The political controversy of the late 19th century was:
- whether socialists (all those who believed in the individual’s right to possess what he or she produced) should engage in the political process, seize control of the state, and use the state apparatus to achieve liberation;
- or, whether a worker’s state was inherently contradictory, counter revolutionary, and would only lead to the creation of a new ruling class whose interests would still clash with those of the ruled – that the state should be abolished allowing for no transitional stage of any kind during which power may have the chance to reconsolidate itself.
The situation has recreated itself with amazing similarity almost exactly a century later. Non-libertarian parties the world over (those who see authoritarian centralization as the bulwark of civilization) are bankrupt, economically and intellectually. The only viable intellectual current today falls under that ambiguous term – “libertarian.”
Today there exist beneath this umbrella as many splinter groups as there were a hundred years ago under the umbrella of socialism. Two distinct trends, a right and a left if you will, are clearly discernible. One group, clearly the largest with a hierarchical organization modeled on the other political parties, believes, like most Marxists, in constitutional parliamentary republican democracy. They believe that the state is a necessary guarantor of individual safety and the product of the individual’s labor, and in gradual progress toward a free society through participation in the political process. The other group, much smaller and far more splintered, rejects the state as necessarily a tool of class domination and exploitation. This group believes that what Bakunin said a hundred years ago is as true today, “If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Czar himself.”
The first group is in all fairness a direct inheritor of the ideals of the American Revolution. In modern times, however, it has only two roots: (1) the Austrian school of economics represented by Ludwig Von Mises; (2) the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Von Mises never considered the libertarians. He answered the Marxists and the Keynesians and defended laissez-faire capitalism at a time when no one else would. His justification for capitalism was empirical – the greatest good for the greatest number. Ayn Rand, however, attempted to offer a moral justification of capitalism by substituting the word `capitalism’ for the libertarian meaning of the word “socialism”. She then attributed all of the ills of capitalism to government interference with the market and all of the world’s wealth to the minds of the men whom the world considered the robber barons.
The contrast between Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” and libertarianism is deeper than mere substitution of terminology, however. Several of her propositions or axioms place her clearly outside of the libertarian tradition. Her justification of the state is derived from a Hobbesian state of nature theory:
… a society without an organized government would be at the mercy of the first criminal who came along and who would precipitate it into chaos and gang warfare…. [The Virtue of Selfishness,152; pb 112]
If a society provided no organized protection against force, it would compel every citizen to go about armed, to turn his home into a fortress, to shoot any strangers approaching his door – or to join a protective gang of citizens who would fight other gangs, formed for the same purpose, and thus bring about the degeneration of society into the chaos of gang rule, i.e., rule by brute force, into perpetual warfare of prehistoric savages. [Ibid., 146; pb 108]
Ayn Rand’s belief in the inherent depravity of human nature which renders us forever incapable of living without rulers and not descending to the level of `savages’, clearly places her outside of the libertarian tradition which views human nature as essentially good, capable of indefinite improvement through the experience of freedom and the exercise of reason. Her knowledge of anthropology is as embarrassing as her understanding of history. For example, in regards to her conception of who are the savages, she describes America as, “…a superlative material achievement in the midst of an untouched wilderness, against the resistance of savage tribes.” [For The New Intellectual, 58; pb 50]
To Rand, the essential characteristic of the state is that it possesses a monopoly on the use of retaliatory force. How does she justify this monopoly or national sovereignty? She accepts it as a given, something not requiring a justification, and demands that an-archy, the negation of the proposition, justify itself. Her concept of national sovereignty is then something transcendental, existing separate and apart from individuals, and beyond the right of the individual to accept or reject according to his or her own reason. These propositions clearly place Ayn Rand’s philosophy closer to Hobbes, Hegel, and Marx, than to libertarianism.
The state, according to Miss Rand, must hold a monopoly on the enforcement of contracts and the settling of disputes between individuals, at least whenever this arbitration is not accepted by both sides voluntarily. She fails to consider that the enforcement of contracts by the state fundamentally alters the nature of free agreements. Agreements are made on terms which otherwise might not be, because they are justiciable.
The terms of “free agreements” under law are titled in favor of lenders over debtors, landlords over tenants, employers over employees, in a way which would not exist in a “free market.” This leveraging of power is not `objective’ at all. Depending purely on legal convention, creditors may have debtors imprisoned, tenants may be evicted without notice and their effects confiscated, one human being may own another or the land on which another lives and works, all to varying degrees.