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An Alternative to Conspiracism’s Foolish Illusions

Since the founding of the American republic, political discourse has regularly featured paranoid rumors of plots by perceived enemies of the culture (whether Freemasons, Catholics, bankers, Jews, communists, or Muslims) who are thought to be angling for control of key levers of power. In the last twenty years, we have seen such conspiracy rhetoric spread on both sides of the political spectrum. On the political “left,” 9/11 “truthers” blamed the September 11th attacks on the U.S. government, while their “birther” counterparts on the “right” argued that President Obama was not a natural-born citizen.1

There is good evidence that these “conspiracy theories” become especially popular in periods of political realignment.2 Early signs suggest that since the 2016 election we are again entering such a period. President Trump himself was a vocal “birther” who regularly speculated on the campaign trail about a variety of conspiracies, and has now injected conspiracy rhetoric into the mainstream of political discourse as the commander in chief. Not to be outdone, leftist critics of Trump have themselves indulged in the same rhetoric, claiming that Trump himself is involved in various secret plots against America.

Conspiracies do exist. From the assassination of Julius Caesar to the Watergate break-in, operatives have plotted in secret with each other to achieve nefarious ends. Sometimes evidence of these plots is discovered contemporaneously, sometimes the truth is revealed but only years or decades later, sometimes surely their existence is lost in the sands of history.

Describing the products of this mindset as a “theory” does a disservice to the concept of a scientific theory.

But there is a fundamental difference between Woodward and Bernstein’s methodical collection of evidence for the Watergate affair, and the musings of Alex Jones about government weather control. “Conspiracy theorists” like Jones base their claims on little if any relevant evidence.3 Though these “conspiracy theorists” make an effort to show that they are concerned with connecting the dots of disparate pieces of data, their concern for the truth is a pretense. Describing the products of this mindset as a “theory” does a disservice to the concept of a scientific theory, so I will simply use the term  “conspiracism.”4

The purveyors of conspiracism are unlikely to be persuaded by rational criticism of their views. By themselves, such purveyors are not a concern; their claims become popular only when a more rational audience begins to find them at least semiplausible. That is our problem today. In a world of shifting political allegiances and increasingly anti-intellectual tribalism, honest people often grasp in vain to understand the events of the day. For those unable to see how abstract ideas are shaping current events and trends, imagining conspiracies may seem like the only way to explain the otherwise inexplicable. But we need to resist this illusion of understanding.

One thinker in particular has helped me to appreciate the importance of this attitude. She herself wrote in a time of political and international crisis, but explained the events of the day without resort to invented conspiracies. She wrote during the height of the Cold War, when the modern alliance between free-market and religious-conservative thinkers first formed in opposition to the communist threat, a threat which did involve some real conspiracies.5 She was herself a leading pro-capitalist thinker of the period, but she regarded anti-communist conspiracism as irrational and ineffective. Even more important, she argued that whatever communist conspiracies did exist, they could not explain the spread of communism (or other equally threatening political trends) across the twentieth century. Her name was Ayn Rand.6

In Rand’s approach to understanding world events, she often suggests that when similar policies are advanced and maintained by a variety of opposing players and in spite of the irrationality of those policies, it can look like these players are participants in, or are being manipulated by, a conspiracy. But she argues that this conclusion is a mistake. The adoption of similar policies flows from the abstract ideas the participants have, sometimes unknowingly, absorbed, accepted or latched onto. But it takes philosophical skill to be able to identify this.

Imagining conspiracies may seem like the only way to explain the otherwise inexplicable. But we need to resist this illusion of understanding.
Whatever ideological group we belong to, we tend to think the other group (or groups) is the source of the worst conspiracism. But there is evidence that the phenomenon is equally represented across the political spectrum and across every level of education.7 This, I think, underscores how many of us are susceptible to baseless speculation about hidden agendas. Because I think Rand’s philosophical approach encourages us to understand the world in a less paranoid and more intellectually healthy way, I want to recommend a study of her views on this topic.

Rand’s comments on the allure of explanation by conspiracy, and why even real conspiracies explain little, are scattered across her writings, and so her approach is hitherto underappreciated. In this essay I will bring together some of these scattered references to describe some of the distinctive characteristics of her approach. Notably, she spends little time dwelling on the absurdity of conspiracist explanations; she focuses instead on providing her alternative explanation of the events in question. She does not bother to consider the journalistic events that are usually the grist for conspiracist mills: crimes, disasters, wars, etc. She focuses instead on explaining grander-scale political and cultural developments that to this day are still fodder for conspiracism.

Antitrust law: Open secrets

As a vocal defender of laissez-faire capitalism, Rand was committed to the idea that there should be a complete separation of state and economics: she thought that the elements of state controls in the mixed economy should be eliminated completely in favor of economic freedom. Yet even when other free-market advocates were tempted to see the push for state control as the result of a communist conspiracy, she was not.

Rand’s 1962 essay “Antitrust: The Rule of Unreason,” analyzes a noteworthy antitrust case that resulted in convicting seven prominent manufacturers of electrical equipment of “price-fixing.” In this essay, Rand observes that the standards governing antitrust laws are undecipherable: no one can tell what constitutes “restraint of trade” or “intent to monopolize,” and so no one can tell what they permit and what they forbid. But rather than opposing these nonobjective and thus illegitimate laws, both the “leftist” and the “conservative” press vented hatred for the convicted businessmen or regarded their conduct as shameful. She also observes that while the leftist press would plead for clemency for violent criminals, they reserved no such mercy for the convicted businessmen. She knew that this attack on leading businessmen, simultaneously issuing from different sectors of the culture, would tempt some people sympathetic to free markets to invent a communist plot to explain the attack, which led her to the following remark:

No, all this is not the result of a communist conspiracy. It is the result of something much harder to fight: the result of a culture’s cynical, goal-less disintegration, which can benefit no one but the communists and the random little powerlusters of the moment, who fish in muddy waters.

It is futile to wonder about the policies or the intentions of the present [Kennedy] administration. Whether the whole administration or any one of its members is consciously dedicated to the destruction of American business does not matter. What matters is that if any of them are, they have the machinery to accomplish it and no opposition: a culture without goals, values or political principles can offer no opposition to anything.

Intentionally or not, the purpose achieved by those jail sentences is: intimidation — or, more precisely: terrorization. The antitrust laws give the government the power to prosecute and convict any business concern in the country any time it chooses. . . .8

The antitrust laws discarded the rule of law and so handed enormous unchecked power to the government. They created a legal machinery easily exploited by “random little power-lusters of the moment.”  This means that any actual conspiracies involved were effects, not causes, of the underlying machinery. The crucial question is: How did the antitrust laws come to be?

When both “liberal” and “conservative” political officials converge on the same destructive policy (here, the antitrust laws), the explanation is not that they are both being manipulated.

In her other commentary on antitrust, Rand stresses that the push for these laws did not originate on the political “left.” She reminds us that the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed by a Republican congress (it was also signed into law by a Republican president).9 Elsewhere, she reminds us that “conservatives” had never opposed the antitrust laws and had even urged their extension into the labor market.10 In fact, the antitrust case against General Electric was initiated under the Republican Eisenhower administration in 1959.11 And she observes that during the Kennedy administration’s prosecution of the case, many conservatives refused to condemn the proceedings even as they “[quibbled] bravely over taxes, budgets or school aid,” infringements on the free market which she compared to “petty larceny” by comparison to the antitrust laws.12

Rand thought the only way to fight the antitrust laws was to challenge their “philosophical, political, economic and moral base.”13 She explicitly identified the moral base as the widespread acceptance of the moral ideal celebrating altruistic self-sacrifice.14 It was the shared acceptance of this philosophical and moral base that generated the consensus between the “left” and the “right” in support of the laws.15

When both “liberal” and “conservative” political officials converge on the same destructive policy (here, the antitrust laws), the explanation is not that they are both being manipulated by a foreign power (even though “communists and the random little power-lusters” may benefit accidentally). It is that the politicians are united by a common conviction that this course of action is right, and right by reference to the conventional wisdom they openly accept about what is right.

Rand’s view of altruism’s role in empowering antitrust law is just one example of her wider view of the role of that moral viewpoint in the overall erosion of capitalism and the advance of statist controls and corruption in the twentieth century. In her 1967 book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Rand argued that classical advocates of capitalism defended it by arguing that it helped to achieve the altruistic goal of the “common good,” neglecting its actual individualist moral-philosophical base. Because collectivist arguments against capitalism applied the same idea of the “common good” more consistently, Rand thought it was obvious why the battle for capitalism was being lost:

To obliterate the truth on such a large scale, to hide an open secret from the world, to hide — without any power of censorship, yet without any significant sound of protest — the fact that an ideal social system had once been almost within men’s reach, cannot be done by any conspiracy of evildoers; it cannot be done except with the tacit compliance of those who know better.16

As in the above passage, Rand often disavows appeals to conspiracies as even a possible explanation for a long-term, destructive trend. No machinations by communists can explain capitalism’s obliteration in the first half of the twentieth century. The cause is out in the open, for all of us to see, if only we know how to look. Capitalism’s obliteration occurred “by default,” by its supporters and defenders’ “inability or unwillingness to fight the battle where it had to be fought: on moral-philosophical grounds.”17

Foreign policy: Corruption and cover-ups

Conspiracism thrives on news of disasters which are tempting to blame on the orchestration of a few evil agents. Although Rand urges her readers to resist the temptation, she is sensitive to the facts that fuel this kind of speculation: the backroom deals that occur in a mixed economy that can have the appearance of being driven by a conspiracy.

In her 1962 essay “The Pull Peddlers,” Rand grapples with a subject that inspired many anti-communist conspiracists of her day: American foreign policy. She begins the essay by noting that people find American foreign policy to be so irrational that they think “there must be some sensible purpose behind it,” that “somebody must understand its meaning, even though they themselves do not.”18 Rand focuses mainly on the contradictory reasons offered for American foreign aid, namely that we must help the underdeveloped nations because they are too weak to help themselves, and that we must lavish aid on them to curry their favor, for otherwise they will become enemies to be feared. She points out that nobody cares that these two reasons contradict one another, and that our course of action has only one result: draining the American economy:

When a society insists on pursuing a suicidal course, one may be sure that the alleged reasons and proclaimed slogans are mere rationalizations. The question is only: what is it that these rationalizations are hiding?

Observe that there is no consistent pattern in the erratic chaos of our foreign aid. And although in the long run it leads to the benefit of Soviet Russia, Russia is not its direct, immediate beneficiary. There is no consistent winner, only a consistent loser: the United States.

In the face of such a spectacle, some people give up the attempt to understand; others imagine that some omnipotent conspiracy is destroying America, that the rationalizations are hiding some malevolent, fantastically powerful giant.

The truth is worse than that: the truth is that the rationalizations are hiding nothing —  that there is nothing at the bottom of the fog but a nest of scurrying cockroaches.19

What rationalizations permit these cockroaches to scurry and feed off American foreign aid? The rest of the piece goes on to discuss what made possible an industry of American lobbyists trying to buy favors for foreign governments.

Those who peddle political pull are the chance profiteers on the destruction, not its cause.
Lobbyists, she argues, are able to obtain favors only in a mixed economy governed by the altruistic standard of “the public interest,” because this standard has no objective basis or meaning. “The public,” she claims, is “merely a number of individuals,” and so invoking “the public interest” can only mean that the rights and interests of one group of individuals are to be sacrificed to the interests of another that has won the privilege of being regarded as “the public.” Lobbyists exist only to help them win this title, so the favoritism and corruption associated with their job is a product of the mixed economy pitting interest groups against each other. Given the altruistic justification for this policy, there is no better way for it to be implemented:

Since there is no rational justification for the sacrifice of some men to others, there is no objective criterion by which such a sacrifice can be guided in practice. All “public interest” legislation (and any distribution of money taken by force from some men for the unearned benefit of others) comes down ultimately to the grant of an undefined, undefinable, non-objective, arbitrary power to some government officials.20

Because the standard of “the public interest” has no objective meaning, even the most honest of politicians can use only subjective favoritism to reward one set of individuals with the title of “the public” at the expense of others. Without the guidance of an objective standard to guide their decisions, they welcome any “semi-plausible argument” and become prey to the emotional manipulation of propagandists and lobbyists. While actual corruption does result from this arrangement, Rand concludes that it is “not a major motivating factor in today’s situation.” She argues that this is because of the nature of the justification for the policies the politicians have themselves accepted:

The truth, most likely, is that they did not regard it as bribery or as a betrayal of their public trust; they did not think that their particular decision could matter one way or another, in the kind of causeless choices they had to make, in the absence of any criteria, in the midst of the general orgy of tossing away an apparently ownerless wealth. Men who would not sell out their country for a million dollars, are selling it out for somebody’s smile and a vacation trip to Florida. Paraphrasing John Galt: “It is of such pennies and smiles that the destruction of your country is made.”

The general public is helplessly bewildered. The “intellectuals” do not care to look at our foreign policy too closely. They feel guilt; they sense that their own worn-out ideologies, which they dare not challenge, are the cause of the consequences which they dare not face. The more they evade, the greater their eagerness to grasp at any fashionable straw or rationalization and to uphold it with glassy-eyed aggressiveness. The threadbare cloak of altruism serves to cover it up and to sanction the evasions by a fading aura of moral righteousness. The exhausted cynicism of a bankrupt culture, of a society without values, principles, convictions, or intellectual standards, does the rest: it leaves a vacuum, for anyone to fill.21

Those who fill it are the scurrying cockroaches, the lawyers and PR men who peddle the political pull and so suggest the appearance of a conspiracy. But they are the chance profiteers on the destruction, not its cause. The cause is again the philosophical idea accepted by all sides: that the purpose of government is to achieve the “public interest.”22

Egalitarianism: A conspiracy of basic, altruist premises

Why is there today such widespread consensus that the purpose of government is not to secure the rights of each individual, as the Declaration of Independence announced, but to achieve more and more debased versions of the “common good” or the “public interest”?

In her 1973 essay “An Untitled Letter,” Rand examines a related alternative to individualism, the rising egalitarian movement. She focuses in particular on one vanguard of the movement, the famous political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls’s 1971 work A Theory of Justice is regarded now as one of the most influential works of political philosophy of the twentieth century. Its call for redistribution from the greater- to the lesser-advantaged, on the grounds that the greater-advantaged did not earn their abilities, has motivated welfare-statist liberals for decades.23

Convergence among seemingly opposing political and ideological factions can be accounted for by open philosophical agreement.
I doubt that many conspiracists in the 1970s speculated about why egalitarian philosophy was spreading. Today there is such speculation, usually by conservative and “alt-right” pundits who claim there is a conspiracy by “cultural Marxists” to destroy Western civilization.24 Rand had a different perspective.

Although Rand focuses in her essay on Rawls, she did see early signs that his view was being actively pushed and would become influential. But she stresses that this is because his viewpoint was the most consistent application of philosophical premises that were again openly accepted by many previous thinkers:

The major ideological campaigns of the mystic-altruist-collectivist axis are usually preceded by trial balloons that test the public reaction to an attack on certain fundamental principles. Today, a new kind of intellectual balloon is beginning to bubble in the popular press — testing the climate for a large-scale attack intended to obliterate the concept of justice.

The new balloons acquire the mark of a campaign by carrying, like little identification tags, the code words: “A New Justice.” This does not mean that the campaign is consciously directed by some mysterious powers. It is a conspiracy, not of men, but of basic premises — and the power directing it is logic: if, at the desperate stage of a losing battle, some men point to a road logically necessitated by their basic premises, those who share the premises will rush to follow.25

The phrase “conspiracy of basic premises” is particularly relevant to her explanation. Rand notes that she saw the same idea — that people of ability should bear special burdens in the name of a new justice — being proposed around the same time by characters as diverse as a Nobel Prize-winning economist and Pope Paul VI. It is supremely unlikely that such disparate players should be involved in the same plot to foist socialism on the world. Rather, there is philosophically deep agreement among the ideologies that rule the modern world.  She closes by describing the full extent of the “conspiracy of basic premises,” going back at least as far as the ideas of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, that has led to the new view of justice:

An age ruled by skepticism and cynicism can be swayed by anyone, even Mr. Rawls. There is no intellectual opposition to anything today — as there was none to Kant. Kant’s opponents were men who shared all his fundamental premises (particularly altruism and mysticism), and merely engaged in nit-picking, thus hastening his victory. Today, the utilitarians, the religionists, and sundry other “conservatives” share all of Mr. Rawls’s fundamental premises (particularly altruism). If his book does not make them see the nature of altruism and its logical consequences, if it does not make them realize that altruism is the destroyer of man (and of reason, justice, morality, civilization), then nothing will. When and if they get Mr. Rawls’s world, they will have deserved it.26

In Rand’s explanation of why egalitarianism is on the rise, we again see her view that convergence among seemingly opposing political and ideological factions can be accounted for by open philosophical agreement.

Conclusion

In Rand’s view, it is an individual’s (implicit or explicit) philosophy that motivates him to act, and therefore a culture’s philosophy that explains its historical development.

In her essay “For the New Intellectual,” Rand defends this view by elaborating on her understanding of the history of philosophy and its impact on the development of civilization. She illustrates the dramatic, life-giving impact of rational philosophy in empowering the major milestones of human progress and the momentous destructiveness of evil philosophies when rational people acquiesce to them. It should come as no surprise, then, that we find in this essay one of her first published dismissals of conspiracism:

If America perishes, it will perish by intellectual default. There is no diabolical conspiracy to destroy it: no conspiracy could be big enough and strong enough. Such cafeteria-socialist conspiracies as do undoubtedly exist are groups of scared, neurotic mediocrities who find themselves pushed into national leadership because nobody else steps forward; they are like pickpockets who merely intended to snatch a welfare-regulation or two and who suddenly find that their victim is unconscious, that they are alone in an enormous mansion of fabulous wealth, with all the doors open and a seasoned burglar’s job on their hands; watch them now screaming that they didn’t mean it, that they had never advocated the nationalization of a country’s economy. As to the communist conspirators in the service of Soviet Russia, they are the best illustration of victory by default: their successes are handed to them by the concessions of their victims. There is no national movement for socialism or dictatorship in America, no “man on horseback” or popular demagogue, nothing but fumbling compromisers and frightened opportunists. Yet we are moving toward full, totalitarian socialism, with worn, cynical voices telling us that such is the irresistible trend of history. History, fate and malevolent conspiracy are easier to believe than the actual truth: that we are moved by nothing but the sluggish inertia of unfocused minds.27

Because some of us do not take philosophical ideas seriously, we concede the worst premises of our own destroyers. We imagine that our enemies are more powerful than they actually are, and we fail to see that sometimes “the enemy is us.”
This passage features many of the themes that sound in Rand’s later writings. There is the point that diabolical conspiracies are unlikely and that the only real conspirators are impotent by comparison. There is the point that these conspirators are empowered by cashing in on the intellectual default of their rivals: their victims have left the doors of the culture open by refusing to question basic moral and philosophical premises. At the end there is the point that people believe in a grand, malevolent conspiracy because “it is easier to believe than the actual truth.”

The actual truth here is that we are responsible for the concessions that empower evil. Because some of us do not take philosophical ideas seriously, we concede the worst premises of our own destroyers. As a result, we imagine that our enemies are more powerful than they actually are, and we fail to see that sometimes “the enemy is us.”

For Americans who love freedom and fear its enemies today, Rand’s advice is still applicable. Our age is perhaps even more politically chaotic and anti-intellectual. There may be some real conspirators operating in the world (whether Islamists or Russians). But the broader threats to freedom are from the intellectual trends that too many are unwilling to examine, often because those trends depend on ideas these same people accept and are afraid to challenge, including numerous religious, moral, and political assumptions. Yet these ideas are the real enemies.

A battle of this nature, Rand suggests, requires special weapons, ones which only philosophy can provide. This makes it harder than many imagine, especially because we must sometimes use these philosophical weapons against our own assumptions.28

The author would like to acknowledge the useful editorial feedback of Onkar Ghate and Elan Journo in improving this article.

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  1. For data on how support for these different forms of conspiracism correlates by partisan affiliation, see this post by Brendan Nyhan.
  2. Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent, American Conspiracy Theories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 107, 110. Drawing on data from a public survey, from letters to the editor of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, and from recent internet posts, Uscinski and Parent have tracked discourse about conspiracies from the 1890s until 2010. Peaks in the level of conspiracy discourse include especially the 1890s (during the ascendance of antitrust legislation against perceived capitalist conspiracies) and the 1950s (the height of the Cold War).
  3. Often their claims are based not on positive evidence at all, but on its absence (since the plots they envision involve cover-ups). Often they arbitrarily revise their proposals to explain away conflicting evidence (the conspiracy is expanded to include the manufacture of the evidence).
  4. The disservice is similar to the effect of creationists’ calling Darwinian biology “just a theory.” Genuine theories begin as hypotheses supported by some positive evidence, are tested by experiments or predictions that can fail, and are formalized when they systematically integrate and explain all relevant bodies of independent evidence. This is in an entirely different category from delusions rationalized by cherry-picked evidence integrated by nothing but its coherence with prejudices.
  5. By 1972, Soviet Russia, Communist China, and their client states had conquered territory inhabited by a third of the world’s population (Tom Lansford, Communism (Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2007), 9–24, 36–44.). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, researchers found ample evidence in Soviet archives to establish that the Communist Party of the USA was in fact being subsidized by the USSR to agitate in various U.S. labor disputes, among other political controversies. See Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, The Secret World of American Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).
  6. In fact, Rand testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and collaborated with notable Hollywood figures to oppose support for communist ideas in the film industry. She had also written a scathing novel about the horrors of life under communism. The novel was semi-autobiographical, since the author herself was a refugee from Soviet Russia. We can see her explicit attitude toward anti-communist conspiracism in a letter to a fan that she wrote in 1972, in which she comments on the fan’s suggestion that she read Gary Allen’s 1971 book None Dare Call It Conspiracy. She says she is “profoundly opposed to the so-called conspiracy theory of history” and regards its advocates as making “unproved, arbitrary, and out of context” claims. She says an anti-communist conspiracist group like the John Birch Society is “unphilosophical, anti-intellectual” and deficient insofar as it merely opposes communism without advocating capitalism. (Michael S. Berliner (ed.), Letters of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1995), 656.) Allen himself was a spokesman for the John Birch Society, an organization known for its anti-communist conspiracism. Interestingly, Allen’s book is also the one that inspired Alex Jones.
  7. Uscinski and Parent, American Conspiracy Theories, 86-94.
  8. Ayn Rand, “Antitrust: The Rule of Unreason,” in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought, ed. Leonard Peikoff  (New York: Meridian, 1989).
  9. Ayn Rand, “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business,” in Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967 Centennial edition).
  10. Ayn Rand, “‘Ideas v. Goods,’” The Ayn Rand Letter 3, no. 11 (February 25, 1974), 298.
  11. Rand, “America’s Persecuted Minority.”
  12. Rand, “Antitrust.”
  13. Rand, “Antitrust.”
  14. Ayn Rand, review of Ten Thousand Commandments by Harold Fleming, The Objectivist Newsletter 1, no. 4 (April, 1962), 14. Here she writes: “It would be hard to find a clearer indication of the fact that the morality of altruism — the sacrifice of success to failure, of ability to need — is the basic cause and motive power of Antitrust.”
  15. “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business” (in Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal) is a longer version of the same material contained in “Antitrust: the Rule of Unreason.” In the longer version of the essay, here is how Rand characterizes the purpose of the laws: “Here, the meaning and purpose of the antitrust laws come blatantly and explicitly into the open, the only meaning and purpose these laws could have, whether their authors intended it or not: the penalizing of ability for being ability, the penalizing of success for being success, and the sacrifice of productive genius to the demands of envious mediocrity.” In “Antitrust: the Rule of Unreason,” she describes the motivation behind the laws as follows: “the penalizing of ability for being ability, the penalizing of success for being success, and the sacrifice of productive genius to the demands of envious mediocrity.”
  16. Ayn Rand, “Introduction,” in Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
  17. Rand, “Introduction.”
  18. Ayn Rand, “The Pull Peddlers,” in Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
  19. Rand, “The Pull Peddlers.”
  20. Rand, “The Pull Peddlers.”
  21. Rand, “The Pull Peddlers.”
  22. In her 1973 essay “The Energy Crisis,” Rand analyzes a series of conspiracist claims about the causes of the energy crisis spurred by the Arab oil embargo. Here again, she blames altruistic policies accepted by both major political camps. She goes further and suggests that the manner in which both double down their calls for sacrifice, even in the face of the immense suffering already caused by previous policies, reveals that it is not compassion but power-lust that motivates their appeal to altruism. (Ayn Rand, “The Energy Crisis,” Ayn Rand Letter 3, nos. 3 and 4 (November 5 and November 19, 1973), 257-66.) Her approach here contrasts in an interesting way with the more common anti-conspiracist strategy of explaining disasters by reference to the “unintended consequences” of benevolent agents.
  23. Rawls’s view lurks just behind Obama’s widely-noted injunction, “you didn’t build that.” Even though some people born with ability choose to exercise it while others born with ability do not, this view sees the difference between their choices as irrelevant: their choices are thought to be explained by their genetics and upbringing (determinism), so no one can be said to earn the products of their thought and effort.
  24. The term “cultural Marxism” derives from the name of an actual school of philosophy, the so-called Frankfurt School of Marxism associated with the philosophers Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Walter Benjamin. But the term is now tossed around to describe anyone with vaguely egalitarian ideology with the same fervor (and lack of understanding of the ideology) with which anti-communist conspiracists claimed to have found communist influence without sufficient evidence. Rand did see a connection between egalitarianism and the Marxism of Herbert Marcuse, and featured an article in her periodical on the philosopher (George Walsh, “Herbert Marcuse: Philosopher of the New Left,” The Objectivist 9 (September – December 1970).
  25. Ayn Rand, “An Untitled Letter,” in Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984).
  26. Rand, “Untitled Letter.”
  27. Ayn Rand, “For the New Intellectual,” in Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1964 Centennial edition).
  28. Rand uses the metaphor of philosophy as a weapon openly in her 1974 lecture “Philosophy: Who Needs It,” which she delivered to the cadets at West Point. It is probably not an accident that here once again we see her warning against conspiracism: “Some of you may be bewildered by this campaign [by New Left activists against the American military] and may be wondering, in good faith, what errors you committed to bring it about. If so, it is urgently important for you to understand the nature of the enemy. You are attacked, not for any errors or flaws, but for your virtues. You are denounced, not for any weaknesses, but for your strength and your competence. You are penalized for being the protectors of the United States. . . . Those who seek to destroy this country, seek to disarm it — intellectually and physically. But it is not a mere political issue; politics is not the cause, but the last consequence of philosophical ideas. It is not a communist conspiracy, though some communists may be involved — as maggots cashing in on a disaster they had no power to originate.” (Ayn Rand, “Philosophy: Who Needs It,” in Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It.)

Ben Bayer

Ben Bayer, Ph.D. in philosophy and formerly a professor, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

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