Author’s note: This is chapter 7 of my book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002), which is an introduction to Ayn Rand’s morality of rational egoism. Chapters 1–6 were reprinted in prior issues of TOS.
We have seen that being moral consists in being self-interested—acting in a life-promoting manner. We have also seen that what most fundamentally makes life-furthering actions possible to human beings is rational thinking. In order to live, we have to use our mind to discover the requirements of our life, and we have to act accordingly. We begin this chapter with the question: What can prevent us from acting on our judgment? What can stop us from employing our means of survival?
Observe that if you are alone on an island, nothing can stop you from acting on your judgment. If you decide that you should acquire some food, you are free to make a spear and go hunting, fashion some tackle and go fishing, or plant a garden and tend to it. And if you obtain food, you are free to eat it, save it, or discard it. Likewise, if you decide that you should build a shelter, you are free to gather materials and construct one. And if you do, you are free to live in it, build an addition onto it, or tear it down. Alone on an island, you are free to act according to the judgment of your mind.
But suppose another person shows up on the island, grabs you, and ties you to a tree. Clearly, you are no longer free to act on your judgment: If you had planned to go hunting, you cannot go. If you had planned to build a shelter, you cannot build it. Whatever your plans were, they are now ruined. And if you are not freed from your bondage, you will soon die.
The brute’s force has come between your planning and your acting, between your thinking and your doing. You can no longer act on your judgment; you can no longer act as your life requires; you can no longer live as a human being. Of course, the brute could feed you and keep you breathing; but a “life” of bondage is not a human life. A human life is a life guided by the judgment of one’s own mind.
In order to live as human beings, we have to be able to act on our judgment; wild animals aside, the only thing that can stop us from doing so is other people; and the only way they can stop us is by using physical force.
Consider another example. A girl is walking to the store intent on using her money to buy some groceries when a man jumps out from an alley, points a gun at her head, and says: “Give me your purse, or die.” Now the girl cannot act according to her plan. Either she is going to give her purse to the thief, or she is going to get shot in the head. In any event, she is not going grocery shopping. By placing a gun between the girl and her goal, the thief is forcing her to act against her judgment—against her means of survival. If she hands her purse to him, and if he flees without shooting her, she can resume acting on her judgment—but, importantly: not with respect to the stolen money. While the thief may be gone, the effect of his force remains. By keeping the girl’s money, he continues to prevent her from spending it; and to that extent, he continues to stop her from acting on her judgment. This ongoing force does not thwart the girl’s life totally, but it does thwart her life partially: If she had her money, she would either spend it or save it; but since the thief has her money, she can do neither. She cannot use her money as she chooses, and her life is, to that degree, retarded.
Physical force comes in degrees, and to whatever degree it is used against a person, it impedes his ability to act on his judgment; it prevents him from employing his means of survival; it stops him from living fully as a human being.
Observe further that physical force comes not only in degrees, but also in kinds: direct, as in the above examples; and indirect, as in the following case.
Suppose a man reads a newspaper advertisement for a used car and goes to check it out. The owner assures the man that the car’s odometer reading is correct; this, however, is not true, and the owner knows it because he turned back the mileage himself. As far as the man can tell, though, the owner is being honest, and everything seems to be in order; so he buys the car and drives it away. But notice that the man is not driving the car he bargained for; he is not driving the car he was willing to buy. Unbeknownst to him, he is driving a different car—one with higher mileage than the one for which he was willing to pay. By lying to the man about the car’s mileage and by selling it to him on the basis of that false information, the crook has defrauded the man. Since the man’s willingness to exchange his money for the car was based partly on the crook’s lie, the crook has gained and is now keeping the man’s money against his will. In so doing, the crook is physically forcing the man to act against his judgment. By fraudulently taking and keeping the man’s money, the crook is physically preventing him from spending or saving it as he otherwise would.
Fraud, the act of gaining or keeping someone’s property by means of deception, is a form of indirect physical force. It is physical force, because, although indirect, it physically impedes the victim’s ability to act fully on his judgment. Other types of indirect physical force include: extortion, the act of gaining or keeping someone’s property by distant threat of force; copyright and patent infringements, acts of misusing someone’s intellectual property (and thus impinging on his ability to act on it); slander, the act of making false statements that damage a person’s reputation (and thereby retarding his ability to act on it); unilateral breach of contract, the act of refusing to deliver goods or services one has agreed to deliver; and so forth. In all such cases, although the force is indirect, it is still physical: When and to the degree it is used, it physically prevents the victim from acting according to his judgment.
Whether direct or indirect, physical force used against a person stops him from living fully as a human being: To the extent it is used, it prevents him from employing his means of survival—the judgment of his mind. And, of course, lone thugs and crooks are not the only perpetrators of such force: Groups and governments can participate, too.
For example, suppose a woman residing in a country under the theocratic rule of the Islamic Taliban (or some similar “authority”) decides that she wants to open a restaurant and begins planning the venture. But along comes a Taliban agent who tells the woman that, according to God’s law, women are not allowed to run businesses, and that if she attempts to open a restaurant, she will be beaten bloody and thrown in jail. Now the woman cannot act on her judgment. The Taliban’s threat poses real physical obstacles—a beating and the walls of a jail—between her thinking and her doing. Her “alternative” is now either to act against her judgment or to be pummeled and caged. In other words, her alternative is to act against her judgment or to act against her judgment: Either she is going to refrain from opening a restaurant, or she is going to be pounded and impounded—and thus restrained from opening a restaurant. So long as the Taliban’s threat is credible, she cannot act on her plan.
Now, what if the agent goes further and tells the woman that, according to God’s law, if she seeks even to get a job, she will be beaten and jailed? Then the woman is even more paralyzed. And what if the agent goes still further and says that if she so much as leaves her house she will suffer the same “Holy” consequences? Then the woman is effectively in the same position as are you on the island tied to the tree: completely incapacitated. So long as the Taliban’s threat is credible, so long as it is backed by the power to successfully use physical force to stop the woman from acting on her judgment, she cannot act on her judgment; she cannot act as her life requires; she cannot live as a human being. Granted, while confined to her home—if she does not commit suicide, which is what many women who are this oppressed do—she might continue to breathe; but a “life” under house arrest is not a human life. A human life is a life guided by the judgment of one’s own mind.
Here is the principle: To whatever degree physical force (or the credible threat thereof) is used against a person, it stops him from acting on his judgment; the greater the force, the less human a life he can live.
Take another example. Suppose a man in communist China wants to start a newspaper that accurately reports to the world the horrific practices of the Chinese government. He diligently investigates the government’s activities and gathers some relevant facts surrounding such atrocities as its torturing of political prisoners, its butchering of students in Tiananmen Square, its forcing of women to have abortions, and its drowning of babies in front of their parents. He then begins writing the first edition of his paper, which he plans to print and distribute at large. But the government hears of his plans and sends an official to knock on his door. The official informs the man that, according to the laws of communist China, if he prints one “unfavorable” word about the government, he will be placed in a laogai (a “reeducation” prison). Now the man cannot start his newspaper. So long as the Communists have the power to enforce their laws, the man cannot act on his plan. Regardless of whatever else they might permit him to do, he cannot act fully as he thinks he should act; thus, he cannot live fully as a human being.
This is why countless people risk their lives trying to escape from theocratic and communist regimes. Even when such governments are not torturing and slaughtering people for “God’s higher purpose” or “society’s greater good,” their very existence contradicts the basic social requirement of human life: the need of freedom to act on the judgment of one’s mind. By physically forcing people to act against their own judgment, such governments make it impossible for them to live fully as human beings. A citizen’s consolation for not being murdered by these regimes is a subhuman existence.
The ability to act on one’s judgment is an objective requirement of human life. To the extent this ability is impeded, one’s life is proportionally retarded.
Now, let us consider some situations in a freer part of the world: the United States.
Suppose a man in Virginia is diagnosed with a deadly disease for which he is told there is no known cure. And suppose the prognosis is that he has only a few months to live. He frantically begins searching for any possible solution to the problem, and soon discovers on the Internet that there is a doctor in New Jersey who claims to have developed an effective treatment for the disease. The man downloads the doctor’s research data, reviews it carefully, and feels a sense of relief: In his judgment, the treatment looks quite promising. He calls the doctor and asks to contract with him to begin receiving it immediately. But the doctor informs the man that—as confident as he is about the efficacy of the treatment, and as much as he would like to do business with the man—he cannot dispense the medication, because, if he does, he will go to jail.
“Surely this is some kind of sick humor,” says the dying man.
“I wish it were,” explains the doctor, “but it is not. The problem is that the so-called experts at the Food and Drug Administration have not approved the treatment; therefore, I am not allowed to prescribe it, and you are not allowed to receive it.”
“What? Are you telling me that even though I, a dying man, want the treatment and am willing to pay for it—and even though you, a medical doctor, want to treat me and are confident you can save my life—we cannot do business together because some goddamned government agency has not given us permission?”
“Regrettably,” says the doctor, “that is the case. And shy of changing or breaking the law, there is nothing we can do about it. I’m sorry. Very sorry.”
So long as the FDA’s regulation exists and is backed by the government’s power to enforce it, the medical doctor cannot sell the treatment, and the dying man cannot buy it. Neither man can act as he thinks he should act; neither man can act on the judgment of his own mind; neither man can live fully as a human being; and, consequently, one of them is soon going to die.
The issue of people being forced to act against their own judgment is a matter of life and death. In some cases, such force results in a subhuman existence; in other cases, it means going out of existence; in any event, it is an issue that we who wish to live as human beings need to take seriously. Very seriously.
One more example.
Suppose a company in Seattle develops a software program so useful to people that it renders its rivals’ software products obsolete. And suppose the company offers this software for sale on terms that its customers appreciate—but that its rivals do not. Importantly: The company does not use any kind of physical force against anyone. Nor does it ask the government to do so. Its customers remain free to negotiate the terms of sale and to buy its products—or not. And its rivals remain free to develop new products and to adjust their terms of sale—or not. In other words, the company deals with its customers only voluntarily—by mutual consent and to mutual advantage. And it outperforms its competition solely on economic grounds—by creating better software and offering it for sale on shrewder terms.
Unhappy with this situation, the company’s rivals pressure the U.S. government to “do something” about what they call the company’s “anti-competitive practices,” “unfair sales terms,” and “predatory pricing.” So the government, backed by its massive power to enforce its laws, tells the successful company that according to the latest interpretation of U.S. antitrust law, the company can no longer create and market its software according to its own judgment. “From now on,” says the government, “your production procedures and sales terms will be dictated partly by us, the U.S. government. We are going to level the playing field, increase competition, and make terms more fair for everyone.”
“But,” says the company’s CEO, “we have not used any kind of physical force against anyone. We have simply created a product that people like and are selling it to them on terms they are willing to accept. Our competitors are free to compete with us—or not. And our customers are free to buy our products—or not. We do not use clubs or guns; we use logic and trade. What could be more ‘level’ a playing field than one on which no one uses physical force against anyone? What could be more ‘competitive’ a market than one in which everyone is free to think and produce to the best of his ability? And what terms could be more ‘fair’ for everyone than those on which people and businesses voluntarily agree to trade?”
“Well,” says the government, “it’s only natural that you would take such a biased position. After all, you’re driven by profit; you’re out for your own self-interest. Our antitrust intervention, on the other hand, is altruistic; it’s in the best interest of the community; it’s for the common good.”
“Of course we’re driven by profit,” says the CEO. “We’re a business. And of course we’re out for our self-interest. That’s what being moral is all about. That’s what human life requires. We are not social workers, but software producers. We are not in business for the so-called ‘common good’; we are in business for ourselves; we are in business to succeed and grow rich. Anyway, the good of others cannot be achieved by our sacrifice. As Ayn Rand put the principle: ‘No one’s welfare can be achieved by anyone’s sacrifice.’ The bottom line is that our products are our property—not yours or the ‘community’s.’ So please: Stay out of our way. Laissez-nous faire. (Let us alone.)”
“No,” says the government. “We are the law around here. Whatever we say goes, and if you don’t like it: tough. If we say that you cannot continue to produce and market your software on your own selfish terms, then you can’t. If we say that you are going to sacrifice for the whole of which you are merely a part, then that is what you are going to do. That’s the law. And if you break it, we’ll throw you and your executives in jail.”
“But,” persists the (unfortunately fictional) CEO, “how can a law be valid when it contradicts the basic social requirement of human life—one’s need of freedom to act on one’s judgment? How can we not be allowed to act as human life requires and still be expected to live as human beings? And how can an American law be valid when it contradicts the fundamental principle of America—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? How can we simultaneously have that right and not have it? Don’t you see the glaring contradictions here?”
“Never mind ‘basic requirements,’ ‘principles,’ and ‘contradictions,’” says the government. “Your fancy talk will get you nowhere with us. The debate is over. You have been warned.”
Clearly, the company can no longer act according to its plans. The threat of physical force—incarceration—has come between its executives’ thinking and their doing. They are no longer able to act fully according to their own judgment; they are no longer able to act fully as their life requires; they are no longer able to live fully as human beings.
To the extent physical force is used against people, their ability to function as human beings is impeded if not eliminated. If the force is total—such as in the case of a person being tied to a tree, or held at gunpoint, or placed under house arrest, or carted off to a concentration camp—then it precludes the possibility of human life altogether. And if the force is partial—such as in the case of a person being defrauded, or a doctor and patient being legally forbidden to contract with each other, or a software company being legally forbidden to produce and market its goods according to its own judgment—then it retards human life to that degree. In any case, when physical force is used against a person, he is unable to act fully according to the judgment of his mind; thus, he is unable to live fully as a human being.
Now observe the moral premises underlying the various instances of physical force we have considered. The brute on the island, the mugger with the gun, and the dishonest used-car salesman are acting on the premise of: “I am the moral law. If I say something, it goes.” That’s personal subjectivism. The Islamic Taliban are acting on the premise of: “God’s will is the moral law. If we (God’s representatives) say something, it goes.” That’s “supernatural” subjectivism. The communist Chinese are acting on the premise of: “The Community’s will is the moral law. If we (the Community’s representatives) say something, it goes.” That’s social subjectivism. The FDA is acting on the premise of: “Our Agency’s will is the medical law. If we (who are expressly not you or your doctor) say that something or other is good or bad for your health, then it is.” That’s, well, let’s just call it a bureaucratic instance of Voltaire’s dictum that if we believe in absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.
And on what moral premise is the U.S. government acting in the situation regarding the successful software-company? What moral “justification” does the government offer for prohibiting the company’s executives from acting on their own judgment?
To review: The government has claimed that it is going to “level the playing field, increase competition, and make terms more fair for everyone.” But recall that it has failed to answer the CEO’s very straightforward questions: “What could be more ‘level’ a playing field than one on which no one uses physical force against anyone? What could be more ‘competitive’ a market than one in which everyone is free to think and produce to the best of his ability? And what terms could be more ‘fair’ for everyone than those on which people and businesses voluntarily agree to trade?” Instead of answering these questions, the government has resorted to the empty claim that its interference in the company’s business activities is “for the common good.” How does this claim square with the moral principle that no one’s welfare can be achieved by anyone’s sacrifice? The government has given no answer. Nor has it explained how its use of physical force against the company reconciles with the basic social requirement of human life—or with the fundamental principle of America. In place of all these missing explanations, the government has said blithely: “The debate is over. You have been warned.”
So, regardless of the fact that the company has not used any kind of physical force against anyone—regardless of the fact that it has not used any clubs or guns, but only logic and trade—regardless of the fact that it has dealt with its customers only on voluntary terms and has outperformed its rivals solely on economic grounds—the government is nevertheless physically forcing the company to act against its judgment; and the only “justification” the government has given for this use of force is the same one every (secular) despot and dictator in history has given for their human sacrifices: “It’s in the best interest of the community.”
Well, we know the name of that moral premise. And we know its consequences, too.
We have seen that subjectivism in any form—whether personal, “supernatural,” or social—leads to human sacrifice. And now we know why: because it leads to people being forced to act against their means of survival—against the judgment of their mind.
In order to live together as civilized beings, rather than suffer and die as sacrificial animals, we must be free to act on our judgment; the only thing that can stop us from doing so is other people; and the only way they can stop us is by means of physical force. Thus, in a social context—in the presence of other people—we need a moral principle to protect us from those who use or attempt to use such force against us. That principle involves the concept of rights.
“Rights,” explains Ayn Rand,
are a moral concept—the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others—the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context—the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.1
A right “is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”2 The key word here is: action. Just as on the personal level we need principles of action to guide us in pursuing our life-serving values, so on the social level we need principles of interaction to protect us from those who attempt to interfere with our plans. And just as our ultimate value is our own life, so our fundamental right is our right to our own life. As Ayn Rand put it:
There is only one fundamental right (all others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)3
Since human life requires action in accordance with one’s own judgment, a person’s right to life means his right to take such action—providing he does not violate the same rights of others. Since human life is the standard of moral value, and since human beings are individuals, each person morally must be left free to act on his own judgment—and each person morally must leave others free to act on theirs.
Whether a person chooses to go fishing, or to build a house, or to go grocery shopping, or to open a restaurant, or to report the news, or to contract with his doctor, or to produce software—he morally must be left free to do so. Each individual has a moral right to his own life, which means: a moral right to act as his life requires, which means: on the judgment of his own mind. And this truth is not limited to our examples. It is a principle. It applies to all such situations: matters of personal finance, campaign contributions, scientific research, consensual adult sex, abortion, and so on. Each actual (as opposed to potential) individual owns himself—body and mind—and has a moral right to act accordingly. (A fetus is a potential individual, not an actual one.)
But, one might ask, what if a person makes stupid, self-destructive decisions?
The right to life is a matter of self-ownership; thus, it includes one’s freedom to make bad judgments regarding one’s own life. Of course, if a person does make bad judgments, he will suffer adverse consequences—which is the reason, in negative terms, why it is crucial to observe reality, consider the relevant facts, be honest, and use logic. But whether an individual’s judgment is good or bad, logical or illogical, he still has a moral right to act on it. Since he owns himself, he has a moral right to act as he chooses—whether rationally or irrationally, honestly or dishonestly, selfishly or selflessly, correctly or incorrectly, competently or incompetently, for better or for worse—so long as he does not violate the same rights of others.
For instance, if a person wants to take heroin, he has a moral right to take it; but he has no moral right to steal money from others in order to buy it—and no moral right to harm others while he’s on it. Similarly, if a person wants to be dishonest, he has a moral right to do so; hell, if he “feels” like it, he can sit around all day and pretend he’s a retired rock star; but he has no moral right to sell someone else’s songs under the pretense that he wrote them—and no moral right to receive a monthly check from the government to subsidize his fantasy. Likewise, if a person wants to pray, he has a moral right to do so; heck, if he “just believes” he ought to, he can even get on his knees and do it all day; but he has no moral right to force others to pray (not even for a “moment”)—and no moral right to allow his child to die of an illness while he (the parent) grovels on the ground instead of seeking medical attention. (Such “parents” should be prosecuted for murder.)
Applying the principle to the corporate arena: If a company wants to hire workers on the basis of some irrelevant characteristic (such as race or sex), rather than on the basis of what is actually important (skill and ability), it has a moral right to do so; but it has no moral right to slander its competitors when they outperform it (as they will) by hiring the more qualified workers it irrationally turns away. Similarly, if a company does not want to compete with rivals of greater ability, it has a moral right not to compete with them; but it has no moral right to have government agents cripple its betters. (Such “businessmen” and their accomplices are the moral equivalents of Tonya Harding and hers.)
Now, to be clear, the foregoing is not to say that it is in any way moral for a person to take heroin, or kid himself, or speak to “God,” or engage in racism, or cower in the face of competition. Moral choices are not synonymous with moral rights. Moral choices pertain to self-interest and rational action in any context in which there are alternatives. Moral rights pertain to self-ownership and freedom of action specifically in a social context. Universally speaking, a person has to act rationally if he wants to live happily; the objective validation of this principle was covered in Chapters 4 through 6. Socially speaking, a person has a moral right to act on his own judgment (be it rational or not), but he has no moral right to physically force others to act against theirs (be it rational or not); the objective validation of this principle, in essence, is that when a person is physically forced to act against his judgment, he cannot live fully as a human being.
The right to life is one’s right to act on one’s own judgment—whether good or bad, right or wrong—so long as one does not violate the same rights of others. Correspondingly: The right to liberty is one’s right to be free from physical interference by other people. The right to the pursuit of happiness is one’s right to seek the goals and values one chooses. And the right to freedom of speech is one’s right to express one’s thoughts and ideas. These rights are essential to human life; without them we could not live as human beings: Tyranny would reign—as it did in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and theocratic Afghanistan—and as it does in theocratic Iran and Sudan as well as in communist China and Cuba. But the above rights depend on yet another right—one without which they, and all other rights, would be meaningless: the right to property.
We know that in order to live we have to produce and that in order to produce we have to think. A corollary of these facts is that in order to live we have to be able to keep, use, and dispose of the things we produce. Hence the right to property. “The right to life is the source of all rights,” explains Ayn Rand, “and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his own effort has no means to sustain his life.”4
To make this point clear, let us return to the island. Suppose the brute unties you from the tree and says: “You may now do as you please—but anything you create is mine—and if you keep, use, or dispose of anything of mine, I’ll tie you to the tree again and leave you there to rot.” Are you now free to act as your life requires? Not if the brute’s threat is credible. Not if he can physically overpower you. If you grow a garden, you cannot eat the vegetables; the brute has already said that the vegetables are his and are not to be eaten—or else. If you skin an animal and make a jacket, you cannot wear it; the brute has already said that the jacket is his and is not to be worn—or else. If you build a shelter, you cannot enter it; the brute has already said that the shelter is his and is not to be entered—or else. No matter what you create, the same physical impediment stands in your way: If you keep, use, or dispose of the product of your effort, you get bound to a tree and left to rot. Thus, you cannot act on the judgment of your mind; you cannot act as your life requires.
As to the issue of degree, suppose the brute says: “Okay, you can keep a third of what you produce, but the other two thirds must be given to me—or else.” Then your alternative is to be a corpse or a serf. Granted, as a serf your heart might continue beating for a while; but a “life” of serfdom is not a human life. A human life is a life guided by the judgment of one’s own mind.
Without the right to the product of one’s effort, one cannot live as a human being. Thus, in a social context, individual rights—including property rights—are an objective requirement of human life.
Now, legally speaking, what does all of this come down to? What basic legal principles can we draw from this abundance of evidence?
Clearly, if people are to live as civilized beings, rather than as barbarians, they must respect and not violate one another’s rights. Likewise, if a government is to defend liberty, rather than advance tyranny, it must protect and not violate its citizen’s rights. So the question is: What principles, if upheld, could ensure that individual rights would be respected, protected, and not violated?
Well, as Ayn Rand observed, and as we can now see: “Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment.” Accordingly:
The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships—thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.5
Thus, the basic legal principle of a civilized society is that “no man may initiate the use of physical force against others.” The operative word here being: initiate.
No man—or group or society or government—has the right to assume the role of a criminal and initiate the use of physical compulsion against any man. Men have the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. The ethical principle involved is simple and clear-cut: it is the difference between murder and self defense. A holdup man seeks to gain a value, wealth, by killing his victim; the victim does not grow richer by killing a holdup man. The principle is: no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force.6
A civilized society is one in which people are legally free to act on their own judgment, which means: free to produce whatever they choose to produce, however they choose to produce it; free to contract with others and engage in ventures of any kind and scale; free to form companies and corporations of any size and structure; free to offer their goods and services to others on whatever terms they deem appropriate; free to deal with people and businesses on whatever terms they mutually and voluntarily agree to trade; free to achieve as much as they are willing and able to achieve; and free to keep, use, and dispose of the products of their own efforts. The only thing that people are not legally “free” to do in such a society is to initiate physical force against other people.
Now, an important implication of this principle is that there can be no such thing as a right to be given goods or services, because such a “right” on the part of one person necessarily entails a violation of rights on the part of another. If a person has a “right” to be given food, someone has to be forced to prepare it for him. If he has a “right” to be given money, someone has to be forced to earn it for him. If he has a “right” to be given a job, someone has to be forced to hire him. If he has a “right” to be given a home, someone has to be forced to build it for him. If he has a “right” to be given an education, someone has to be forced to teach him. If he has a “right” to be given health care, someone has to be forced to provide it for him. And so on.
Of course, parents have a chosen and thus moral responsibility to care properly for their children. But that is another matter.
The point here is simply that human values are not free; they do not come ready-made in nature; they are not just out there for the taking; they must be produced. And, as Ayn Rand put it: “The man who produces while others dispose of his product is a slave.”7
If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor. Any alleged “right” of one man which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right. No man can have a right to impose an unchosen obligation, an unwarranted duty or an involuntary servitude on another man. There can be no such thing as “the right to enslave.”8
A right that violates a right is a contradiction in terms. Just as green is not red, just as stop does not mean go, and just as a bush cannot speak, so a right cannot violate a right. Each individual is morally an end in himself—not a means to the ends of others. Accordingly, in order to live as a moral being (rather than as a parasite), each individual must produce the values on which his life depends. He may trade his products with others, but he may not steal products from others. He may offer his goods and services for exchange or as gifts, but he may not compel others to buy or accept them. He may ask others for assistance, but he may not make them help him. And he may compete in a free market, but he may not attack his rivals—or have the government do so.
The reason is clear: The use (or threat) of physical force against human beings impedes the basic requirement of their life—their ability to act on their own judgment. Thus, the initiation of physical force against people—in any form or degree—is factually immoral and properly illegal.
A moral society is one in which the use of initiatory physical force against human beings is prohibited by law. And the only social system in which such force is so prohibited is pure, laissez-faire capitalism. (Laissez faire is French for let do, as in: Let people do as they choose.)
“Laissez-faire capitalism,” explains Ayn Rand, “is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others.”9
A related and essential feature of laissez-faire capitalism is its unique position on property. Pure capitalism “is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.”10 In a laissez-faire society, people are fully free to act on their own judgment and thus to produce, keep, use, and dispose of their own property as they see fit. What makes such freedom possible is that all property is private. Since there is no “public” property, there is no need for the government to forcibly take money from citizens in order to acquire or maintain such property. And since all property is private, disputes over what people can do and where they can do it are quickly resolved by simply asking: Whose property is in question? Under pure capitalism, individual rights, including property rights, are protected by the government and cannot be legally violated by anyone—including the government.
That is not and cannot be the case in a society where “public” property exists. Since “public” property is paid for with money taken by the government from citizens under threat of force—and since such property is owned by “everyone in general” and thus by no one in particular—its very existence constitutes a violation of individual rights. In addition to the fact that the government steals money from citizens in order to acquire and maintain such property, since no one in particular owns it, no one has a right to say what anyone can do with or on it—even though it supposedly belongs to everyone. Not surprisingly, this results in a torrent of conflicting rights-claims and irresolvable rights-disputes.
Observe, for example, the heated and endless debates in the United States over issues ranging from whether or not people should have to wear seatbelts on “public” roads—to what kind of art should be shown in “public” galleries or paid for with “public” funds—to what should be taught in and whether or not children should have to pray in “public” schools—to what should be done with natural resources such as trees and oil on “public” land. In all such cases, the problem is that the property in question is “public.” Such property creates a never-ending battle in which no one’s rights are fully protected and everyone’s rights are partially violated.
In a laissez-faire society, however—a society in which all property is privately owned—individual rights are recognized as inalienable, which means: absolute. People can do anything they please with and on their own property; they are forbidden only to infringe on the rights of others. In addition to eliminating the government’s need to steal money from citizens to pay for “public” property, this principle makes perfectly clear who has a right to decide what will be done with or on any given piece of property. If a person (or company or corporation) owns a road, he says whether or not people have to wear seatbelts on it; others can accept his rules, or drive on another road, or fly in an airplane, or take a train. If a person owns an art gallery, he decides what kind of art will be shown there; others can patronize his gallery or not. If a person wants to support a certain kind of art, he can put his money where his values are, but he cannot force others to put their money there. If a person owns a school, he decides what will be taught there and whether or not the students will be required to pray. People who do not like his curriculum or policies can suggest that he change them, or send their children to a different school, or start their own school, or teach their children at home. If a person owns land, he determines how it and its contents will be used. He can build roads, homes, schools, hospitals, shopping centers, business parks, or entire communities on it; or he can harvest trees, create a lake, produce electricity, develop a theme park, grow crops, engage in research, dig a land fill, build a water-treatment plant, raise chickens, drill for oil, or “leave it alone.” And whatever he decides to do—so long as he does not violate the rights of others—no one can force him to do otherwise, because in a truly capitalist society, no one, including the government, is allowed to violate anyone’s rights.
“The only function of the government, in such a society,” continues Ayn Rand, “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.”11
The citizens of a laissez-faire society delegate the use of retaliatory force to the government and thus make domestic peace possible. Of course, in an emergency situation, or when the police are not available, or when there is no time to rely on the government, citizens are morally and legally justified in using retaliatory force as necessary to protect themselves, their property, or other people from aggressors. But in order to live together as civilized beings (rather than as feuding hillbillies), people must leave such force to the government whenever possible: “The government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of force under objective control.”12
In a capitalist society, if someone physically harms a person or damages his property or threatens to do either—and if this can be demonstrated by means of evidence—then the victim has grounds for legal recourse and, when appropriate, compensation. If someone defrauds a man, or threatens to murder him, or dumps trash in his yard, or cuts down his trees, or blows up his laboratory, or poisons his water supply, or infringes on his patent, or spews noxious fumes into his lungs, or steals his bag of crystals, or vandalizes his oil rig—or in any other way causes him or his property specific harm—then the perpetrator has violated the man’s rights. And if the man (or an agent on his behalf) can demonstrate that the perpetrator has done so—by presenting evidence to that effect—then he has a case against the rights violator and can seek justice in a court of law.
If, however, a person alleges that his (or someone else’s) rights have been violated but presents no evidence in support of his claim, then he has no case. A claim backed by no evidence is an arbitrary, subjective claim. The basic principle of objective law in this regard is that people must present evidence in support of their accusations. It obviously cannot be otherwise. Imagine a society in which anyone’s mere assertion that a person or group committed a crime would warrant the arrest and indictment of the accused by a government that regards evidence as unnecessary in legal proceedings.
Citizen: “I say that toxins emitted into the air by Nader, Hillary & Gore, Incorporated caused me to develop cancer—and I want justice.”
Government: “Okay, we will arrest and try the company’s executives for violating your rights.” (I’ll let the reader take it from here, but remember: The claimant presents no evidence, and the courts do not require any—just like the Salem witch trials.)
In a laissez-faire society, people are free to do what they choose with their own lives and property; they are forbidden to physically harm others or their property; and they are required to support their allegations with evidence. Laissez-faire capitalism is the system of individual rights, private property, and objective law. Objective laws are laws that are grounded in the factual requirements of human life and that uphold the principles of logic; thus, they protect individual rights, including property rights, and they recognize that the burden of proof is on he who asserts that rights have been violated.
Accordingly, if a person (or company or corporation) does violate an individual’s rights—and if this is shown to be the case in a court of law—then the government takes action against the perpetrator as necessary on two counts: first, to provide his victim with recompense when and as appropriate; and second, to punish the rights-violator for and in proportion to any crime he has committed.
So, what does all of this say about the moral status of capitalism?
Well, on one level it says that capitalism is the system of justice—which is to say a lot. But on a deeper level, it says even more. Since capitalism is the only social system in which the courts uphold the principles of objective law—since it is the only social system in which the government protects individual rights (including property rights)—since it is the only social system in which people can act fully according to their own judgment and thus live fully as human beings—capitalism is the only moral social system.
But, one might ask, what about the poor, the disabled, and the helpless? How do they fare under laissez-faire?
To answer this question, we must bear in mind that very few people are genuinely helpless or unable to support themselves; the great majority of people are capable of acting as their life requires. And if a person chooses to live and is capable of supporting himself, he has a moral responsibility to do so; if he refuses to support himself and, instead, steals, begs, or seeks handouts, he is acting parasitically and immorally.
With this in mind, let us consider the position of the poor, the disabled, and the helpless in a truly capitalist system. But we must take them one at a time, for they are not necessarily one and the same.
As to the poor: Capitalism leaves each individual free to think, work, and make as much money as he is willing and able to earn. No other social system on earth does this. In a capitalist society, if a poor person wants to work his way out of poverty—as countless poor people have done—he is fully free to do so. Of course, if he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t have to; the choice is his to make, and no one can force him one way or the other.
Some people are not concerned with being wealthy, but this does not make them immoral. While an artist or a gardener might be financially poor, he is not by that fact less moral than a CEO or an athlete who is financially rich. A person’s monetary wealth does not determine his moral status. His choices and actions do: Are they rational or irrational—life-promoting or life-retarding, selfish or selfless, honest or dishonest? Morally speaking, that is what matters. If having more money is honestly important to a person, he should act accordingly by, for instance, seeking a higher-paying job, investing his money more wisely, or starting a business of his own. And capitalism not only leaves everyone—including the poor—completely free to do so; it also provides an ever-increasing flow of educational possibilities and moneymaking opportunities.
As to the disabled: Capitalism leaves them free to compensate for their disabilities by means of any remaining abilities they might have. Again, no other social system on earth does this. In a capitalist society, if a person lacks ability in some respect but still has abilities in other respects, he is fully free to use his existing abilities to support and further his life—as many disabled people do. For instance: A deaf person might choose to pursue a career in genetics, architecture, or accounting. A blind person might choose to pursue a career in music, radio, or psychology. A paraplegic might choose to pursue a career in law, education, or writing. And today—with the technology made possible by freer markets—even a quadriplegic can learn to support himself; he might pursue a career in finance, economics, or computer programming.
When disabled people are fully free to act on their judgment, there is usually something they can do to compensate for their shortcomings. And capitalism not only leaves them completely free to do so; it also makes available an ever-increasing flow of enabling technology.
Now, as to the helpless: It is crucial here to acknowledge that very few people actually fall into this extremely unfortunate category. At this point, we are talking only about people who are severely retarded, have a totally debilitating disease, or are injured to the extent that they are unable to support themselves by any means. What happens to such people in a laissez-faire society? Capitalism leaves each individual free to offer them as much charity as he is able and willing to offer. Once again, no other social system on earth does this. In a capitalist society, if a person has the means and the desire to assist the helpless—as many people do—he is fully free to do so. Of course, if he doesn’t have the means, he can’t offer them assistance. And whether he has the means or not, if he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t have to; the choice is his to make, and no one can force him one way or the other.
But, one might wonder, what if everyone’s rights are respected, yet no one wants to help the helpless.
As always, to address this concern we must observe the relevant facts. What the helpless need but cannot produce is life-serving values; that’s what makes them helpless. Such values can be produced only by able people; hence the term able. But able people can produce values only if they are free to act on the very thing that makes them able: their judgment. The basic social condition that makes human life possible is freedom—freedom from the initiation of physical force—the freedom of each individual to act on the judgment of his own mind.
Thus, respect for individual rights is as much in the best interest of the helpless as it is in the best interest of the able—if not more so. Think about it: If the able are not free, they cannot live (as human beings); and if the able cannot live, what happens to the helpless? Clearly, if the helpless are to be helped, they (and everyone who cares about them) must respect individual rights—including the rights of the able.
Observe further that while in reality there are very few genuinely helpless people, when individual rights are respected there are plenty of people who are willing and able to help them. Look around: Do you ever see people working with the mentally retarded? Ask your friends: Would they ever donate money to help a poor child with leukemia? Ask yourself: Would you ever offer assistance to a victim of a devastating accident? Consider this: Even in the semi-free, mixed economy of the United States today—in which producers are heavily and immorally taxed—the amount of money voluntarily donated to charity is enormous; in 1999 alone, tax-strapped Americans gave over $190 billion to charity.13
But, one might suppose, isn’t that because people are partly altruistic and not fully selfish? Why would a true egoist ever want to help the helpless?
To be sure, a truly selfish person would not offer “help” to bums who are in fact not “helpless” but rather choose to be parasites. Only a fool or an altruist would do that. But to answer the question of why an egoist would ever want to help people who genuinely cannot support themselves, we need only consider the alternatives—of which there are two: A person can either help the helpless or not help them. So here is the question every egoist has to answer for himself. Which environment do I think is in my best interest: one in which genuinely helpless people suffer and die in the streets, or one in which I voluntarily contribute some small fraction of my time, effort, or money to give them a hand?
I certainly know which environment is in my best interest, and I imagine you know which is in yours. But this is something every individual has to decide for himself—and no one has a moral right to force him one way or the other. Fortunately, the decision does not require advanced mathematics; it merely requires genuine self-interest, reverence for human life, and basic logic.
Rational egoism, true egoism, does not say: “Be indifferent to other human beings” or “Don’t help people.” It says: “If one wants to live as a human being and achieve genuine happiness, one must observe reality; one must think; one must not accept contradictions; one must pursue one’s life-serving values; one must not surrender greater values for the sake of lesser ones; one must be honest; one must have integrity”; and so on. If a person thinks that helping certain other people is in his best interest, he should act accordingly. And capitalism not only leaves everyone completely free to do so; it also enables people to create enormous amounts of surplus wealth with which to do it.
When people are free to produce as much wealth as they are able and willing to produce—and free to do with their wealth whatever they choose to do with it—many people become very rich. Add to this the fact that truly self-interested people care about human life—they, after all, are the ones who recognize that it is the standard of moral value—and thus do not want other human beings to suffer and die needlessly, and we have a clear answer to the question, “What if no one wants to help the helpless?” The concern is simply unwarranted. The fact is that many people—including presumably the people who ask the question—do want to help the helpless. And in a truly capitalist society, no one would be allowed to stop them.
Now, let us conclude this chapter by acknowledging some of the broad social and legal implications of the moral truths we have discovered.
We have seen that, in a social context, individual rights, including property rights, are essential to human life. Without them, we cannot act fully on our own judgment; we cannot live fully as human beings. A proper government is one that recognizes this fact and proceeds accordingly. “The only proper, moral purpose of a government,” writes Ayn Rand, “is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence—to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness.”14 And: “Since the protection of individual rights is the only proper purpose of a government, it is the only proper subject of legislation: all laws must be based on individual rights and aimed at their protection.”15 Proper laws, moral laws, objective laws are laws that are thus based and so aimed.
Laws that protect individual rights—such as those against murder, rape, child abuse, patent infringements, fraud, and slander—are objective laws; they morally must be upheld by citizens and enforced by the government. Laws that violate individual rights—such as those that mandate “community” or “national” service, those that abridge the freedom of production and trade, those that restrict doctors and patients from contracting with one another, those that forcibly redistribute wealth, those that prohibit acts of consensual adult sex, those that presume a fetus (a potential individual) has any prerogatives over a woman (an actual individual), and those that block any kind of scientific research—are subjective laws; they morally must be condemned by citizens and repealed by the government. None of this is a matter of personal opinion or social convention or divine revelation; it is all a matter of observable fact—the observable fact that freedom from the initiation of physical force is an objective requirement of human life.
Whereas rational egoism guides our choices and actions in pursuit of our life-serving goals and long-term happiness, laissez-faire capitalism protects individual rights by banning the initiation of physical force from social relationships. The two go hand in hand. The first makes human existence possible; the second makes human coexistence possible. As Ayn Rand put it: “What greater virtue can one ascribe to a social system than the fact that it leaves no possibility for any man to serve his own interests by enslaving other men? What nobler system could be desired by anyone whose goal is man’s well-being?”16