Music

'You Can't Have Freedom for Free': On Rush, Ayn Rand, and Not Compromising

"I don't want to 'grow up,' if growing up means abandoning the principle that individuals matter," writes Matt Kibbe in Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff: A Libertarian Manifesto.

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The following is Adapted from Matt Kibbe's latest book, Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff: A Libertarian Manifesto

In 1977, I bought my first Rush album. I was 13. The title of the disc was 2112, and the foldout jacket had a very cool and ominous red star on the cover. As soon as I got it home from the store, I carefully placed that vinyl record onto the felt-padded turntable of my parents' old Motorola console stereo.

The moment I dropped that stylus, and that needle caught the groove, I became obsessed with Rush like only thirteen-year-old boys can get obsessed. I turned up the volume as loud as I thought I could get away with, and I rocked.

Mom shut that jam session down real fast. So I turned down the stereo, sat down, and began to read the liner notes inside the album cover jacket instead. The text inside the cover read, "With acknowledgement to the genius of Ayn Rand." What an odd name, I thought. Who is Ayn Rand?

2112 is a song cycle that tells the story of a futuristic and tyrannical society where individual choice and initiative have been replaced by the top-down control of an autocratic regime. The theme was not unlike the state of the music industry at the time, a predetermined Top 40 collection of one-size-fits-all pop. (Google Captain & Tennille's "Muskrat Love." Enough said.) Without the decentralized and liberating forces of the Internet, alternative music was left undiscovered, unheard by consumers, crushed by the silence of ignorance.

As it turns out, in the mid-1970's, the members of Rush were battling their own record label for control over their artistic direction. The band wanted to pursue its own creative path, even if it didn't fit with someone else's conception of "good" music. Mercury Records wanted something more "commercial." They wanted Rush to sell more records, or else.

If you follow the evolution of any genre of music, or any creative industry for that matter, you've already heard this story a thousand times. It is the clash between tradition and innovation, and the creative destruction that drives individuals to challenge the status quo. The establishment always gets squirrely when some difficult-to-manage new talent attempts to deviate from the norm.

Too far. Too individualistic. Too extreme. You just know it's going to happen, the labels and the name-calling, the defensiveness, when the protectors of the status quo feel threatened by change and principled disruption.

When it comes to innovation, sometimes the customer is always right. But other times an innovator shakes up market perceptions and upsells buyers on a better product—a new idea that you didn't even know you needed until someone else figured it out for you. This process of creative disruption—standing on the shoulders of your intellectual forefathers all the while challenging them and their best work—seems to be where the good stuff in life comes from.

And it can only happen if people are free. Free to succeed. Free to fail. Free to speak their minds and disagree with the experts. Free to choose. Think about the horseless carriage, handheld computers, or the MP3 files on your iPod that replaced CDs, that replaced cassettes and eight-track tapes, and yes, that even replaced vinyl.

This disruption seems particularly true in music. Music and freedom just seem to go together, just like the word "bacon" belongs in any sentence that includes the phrase "proper meal." I can't prove it, but you just know that it's true.

Back in 1977, such profound insights eluded me. I was wearing black concert tees and wondering who the heck Ayn Rand was, when I stumbled upon a used copy of her novella Anthem at a neighborhood garage sale. I took it home and read it without putting it down once. What an awesome book it was, about a dystopian society where the word "I" had been erased by an oppressive, collective "We." Despite insurmountable odds, the good guys, the "cursed" ones, the ones who begin to start their sentences with the word "I," persevere. I connected with the struggle to be free—different, independent, responsible for my own successes and failures.

I immediately set out to find the other works of Ayn Rand. Imagine how long it took me to find a copy of The Fountainhead. Back in the day, you couldn't just log into your Amazon account and find it, or the multitude of other books related to it. I looked in any bookstore, at every opportunity. It was difficult to find. But, I was obsessed.

Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist for Rush, was also obsessed with Ayn Rand at the time of his band's career-defining struggle with their record label. The band had toured relentlessly in support of their last album, Caress of Steel, but the record had been trashed by music critics (a trend that would go on for decades).

Without the music industry press on Rush's side, album sales were disappointing. For the next album, company headquarters wanted something conventional, something that would sell. "I felt this great sense of injustice that this mass was coming down on us and telling us to compromise, and compromise was the word I couldn't deal with," recalls Peart. "I grew up a child of the 60s and I was a strong individualist and believed in the sanctity of: 'you should be able to do what you want to do, you know, without hurting anyone.'" Artistic integrity, for Peart and his bandmates, had crashed headlong into the expediency of the moment.

Instead of following the rules, instead of recording an album that conformed to the expected, Rush made 2112. At a time when successful pop songs ran about three minutes long, a twenty-minute song cycle about totalitarian oppression on a far-away planet was hardly what the sales team at Mercury Records had in mind.

Peart penned the dystopian lyrics to 2112 thinking about his individual freedom. "I did not think of politics and I did not think of global oppression," he recalls. No, he was thinking: "These people are messing with me!" He and the rest of the band found their inspiration in Anthem, the same novella that had turned me on.

"You can say what you want about Ayn Rand and all the other implications of her work, but her artistic manifesto, for lack of a better term, was the one that struck home with us," says the band's lead singer and bass guitarist Geddy Lee. "It's about creative freedom. It's about believing in yourself."

Fans agreed. Despite its not-ready-for-pop-radio format, 2112 reached number 61 on the Billboard pop album charts, the first time the band had cracked the Top 100. Creative freedom aside, the brief note inside the sleeve of 2112, the one hat-tipping Ayn Rand, set the world of music experts—the critics—afire with ideological rage. You might characterize music journalists as frustrated musicians that shower their bitterness on youth.

That was certainly the case with Barry Miles, a music critic writing for England's New Music Express, who had a philosophical ax to grind in his trashing of Rush that had nothing to do with the quality of the music they made. On page 7 of the March 4, 1978, issue of NME, the headline read "Is Everyone Feeling All RIGHT? (Geddit?)"

As someone who reads the music press, this ranks as one of the most hateful hit pieces on a band I have ever seen. The problem, it seems, was the source of the band's ideas. Neil Peart is quoted, arguing that his band is "certainly devoted to individualism as the only concept that allows men to be happy, without somebody taking from somebody else." What follows is a hit piece and a clumsy vehicle for a hack journalist to express uninformed disdain for Neil Peart's developing libertarian ideology:

So now I understood the freedom they are talking about. Freedom for employers and those with money to do what they like and freedom for the workers to quit (and starve) or not. Work makes free. Didn't I remember that idea from somewhere? "Work Makes Free." Oh yes, it was written over the main gateway to Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

The story continues on to quote Peart again as saying, "You have to have principles that firmly apply to every situation. I think a country has to be run that way. That you have a guiding set of principles that are absolutely immutable—can never be changed by anything. That's the only way."

"Shades of the 1,000 Year Reich?" observes a very bitter Miles, darkly.

Really? Auschwitz? Shades of the Third Reich? Nobody likes being called a Nazi—except, I suppose, Nazis. For the rest of us, it is a conversation stopper, one of the deepest insults one can hurl, like "racist." A "Nazi" is a cold-blooded mass murderer.

Of course, individualism as described by Ayn Rand or Neil Peart or anyone else for that matter is the very antithesis of national socialism or any ideology that enables a government act of mass murder. I think the accusers who smear others with Nazism know that, and the real purpose is to stigmatize their philosophical enemies. Saul Alinksy, the radical community organizer from Chicago, said it best in Rules for Radicals:

Rule number 5: "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon."

Rule number 13: "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it."

Well, the New Music Express certainly personalized it. Both of Geddy Lee's parents had been teenage prisoners held at Auschwitz. "I once asked my mother her first thoughts upon being liberated," Lee told a reporter for JWeekly in 2004. "She didn't believe [liberation] was possible. She didn't believe that if there was a society outside the camp how they could allow this to exist, so she believed society was done in."

His parents' heroic struggle against Nazi genocide really defined Geddy Lee's upbringing in Toronto, and their experiences were discussed openly. Can you imagine his reaction to Barry Miles's ad hominem "Nazi" smears against the band in 1978? "Just so offensive," says Lee, in his typical, understated way.

Ayn Rand, like Geddy Lee, had firsthand knowledge of just how deep such smears can cut. Born Alissa Rosenbaum, Rand was growing up in St. Petersburg, Russia, when the communists took power in 1917. Her Jewish family "endured years of suffering and danger" after her father's small business was confiscated. She wanted to be a writer, but saw no hope for that under a new government regime where the freedom to express opinions, to question authority, to think for yourself, was prohibited. With the help of her family, she fled communist Russia for the United States, arriving when she was twenty-one years old.

The critics never really warmed up to Rand's work, just like they never really warmed up to Rush's music. More than their art, I suspect it was their combative individualism that really irked the critics. For Rand—as for Rush—there was a price to be paid for pursuing her chosen path in life. Challenging the status quo, and the freedom to do so, all came at a price. Freedom, for them, was not free. There was a downside, and it might have been easier to give in and comply with the expectations of others.

But the upside to freedom is so much better. Fans, customers hungry for something else, found them. It is said that Atlas Shrugged, Rand's magnum opus, is the second-most influential book in history, a distant second to the Bible. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, 2112 has sold more than 3 million copies since it was released, a triple-platinum record. Overall, Rush has sold some 40 million records, and the band ranks third, behind the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, for the most consecutive gold or platinum studio albums by a rock-and-roll band.

And it all started with 2112. It started with a willingness to stand on principle when the easier path was compromise. It started, incidentally, "with an acknowledgement to the genius of Ayn Rand." The band took off, fueled by music fans looking for something different, something inspired by disruptive innovation and creative freedom.

I really didn't revisit my early obsession with Rush until 2010, when an insurgent Senate candidate named Rand Paul began playing the band's "Spirit of Radio" at campaign events. He's a big fan, it turns out.

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"I read Ayn Rand when I was seventeen," the now well-known Senator from Kentucky told me in 2013. "I was probably a Rush fan before that… so the serendipity was that I actually liked this band that knew about Ayn Rand. I remember reading the lyrics to 2112 and then reading Anthem and saying this is basically Anthem in music."

The lawyer for Rush's record label, however, is not apparently a big fan of Rand Paul. Robert Farmer, general counsel for the Anthem Entertainment Group Inc. in Toronto, issued the following statement in response to the candidate's musical choices at events: "The public performance of Rush's music is not licensed for political purposes: any public venue which allows such use is in breach of its public performance license and also liable for copyright infringement."

Okay, so maybe the band just doesn't like politics. Maybe they respect their fans enough to not choose sides. Maybe, as their song "Tom Sawyer" goes, "His mind is not for rent, to any god or government."

Or maybe it just sucks being called a Nazi. Maybe the hate cuts deep when it's so personal, so unfair, so offensive. Maybe they just want to do their work. Ever since that ridiculous, slanderous, and yes, hurtful article was published—just as their hard work as musicians was starting to pay off—it seems that the band members have had to answer the same question, over and over: "Are you guys really ultra-right-wing lunatics?"

In a 2012 interview, Neil Peart was giving a rare interview with Rolling Stone to talk about the band's new album, Clockwork Angels. He's not a talker, and typically "doesn't like all of the hoopla." But he really wanted to talk about his latest work. Of course, the question came up again. Do you really like Ayn Rand? He answered:

For me, it was an affirmation that it's right to totally believe in something and live for it and not compromise. It was as simple as that…Libertarianism as I understood it was very good and pure and we're all going to be successful and generous to the less fortunate and it was, to me, not dark or cynical. But then I soon saw, of course, the way that it gets twisted by the flaws of humanity. And that's when I evolve now into… a bleeding heart Libertarian. That'll do."

That'll do. I'm a bleeding heart libertarian, OK? You can almost hear the resignation in his voice. Can we talk about my work, now?

I remember debating MSNBC's Chris Matthews once at an event in Aspen. I was making a (surely profound) point, and Matthews abruptly interrupted. He does that. "I know, I know," he said. "I read Ayn Rand in high school. I used to believe that stuff too, but then I grew up."

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I've heard this so many times. I'm sure you have, too. I suppose Neil Peart heard it more than most when he was trying to live down the youthful enthusiasm for liberty he shared with a dishonest critic in 1978.

Well I don't want to "grow up," if growing up means abandoning the principle that individuals matter, that you shouldn't hurt people or take their stuff. If it means not seeking ideals, taking chances, and taking responsibility for my own failures. If it means compromising on the things that really matter.

I don't want to split the difference on someone else's bad idea, and then pat myself on the back for "getting something done." There is a community of millions of people who seem to agree with me on this matter, and we are going through this test together. Not compromising seems to be the glue that holds us as a social movement. Alone you might buckle, give up. But are you really willing to let all of us down?

When I was 13, I discovered the ideas of liberty by accident, by reading the liner notes to 2112. I stumbled upon an earmarked copy of Anthem, an edition so old that Atlas Shrugged was not yet listed in the front with "other works" by Rand. With no "Long Tail" of the interwebs, I searched somewhat blindly for other books, eventually discovering Ludwig von Mises (recommended by Rand in her nonfiction works). I would later attend Grove City College by accident, because my Dad was transferred to the small town. I discovered Dr. Hans Sennholz and the Austrian Economics program there after a beer-fueled debate over the proper role of government. When I switched degrees, I was already one year into a Biology major, but I didn't know.  

Today, I would have just Googled it.

That is precisely what Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, a rising star in the Republican Party, did. "I was done with college, done with law school, and noticed that my views on politics were a little bit different than some of my Republican colleagues," Amash recalls. "It was the [George W.] Bush era of Republican politics. So, I decided I'd do a Google search and threw some of the terms into Google that I thought matched my viewpoints. Up popped F.A. Hayek."

Hayek talks about how individuals come together in voluntary association and create institutions, and those institutions both inform and constrain our behavior. I always thought the interplay between community and the individual made a lot of sense and explained how the world holds together and works so well without some benevolent despot telling us what to do.

Amash agrees. "I like Hayek's style. It's an intellectual style. There's a strong focus on spontaneous order, the idea that order pops out of our free interactions with each other. I found that very appealing."

The beautiful chaos and political disintermediation that is enabled by the Internet and social media is empowering individuals, helping them find ideas, each other, and better information about the corrupt cronyism of D.C.'s entrenched political class. That's real power. It's the reason why the machinery of government no longer functions entirely behind closed doors, shielded from the light of public attention. Information on last-minute floor votes and arcane congressional floor procedure is tweeted out, posted, shared, streamed live, and otherwise instantaneously distributed to millions of citizens, creating a greater social intelligence.

Knowledge is power, and the diminishing marginal costs of getting good information about Washington's ways is changing the old, tired political calculus. Politicians can no longer hide from their constituents, telling them one thing back home while voting for business as usual in the nation's capital. And it's driving the Old Guard of the political establishment absolutely nuts. They are lashing out.

Many people in Washington, DC, want to stop you, the citizen shareholder. Sometimes they call names, names meant to damage and hurt. Should we let them? Should we back down and take the easier path?

I can only think back to laying on my parent's plush red wall-to-wall carpeting as I read the inside cover of 2112. The final song on the second side of the album is playing. "You don't get something for nothing." I'm listening, reading the lyrics inside the record sleeve, the one with the cool, ominous red star.

"You can't have freedom for free."

Adapted from Matt Kibbe's latest book, Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff: A Libertarian Manifesto. Kibbe is the President of FreedomWorks, a grassroots service center to over 6 million activists who believe in liberty and limited government.