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Foundations of a Free Society book cover

Foundations of a Free Society: The Story of an Important Book

“Books, essays, articles are [an intellectual] movement’s permanent fuel,” Ayn Rand wrote in 1972. “Such texts,” says Onkar Ghate, chief philosophy officer and senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute, “are generated by a community of scholars who not only write original material but work with their fellow thinkers, recruiting new blood and mentoring their growth, working with their peers to give feedback and edits during the writing stage, and publicly reviewing the results.”

The story behind the 2019 publication of a landmark volume, Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy, provides insight into how scholars, working with such organizations as the Ayn Rand Society, the Ayn Rand Institute, and the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship, have fostered an active intellectual community around the study of Rand’s philosophy.

Edited by philosophers Gregory Salmieri and Robert Mayhew, the book contains seventeen essays by thirteen scholars on aspects of Rand’s political theory. Says Salmieri: “The collection brings together some of the most knowledgeable scholars and proponents of Rand’s philosophy and puts them in conversation with other intellectuals who also see themselves as defenders of capitalism and individual liberty.”

The book project illustrates how deliberate, long-term building of an intellectual community can generate more of the “permanent fuel” that promises to help sustain the Objectivist movement.

The principal institutional actor in the book’s development was the Ayn Rand Society, a professional group affiliated with the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division.
Calling the book a “must-read for the growing number of students active in what’s widely called the pro-liberty student movement,” Ayn Rand Institute senior fellow Keith Lockitch observes that “anyone interested in political philosophy or in Objectivism or in the roots of liberty will find a rich trove of ideas to explore here.” The book clarifies chief differences between Rand’s views and those typically categorized as “conservative,” “classical liberal,” “neoliberal,” or “libertarian.” The chapters delve into such contentious issues as the principle of the non-initiation of force and its role in political philosophy; whether anarchism is compatible with liberty; the nature and source of individual rights; the requirements of intellectual freedom; and the objectivity of economic value. Although intended primarily as a contribution to the scholarly literature on Rand, Lockitch notes that “it is far from esoteric or inaccessible to a general audience.”

The Ayn Rand Society

The principal institutional actor in the book’s development was the Ayn Rand Society, a professional group affiliated with the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division. The ARS formed in 1987 “to foster the scholarly study by philosophers of the philosophical thought and writings of Ayn Rand.” One of its founders, James Lennox, a professor in the department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, recalls that a “key strategy in pursuing that purpose was to select a topic of central importance to Objectivism and invite well-known specialists on that topic who were not Objectivists to engage with speakers presenting the Objectivist position.” Beginning in 1988, the society held a session almost every year (sometimes twice a year) in conjunction with meetings of the American Philosophical Association.

These sessions soon yielded scholarly work that merited publication. In the early years, the possibility of a journal for the society’s output was floated but always knocked down. The idea for a book series arose out of conversations in 2008 among Lennox, Salmieri, and Allan Gotthelf, a former associate of Ayn Rand’s whose “extraordinary” organizing abilities were integral to the Ayn Rand Society’s success. Gotthelf retired from The College of New Jersey in 2002 and joined Lennox’s department the next year, thanks to a fellowship from the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship. Salmieri had been a student of Gotthelf’s at TCNJ and was studying under Lennox at Pittsburgh by the time Gotthelf arrived. In 2008, Salmieri (by then a visiting assistant professor at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) and Gotthelf were in the early stages of editing A Companion to Ayn Rand, and they noticed that early drafts of many chapters cited high-quality ARS papers that were not widely available.

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“Most of the papers, comments and responses presented at ARS meetings had not found their way into publication,” Lennox recalls, “and our thought was to have thematically organized volumes that would consist primarily of papers from different sessions on the chosen theme. But we also wanted to capture an essential aspect of those meetings — the give-and-take on philosophical topics central to Objectivism between those presenting the Objectivist position and commentators presenting a different and often contrary position.”

Efforts to find a publisher for the series bore fruit immediately. “During my years as director of the Center for Philosophy of Science at Pitt,” Lennox says, “I had developed a good working relationship with the director of the University of Pittsburgh Press, Cynthia Miller.” In 2009 he and Gotthelf made a proposal, and the series that emerged was called Ayn Rand Society Philosophical Studies, with Lennox and Gotthelf as the series editors. The first two volumes, Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue (2011) and Concepts and Their Role in Knowledge (2013), dealt with central epistemological and ethical principles of Objectivism, issues at the heart of philosophy and upon which a coherent political philosophy depends.

Planning for Foundations of a Free Society

Early on, the Ayn Rand Society had focused on such foundational issues in part to dispel the misimpression that Rand was primarily a political thinker. But because Rand’s political views are an important part of her philosophy and are well known but often misunderstood, Salmieri argued that it was time for the Society to shift focus in that direction. In 2011 the ARS began offering sessions devoted to political philosophy with an eye toward augmenting the book series. Foundations of a Free Society is the result.

More than twenty years of intellectual community building paid dividends as scholars responded to invitations to contribute material that would form the book’s seventeen chapters.
In addition to being series editors, Gotthelf and Lennox had served as the editors of the first two volumes. In 2012 they were in the process of preparing a (still forthcoming) volume on Rand and Aristotle when they decided to entrust the editing of the politics volume to others. When Gotthelf asked Salmieri to edit or co-edit the volume, Salmieri responded that the best man for the job would be Robert Mayhew. A professor of ancient Greek philosophy at Seton Hall University and member of the Ayn Rand Society since 1993, Mayhew had edited four collections of essays on Rand’s novels that set a new standard for Rand scholarship. In the end, Salmieri and Mayhew agreed to edit the book together. The book’s long gestation included time for a standard peer review process required by academic presses before accepting a book for publication. The referees’ reports were positive, Mayhew says, and they included useful feedback that led to a number of improvements.

In the end, more than twenty years of intellectual community building paid dividends as scholars responded to invitations to contribute material that would form the book’s seventeen chapters. In addition to Salmieri, these scholars are:

  • Darryl Wright, a professor of philosophy at Harvey Mudd College, author of three chapters
  • Onkar Ghate, a senior fellow and chief philosophy officer at the Ayn Rand Institute, author of two chapters
  • Harry Binswanger, a friend and associate of Rand’s prior to her death in 1982 and the author of How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation, author of two chapters
  • Robert Garmong, a former teacher of business ethics and European civilization at Dongbei University of Finance and Economics in Dalian, China, author of two chapters
  • Robert Tarr, a retired portfolio manager with a master’s degree in philosophy who currently engages in independent research in economics and the philosophy of economics, author of one chapter
  • Michael Huemer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, author of one chapter
  • Matt Zwolinski, a professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego, author of one chapter
  • Lester H. Hunt, a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, author of one chapter
  • Peter J. Boettke, University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University, author of one chapter
  • Fred D. Miller Jr., a research professor in the Department of Political Economy and Moral Science at the University of Arizona, co-author of one chapter
  • Adam Mossoff, a professor of law at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, co-author of one chapter
  • Steve Simpson, senior litigation counsel at the New Civil Liberties Alliance, author of one chapter

More than half of these contributors are or have been members of the Ayn Rand Society, and five have held positions on its steering committee.

An ever-widening community of scholars

Over the years, these scholars also came together through programs and activities organized or supported by the Ayn Rand Institute and the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship. For example, a majority of the contributors either studied or taught in ARI’s Objectivist Graduate Center (now the Objectivist Academic Center). Most have given lectures at ARI’s annual summer conference and benefited from attendees’ questions and discussion there. Some contributors have received unique training and experience by working directly for ARI. Moreover, ARI intellectuals have commented on or edited some of the book’s chapters. Anthem Foundation support has gone to Salmieri and Mayhew at times during their careers. And most of the contributors have attended conferences or workshops sponsored by ARI or Anthem.

Much of the book’s value, Mayhew and Salmieri believe, comes from showcasing productive interactions between Objectivists and intellectuals who are not Objectivists but take Rand’s philosophy seriously enough to engage with it.
The professional connections fostered by such institutional support have given rise in many cases to informal relationships conducive to projects like Foundations of a Free Society. For instance, one of Ghate’s chapters (“Rand (contra Nozick) on Individual Rights and the Emergence and Justification of Government”) had its origins in personal conversations with Mayhew. Similarly, Ghate knew of his friend Rob Tarr’s work in economics and encouraged him to attend Ayn Rand Society sessions, which eventually led to Tarr’s chapter on “Economic Theory and Conceptions of Value,” with editing help from Salmieri.

“I wouldn’t underplay the informal side of community,” says Salmieri. “One day, back when I was a student at The College of New Jersey, Robert Mayhew came to give a talk at Allan’s invitation. It was a practice run for his Ayn Rand Society talk on humor, which he gave in 1998. He was the only Objectivist I had ever met besides Allan. Later in my undergraduate days, Robert would invite me to meet in a bookstore in Princeton and talk. Those conversations played a big role in my getting a sense of this intellectual community and becoming part of it. Robert served as a kind of ambassador for the community, and I try — a lot of us do — to play that role with students now.”

Much of the book’s value, Mayhew and Salmieri believe, comes from showcasing productive interactions between Objectivists and intellectuals who are not Objectivists but take Rand’s philosophy seriously enough to engage with it. “There’s a community of people who have what they see as pro-capitalist views, and many of them have some familiarity with Objectivism, and some opinions about it,” Salmieri notes. “These people are organized in various ways, such as through the Institute for Humane Studies and the libertarian movement within academia. They see themselves as allied with one another and tend to regard the differences among themselves as matters of relative detail.”

In the past, Salmieri explains, “Objectivists have usually kept their distance from this movement, because it trivializes the differences between such fundamentally opposed positions as anarchism and the Objectivist advocacy of a government charged with the single task of securing individual rights. You can’t hope to advance rational political ideals by joining a movement that agrees to disagree about such things. But given that there is such a movement, and a whole scholarly literature related to it, the question remains of how we should relate to it.”

“If you want an academic audience broader than just Objectivists,” observes Mayhew, “this book is precisely the kind of volume you need, particularly at this point in our history.”
Objectivists, Salmieri says, should not project the attitude that such scholars are allies working to realize a shared political ideal, because in reality there is no shared ideal. “We may all say that we’re for liberty or capitalism, but we don’t all mean the same things by these words,” he explains. “Nonetheless, the alternative to thinking of ourselves as part of this movement isn’t to deny any and all commonalities between Objectivism and what a self-professed libertarian may think. Nor is the alternative to eschew interaction with every person or group that uses the word ‘libertarian.’ Instead we’ve been trying to develop relationships where everyone involved recognizes that there is disagreement about fundamental issues, but there are nonetheless shared interests that make it worth reading one another’s work and talking to one another. And that’s what we are doing in the politics book.”

The book’s array of viewpoints was also facilitated by other institutions that have fostered intellectual community-building. For example, the BB&T Charitable Foundation supported the work of Peter J. Boettke and others through its sponsorship of centers studying the moral foundations of capitalism at American universities. Salmieri and Gotthelf met Huemer at a conference organized by Fred Miller’s Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where Darryl Wright had been a visiting scholar. Ghate debated Huemer in an event at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Huemer teaches.

Books as a movement’s “permanent fuel”

“If you want an academic audience broader than just Objectivists,” observes Mayhew, “this book is precisely the kind of volume you need, particularly at this point in our history. It’s good to engage with philosophers and other scholars who have standing in their fields. Ayn Rand always insisted that it’s crucial to get Objectivism into the universities, especially into the humanities and particularly the philosophy departments, if it was going to have an enduring influence on the culture. At the very least we want to reach the day when people say of Objectivism, ‘that’s not my philosophy, but it’s one of the ones that’s out there, it’s respectable, there are bright people advocating this.’”

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Contributing author Robert Garmong agrees: “If Objectivism is going to make any significant cultural headway, the most important notion that must be challenged is the idea that Rand is not a serious thinker, that her books are merely a ‘phase’ that many young people go through on their way to cynical adulthood.” The growing weight of scholarly work, he says, provides inescapable evidence that her ideas are worthy of serious attention.

Salmieri sees Foundations of a Free Society as an important part of a recent surge in the quality of Objectivist scholarship. “With the exception of Leonard Peikoff’s works, which are in a class of their own, hardly any quality secondary literature on Ayn Rand existed at the turn of the current century. Since then, there has been a boom in high-quality scholarly work on Rand and Objectivism, and this book is the latest addition. There’s more in the pipeline, and we’re building the kind of intellectual community that can keep the flow coming in future decades.”

* * *

Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy is available for purchase here. Also available free here at New Ideal are Onkar Ghate’s chapter, “A Wall of Separation between Church and State: Understanding This Principle’s Supporting Arguments and Far-Reaching Implications” (in two parts, here and here), and an interview with Robert Tarr about his work on economic value theory.

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Tom Bowden

Tom Bowden, J.D. and former civil litigator, is a research fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

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