People often wonder at the success of Ayn Rand’s writings, at how otherwise intelligent people get sucked in to the Randian circle-jerk. I want to take some time to deconstruct one of her essays, on “Man’s Rights”, with two purposes in mind: 1) to demonstrate that her writing is not 100% vacuous crap, and 2) to help people combat these ideas when presented ‘in the wild’, as it were.
Have a read of her essay. Come back when you’re done. Hopefully you can get through the whole thing (yes, yes, choking down that first sentence is pretty rough, and it doesn’t get any better later).
So where to begin? First, I think it’s important to remember that pure lies don’t often take hold in the way that Rand’s writing has. A lie alloyed with truth can get a lot farther than either the lie or just the truth by themselves. So… For time constraints, I’m going to gloss over the pure bullshit (defining a ‘free society’ as capitalism, for example), and focus more on the truths that are used to sweeten the lie.
I’m going to run through the main philosophical flaws in this essay, mainly as these are standard rhetorical fallacies that found again and again, and several of the tropes employed in this essay are found in the writings of our good friends, the so-called Mens’ Rights Advocates. And yes, I know, this article belies a radical ignorance of both history and reality: in arguing with the specific facts of history in this sort of thing, you are implicitly accepting that the argument is valid. Even if the facts were correct, the argument is still invalid, thus arguing the facts is completely irrelevant with regards to showing that the argument is false. When faced with this kind of argument, you can either argue the facts, or you can argue effectively.
I take no issue with Rand’s general definition of Rights. She’s spot on as defining individual rights as those things that, essentially, bind ‘other people’ from interfering in our lives. This would be the doctrine of ‘negative rights‘. A negative right to life would mean that I have the right not to be killed, a negative right to education would mean that I have the right not to be prohibited from receiving an education (assuming I have met all other requirements (and yes, this particular right is problematic, given socioeconomic circumstances, etc)), and so on.
So when dealing with a rabid libertarian (you can tell by the foaming at the mouth), it would be a mistake to claim that Rand is universally wrong: in the areas where she was lifting from other Philosophers, she’s right on the money. That’s pretty much why plagiarism is prevalent. Where she goes from there, however, is basically ridiculous.
It has been largely taken by a given in labour rights (by which I mean Aristotle, Locke, Hegel, Marx and others) that labour is what gives value. Raw materials are, themselves, of limited value. A tree is of limited utility to a human, but turn that tree into a viola (amongst other things) and a whole heap of value is created. The root of value (and thus currency) is labour (and not gold. I mean, really…).
But… If I have the right to life, and I have labour, from whence does my property spring? Did I emerge fully formed in the world with a collection of skills and materials, like some computer game character? Arguably, if (like computer games) we existed in a world of infinite resources, whereby I could simply move further afield to stake a new claim (which still gives an advantage to those who came before me) and create new property, that would be undeniably mine. But here in reality, things don’t work that way.
While labour is the root of value, labour without tools is laborious: a business cannot function without the superstructure of society. No power means no business, but moreover no power infrastructure means no customers. How do the customers get to your business? By hacking their way through the jungle, or hiking over the untamed hills and marshes? No, by using the roads and other infrastructure that enable us to be more than huts merely scattered haphazardly in the wilderness, to be a society.
She has asserted that we have a right to do pretty much anything we like (so long as it doesn’t impinge upon the rights of others), and to own that which we produce ourselves. That’s entirely correct.
Where Rand’s argument falls apart is that taxes are not a violation of rights (and, really, she’s talking about taxes). Unless, again, you magically burst into existence and have not required the use of public roads, public water, public education, or public electricity, then taxes are not a form of ‘altruism’ (by which Rand means “slavery”), they are a form of trade.
Furthermore, and this is a point that seems to be entirely lost on all libertarians I have met in person, a business that does not have a road leading to it perishes. A business whose customers do not have access to potable water loses its customers. A business whose employees have health care at the whim of their employer are coerced, are compelled to act against their own values, and often are required to expropriate their own values. Or they can die, destitute, malnourished and impoverished. As long as the business benefits from the system, the business must pay into the system: this is not altruism, but trade.
It is important to be aware of the underlying meanings in an argument. This is not merely ‘semantics’, as some may erroneously claim, but a way of tracking that an argument is being legitimately made, and not merely implementing a series of fallacies. Else we will be unable to effectively make a case against those arguments. Raging is all well and good, but we need to rage effectively.