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Must-Read New Book on Rand’s Philosophic Case for Capitalism

An important new book on Ayn Rand’s political philosophy will be published in March.

Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy, edited by Gregory Salmieri and Robert Mayhew, is an in-depth exploration of the philosophical foundations underlying Rand’s advocacy of capitalism.

The chief value of the work is its careful engagement with crucial issues that lie at the “foundations of freedom.”

This is a much-needed addition to the literature on Rand because the subtlety and depth of Rand’s analysis of the philosophical roots of capitalism are rarely appreciated, even by many who draw inspiration from her writings. As Salmieri explains:

Rand’s unique ability to inspire people to appreciate capitalism stems from profound and nuanced insights into the facts of reality that give rise to the need for moral and political principles. These insights are easily overlooked by those who attempt to pigeonhole her into familiar categories — and who, finding that she defies such classification, assume that it is her ideas rather than the familiar categories that are confused. (p. 6)

The subtlety and depth of Rand’s analysis of the philosophical roots of capitalism are rarely appreciated, even by many who draw inspiration from her writings.
Many of the essays in the volume were originally presented at academic conferences, and some were prepared as formal responses to the ideas explored in others. This format — not uncommon for scholarly collections — allows for a thorough exploration of the differences between viewpoints that are often seen as similar. The collection, writes Salmieri, “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.” (p. 7)

The result is a series of thoughtful essays that bring a number of Rand’s “profound and nuanced insights” into sharp focus.

A must-read, especially for “pro-liberty” students

The format makes the book especially valuable to anyone interested in the chief points of difference between Rand’s views and those of others who are also viewed (or view themselves) as advocates of capitalism and individual liberty but who are categorized by various terms such as “conservative,” “classical liberal,” “neoliberal,” or “libertarian.”

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 authors discuss, debate, and delve deeply 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.

This makes the book a must-read for the growing number of students active in what’s widely called the pro-liberty student movement. And even though the book is primarily intended as a contribution to the scholarly literature on Rand, it is far from esoteric or inaccessible to a general audience. Anyone interested in political philosophy or in Objectivism or in the roots of liberty will find a rich trove of ideas to explore here.

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Contrasting Rand and Nozick on freedom

Of the many outstanding essays in this collection, one especially noteworthy item is an article by Onkar Ghate, senior fellow and chief content officer of the Ayn Rand Institute. The piece is an examination of some of the significant differences between Rand’s approach to political philosophy and that of Robert Nozick. Nozick was the celebrated Harvard philosopher whose 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia is often viewed as defending a political system very similar to the laissez-faire system Rand advocated. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (or, ASU) “shocked the philosophical world with its robust and sophisticated defense of the minimal state.”

Although Nozick was familiar with Rand’s ideas in political philosophy (Ghate notes that Atlas Shrugged, The Virtue of Selfishness, and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal are all listed in ASU’s bibliography), the differences between their views “swamp the similarities, particularly in terms of their fundamental approaches to political philosophy and their conceptions of individual rights.” (p. 206)

For instance, one of the key issues at the foundation of political philosophy is the very question of where political philosophy begins. What are its starting points? What are the first questions that arise when one begins a systematic consideration of the subject? Ghate argues that Rand “thinks that political philosophy rests on a deeper question than Nozick recognizes.”

What Nozick calls the fundamental question of political philosophy — “Should there be any state at all?” (ASU 4) — is not for Rand the first question. The first question is why should an individual seek a social existence? And then, why, more specifically, should he value an organized society with other individuals, many of whom are strangers? What are the benefits obtainable in society and on what terms? It is a crucial but later question whether those terms include the formation of a government and, if so, what kind of government. (p. 209)

For both Rand and Nozick, the justification of government rests crucially on the principle of individual rights. Nozick’s approach in ASU is to show how a “minimal state” would arise naturally out of an anarchic, pre-governmental “state of nature” in which people generally behave morally and respect individual rights, but have no conception of government. However, he devotes little attention to the question of where the concept of individual rights comes from in the first place. How did this concept arise historically and what is its precise nature and role in political philosophy? Rand, argues Ghate, has a “very different conception of individual rights.” (p. 208)

To first reach the idea and then to properly formulate the principle of individual rights, Rand regards as momentous achievements. The mature principle integrates a vast amount of knowledge in terms of philosophical essentials: a metaphysical-epistemological recognition that the individual survives by the independent exercise of his rational mind, a moral recognition of the importance of self-preservation, and a political recognition of the benefits of life in society along with its potential dangers, including careful philosophical, political, legal, and historical consideration of how to organize society and government in order to systematically achieve the benefits of social organization and avoid the dangers. . . . This perspective on the principle of individual rights as a wide-scale philosophical-historical integration is not Nozick’s perspective in ASU. (p. 213)

Ghate delivers an illuminating explanation of the philosophical and historical development of the concept of individual rights, its full, precise meaning and role in political philosophy, and what it took for mankind’s greatest political theorists to develop and reach this principle over centuries of painstaking thought.
In elaborating on the differences between Nozick’s and Rand’s views, Ghate delivers an illuminating explanation of the philosophical and historical development of the concept of individual rights, its full, precise meaning and role in political philosophy, and what it took for mankind’s greatest political theorists to develop and reach this principle over centuries of painstaking thought. Anyone interested in the foundations of capitalism will find Ghate’s explanation clarifyingly valuable, independent of the question of how Nozick’s views contrast with those of Rand.

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Situating Rand’s ideas on the intellectual landscape

A number of the essays (and rejoinders) in Foundations of a Free Society address the question of whether anarchism is consistent with freedom. A discussion of Objectivism’s disagreements with, and rejection of, anarchism can be found in a 1981 essay on the subject by Harry Binswanger (reproduced in the collection together with a more a recent addendum). The 1981 essay is especially valuable in that Rand, herself, had the opportunity to read it and approve it as an elaboration of her critique of anarchism.

Other noteworthy essays in the collection include:

  • Darryl Wright’s three-part discussion of Rand’s principle of the non-initiation of force — a tour de force analysis of the principle, its justification, proper scope and role in political philosophy, and its contrast with the libertarian “non-aggression principle.”
  • An essay by Robert Tarr exploring the different conceptions of value underlying various schools of thought in economics, which clarifies significant conceptual confusions on this subject.
  • An essay by Fred Miller and Adam Mossoff explaining Rand’s theory of rights and addressing criticisms of the theory, followed by a thoughtful response by Matt Zwolinksi and a response to the response by Greg Salmieri—a series of essays that delves deeply into the moral issues underlying Rand’s radical perspective.
  • A second essay by Onkar Ghate explaining the concept of a “wall of separation” between state and church—and why Rand held that the protection of intellectual freedom requires not just church-state separation but also, “in the same way and for the same reasons,” a separation of state and economics.

Even longtime students of Objectivism will find new insights and interpretations that will challenge their understanding of Rand’s thought. And for newcomers to Objectivism, the book will help to accelerate their process of grasping and integrating Rand’s ideas.

Another milestone for scholarship on Rand

Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy is the third in a series of books presenting recent scholarship on Objectivism. The series draws on scholarly papers presented at meetings of the Ayn Rand Society—a group affiliated with the American Philosophical Association.

Published by University of Pittsburgh Press, each of the books in the Ayn Rand Society Philosophical Studies series takes up a broad philosophical topic and invites professional philosophers and other scholars to explore and debate Rand’s views on that topic.

Series editors James G. Lennox and Gregory Salmieri describe the books as “the best of the previously unpublished papers and comments (appreciative and critical) presented to the Society at American Philosophical Association meetings” together with “invited papers that push the boundaries of our understanding of Objectivism and its relationship to the dominant contemporary and historical schools of thought in philosophy and allied fields.”

The first volume, Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue: Studies in Ayn Rand’s Normative Theory, edited by Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox and published in 2011, focuses on Rand’s moral philosophy. The second, Concepts and Their Role in Knowledge: Reflections on Objectivist Epistemology, edited by Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox and published in 2013, explores her theory of concepts and issues in epistemology.

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Each of these works represents a significant milestone in the advancement of Objectivist scholarship. Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy promises to do the same, and we look forward to its publication with eager anticipation.

To celebrate the publication of Foundations of a Free Society, we’re delighted to reprint one of Onkar Ghate’s chapters, “A Wall of Separation between Church and State: Understanding This Principle’s Supporting Arguments and Far-Reaching Implications,” here at New Ideal. The essay will come out soon (if you subscribe, you’ll receive an email notice). All of Ghate’s New Ideal articles can be found here.

Here’s the table of contents for Foundations of a Free Society:

Foundations of a Free Society table of contents

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Keith Lockitch

Keith Lockitch, Ph.D. in physics, is a senior fellow and vice president of content at the Ayn Rand Institute. He focuses primarily on the intersection of science with current events and policy issues. He is a senior editor of New Ideal.

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