Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ayn Rand and Libertarian Utopia

As part of “Put Ayn Rand on a Spit and Roast Slowly Week,” we have strenuously avoided the term, “libertarianism.” Rand herself referred to libertarians as a “monstrous, disgusting bunch of people” who plagiarized her ideas. But, thanks to “Atlas Shrugged” and her other works, the term has become identified with her. But what is it?

Broadly speaking, libertarianism implies a soft form of anarchy, which views all forms of government as an infringement of individual liberty. The sentiment embraces the entire political spectrum, from communists who perceive the “withering away of the state” as the ultimate prize to their sworn enemies on the right who bristle at the thought of state interference in their activities.

Anarchy matured into a political philosophy under the 19th century French socialist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. “Property is theft!” he famously declared. Right-wing libertarians would strenuously disagree, and here is where Ayn Rand enters the picture.

In the final section of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” we are introduced to a right-wing libertarian utopia - Galt’s Gulch - sequestered in the mountains, where hero capitalists and related vocations live to their heart’s content mining ore and practicing medicine and producing music and lending money with no regulation and no taxes.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to perceive the absurdity of this arrangement. What happens, for instance, when the hero mining magnate decides to dump his tailings into the river the hero banker likes to fish for trout in? The situation reaches its ultimate level of absurdity when our heroes prepare to emerge from their seclusion with new terms to impose on the rest of the US. Get ready: they rewrite the US Constitution to expressly forbid the regulation of business.

So much for “We the people.”

Hmm - baby clothes that catch on fire, tainted products in supermarkets, cars that blow up, nuclear reactors built on fault lines ...

Hmm - workers on starvation wages, nine-year old chimney sweeps, Triangle Factory fires ..

Oh yeh, no public education, no public roads, no public health or sanitation, no social services or amenities ...

I’ll stop right there.

The movie version of “Atlas Shrugged” only covered part one of her book, so we have no visual version of Rand’s libertarian utopia. But I imagine the JR Ewing character (pictured on top) from the 80s TV hit, "Dallas," would be right at home in it.

But it pays to recall that there is also a Communist strain to libertarianism, and the Stalinist government in 1949 was thoughtful enough to provide us with this filmed utopia featuring singing peasant farmers:

Back in our real and very imperfect world, the reasoned among us acknowledge that an individual’s rights happen to extend to the right to band with other individuals “in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

There is a term for this type of imperfect but ultimately serviceable arrangement. The last thing anyone would call it is libertarianism.

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