Sep 172013

In last Sunday’s radio show, I answered the following Rapid Fire Question:

In his 1977 essay “Political Freedom and Its Roots in Metaphysics,” Moshe Kroy argued that Ayn Rand’s advocacy of government, in contrast to the libertarians’ advocacy of anarchism, stemmed from her having a different view of the nature of man than Murray Rothbard did. Is Kroy right?

I skimmed the article in advance of the broadcast, so I knew that the Kroy’s analysis was based on utterly ridiculous — as in, fabricated — claims about Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I quoted a bit of the article in the broadcast, but I thought I’d blog a bit more commentary. The first example that Kroy offers is long and complicated, so I’ll skip that. Let’s look at the second:

A Randist judge would demand compensation whenever a promise was unilaterally made and broken (i.e., a promise of a gift, or of charity service). A Rothbardian judge would not consider these legal matters — though he may privately advise the victim to advertise the fact of default as much as he can, so as to make the defaulter realize that breaking promises is bad for your business reputation.

Nothing in Ayn Rand’s writings — fictional or philosophical — supports this claim that mere promises constitute contracts. In fact, as William Stoddard observed, Hank Rearden’s thinking about his abysmal marriage — when Lillian drags him to Jim Taggart’s wedding — suggests the opposite view:

Then, as if a single, sudden blow to his brain blasted a moment’s shift of perspective, [Hank] felt an immense astonishment at what he was doing here and why. He lost, for that moment, all the days and dogmas of his past; his concepts, his problems, his pain were wiped out; he knew only — as from a great, clear distance — that man exists for the achievement of his desires, and he wondered why he stood here, he wondered who had the right to demand that he waste a single it-replaceable hour of his life, when his only desire was to seize the slender figure in gray and hold her through the length of whatever time there was left for him to exist.

In the next moment, he felt the shudder of recapturing his mind. He felt the tight, contemptuous movement of his lips pressed together in token of the words he cried to himself: You made a contract once, now stick to it. And then he thought suddenly that in business transactions the courts of law did not recognize a contract wherein no valuable consideration had been given by one party to the other. He wondered what made him think of it. The thought seemed irrelevant. He did not pursue it.

Basically, because Hank received no “valuable consideration” from Lillian in their marriage, Hank ought to consider that marriage to be a mere promise and not a binding contract. Hence, he’s not obliged to endure it, come what may — and ultimately, he doesn’t. In fact, when Hank divorces Lillian after the debacle with the “Gift Certificate” for Rearden Metal, he goes to considerable lengths to prevent her from benefitting from the marriage. He bribes judges and others to prevent any property settlement or alimony. That’s because Hank aims to leave Lilliam without another cent of his — whatever the promises of the marriage — precisely because she’s offered him no valuable consideration in the marriage.

If I read Atlas Shrugged through from beginning to end, I suspect that I could find more than a few promises broken by the heroes (mostly due to changed circumstances) that wouldn’t ever result in any kind of court case. Contracts are a kind of promise, but they’re not mere promises.

As for the third example:

A Randist judge would have to defend, in court, a contract in which a man sells himself to be a slave: once a man made a contractual commitment to be a slave, and to forego any further freedom of choice, he has to abide by his promise. A Rothbardian would consider the contract cancelled the minute the slave refuses to be a slave any more (thereby implying that the contract was never valid). At the same time, if the slave got some money, which he has been capable to continue to control independently, for becoming a slave, then he no more legally holds the money: the money belongs to the deceived, purported slavemaster. Thus, the institutions of justice should remedy the breach of control and ownership incurred.

Again, that’s a complete fabrication. Nothing in Ayn Rand’s writings would ever support that position. In fact, another example from Atlas Shrugged suggests that Ayn Rand held the opposite view — namely, when Dagny attempts to convince Dan Conway to fight the “Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Rule.”

“Dan, you have to fight them. I’ll help you. I’ll fight for you with everything I’ve got.”

Dan Conway shook his head.

He sat at his desk, the empty expanse of a faded blotter before him, one feeble lamp lighted in a corner of the room. Dagny had rushed straight to the city office of the Phoenix-Durango. Conway was there, and he still sat as she had found him. He had smiled at her entrance and said, “Funny, I thought you would come,” his voice gentle, lifeless. They did not know each other well, but they had met a few times in Colorado.

“No,” he said, “it’s no use.”

“Do you mean because of that Alliance agreement that you signed? It won’t hold. This is plain expropriation. No court will uphold it. And if Jim tries to hide behind the usual looters’ slogan of ‘public welfare,’ I’ll go on the stand and swear that Taggart Transcontinental can’t handle the whole traffic of Colorado. And if any court rules against you, you can appeal and keep on appealing for the next ten years.”

“Yes,” he said, “I could … I’m not sure I’d win, but I could try and I could hang onto the railroad for a few years longer, but… No, it’s not the legal points that I’m thinking about, one way or the other. It’s not that.”

“What, then?”

“I don’t want to fight it, Dagny.”

She looked at him incredulously. It was the one sentence which, she felt sure, he had never uttered before; a man could not reverse himself so late in life.

Dan Conway was approaching fifty. He had the square, stolid, stubborn face of a tough freight engineer, rather than a company president; the face of a fighter, with a young, tanned skin and graying hair. He had taken over a shaky little railroad in Arizona, a road whose net revenue was less than that of a successful grocery store, and he had built it into the best railroad of the Southwest. He spoke little, seldom read books, had never gone to college. The whole sphere of human endeavors, with one exception, left him blankly indifferent; he had no touch of that which people called culture. But he knew railroads.

“Why don’t you want to fight?”

“Because they had the right to do it.”

“Dan,” she asked, “have you lost your mind?”

“I’ve never gone back on my word in my life,” he said tonelessly. “I don’t care what the courts decide. I promised to obey the majority. I have to obey.”

In the rest of the scene, Dagny continues her attempts to persuade Conway, but without effect. Notice, however, that Dan Conway embraces the view of the supposedly “Randist judge” in the example from the article. He agreed to abide by the majority, so he has lost all right to fight their ruling now. Dagny, on the other hand, vehemently asserts that Dan has every right to fight for himself and his railroad. Dagny’s view is clearly Ayn Rand’s view.

(For anyone interested in more direct discussion of this question of whether a person can sell himself into slavery, check out this podcast segment: 12 March 2012: Selling Yourself into Slavery.)

Ultimately… is it too much to ask that critics of Ayn Rand refrain from that time-honored traditions of “ignoring the text” and “making stuff up”? Apparently so.

  • JohnDonohue

    Is it too much to ask them to use “Objectivist” rather than “randist” or other garbage monikers? I know their motive: they don’t wish to admit that Ayn Rand is a philosopher, or possibly even that there is such a thing as philosophy. Additionally, by swatting around Miss Rand’s name in various twisted forms, they attempt to float the construction that her philosophy is merely a memo from a cult of personality.

    Excellent specific refutation Dr. Hsieh. In between the lines of your answer you painted the picture of “libertarians as anarchists” (more so all the time) who view anything except anarchy as statist control.

  • John Pryce

    Since I became an Objectivist in 2007, I’ve yet to find any criticism of Objectivism that didn’t involve ignoring much of Rand’s words on one subject or another. I also have yet to find any criticism of the woman herself that didn’t revolve around the subject of Mr. Valliant’s book.

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