On Her 111th Birthday, Ayn Rand on Individual Rights, Liberty, and Government
Few people have been more controversial than Alisa Rosenbaum. But few have heard that name, because the apoplectic responses are reserved for the new name she gave herself after she left Russia for America—Ayn Rand.
Some people are devotees of everything Rand. Others use her name as a pejorative. Still others find some of her ideas insightful while rejecting others (e.g., philosophers who reject naturalism/atheism as incoherent, de-humanizing and self-refuting (see here, here, here, and here); Christian/theist libertarians who base their views on natural law and reject her philosophy, lifestyle and insistence on atheism; “anarcho-capitalists” who reject Rand’s “minarchism;” libertarians who reject the pro-warfarism of many of her followers (see here, here, and here); and others who reject Rand for creating a cult). Yet Rand’s influence is undeniable. She sold over 30 million books, and decades after her 1982 death, hundreds of thousands more annually. In a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club, Atlas Shrugged was ranked behind only the Bible as the book that most influenced readers’ lives. (Incidentally and for the record, the libertarian-themed novels by Christian, natural-law authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien have each sold over 150 million copies.)
What I find most inspirational in Rand’s work are her views on individualism, rights, liberties, and government. So, on the 111th anniversary of her February 2, 1905, birth, consider some of those words.
Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.
The moral justification of capitalism is man’s right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.
Man—every man—is an end in himself.
No man or group may initiate the use of physical force against others.
The only proper purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights… government that initiates the employment of force against men who had forced no one…reverses its only moral purpose.
Under a proper social system…A private individual may do anything except that which is legally forbidden; a government official may do nothing except that which is legally permitted…This is the American concept of “a government of laws and not of men.”
A “right”…means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.
Rights impose no obligations on [neighbors] except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.
The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible.
The collective cannot decide what is to be the purpose of a man’s existence nor prescribe his choice of happiness.
Man holds…rights, not from the Collective nor for the Collective, but against the Collective…man’s protection against all other men.
Any alleged “right” of one man, which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right.
Since only an individual man can possess rights…“individual rights” is a redundancy. But…“collective rights” is a contradiction in terms.
An individualist…says: “I will not run anyone’s life—nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave.”
No one’s rights can be secured by the violation of the rights of others.
The doctrine that “human rights” are superior to “property rights” simply means that some human beings have the right to make property out of others.
Freedom…comes down to a single question: do you consider it moral to treat men as sacrificial animals and to rule them by physical force?
Freedom, in a political context, means freedom from government coercion…and nothing else.
In a capitalist society, all human relationships are voluntary.
Since men are neither omniscient nor infallible, they must be free to agree or disagree, to cooperate or to pursue their own independent course.
It is the institution of private property that protects and implements the right to disagree.
The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.
Individual rights are not subject to a public vote…the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities.
What is the basic, the essential, the crucial principle that differentiates freedom from slavery? It is the principle of voluntary action versus physical coercion or compulsion.
Whether one salutes or slams Ayn Rand, or is just trying to find wisdom wherever it can be found, her words on rights, liberties, and government offer serious food for thought. And particularly when so many pursue supposed collective “justice” by violating individuals’ rights, she stimulates foundational questions that have never been wise to overlook. Perhaps that is why she remains so divisive.
[This article is adapted from a chapter in my book, Lines of Liberty (2015).]