Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Ayn Rand Factor

TIA Daily • February 24, 2009

The Ideal Hostess for an Ideological Boston Tea Party

by Robert Tracinski

Last week, in his now-famous rallying cry against the Obama administration's march toward socialism, CNBC financial commentator Rick Santelli called for a "Chicago Tea Party" to protest against the rapid expansion of government.

The idea of a Boston Tea Party-inspired tax protest had already been percolating, if you will, and when Santelli gave voice to it, it emerged as a new movement. A group that calls this the "New American Tea Party" has set up a website to coordinate protests across the nation this Friday, including in Washington, DC.

The comparison to the Boston Tea Party is appropriate, because it is a reminder that the American Revolution began with a revolt against taxes—and against a government that was much smaller and less intrusive than the one we have now.

It is also appropriate because it captures the sense that the political class has been acting without our consent. The ever-changing bailout plans have been hatched by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve on their own apparently unlimited authority, backed by a blank check rammed through Congress last year with little debate. Or consider the automakers' bailout, which the Bush administration decreed after Congress had specifically refused to approve it. Or take the stimulus bill, the final version of which was pushed through the House with only ten hours to read through a thousand-page preserve of leftist giveaways and insidious new regulations.

It has been said that freedom is indivisible, and since the beginning of the financial crisis we have seen that in taking away our economic freedom, our leaders in Washington are also increasingly giving unchecked power to unelected bureaucrats and turning Congress into a mere rubber stamp.

A backlash has been brewing against this rapid expansion of government power, and this week's tea party protests are just the beginning. The American people as a whole are still largely giving President Obama the benefit of the doubt, and his approval ratings are still relatively high. But what will happen in a year or so, when it is likely that his interventions in the economy will have made things worse, rather than better? The new administration's policies have already driven the stock market down to levels not seen since 1997, wiping out more than a decade of wealth-creation. What happens in 2010, when the public finds that they're still afraid of losing their jobs, and their personal savings haven't recovered? I think we will see these protests grow and spread.

But we will need more than just a political rebellion against the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress. We will need to engage in an ideological struggle, a battle of ideas. Columnist Monica Crowley named it best early last week when she called for a "21st century Boston Tea Party" and said that we needed a "second American revolution of ideas," "of getting back to the ideals of limited government, of constitutional parameters on government power, of individual liberty, and of the free market."

But such an ideological revolution would need to be more extensive than Crowley realizes, because we have to ask: where is the intellectual ammunition for this battle of ideas going to come from? It is important to remember that a Republican administration started us down this plunge into socialism. President Bush started the bailout frenzy, and John McCain pointedly refused to defend capitalism when Barack Obama tried to make the presidential election into a referendum against free-market economics.

For the right, this taxpayers' rebellion should be seen, not merely as a way to regain some of the political power they have lost, but also as a means for the Republican Party to reform itself and revive its ability to defend the free market after a decade of Bush-style "big-government conservatism." For too long, the right has neglected the case for free markets, and they need to re-learn it. That's the revolution we need most of all.

In praising Rick Santelli, conservative author Roger Kimball asks a very good question: "do we really need to go back to economic kindergarten and relearn" the lessons of the failure of statism and the superiority of capitalism? The answer is that we never learned the fullest, deepest, philosophical reasons for the moral and practical superiority of capitalism.

Fortunately, we know where to find the free-market ideas we need, and this source is already indirectly driving the new taxpayer revolt. It's time to bring it fully out into the open.

Note that in defending his stance against the bailouts, Rick Santelli referred to himself as an "Ayn Rander"—a reference to the great 20th-century novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, who is most famous for her ideological defense of laissez-faire capitalism. (That's not Santelli's first reference to Rand; TIA Daily reader Bill Sims found an earlier one.) Similar references seem to be lurking behind nearly every expression of resistance to big government. Rush Limbaugh—whose coining of the term "porkulus" helped galvanize the right's resistance to the so-called "stimulus" bill—has frequently recommended Ayn Rand's magnum opus Atlas Shrugged in recent months, as has conservative talk show host Glenn Beck.

In January, Stephen Moore caused a stir by arguing, in the Wall Street Journal, that the current crisis is turning Atlas Shrugged "from fiction to fact." References to Ayn Rand have even popped up at such unlikely sources as Human Events—a magazine for religious conservatives that recently published a surprisingly friendly article referring to the atheist philosopher—and even from the New York Times's safely timid in-house conservative David Brooks, who is the farthest thing from an "Ayn Rander" that you could imagine. And those who are warning that increased government restrictions will cause the nation's most productive workers to withdraw their talents have taken to calling this the "John Galt Effect," a reference to the hero—and the main plotline—of Atlas Shrugged.

It is no coincidence that the strongest resistance to a government takeover of the economy is coming from people influence by Ayn Rand. She has functioned as a stiffener of resolve and as the fountainhead of pro-free-market ideas.

I have written about this at greater length, but Ayn Rand's contribution to the philosophical defense of capitalism can be summed up in one central idea: individualism. Ayn Rand demonstrated that the ultimate source of all wealth—everything from steel mills to microchips—is the individual reasoning mind. Thus, a society that wants to prosper has to ask what is required by its thinkers and producers, the "prime movers" who originate and implement new ideas. And the first requirement of these thinkers is that they be free from coercive interference by bureaucrats, by blowhard legislators, or by federal "czars."

Ayn Rand was an individualist in the fullest sense: she regarded the unfettered individual, not just as a source of wealth, but also as an end in himself with the right to pursue and enjoy his own happiness, without being forced to sacrifice himself for the greater good of the collective. The issue, as she once put it, is not whether or not you give a dime to a beggar. The issue is whether you have a right to exist if you don't—and whether you have to buy your life, one dime at a time, from every moocher who comes along asking for a handout. She gave the clearest and most consistent "no" to that standard of morality, and clearest and most consistent "yes" to the moral rights of the creators and producers.

There has been some recent crowing about how the current financial crisis has discredited Ayn Rand's defense of the free market, as demonstrated by the defection of Alan Greenspan, who has now gone so far as to advocate the nationalization of failing banks. But Greenspan actually rejected Ayn Rand's philosophy decades ago, and he did it during the triumph of free markets in the early years of the Reagan Revolution. In reality, the current financial crisis does not demonstrate the failure of Greenspan's alleged pro-free-market ideas; rather, it demonstrates the failure of his presumption that a talented "maestro" can ensure prosperity by setting himself up as the monetary central planner of the economy.

In fact, the current crisis has vindicated Ayn Rand's warnings. And the policies of the current administration are about to do so yet again and perhaps more fully than ever before, by sacrificing more and more of the nation's productive minds to provide handouts for the beggars.

Far from facing growing rejection, Ayn Rand's ideas are the mostly unnamed fuel giving fire and confidence to people like Rick Santelli. There are many people who have a detailed practical knowledge of the superiority of markets and of the values behind free markets—but they are cowed and neutralized by the conventional altruist morality which signs our lives over to all of those moochers with their hands out. Even if they don't fully accept Ayn Rand ideas, their encounter with her writings gives them the confidence to embrace their suppressed knowledge and act upon it. She gives them the confidence to declare that they have earned their wealth and that they have a right to keep it and enjoy it.

That's the Ayn Rand factor that we are observing now—and we need more of it.

If we're going to have an ideological Boston Tea Party, a rebellion against the whole theory behind state management of our lives and wealth, then Ayn Rand is the ideal philosophical hostess.

(TIA Daily is a daily news analysis from an objectivist viewpoint written and published by Robert Tracinski. Click on link to subscribe. SCB)


Rob Diego said...

Steve, the simplest way to fight this battle is to use, as often as possible, Ayn Rand's short question: "Who is John Galt?" as often as possible. This will prompt more people to ask about what it means and the best way to find out is to read Atlas Shrugged. We should get some people who can afford it to buy billboards all over the country with this simple question. This would be a mysterious and ominous message that something is happening in the country, a questioning of where we are and where we are going. Perhaps you can design it.

principlex said...

I like that. It would be exciting to see that sign in every major and medium sized city of the country.