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Free Chapter: Onkar Ghate “On American Political Philosophy”

More than seventy years ago, Ayn Rand started a writing project she called “Textbook of Americanism.” Her aim was to explain the vital principles needed to understand, appreciate and defend the American political achievement and the individualist political-economic system that the Founding Fathers created.

Rand’s plan for the original “Textbook” was to present her views through a series of forty-one questions and answers. She wrote twelve of the answers herself before shelving the project (she died in 1982). A few years ago, Jonathan Hoenig asked a number of authors to answer the remaining questions Rand had mapped out for the original project. The resulting book, A New Textbook of Americanism: The Politics of Ayn Rand, includes her original questions and answers along with new answers from those other authors. Here is a batch of answers I wrote, focused on the proper role of political power. In a subsequent article I’ll share my answers to several questions on economic topics.

And in case you missed Elan Journo’s recent New Ideal article describing the book’s many valuable chapters, you should be aware that the book includes never-before-published material from Ayn Rand — eighteen pages of Rand’s previously unseen remarks given in a private workshop on ethics and politics that she conducted in 1971.

­On American Political Philosophy

By Onkar Ghate

In creating a new nation, America’s Founding Fathers created a new form of government with a new purpose. Individuals, they wrote in the Declaration of Independence, possess inalienable rights “to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The function of proper government is “to secure these rights.”

At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, in response to the question, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”, Benjamin Franklin is reported to have answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”1

To keep it, what must we do? First and foremost, we must understand and be able to articulate and defend the principles that govern the distinctively American system of government. Ayn Rand’s purpose in starting her Textbook of Americanism, I think, was to help us gain this understanding. The questions and answers below, inspired by Rand’s incomplete project as well as her later writings on individual rights, government, and America, are in this same spirit.

WHAT IS CAPITALISM?

Capitalism is a political-economic system in which each individual’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness are fully acknowledged and upheld.

Politically, this means a system of laws whose sole purpose is to delineate and protect each individual’s rights. These laws must specify the sorts of actions that violate the individual’s rights along with the penalties and punishments that will ensue. Government’s function is vital but strictly delimited: to establish, enforce, and adjudicate such laws by means of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

Under capitalism, therefore, laws exist prohibiting murder, rape, theft, fraud, breach of contract, and similar actions that violate your rights. There exist no laws, though, that allow the government itself to trespass on your rights. No laws would, for example, draft you into national service, which would violate your right to life; ban you from teaching evolution or drinking alcohol, which would violate your right to liberty; dictate what medicines you are permitted to purchase and consume, which would violate your right to property; or compel you to pay for the retirement or healthcare of strangers, which would violate your right to the pursuit of your own happiness.

Full, laissez-faire capitalism is the original American political-economic system, stripped of its errors, compromises, and inconsistencies.
As a result, economically, a capitalist system is a system of individual dynamism, in which people acquire a growing self-confidence and a conviction in limitless progress. Because under capitalism we are all free to think, to speak our minds, to venture forth into the unknown and untried, to associate with those with whom we share interests and to go our separate ways when we disagree, to earn as much property as our skill and effort produce, and to place all of this activity into the service of our own goals, interests, life, and happiness, both ideas and productivity explode.

Because the government is prohibited from censoring our ideas and from controlling and seizing our property and handing it to those it deems more worthy, each of us gains the confidence that our futures are in our own hands — not in the hands of the latest governmental vote, decree, or mandate. And because man’s well-being depends foremost on the discovery of new knowledge and the invention of new products, the improvement in our standard of living under this dynamic system is constant and boundless.

Such in fact was the history of capitalism. Although full, laissez-faire capitalism has not yet existed anywhere in the world, the system was approached in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in England and in the Northern, freer states of the United States. (The system of slavery, which deprived a whole class of individuals of their rights, is, of course, the antithesis of capitalism and of the animating principle behind the Declaration of Independence.) The results of capitalism were unprecedented; indeed, they were unimaginable to earlier ages. Population levels grew dramatically as famine and diseases were pushed aside, literacy and education expanded, a prosperous middle class arose, and each new year brought another life-altering, commercialized discovery or invention: the steamboat, the railroad, electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, the light bulb, refined oil, antiseptics, vaccines, the phonograph, the camera, the automobile, the radio.

The key that unlocked this progress was not exploitation or legalized theft. Both of these had existed for centuries. Prior to capitalism, there existed comparatively little to steal. Capitalism did not cause poverty, as Rand has pointed out; it inherited it. In the face of the miserable conditions it inherited, what capitalism did for the first time in history was unleash the wealth-creators — the scientists, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs, industrialists, and financiers — by respecting their individual rights.

The fact is, interests pertain only to individual human beings, not to some alleged, amorphous collective called “the public.”
This is the key. Living conditions that to us in the twenty-first century, as beneficiaries of all this unprecedented wealth creation, may anachronistically look like exploitation, were, in fact, the reverse: they were improvements in individuals’ standards of living. Whether it was someone leaving a backward village to move to a crowded city or someone changing professions from farmer to factory worker, he chose to do so because he saw it as an improvement in his life. Precisely because under capitalism associations are voluntary and trade is free, individuals participated in the rising new age only when, and to the extent that, they thought it would make them better off.

Capitalism, in short, is the political-economic system of individual freedom. Governmental authorities are deprived of the power to dictate, control, or regulate the intellectual, moral, and productive lives of citizens. Each citizen has the freedom to set his own course in life and to try to achieve it. No one must solicit governmental permissions in order to function, and no one can get ahead by currying governmental favors.

Full, laissez-faire capitalism is the original American political-economic system, stripped of its errors, compromises, and inconsistencies.

ISN’T IT THE GOVERNMENT’S JOB TO ENFORCE BOTH INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS AND THE PUBLIC INTEREST?

As used today, “the public interest” and similar phrases like “the common good” are deliberately vague and undefined notions. On any given issue, what actually counts as being in “the public interest”? And how do you go about answering this question? The open secret we all live with is that nobody can tell you because nobody knows. Is it, for instance, in “the public interest” for the government to tear down your home and put up a commercial development, thereby increasing jobs and tax receipts in the city? How are you to decide? We know this much: it certainly was not in Susette Kelo’s interests for the government to do this to her. She fought all the way to the Supreme Court but lost, because five of the nine Justices determined, somehow, that such a governmental action, though not in her interest, was nevertheless in “the public interest.”

The fact is, interests pertain only to individual human beings, not to some alleged, amorphous collective called “the public.” You have your interests, Susette Kelo has hers, and I have mine. There exist no interests separate from or transcending the interests of individual human beings.

What, then, is the actual but unspoken meaning of today’s widespread championing of “the public interest”?

“Since there is no such entity as ‘the public,’” Rand explained, “since the public is merely a number of individuals, the idea that ‘the public interest’ supersedes private interests and rights, can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals take precedence over the interests and rights of others.”2

And what this implies is that those who invoke “the public interest” to morally justify their schemes are seeking the power to sacrifice some people to others — as Susette Kelo and her interests and rights were sacrificed for the sake of commercial developers.

Because so many of us today accept that promotion of “the public interest” is a valid and crucial function of government, we no longer live in a capitalist system, but a mixture of some freedom and numerous governmental programs imposed in the name of advancing “the public interest.”

As the violations of rights multiply, people lose the desire, and even the ability, to know when they are trying to defend themselves and when they are going on the attack.
You can look at it this way: a mixed economy is the attempt to have individual rights and eat them, too. Government officials, when pressed, will say that the individual possesses the rights listed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but then will quickly add that there are no absolutes. These rights can be denied and violated when “the public interest” demands — which means that they are not inalienable. One way this is often put, in the language of the law and of decisions of the Supreme Court, is to ask whether there is a (compelling) state interest that takes precedence. Precedence over what? Over the rights of the individual.

Because a mixed economy does make reference to an abstract moral justification — the achievement of “public interest” — a mixed economy seems to many of us to be a principled, desirable form of government. But in reality, it is no such thing. Precisely because the “public interest” is a deliberately vague and undefined term — there is no entity called “the public,” with interests of its own — in a mixed economy, it is impossible to tell in advance when or why your rights will be protected or violated.

No one can know if the next administration will declare that it is in “the public interest” for you to pay for even more of your neighbor’s healthcare and pass a massive new prescription drug handout, as Bush Jr. did, or pass the Affordable Care Act, as Obama did. No one can know whether it will be declared in “the public interest” to impose tariffs on steel producers, subsidies for farmers, bailouts to bankers, restrictions on hedge fund managers, tax breaks for homeowners, punitive taxes on importers, ceilings on hiring foreigners, or prohibitions on interracial marriage and alcohol consumption. No one can know if it will be declared that “the public interest” requires that the government spy on every American or erect barriers that impede your ability to freely trade.

All you can know is that anything and everything is up for grabs, at the mercy of the next deal struck by a lobbyist, the next “noble” plan passed by a politician, or the next ballot initiative voted in by a majority.

The result is a climate of fear and suspicion. So long as advancing “the public interest” is regarded as a valid goal of government, “all men and all private groups,” Rand observed, “have to fight to the death for the privilege of being regarded as ‘the public.’ The government’s policy has to swing like an erratic pendulum from group to group, hitting some and favoring others, at the whim of any given moment — and so grotesque a profession as lobbying (selling ‘influence’) becomes a full-time job. If parasitism, favoritism, corruption, and greed for the unearned did not exist, a mixed economy would bring them into existence.”3

In this free-for-all — an institutionalized, semi-civilized civil war — more and more people seek to wield governmental power to try to defend themselves and/or to victimize others. As the violations of rights multiply, people lose the desire, and even the ability, to know when they are trying to defend themselves and when they are going on the attack. When Microsoft now asks the Justice Department to investigate its competitors, is it doing so as retribution for these competitors having previously lobbied the Justice Department to cripple Microsoft? Or is it an attempt on Microsoft’s part to attack innocent and productive new competitors? It is difficult for Microsoft, let alone anyone, to actually know.

Economic power comes from the ability to produce and offer products and services in trade, an offer we are free to refuse. Political power, on the other hand, is not something you are free to refuse.
A mixed economy is not some desirable middle of the road between laissez-faire capitalism and socialism. It is the internal corruption of the ideal of individual rights and freedom: the pretense that we can continue to respect rights while we vote about how next to violate them. In a mixed economy, the government’s power is unlimited by any principle and therefore becomes increasingly unlimited in practice. A mixed economy is a road, sometimes long, sometimes short, to dictatorship.

Many of us today bemoan the daily “pressure group” warfare that goes on in America. Few of us, however, understand its root cause: the worship of the false idol of “the public interest.” Most of us speak of reining in “special interests”; few of us speak of eliminating “achieving the public interest” from the valid goals of government. Yet this is what is necessary to reverse course and restore the original American system of capitalism.

If we acknowledge that there is no such thing as “the public,” with interests of its own, separate from and superior to the interests of individual citizens, then we can restore the older, valid meaning of the phrase “the public interest.” This phrase designates the individual interests common to each and every citizen. The only exact, political meaning of the term “the public interest” is what is in the political interest of each rational individual. And that is: freedom.

It is in the interests of each of us to have our rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness protected. In the spirit of the American revolution, our common political interest is to live free (or die trying). And this means saying that the goal of government is to advance the public interest is the same thing as saying that its goal is to secure the rights of the individual. This, and only this, is the distinctively American form of government.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ECONOMIC POWER AND POLITICAL POWER?

Economic power is the power to produce. It is a positive power: the power to create wealth, to use this wealth in the service of your own goals, and to exchange it with willing traders. Political power is the power to coerce. It is a negative power: the power to control and confiscate wealth and to fine, restrict, imprison, and kill.

The economic power possessed by other individuals in a capitalist system is not a threat to your life but a boon. Imagine living in the war-torn parts of Africa. Your money would not buy you the steak and vegetables you are used to having on your plate — there are no supermarkets; or the antibiotics with which you are used to fighting infections — there are no pharmaceutical factories; or the tablets with which you are used to surfing the Web — there are no high-tech companies. The value of what you produce is dramatically lower if there are no fellow producers around with whom you can trade. Or, put the other way, the value of what you produce is dramatically higher because of the productive efforts of those with whom you trade. The more economic power they have achieved, the more you gain in trading with them. What sane person really thinks that his life would be better in a world devoid of Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, and the companies they have founded? Their economic power comes from their ability to produce and offer their products and services in trade, an offer we are free to refuse but which we gladly accept because it is so beneficial to us.

Political power, which flows from the ability to coerce, is a benefit only when strictly circumscribed and delimited.
Political power, on the other hand, is not something you are free to refuse. It is a potential threat to you whenever that power is used for some purpose other than to stop the violation of an individual’s rights. Political power is the power to coerce. Properly, governmental coercion is used only in retaliation against those who first resort to coercion. It should be used against the murderer who would deprive you of your life, the slaveholder who would deprive you of your liberty, the thief who would deprive you of your property, and the kidnapper who would deprive you of your pursuit of happiness.

But when political power is directed not toward stopping the violator of rights, but toward some other end, such as advancing “the public interest,” the government itself becomes the gravest threat to individual rights. When government can claim as a legitimate function the elimination of “undesirable” elements in society in the name of the alleged interests of the fatherland or motherland, as it did in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, what is left of the right to life? When government can claim as a legitimate function the control and suppression of speech in the name of “the common good,” as it does in the Islamic world and increasingly in the Western one, what is left of the right to liberty?

When government can claim as a legitimate function the confiscation of a part of your weekly paycheck to hand to other people in the name of “the public interest,” as happens today in every mixed economy, what is left of your right to property? When it is considered legitimate for the government to draft you into the military and send you off to fight and die in the name of the so-called national interest, as the American government did in Vietnam, what is left of your right to the pursuit of happiness?

Nothing good can come from forcibly bypassing your mind and engendering mental passivity.
In short, because the source and nature of economic power and political power differ, we should have different attitudes toward them. Economic power, which flows from the ability to produce, is a benefit to its possessor and to all who choose to trade with him; it should be unshackled and freed. Political power, which flows from the ability to coerce, is a benefit only when strictly circumscribed and delimited. Liberating economic power and carefully controlling political power are precisely what happen under capitalism. On the one hand, wealth-creators at all levels of ability are free to produce and trade, without governmental interference or intervention. No one can run to the government for special favors or subsidies, nor does anyone have to worry about governmental controls and regulations descending upon him. On the other hand, we delegate to the government only one function, the protection of our individual rights, and only the powers necessary to accomplish that function (basically, maintaining a police force, a judicial system, and a military).

CAN WE DO GOOD BY FORCE?

No.

If the pursuit of happiness is the good, then the good is un-achievable by force.

The pursuit of happiness is not a meaningless American platitude but a profoundly insightful formulation. Happiness, to be achieved, must be pursued. It cannot be handed to you. You must determine what goals to set, what principles to follow, what traits of character to embody, what level of self-assessment and self-criticism to practice, what people to deal with and on what terms. You must then put your vision into practice, carving out a life that for you counts as a thriving one. None of this is easy. All of it demands sustained thinking and careful action, neither of which can be performed for you.

When a group of people declare that something is good for you regardless of what you think and regardless of whether you would choose to try to attain it, they are declaring that they have done the necessary thinking and judging for you. You, therefore, don’t have to. Nothing good can come from forcibly bypassing your mind and engendering this kind of passivity.

Consider a real-life example. A comfortable retirement, many people say, is good. We will therefore confiscate a portion of your and everyone else’s paycheck and erect a vast new government agency to administer this new program, called Social Security. You do not have to think about your old age anymore. You just have to collect what we will hand out to you in forty years. What could be more beneficent than us forcing this on you?

If previous Americans could tame a continent, we certainly can plan for our old age.
But the pursuit of happiness requires that you plan your life, not have it planned for you. What if you want to start a business and risk all your capital now, including what is confiscated by Social Security taxes, prepared to live more frugally in old age should your venture fail? Sorry, we have decided that is not the way to live. What if you want to spend your savings now on your education, on the premise that your future earnings will more than justify the expenditure? Sorry, we have also decided this is not good for you. What if you have a family history of Alzheimer’s and would rather use your money now even if that means an earlier death? Sorry again. What if you do want to save for retirement now, but want to put your money in the investment vehicles of your choice? Sorry, we also do not permit that. What if you are worried that the government is going to spend your money immediately after it taxes it away from you? Sorry, even though that is exactly what we are planning to do, we still think our scheme is best for you. What if you love your work and do not plan to retire? Sorry, we do not think that makes sense.

To force Social Security on you is to eliminate all these possibilities. To force the individual into the program may seem to accomplish something good — if the envisioned alternative is each of us living in the street forty years from now, old and starving, because we could not be bothered to plan for our old age. But that’s not the alternative. The actual alternative is that we as individuals plan and run our own lives, including our old age, learning from our and other people’s accomplishments and mistakes, discovering new paths, sometimes failing but most often attaining a degree of success. If previous Americans could tame a continent, we certainly can plan for our old age. But the judgment and choice necessary to do so are precisely what attempting to force the good on us prevent. This is why all such attempts are not beneficial but harmful to the individual.

Enroll in The Morality of Freedom on ARI Campus to explore this topic further.

Footnotes

  1. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, ed. Max Farrand, vol. 3, appendix A, p. 85 (1911, reprinted 1934).
  2. “The Pull Peddlers,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, (New York: Signet, 2005 mass market paperback edition), 187–88.
  3. Ibid., 188.

Onkar Ghate

Onkar Ghate, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a senior fellow and chief content officer at the Ayn Rand Institute. A contributing author to many books on Rand’s ideas and philosophy, he is a senior editor of New Ideal.

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