Ayn Rand’s Devastating Critique of ‘Liberals’

by | Mar 3, 2024 | POLITICS

Ayn Rand’s assessment of modern "liberals" differs radically from the criticisms leveled by conservatives, a group she is often wrongly lumped in with.

Opening her first lecture at the historic Ford Hall Forum in 1961, Ayn Rand saw her audience as consisting mainly of her “antagonists” — liberals. Why did she choose to engage them?

The briefest explanation is to tell you that in the 1930s I envied the “liberals” for the fact that their leaders entered political campaigns armed not with worn-out bromides, but with intellectual arguments. I disagreed with everything they said, but I would have fought to the death for the method by which they said it: for an intellectual approach to political problems. Today, I have no cause to envy the “liberals” any longer.

Indicating why she no longer has cause to envy them, Rand notes that while conservatives had long embraced a “cracker-barrel” anti-intellectualism, the liberals of the 1960s had also begun to abandon their intellectual posture. Individuals who “are and still wish to be the men of the intellect” had become politically homeless, and this is why Rand wanted to engage with them:

As an advocate of reason, freedom, individualism, and capitalism, I seek to address myself to the men of the intellect — wherever such may still be found — and I believe that more of them may be found among the former “liberals” than among the present “conservatives.” I may be wrong; I am willing to find out.[i]

In this talk and in a number of her essays, Rand offers a critique of the liberals that is uniquely formidable. It has the power to convince active-minded individuals.

No one today who is sympathetic to liberal positions will find a more objective, trenchant, sophisticated analysis. Rand’s assessment prompts a frank moral reckoning about liberal goals. Her view differs radically from the criticisms leveled by conservatives, a group she is often wrongly lumped in with. What Rand offers instead is an analysis that evaluates the animating — but unadmitted — basic goals of liberals.

Seeing beyond “rubber words”

Political goals, in Rand’s view, are a result of people’s moral premises. When thinking about and discussing “political groups,” she explained in a 1962 radio interview, you need to define them “in terms of fundamentals, not details and not consequences, but the basic causes.”[ii] What basic ideas did liberals stand for? Here, there was deliberate unclarity.

The terms “liberal” and “conservative,” she observed in 1961, are “two of the emptiest sounds in today’s political vocabulary”:

[These terms] have become rubber words that can be stretched to fit any meaning anyone cares to give them — words that can be used safely by any speaker who wants to be misunderstood in the greatest number of ways by the greatest number of people. Yet at the same time, everyone seems to understand these two words in some foggy, sub-verbal manner, as if they were the code signals of a dark, secret guilt, hiding an issue no one cares to face.[iii]

The term “liberal” in its 19th-century usage, Rand noted, had meant an advocate of individual rights, of political freedom, and an opponent of authoritarianism. But in America it had come to designate the opposite. In the 1930s, Rand observed, liberals crusaded for a program of social reforms, calling for a planned society defined by abstract principles. They claimed to have reason, logic, and science on their side, projecting a “manner of confident, distinguished intellectuality.”[iv]

By the early 1960s there was a significant change in how liberals pushed their agenda. Rand discerned a severely narrowed orientation: the scale of concern had shrunk down from the economy as a whole to “single, concrete-bound, range-of-the-moment projects and demands, without regard to cost, context, or consequences.” Gone was the semblance of confident intellectuality, replaced by an evasiveness about naming their goals. Liberals, Rand observed, were “militantly opposed to political philosophy,” denouncing “concepts as ‘tags,’ ‘labels,’ ‘myths,’ ‘illusions’ — and resist[ing] any attempt to ‘label’ — i.e., to identify — their own views.”[v]

Judging from their behavior, Rand wrote, the liberals of the early 1960s aimed to furtively move the country along a definite path “by means of single, concrete, specific measures, enlarging the power of the government a step at a time, never permitting these steps to be summed up into principles, never permitting their direction to be identified or the basic issue to be named.”[vi]

Liberal policies

This pattern was exemplified in the administration of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy dismissed the need for theories, principles, ideas, long-range vision. In one major speech, Kennedy “was begging his audience to drop such ‘illusions’” as abstract knowledge and to look only at the concrete problems of our day in isolation from one another.[vii] Focus narrowly on the concrete, incremental, siloed policies he advocated, and you’d struggle to notice their direction. But they had a definite direction. Consider elements of Kennedy’s agenda.

Kennedy worked to inveigle Americans into accepting the expansion of government power into the field of medicine. He called for government to provide health care coverage for the elderly, paid for by taxing the earnings of the non-elderly. This effort, Rand wrote, involved pushing Americans to accept the moral principle of “self-immolation under the guise of mere kindness, generosity, or charity. It is done by hammering into people’s minds the idea that need supersedes all rights — that the need of some men is a first mortgage on the lives of others — and that everything should be sacrificed to the undefined, undefinable grab bag known as ‘the public interest.’”[viii]

Invoking “the public interest,” the Kennedy administration undermined the freedom of speech. Through the Federal Communications Commission, Rand argued, it exerted an indirect form of censorship. The FCC chairman threatened television and radio broadcasters with the loss of their licenses unless their programming satisfied the government’s unspecified conception of “public service.”[ix]

The “public interest” also trumped property rights. Kennedy excoriated the steel industry over rising prices. With a hand-waving concession to the freedom of businesses to set prices and wages, Kennedy stressed that “the American people have a right to expect, in return for that freedom, a higher sense of business responsibility for the welfare of their country. . . .” Rand observed:

“The American people have a right to expect, in return for that freedom . . .” Here is an explicit declaration by the President of the United States that freedom is not an inalienable right of the individual, but a conditional favor or privilege granted to him by society (by “the people” or the collective) — a privilege which he has to purchase by performing some sort of duty in return. Should he fail in that duty, “the people” have the right to abrogate his freedom and return him to his natural condition of slavery.[x]

The piecemeal growth of government interventions continued under Lyndon Johnson, who carried forward Kennedy’s priorities. This pattern of incremental expansion of government power entrenched what Rand called a “mixed economy,” an unstable, chaotic system that blends “freedom and controls — with no principles, rules or theories to define either.”[xi] The elements of control, the regulations, the welfare programs —  all of these, however, were predicated on unadmitted premises.

Underlying philosophic premises

Rand identified the premises that liberals themselves resisted labeling. Analyzing Kennedy’s statement about the “responsibility” of business for “the welfare of their country,” she observed:

Rights, by this concept, are the property of the collective, not of the individual; the individual’s life, liberty and effort belong to “the people” who have “the right” to dispose of him and to dictate the terms of his existence in any way they please. This is the basic principle of collectivism and statism.[xii]

The doctrine of collectivism subordinates the individual to the desires, wishes, and demands of the group, “society,” “the people,” the “public interest.” Collectivism, in Rand’s analysis, is itself rooted in the morality of altruism. Contrary to widespread confusions, altruism is not synonymous with benevolence and goodwill toward others (in fact, in Rand’s view, it’s incompatible with these sentiments). Rather, altruism holds that an individual “has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.”[xiii]

This ethic justifies the collectivism inherent in the welfare programs that liberals embraced. By justifying the sacrifice of an individual’s life, liberty and effort, altruism provides the rationale for “redistributing” wealth from those who produced it to those who did not; for establishing, and expanding, welfare programs to serve the needy; for government’s violating the property rights of business owners for the sake of serving the “public interest.”

The welfare programs liberals embraced tend toward socialism, and the Kennedy administration did push welfare-state policies. In Rand’s view, it was moving toward a political system that was essentially similar, yet distinct. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” agenda, she argued, exhibited an authoritarian impulse. Socialism abolishes private property, putting it under collective ownership. What Kennedy sought was a system retaining the semblance of a free society and a facade of private property, but with the government controlling its use and disposal. This, she wrote, is a “fundamental characteristic of fascism.”[xiv]

The system America was drifting toward under Kennedy, Rand argued, was not a militant fascism, nor led by an organized movement. Instead, it was “a tired, worn, cynical fascism, fascism by default, not like a flaming disaster, but more like the quiet collapse of a lethargic body slowly eaten by internal corruption.”[xv] Nor was her claim that Kennedy or Johnson or other liberal politicians were secretly socialists or Communists. Both Kennedy and Johnson, Rand noted, were avowed opponents of Communism. The point, rather, is that their animating moral-political ideas — even if unadmitted, even if held loosely, even if implemented piecemeal — called for “the subordination and sacrifice of the individual to the collective.”[xvi]

This unadmitted principle, derived from the altruist ethic, “is the ideological root of all statist systems, in any variation, from welfare statism to a totalitarian dictatorship.” The principle underlies the Soviet Union’s totalitarian regime, Nazi (National Socialist) Germany, China’s Communist dictatorship, and numerous kindred tyrannies.

This is the ideal that ravaged the modern world. No one motivated by benevolence and human welfare could ignore its real-world effects. “For over half a century,” Rand wrote, “modern liberals have been observing the fact that their ideas are achieving the opposite of their professed goals.”[xvii]

[I]nstead of “liberation,” communism has brought the blood-drenched dictatorship of Soviet Russia — instead of “prosperity,” socialism has brought starvation to China, and Cuba, and India (and Russia) — instead of “brotherhood,” the welfare state has brought the crumbling stagnation and the fierce, “elitist” power struggle of Great Britain, and Sweden, and many other, less obvious victims — instead of “peace,” the spread of international altruism has brought about two world wars, an unceasing procession of local wars, and the suspending of a nuclear bomb over the heads of mankind.[xviii]

This is the inhuman ideal that throughout the 20th century American intellectuals and liberal leaders sympathized with, lionized, whitewashed.

The majority of individuals loosely identified as “liberals,” Rand wrote in 1962, “are afraid to let themselves discover that what they advocate is statism.”

They do not want to accept the full meaning of their goal; they want to keep all the advantages and effects of capitalism, while destroying the cause, and they want to establish statism without its necessary effects. They do not want to know or to admit that they are the champions of dictatorship and slavery. So they evade the issue, for fear of discovering that their goal is evil.[xix]

What the “New Left” revealed

Self-deception is insidious. Evading a fact cannot change or erase it. What it leads to is a contempt for facts, a fear of the truth, intellectual disintegration. Because they refused to face the inhuman nature of their goal, liberals were becoming more and more anti-intellectual. The nadir of that anti-intellectual trend — at least, up to that point in history — could be seen in the emergent New Left.

Gaining prominence around the close of the ’60s, the New Left saw itself as distinct from liberals. But in Rand’s analysis the difference was one of form, not of “essential goals or fundamental motives.” In a sense, she wrote, the New Left is

cruder and more honest — not honest in an honorable sense of the word, but in the sense of a combination of brazenness and despair, prompted by the belief or the hope that one can get away with it, as a drunk (or a drug addict) will blurt out some part of a truth he has spent years evading and repressing. The social veneer of the collectivists is cracking and their psychological motivation is showing through.[xx]

Old-line Marxists claimed their doctrine was “scientific.” Technological progress, they insisted, necessitated a planned economy, which would outstrip capitalist production and yield a climbing standard of living. The New Left, however, discarded that ostensible embrace of reason, science, progress. Figures in the New Left replaced “dialectical materialism . . . with doctrines of equal scientific validity” such as astrology. Rand argued that the New Left’s environmental crusade — for pristine nature untouched by humans — was not only unscientific, but also a confession that collectivism was a technological and industrial failure. [xxi]

Confronted with the choice of an industrial civilization or collectivism, it is an industrial civilization that the liberals discarded. Confronted with the choice of technology or dictatorship, it is technology that they discarded. Confronted with the choice of reason or whims, it is reason that they discarded. [. . .]

The old-line Marxists used to claim that a single modern factory could produce enough shoes to provide for the whole population of the world and that nothing but capitalism prevented it. When they discovered the facts of reality involved, they declared that going barefoot is superior to wearing shoes.

If collectivists were concerned with poverty and human suffering, “they would have become champions of capitalism long ago,” because only it can deliver abundance and progress. But they evaded the evidence. They went from baselessly denouncing capitalism for creating poverty, to denouncing it for its virtue of creating abundance.[xxii]

The activists of the New Left, Rand argued, were heirs and products of leftist-liberal ideas. The activists were “closer to revealing the truth of their motives: they do not seek to take over industrial plants, they seek to destroy technology.”[xxiii] The profoundly disturbing truth, in Rand’s view, is that collectivism “does not preach sacrifice as a temporary means to some desirable end. Sacrifice is its end — sacrifice as a way of life. It is man’s independence, success, prosperity, and happiness that collectivists wish to destroy.”[xxiv]

“Check your premises”

Part of what makes Rand’s critique of liberals devastating is that she neither caricatured them all as socialists and communists, nor did she absolve them for the immoral policies they did embrace. Rand identified the basic goals liberals themselves resisted naming. And their goals — even when pursued bloodlessly, even when enacted incrementally through elected representatives, even when wrapped in a pro-liberty veneer — their goals were defined by an inhuman moral ideal.

Rand’s critique underscores the fundamental role of philosophic ideas in life, culture and politics, and it provides an enduring lesson for anyone who wishes to see our society move toward greater freedom.

The path forward demands that we summon the courage to identify and challenge fundamentals, to question the prevailing ideas in our society. For Rand, in contrast with today’s tribalism, we each have the power to question our defining premises, shrug off the shibboleths of our friends, rethink our culture’s moral dogmas. It is open to anyone who chooses to invest the cognitive effort.

At her first Ford Hall Forum lecture, Rand sought to address active-minded individuals wherever they might still be found. She hoped to connect with “non-totalitarian liberals” and “non-traditionalist conservatives.”

She concluded the talk: Those of you who may still be “liberals,” in the original sense of that word [i.e., genuinely valuing freedom], and who may have abandoned everything except loyalty to reason — now is the time to check your premises. If you do, you will find that the ideal society had once been almost within men’s reach. It was the intellectuals who destroyed it — and who committed suicide in the process — but the future belongs to a new type of intellectual, a new radical: the fighter for capitalism.[xxv]

A version of this essay first appeared at New Ideal. Read the original. Copyright 2023 Ayn Rand Institute. All rights reserved. That the author/Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) has granted permission to Capitalism Magazine to republish this article, does not mean ARI necessarily endorses or agrees with the other content on this website.

Notes

[i] Ayn Rand, “The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Our Age,” [based on a lecture originally given in 1961] reprinted in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (New York: New American Library, 1988), 85.

[ii] Ayn Rand, “Conservatism vs. Objectivism,” interview, WKCR Radio, 1962.

[iii] Rand, “Intellectual Bankruptcy,” 86.

[iv] Rand, “Intellectual Bankruptcy,” 86.

[v] Ayn Rand, “The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus,” [originally published in 1965] reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1986), 235.

[vi] Ayn Rand, “Conservatism: An Obituary,” [originally published 1962] reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, (New York: Signet, 1986), 197.

[vii] Ayn Rand, “An Intellectual Coup d’Etat,” [originally published in 1962] reprinted in The Ayn Rand Column, 2nd rev. ed. (Irvine, CA: Ayn Rand Institute Press, 1998), Kindle edition, loc. 299.

[viii] Ayn Rand, “How Not to Fight Against Socialized Medicine,” [originally published in 1963] reprinted in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (New York: New American Library, 1988), 285.

[ix] Ayn Rand, “Have Gun, Will Nudge,” Objectivist Newsletter, vol 1. no. 3, March 1962.

[x] Ayn Rand, “The National Interest, C’est Moi,” Objectivist Newsletter, vol. 1, no. 6, June 1962.

[xi] Ayn Rand, “The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus,” 231.

[xii] Rand, “The National Interest, C’est Moi.”

[xiii] Ayn Rand, “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” [based on a lecture originally delivered in 1960] reprinted in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984), 61.

[xiv] Rand, “The New Fascism,” 237.

[xv] Rand, “The New Fascism,” 247.

[xvi] Ayn Rand, “The Fascist New Frontier,” speech at the Ford Hall Forum, December 16, 1963.

[xvii] Ayn Rand, “Global Balkanization,” [based on a lecture originally delivered in 1977] reprinted in Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (New York: Signet, 1999).

[xviii] Rand, “Global Balkanization.”

[xix] Rand, “Conservatism: An Obituary,” 194.

[xx] Ayn Rand, “The Left: Old and New,” [originally published in 1970] reprinted in Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (New York: Signet, 1999).

[xxi] Ayn Rand, “The Anti-Industrial Revolution,” [originally published in 1971] reprinted in Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (New York: Signet, 1999).

[xxii] Rand, “The Anti-Industrial Revolution.”

[xxiii] Rand, “The Left: Old and New.”

[xxiv] Ayn Rand, “Theory and Practice,” [originally published in 1962] reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1986), 148.

[xxv] Rand, “The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Our Age.”

Elan Journo is director of policy research at the Ayn Rand Institute. His latest book -- What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict -- is on American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Visit his website at elanjourno.com

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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