamiliar with Ayn Rand’s philosophy to longtime Objectivists. Those unfamiliar with Objectivism will get a glimpse of how Rand’s ideas make sense of today’s confusing maelstrom of events and issues by zeroing in on the essentials of a situation and thus cutting through the chaos of nonessentials tossed around and debated by most intellectuals and politicians. Ayn Rand is a wonderful teacher, making the most complex subjects easy to understand; she accomplishes this even in extemporaneous presentations, such as these interviews. This book serves as an excellent introduction to her ideas and intellectual method. Longtime Objectivists will discover new, previously unpublished material by Ayn Rand and see, once again, her remarkable mind in action with respect to a wide variety of issues.
But the value of this book lies not only in elucidation. It is also a call to action, an exhortation to change the world. An interviewer once asked Rand what each individual could do to help achieve a rational society. She replied:
The answer is implied right in your question. He should first of all make himself as rational a human being as possible. He should clarify his own ideas; he should organize his thinking into a coherent frame of reference; he should eliminate contradictions. He should convince himself of his own basic premises, and then proceed to enlarge his knowledge and share it with others to the extent he can. . . .
I suggest to anyone interested in Objectivism that he study it, weigh its basic premises and convince himself by his own critical judgment that it is true. Then he can proceed to spread those ideas further by every means open to him—by private discussions, by sending letters to editors, by writing articles and books, by making speeches and giving lectures, by any means consonant with his own profession.
It is actions of this kind that constitute a culture. And if you want to change the culture, it is precisely by individual enlightenment and individual action that you can do so. And I will certainly wish you success (p. 165).