Individualism, America, and Ayn Rand

 Posted by on 30 July 2008 at 12:00 am  History, Objectivism
Jul 302008

The following letter appeared in the online edition of the July 13, 2008 Denver Post, with negative reference to individualism and Ayn Rand. Since her name doesn’t frequently appear in our local paper, I took this as an opportunity to set the record straight.

Here is the original letter:

It wasn’t individualism that settled the West

Re: “The Cowboy Myth,” July 6 Perspective article.

There are two problems with Jeffrey Lockwood’s support of the Cowboy Myth. First, we are constantly told that it was reality, that cowboys were the essential ingredient in the winning of the West. Truth is, the average cowboy was about as significant as today’s parking lot attendant.

Perpetuating the Hollywood/dime fiction image of the cowboy propagates the false belief that Ayn Rand individualism was the historical way and will be the best future way to solve our nation’s problems. Truth is, the sodbusters were the key, the heroes: risking all, sticking determinedly in their forlorn shacks to raise their crops and banding together to raise their barns, build their schools and defend their homes.

The key to our nation’s past successes was Americans joining together in common cause, not individualism. Working together will also be the key to our future.

Bill Belew
Boulder, CO

My response was as follows:

America was made by great individuals working under a system which (albeit imperfectly) protected their right to use their rational minds to create value and advance their lives. Where would we be without the likes of Thomas Edison, Westinghouse, and Henry Ford? This was a key insight of Ayn Rand and she deserves tremendous credit for promoting a philosophy that celebrates individual achievement — the philosophy that underlies the positive and optimistic “can do” American sense of life.

Of course individuals can and should band together voluntarily when it suits their purposes. I have no problem with “working together” with others for mutual benefit as a voluntary arrangement, as many did in the Old West.

However, this notion is too-often corrupted into a vicious morality which preaches that the collective should take precedence over the individual, that individuals should be coerced to help one other, and that therefore we need massive government intrusions into the economy (such as “universal health care”) to automatically provide for everyone’s needs at taxpayer expense.

This approach will destroy the sorts of individuals who made America great, and will eventually destroy America. We need to celebrate and support the individuals who embody the American spirit and work-ethic, not punish them.

Paul Hsieh
Sedalia, CO

Jul 222008

I just finished reading the featured article in the Summer 2008 issue of The Objective Standard, “Property Rights and the Crisis of the Electric Grid” by Raymond Niles, and I can whole-heartedly recommend it.

I had always wondered how the electrical utilities evolved into their current dysfunctional state as quasi-governmental entities, and never understood why utilities didn’t function more like private providers of essential goods (like grocery stores or airlines). Niles traces the history of the electrical utilities from the 1880′s to the present time, and shows how the current problems with the electrical industry are the result of government interference with basic property rights from the very inception.

I was particularly interested in his account of the California “deregulation” fiasco of 2000-2001. Diana and I lived in San Diego at that time, so we experienced this crisis of skyrocketing costs and rolling blackouts first-hand. However, I couldn’t make sense of the newspaper accounts at the time, which generally blamed the “free market” for the problems. (For a typical portrayal of the events, this Wikipedia entry on the “California Electricity Crisis” is a good example of the conventional wisdom).

Fortunately, Niles is able to reduce this complex topic to its essentials, using property rights as the unifying theme. As an industry analyst, he has tremendous knowledge of the history, and is able to communicate it clearly to a lay audience. And besides offering a critique of the current system, he also articulates a positive alternative vision of a free market electrical system in which property rights are genuinely respected, and the benefits it could bring to producers and consumers alike.

Because his article is the featured free article, it is available to both subscribers and non-subscribers. So read the whole thing.

(On a personal note, I had the pleasure of meeting Ray Niles at the OCON 2008 conference a few weeks ago, and found him to be a thorougly intelligent, articulate, and pleasant dinner companion.)

Jefferson’s Last Letter

 Posted by on 4 July 2008 at 9:59 pm  History
Jul 042008

Thomas Jefferson was invited to attend a celebration in Washington DC on July 4, 1826, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He had to decline due to reasons of health, but he did write the following in his last letter:

I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made.

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.

That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

(Via Marginal Revolution.)

Memorial Day

 Posted by on 26 May 2008 at 9:34 pm  History
May 262008

On this Memorial Day, I would like to honor the three men of the American Civil War who understood the terrible need for total war: President Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, and General William T. Sherman. Their vigorous prosecution of the war preserved the Union, the very first nation founded on the principles of individual rights — and, at the time, the only such nation. In so doing, they ended the most loathsome violation of rights ever known to man: chattel slavery. Without them, without the brave Union soldiers who fought under them, America would not exist today.*

So thank you, Mssrs. Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman. We are forever in your debt.

* For the details, I strongly recommend reading James McPherson’s stellar history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom.

The Post-American World

 Posted by on 6 May 2008 at 11:05 pm  History, Politics
May 062008

Recently, there have been a couple of high-profile articles featuring excerpts from the forthcoming book by Fareed Zakaria, international editor for Newsweek, entitled The Post-American World.

One article can be found here at the Newsweek site: “The Rise of the Rest“.

The second article from Foreign Affairs is mirrored here: “The Future of American Power“.

The New York Times has just reviewed the book here: “A Challenge for the U.S.: Sun Rising on the East“.

These articles have already gotten a lot of attention on the blogosphere, and I anticipate the book will also be widely discussed. The basic premise is that the current era of American dominance in the world will soon come to an end, yielding to other powers such as China and India, much as the British dominance in the 19th century ended in the early 20th century (fortunately yielding to the United States.)

Zakaria does recognize important differences between the two situations, and he makes a number of correct observations with respect to specific issues and challenges facing the US. For instance, in the Newsweek article, he correctly points out that the US benefits greatly from energy of hard-working immigrants seeking to better their lives. In the Foreign Affairs article, he correctly notes that onerous government regulations threaten to harm the vitality of our capital markets, to the detriment of Americans in a global economy.

However, he also makes some serious errors. For instance, in the first article, he argues that the key in the international arena is to work on stabilizing the “global system” and ensuring that “China, India, Russia, Brazil all feel that they have a stake in the existing global order”, to lessen the dangers of “war, depression, panics, and breakdowns”. In the second article, he blames our “dysfunctional” political system, and argues that politicians of both major political parties must “compromise” in order to address major issues such as “health care, Social Security, tax reform”.

Overall, he doesn’t quite manage to tie all his points into a single unifying theme. Hence, I think this is an excellent opportunity for interested Objectivists to set forth their own arguments on the source of American greatness, what happened to erode it, and how we can recover it.

For example, here is the LTE I sent to Newsweek in response to their article:

American decline is far from inevitable. America rose to greatness because it was founded on the principle of individual rights for all men (albeit imperfectly implemented). The resultant boom in American prosperity and power was the result of a capitalist system that allowed men and women to freely use their reason to better their lives. China and India are prospering because they are starting to allow partial capitalism into their economies as well.

If America wants to remain a vibrant, prosperous country, we need to abandon our current path towards European-style welfare statism and return to laissez-faire capitalism. The government should confine itself to protecting the individual’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, and barring the initiation of force between men. If we reaffirm that basic principle, America can continue to remain a shining example of freedom and prosperity for the rest of the world.

Paul Hsieh, MD
Sedalia, CO

Obviously, much more could be written on this subject. And Objectivists have a number of important and unique ideas to contribute to this discussion.

Nick and Abe

 Posted by on 20 April 2008 at 2:31 pm  History, Personal
Apr 202008

Yesterday, Paul and I had the pleasure of lunching with Nick Provenzo of Rule of Reason, then walking and talking around DC with him for a few hours. The company was delightful and the weather was lovely, but the sights were a mixed bag.

I particularly wanted to visit the Lincoln Memorial, as I’ve grown to admire Lincoln intensely, despite some significant disagreements with his policies, in my study of the Civil War over the past few months. That was excellent, despite the throng of people. It’s an absolutely fantastic statue of Lincoln.

We also visited the new World War Two Memorial. That was worse than I expected in its utter lack of meaning. Blech.

Happily, we also stopped by the statue of William Tecumseh Sherman near Lafayette Square. I’d also like to see the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, so that I can pay my respects to him. I should be able to do that tomorrow before I head home.

Apr 072008

Caroline Baum, the Bloomberg financial columnist who has written favorably about Ayn Rand, once wrote an interesting essay about economic incentives and the first Thanksgiving.

Here are some excerpts from Baum’s essay. (The material in quotes is from William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony for 30 years between 1621 and 1656):

…The Pilgrims’ first winters after they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and established the Plymouth Bay Colony were harsh. The weather and crop yields were poor.

Half the Pilgrims died or returned to England in the first year. Those who remained went hungry. Despite their deep religious convictions, the Pilgrims took to stealing from one another.

…One of the traditions the Pilgrims had brought with them from England was a practice known as “farming in common.” Everything they produced was put into a common pool; the harvest was rationed according to need.

They had thought “that the taking away of property, and bringing in community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing,” Bradford recounts.

They were wrong. “For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much imployment that would have been to their benefite and comforte,” Bradford writes. Young, able-bodied men resented working for others without compensation. They thought it an “injuestice” to receive the same allotment of food and clothing as those who didn’t pull their weight.

…After the Pilgrims had endured near-starvation for three winters, Bradford decided to experiment when it came time to plant in the spring of 1623. He set aside a plot of land for each family, that “they should set corne every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to themselves.

The results were nothing short of miraculous.

Bradford writes: “This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted than other waise would have bene by any means the Govr or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave far better content.

The women now went willingly into the field, carrying their young children on their backs. Those who previously claimed they were too old or ill to work embraced the idea of private property and enjoyed the fruits of their labor, eventually producing enough to trade their excess corn for furs and other desired commodities.

…With proper incentives in place, the Pilgrims produced and enjoyed a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1623 and set aside “a day of thanksgiving” to thank God for their good fortune.

Any generall wante or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day,” Bradford writes in an entry from 1647, the last year covered by his history.

We now know the Pilgrims’ good fortune had nothing to do with luck. In 1623, they were responding to the same incentives that, almost four centuries later, have come to be regarded as necessary for a free, productive and prosperous society.

I don’t know if Ayn Rand was familiar with the Pilgrims’ story when she wrote her fictional history of the Twentieth Century Motor Company in Atlas Shrugged. (Of course, her direct personal experience growing up in the USSR undoubtedly provided her with ample evidence of the importance of property rights, without having to study the history of the Pilgrims!)

But the parallels are striking, because the principle is the same. Trying to live by the credo of “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need” leads only to misery and poverty, and turns decent people into criminals. On the other hand, respecting property rights results in happiness and prosperity.

If only more Americans had remembered the economic and moral lessons of 1623, then we might have avoided some of the painful mistakes of the 20th century.

Jan 072008

Depending on how you look at it, this could either be inspiring or depressing: “Things Other People Accomplished When They Were Your Age“.

(Via MetaFilter.)

On Ashland University

 Posted by on 13 July 2007 at 7:22 am  Academia, History, Religion
Jul 132007

Ashland University’s insanely unjust treatment of John Lewis was recently detailed in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: Tenure Shrugged. FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has posted some further details (correcting some small inaccuracies in the CHE article, as far as I understand) here: Ashland University: No Objectivists Need Apply.

Notice that the source of Dr. Lewis’s troubles were (1) neocons and (2) evangelical Christians. From what I understand, the run-of-the-mill liberal faculty were rightly shocked and outraged by his treatment by Ashland.

Also, I might as well mention that I was quoted in the Chronicle’s introduction to its three articles on Objectivism in academia:

The articles in this special Chronicle report are about a different group of scholars: those who believe that Rand created a true and complete philosophical model, which must be widely spread or else civilization will perish. These scholars believe that the road to cultural renewal runs through the philosophy department: If the public adopts the correct metaphysical and epistemological beliefs, then peace, justice, and prosperity will naturally follow. (In this respect, the famously anti-religious Randians are oddly similar to Catholic philosophers in the Thomist tradition.)

“The serious study of Ayn Rand’s work­ — in and out of academia­­ — is only in its nascent stages,” wrote Diana Mertz Hsieh, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, on her blog in 2005. “If stillborn, our culture is doomed. … It’s not just some academic game: It’s literally life and death.”

In case you’re wondering, I’ve not blogged because I’ve been at OCON in lovely Telluride. I’ve enjoyed myself well enough, although I’m eager to return to real work on my dissertation and to preparation for my fall “Intro Phil” class. I probably won’t return to regular blogging for another week.

Eric Daniels on Jamestown

 Posted by on 12 May 2007 at 5:15 am  History
May 122007

Particularly in light of the increasingly common claim that America was founded on Christian principles, I very much enjoyed this ARI op-ed by Eric Daniels on the meaning of Jamestown:

Jamestown: Birthplace of America’s Distinctive, Secular Ideal
By Eric Daniels

On May 14, America will commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. The occasion provides us with an opportunity to understand and celebrate the distinctive, secular ideal underlying America’s freedom and prosperity.

Although many Americans recognize that Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in North America (predating the Pilgrims and Puritans of Massachusetts by over a decade), too many mistakenly view the religious ethos of the New England colonies as the impetus for America’s flourishing. But the religious colonists, whose moral outlook stands opposed to our ideals of intellectual and political liberty, merely transplanted Old World ideas to new soil. The New World that promised opportunity and progress had begun in Jamestown, where the defining spirit of American individualism was born.

The Jamestown settlement project began, not as a Puritan escape to pursue and enforce a dogmatic faith, but with a group of profit-seeking investors in London pooling capital in a joint-stock company, a forerunner of our modern corporations. Members of the Virginia Company had organized with the goal of uncovering economic opportunity in North America by finding precious metals and possibly a water route to the Pacific.

The intrepid band of 104 adventurers who survived the Atlantic journey, braved a forbidding wilderness, established Jamestown, and faced extreme peril. In its first fragile decade, Jamestown lost hundreds of settlers to disease, starvation, and war, with casualty rates in one harsh winter reaching 80 percent of the colony. Eventually, under the deft leadership of Captain John Smith, the colony weathered these trials to emerge with renewed resolve. Smith himself had risen from modest circumstances in England to lead these adventurers, and he saw America as a land where his kind of self-reliance could flourish.

Though the Virginia Company found little gold and no sea route to Asia, they soon discovered something vastly more important–that economic opportunity lay wherever men were left free to work and create new wealth. In contrast to the rigid class structure and static economy of Jacobean England, America promised rewards based on individual merit. It was this spirit, and not the Puritan belief in cosmic predestination and unthinking duty to God, that attracted men to pursue their own earthly success in the New World.

“Here every man may be master and owner of his own labor and land,” Smith noted in one of his many promotional books intended to attract new settlers to America. “If he have nothing but his hands,” he boasted, “he may set up his trade, and by industry quickly grow rich.” For Smith and the other early settlers of Jamestown, the profound significance of America lay in the possibility that a man could choose, pursue, and realize his own destiny–it lay in a new ideal of individual liberty.

By the late eighteenth century, under the growing influence of that ideal, the colonists began to resist and protest against British imperial controls on their economic and political freedom, which led to the American Revolution. In framing our constitutional government, the Founders put individualism into political practice by protecting individual rights against the claims of any cleric, monarch, or legislative majority. The new nation’s founding ideals had emerged in opposition to the religious morality that entailed obedience to Biblical teachings and authority, conformity to the group, and condemnation of worldliness and material success.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the individualist spirit born in Jamestown brought countless millions to America, each looking to create a better life for himself. Through the years, that spirit has fostered untold prosperity by encouraging self-reliant innovators like Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, or James J. Hill. Its legacy lives on in America today, in anyone who believes that each individual owns his own life and has an inalienable right to pursue his own happiness.

In the centuries since Jamestown, America has thrived because of this distinctive ideal–an ideal in marked contrast not only to America’s religious colonies but also to the rest of the world today, where duty to the group or to divine command still subjugates millions.

Americans should pause to celebrate the full significance of the Jamestown anniversary as an opportunity to appreciate and rededicate themselves to America’s noble spirit of individualism. Doing so will help remind us of the need to defend this value from those who would compromise or attack it. Doing any less would be an act of injustice to those brave men who helped to shape our most important institutions.

Eric Daniels, PhD, is a Visiting Scholar at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism at Clemson University, and a guest writer for the Ayn Rand Institute. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand–author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.” Contact the writer at

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