Libertarian History/Philosophy

Ayn Rand: Radical for Something Other Than Capitalism?


Libertarian philosopher Roderick Long has a very interesting (and very long and detailed) essay about Ayn Rand up at Cato Unbound. After doing a good defense of the quality and originality of her philosophical thinking, combined with some jabs at those who think she was the philosopher who solved every intellectual problem most thoroughly and most rationally, he gets to an interesting discussion about whether what Rand stood for is best called "capitalism" in modern reality.

His thoughts on the question of whether Rand's account of capitalism is true to the reality that people encounter in what they think of as capitalist modernity:

 no, not at all. But how much of a problem that is for Rand depends in part on which meaning of "capitalism" one goes by, and thus on the extent to which our work-a-day reality is to be identified with capitalism in the first place……

Rand…sharply condemns "men with political pull" who seek "special advantages by government action in their own countries" and "special markets by government action abroad," and so "acquire fortunes by government favor … which they could not have acquired on a free market." [8] Likewise, while readers often come away from Atlas Shrugged with the vague memory that Dagny Taggart was fighting against villainous bureaucrats who wanted to impose unfair regulations on her railroad company, in fact Taggart's struggle is mostly against villainous bureaucrats who want to give her company special favors and privileges at its competitors' expense….

Rand would deny, of course, that these are problems with capitalism. Government favors to business are directly incompatible with capitalism as she understands it, while incompetent and tyrannical bosses would be unlikely to thrive in a genuinely competitive market.

Yet as I read Rand, she once again wavers — this time between two conceptions of capitalism. On the one hand, she defines capitalism as "full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire" in which "all human relationships are voluntary" — thus identifying capitalism as a 100% libertarian social system which by her own admission seems never to have existed in history. (Call this ideal capitalism.) Yet on the other hand she describes capitalism as a historical reality, saying for example that it "has created the highest standard of living ever known on earth." (Call this historical capitalism.) How can capitalism have had all these wonderful results if capitalism has never existed?

Rand's answer, evidently, is that historical capitalism has been at least an approximation to ideal capitalism. But there is reason to doubt that this is so….Nor do we find a laissez-faire utopia when we turn to 19th century America; even if we set aside, as we shouldn't, the fact that women and nonwhites –i.e. a majority of the population — were largely excluded from participation in the market, that market was heavily burdened by tariffs, banking regulations, monetary monopolies, postal monopolies, corporate subsidies, licensure laws, land seizures, cartelization schemes, censorship laws, anti-union laws, and Hamiltonian "internal improvements."

Of course I don't mean to deny that the United States and other countries generally identified as "capitalist" generally owe their prosperity to their free-market elements rather than to their statist and corporatist elements; but from a radical libertarian perspective that's a bit like saying that the seriously ill owe what vitality they have to the respects in which they are not diseased.

I have been happy using capitalism in Rand's ideal sense as that which American libertarians advocate (as see my book, named after the Rand phrase Radicals for Capitalism), which I think is true and I don't think represents such a severe intellectual, marketing, or historical problem as Long says here.

I also think he is far too blithe in his conclusion that the fact that Western prosperity can be attributed to the extent that it has honored property rights, free exchange, and a price system deserves only the intellectual status of that part of our culture that is "not diseased." Still, keeping our culture's eyes on the differences between libertarian ideal capitalism and statist crony capitalism is generally a useful and true intellectual practice.

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  1. There is a difference between The Free Market and Capitalism.

    The former is a self-describing idea. The latter is a characture named by Marx.

    1. We hate capitalisms! Is evil! HURR DURR!!!

  2. ‘a laissez-faire utopia’

    Now there is irony at its best. Does this guy understand the terms? No wonder it’s a muddled crock.

  3. I thought I read somewhere that the word capitalism was invented as a pejorative by filthy communist pigfuckers. Maybe not. In any case, I like the word liberty better.

    1. Speaking of pigfuckers, I see Suki-san beat me to saying that.

      1. No, you illiterate pig fucker, that was John.

      2. No, you illiterate pig fucker pig fuckee, that was John.


      3. Stop fantasizing about Tagliaferro in a Japanese schoolgirl outfit, you sick fuck.

    2. I agree that either “liberty” or “free market” is better, because even for many people for whom “capitalism” is not a flat out pejorative it rings hollow because it feels exclusive – those of us who do not have any meaningful access to “capital” are excluded, so it is rightly intuited, from the game that “capitalists” play.

      A Wall Street executive could reasonably be called a “capitalist” while it absurd to call a janitor (who may well believe completely in liberty and, hence, free markets)a “capitalist”. It doesn’t mean much to say you are a capitalist when you no access to capital, whereas you can certainly participate in liberty and a free market in the hope of one day acquiring capital.

  4. I haven’t kept up with Long’s quest to be the David Brooks of (increasingly nominal) libertarianism lately. His establishment-toadying got too embarrassing to watch a couple years back. Looks like it’s even worse now.

    Let us know when he gives up the pose and busts his McGovern gear out of storage.

    1. What “establishment toadying”? Long’s an anarchist, which pretty much rules out toadying to any establishment.

  5. The author of that article has read the Cliff’s notes to Atlas and Fountainhead and read the chapter names of Capitalism: the unknown ideal. If he had actually taken the time to research and contemplate the fully integrated philosophy of Objectivism, he would not have kept saying things like “Rand again wavers on…” You may disagree with Rand’s Objectivism, but “waver” is something she most definitely did not do.

    1. Drink, drink, drink

    2. The author of that article has read the Cliff’s notes to Atlas and Fountainhead

      Even that is not unlike reading War and Peace.

      1. Tom|1.20.10 @ 9:32PM|#

        Hey, you’re supposed put a “Chicago” or “Atlanta” or something in front of your name!

        1. Christ. And I’m supposed to hit the right “reply” button.

    3. Long contributed extensively to Rand scholarship, including contributions to the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies and is the author of “Reason and Value: Aristotle vs. Rand.” (

      So it looks like he’s read considerably more than mere Cliff’s Notes.

      1. Er, here’s the complete link:…..1577240456

  6. Ayn Rand did not invent the term capitalism -it is the common sense name for a system based on private property and a market in goods and services.

    The Left attacks capitalism not for its abuses, but for its features. Critics of capitalism of course point to the military-industrial complex, government contracting, and other aspects of “crony capitalism” but only to add to their arsenal of attack points.

    When a very real feature of crony capitalism faced possible limits – California’s initiatives in recent years to limite eminent domain – the Left joined with the government employees unions, the League of Cities and the Democrat Party to save unrestricted eminent domain.

    Rodney Long thinks it makes him more intellectual to try to develop a libertarian critique that new leftists (if any are left) will accept. This was Rothbard’s strategy in the late 1960s and it did not work then. It is now just a throwback on Prof. Long’s part.

    1. You’re only half right. The word was first used in its modern sense by French socialist Louis Blanc in 1850. The word itself doesn’t really have any connection to property rights or free markets. Before the modern usage created by socialists, capitalist simply referred to a rich person. So the socialist, modern usage was meant to describe a system in which the rich had control.

      1. Not exactly, capitalism as Marx used it referred to a system in which wealth (capital) is accumulated and then used to purchase the “means of production”, which the capitalist can then use to collect collect “surplus value” from the workers employed by it. Say, in the form of dividends as a share of the profits.

        Effectively, Marx thought that all “profit” was theft. It all goes back to the labor theory of value. The “capitalist” simply puts up the money to build the factory. He doesn’t perform any labor, so he isn’t doing anything of value.

        He really had no conception of how price mechanisms and profits work to direct capital towards useful endeavors in a dynamic system. In the model system outlining the idea of surplus value, demand is pretty much assumed to be fixed, so the “capitalist” takes no risk.

        1. Quit pretending you know Marx when you are so obviously ignorant of his economic works. Marx had no conception of price mechanisms and how labor was apportioned to the appropriate endeavors? Really? Then explain all of his writing on the formation of the general rate of profit and how capitals seek out those markets in which there is most demand relative to supply and hence the largest possibility for profit. He had no concept of risk? Then explain his writings on the realization of surplus value. As for conflating risk with doing labor, this is ridiculous.

    2. Personally, I don’t think you can have a free market without having a free market in investment. Meaning, something awfully like “capitalism” is going to be a feature of any free market system.

      Capitalism means nothing more than a system where people who have resources that they don’t care to consume can use those resources to buy productive assets, and retain the profits from those productive assets. If you don’t let people do this with their surplus resources, you don’t have a free market.

      1. Long doesn’t say anything about not letting people do what they want with their resources. What he’s critical of is our current form of state-capitalism, which tilts the table in favor of the “capitalists” at the expense of everyone else.

    3. I’ve read this over several times, and I still can’t find anything here that actually pertains to the substance of Long’s article.

  7. even if we set aside, as we shouldn’t, the fact that women and nonwhites ?i.e. a majority of the population ? were largely excluded from participation in the market


    It sucks being excluded from participation in the market.

    1. Congratulations, you’ve found an example that doesn’t disprove Long’s statement. Note: “largely excluded” /=/ “fully excluded.

      1. Diversity math makes me TWO examples.

    2. Neat story. Why have I never heard of this woman?

      1. Sorry, “this woman you?” 🙂

  8. KRUGJACK!!!!

    Krugman: He Wasn’t The One We’ve Been Waiting For

    …But I have to say, I’m pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama, who seems determined to confirm every doubt I and others ever had about whether he was ready to fight for what his supporters believed in….

    1. False messiah.

  9. Wow, sounds like someone is on some serious medication here.


    1. Git! I said Git!, drug sniffing bot.

  10. I’m beginning to appreciate the zen like quality of the anon-bot’s posts. Or maybe that’s the Cab I’ve been drinking tonite.

    1. It’s the Cab. On beer he reads the same as daytime.

      1. what? we’re supposed to sober up just cause it’s daytime now?

        1. Slow down! Nobody suggested anything crazy like that.

      2. Get out. I’m on nothing days and he often makes sense then.

    2. You need to understand that Anonymity Bot is merely a reflection of your own id. When he says “somebody is on some serious medication here”, he is actually referring to all of us, personally. He’s like The Matrix with script-kiddie spelling skills. Remember all those symbols on the screen that were The Matrix? Well, Anonymity Bot is just the beginning.

      1. Skybot begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th January 21st.

  11. very long and detailed

    Well, this is Ayn Rand we’re talking about here.

    … Hobbit

  12. Guess who?

    “The struggle for definition is veritably the struggle for life itself. In the typical Western two men fight desperately for the possession of a gun that has been thrown to the ground: whoever reaches the weapon first shoots and lives; his adversary is shot and dies. In ordinary life, the struggle is not for guns but for words; whoever first defines the situation is the victor; his adversary, the victim. For example, in the family, husband and wife, mother and child do not get along; who defines whom as troublesome or mentally sick?…[the one] who first seizes the word imposes reality on the other; [the one] who defines thus dominates and lives; and [the one] who is defined is subjugated and may be killed.”

    1. Sounds like my man Szasz.

      1. That didn’t take long…I need to find more fun playmates.

  13. Love the Ayn Rand dating service in the left margin! Who needs a dating service to diddle with your married employees after coercing concent from their wives/fiance’s?

    Love her writing, hate her behavior.

    1. Personally, I fail to see what is anti-libertarian about Rand and Branden having an affair with the knowledge and consent of their spouses. It’s called an “open marriage” these days.

      Of course, it didn’t turn out well, but then neither have most of the “polyamorous” relationships I’ve witnessed. They were just early adopters of a radically libertarian lifestyle that has lots of drawbacks.

      And Branden I wouldn’t exactly call an “employee”. That’s like equating an affair between the CEO and the Chairman of the Board with “diddling an intern”.

      1. Hazel,

        Wasn’t saying it was anti-libertarian. You did hit in the bad idea part. Life choices like that rarely turn out well, no matter how we may like to see it be different.

      2. most people i know who identify as poly-fi are big fat liberals.

  14. Long makes the basic mistake so many ideologues make: abstract ideals do not exist apart from a particular historical or social context. The notion of laissez-faire capitalism does not and cannot exist apart from the actual people who create the network of voluntary relationships, and not everyone will act in a voluntary way. We shall always have criminals, and by that I mean to include businessmen who seek political favors and politicians who grant them.

    The difference and the point Rand makes is that we should view these actions and people as criminal, not as mere expressions of capitalist behavior.

    What Rand is defining for us are the moral and economic principles involved; it is no slur on one state where there may be few if any criminals and another state where there are comparatively more due to the fact that more criminals were elected to office.

    In short, it is no argument against laissez-faire capitalism that some do not act in accord with underlying moral principle.

    1. It’s also been said that the fact that people cannot live up to the Marxist vision is no argument against socialism.

      I think I get your general drift, but that particular line of reasoning will get you in beeeg trouble…..

    2. RE: “businessmen.” Only men are in business? Offensive in an Ayn Rand thread.

      1. The PC police are here!

  15. Rand had lots of great ideas. If only she’d read a little more history to put a better foundation under her politics.

    Though I’ve yet to see anybody do better.

    1. Then again, in some essential ways Aristotle had her beat when it comes to political theory. His holistic-biologist approach works better in a number of ways (though not all) when it comes to tackling the particular problem of establishing a political system.

      Though, Aristotle was really good at getting the general theory right and then proceeding to get the applications entirely freaking wrong.

    2. If only she’d read a little more history

      She majored in history and philosophy in order to discover where man had been and how and why he got there. Her writings are full of historical references.

      1. Ancient history.

  16. I also think Brian’s got some of the best overall summaries of Rand as a thinker that I’ve seen. Just my opinion, and hey man around here opinions are free.

  17. And just fwiw, I’m in a good mood today because the Wicked Healthcare Witch is finally dead.

    That was way too close.

    1. Don’t declare victory until the clock runs out.

      1. You’re probably right. But I don’t think they can pull it off now.

  18. Why I love Reason: I learned about Madame C.J. Walker and Thomas Szasz today. Fascinating.

    I could really get into Szasz. I plan to share the quote tulpa posted with my kids today – we’re studying Catcher in the Rye and “diagnosing” Holden with mental illnesses. I don’t think he has one at all, but the kids are hot on the project. I want to share Szasz’s notions with them once they’ve confirmed Holden’s “illness” and then ask them to consider their conviction in their argument for his diagnosis/treatment.

    Thanks for making my teaching better (ie, more subversive to dominant paradigms), teacher-haters!*

    *said with love

  19. I don’t see a direct conflict between “ideal capitalism” and “real capitalism”.

    That capitalism can bring such enormous benefits despite being so diluted is a feature, not a bug. Modern China is another excellent example, pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty despite one party rule, etc…

    Imagine what it could do without all the distortion.

    It’s like saying being healthy is important, but in the real world, people are full of bacteria and viruses. Where’s the conflict?

  20. Actually, come to think of it, I’ve seen this around a lot lately, mostly coming from people who see capitalism as something that needs to be implemented through public policy.

    If you’re someone who thinks that capitalism is something we implement once we’ve seized the commanding heights of the modern state, then I suppose you probably do see a conflict between capitalism in reality and capitalism in theory.

    But that isn’t a conflict in capitalism, that’s a conflict in you.

  21. Long’s essay is generally worthwhile, but his assertion that “women and minorities were excluded from the market” is sloppy and confused.

    Excluded by whom?

    It is true that women and minorities were victimized by laws which excluded them from certain occupations, but that was the fault of the state, not business. These laws were passed over the general objections of business, not with their assent. (Some businesses did support them as a way of screwing their competitors.)

    More fundamentally, the modern participation of women in business is a result of the increasing prosperity and technological development made possible by business itself.

    Family has always been the fundamental social unit. (Attempts at voluntary and utopian alternate arrangements such as Brook Farm have always failed.) Under the economic conditions of the pre-20th century, homemaking was time-consuming and exhausting, leaving little opportunity outside the home for women. The production of labor-saving conveniences by capitalism is what gave women opportunities outside the home.

  22. What Roderick writes makes perfect sense to me. We need more like him.

  23. Some businesses did support them as a way of screwing their competitors.

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