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Is Ayn Rand Affecting Trump’s America? An Interview with Steve Simpson

Image via aynrand.org

“When people say things like “Trump is the Ayn Rand presidency,” that’s nonsense. She’s influenced the political right, but there’s a big gap between Objectivism and what many conservatives believe.”

On November 29, 2017, Steve Simpson, Director of Legal Studies at the Ayn Rand Institute, joined Merion West’s Alex Baltzegar to discuss general themes of Rand’s philosophy, her philosophy’s take on contemporary free speech debates, and the compatibility of her views with Christianity. 

Alex Baltzegar: Objectivism is a philosophy many people have some misconceptions about. Just to clarify to some of our readers, could you provide a summary of “Objectivism” and how it differs from other philosophical traditions? 

Steve Simpson: Objectivism is the philosophy of Ayn Rand, a novelist who wrote the novel Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and a number of others. In essence, objectivism covers the major areas of any philosophy: metaphysics (what exists, what doesn’t exist, and how to think about existence), epistemology (how we know things), ethics (what we ought to do), politics (what sort of social system we should have), and aesthetics, which is art.

On metaphysics, Ayn Rand believed in reality and “what ‘is’ is,” and we can’t change it. What she referred to as “the primacy of existence,” the world is what it is and it’s our job to figure it out then act accordingly.

In epistemology, she was a champion of reason, which is our basic way of knowing the world. She believed, unlike a lot of other philosophersI mean, postmodernists are a good example since we are talking about free speech, that reason is not only our only way of knowing things, but it is entirely effective. Therefore, we can actually know objective truths. So there is an objective reality out there, and we can know it.

By extension, we can communicate with other people, we can come to objective conclusions, and correct conclusions about the world. That’s the whole field of science, for instance. There are a lot of other philosophers, especially today, who question the efficacy of reason and our ability to know.

On ethics, she was an egoist, which means “rational self-interest.” Now this famously is what most people criticize her for. Some critics suggest that she is arguing for selfishness or that “I want to sacrifice everybody for myself,” such as a narcissist might believe. Rand did not assert this at all; she believed in what she referred to as “rational self-interest”: the idea that nobody sacrifices themselves to others or others to themselves.

We all live, essentially in harmony, by figuring out if we can cooperate, dealing with others when we can — walking away so to speak. So it is very similar to the Founding Fathers’ idea of “the pursuit of happiness,” which is in the Declaration of Independence, of course. Our goal in life should be to pursue our own happiness, not to sacrifice ourselves to others or others for us. So, that is what egoism is all about. It’s living the good-life in accordance with virtues and values, which Rand defines as honesty, pride, rationality, integrity, and justice. There’s a whole developed ethic, I am just giving you a quick summary.

All of that, in her view, leads to capitalism as the best and only moral political system. In capitalism, people are free to pursue their own happiness. Their rights are protected by a government. That is essentially what laissez-faire capitalism is. Again, a common misconception about Rand is that she was against government. Some people today, especially libertarians, view government as a necessary evil. Rand viewed government as a necessary good, but with the big caveat that it needs to be a government that protects our rights and does not violate our rights. She had a whole political philosophy about what government should do and what it shouldn’t do. She thought that government vastly transcended its proper boundaries; it was doing way too much such as in the case of certain welfare policies. But, she definitely was not against government. She was for the right kind of government.

When it came to art, Rand was what she referred to as a “romantic realist,” which means she believed in realist art, one that portrayed man as a hero. Human beings being portrayed as heroic, showing that humans could achieve the good-life.

Alex: I think that’s a great summary. In August of 2013, Rachel Weiner of The Washington Post described Paul Ryan giving out copies of Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents and making the book required reading for interns. To what degree do you think Ayn Rand’s philosophy is influencing the modern Republican Party?

Steve: I would say very little honestly. It’s really hard to say that she’s influencing the Republican party. She’s definitely influenced the right, generally speaking, in a huge way, but that does not mean necessarily that conservatives are interpreting her ideas correctly.

I would put it this way: the right is just as afraid of Rand’s ideas as the left is; the right disagrees with her important ideas just as much as the left does. But what Atlas Shrugged has done is give people who are in favor of business, in favor of the free market, in favor of capitalism an ideal to aspire to. Atlas Shrugged is the only novel I’ve ever heard of that portrays businessmen as heroes. I think if you’re on the right and you think there is something good about capitalism, Rand gave the most ringing endorsement to that view that anybody could have given. So it makes really good sense that people on the right, who are sympathetic to capitalism, would like her novel, but that’s a very different thing from them saying they agree with her.

I think she’s influenced the right in general, but the caveat is that it does not mean those on the right necessarily agree with her. When you get to things like “Trump is the Ayn Rand presidency,” that’s nonsense. She’s influenced the right, but there’s still a big gap between Objectivism and what many conservatives believe. 

AlexI’ll go ahead and shift topics a little bit here, more to free speech. As the country grows increasingly polarized, the First Amendment is becoming more controversial. People have become more willing to shut down speech they disagree with on both sides. What are your thoughts on freedom of speech, or more appropriately, what are Ayn Rand’s views on freedom of speech?

Steve: Since reason is essential to her philosophy, she believed free speech was absolutely essential to a free country. In fact, during the 1960s, she was writing essays talking about how free speech is under attack. She talked about how the regulatory state affected free speech. She wrote constantly about philosophical or intellectual attacks on reason, and how such could have an impact on freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and ultimately freedom in general. You could not be a bigger advocate of free speech than Ayn Rand was.

Now, with that said, she had important disagreements on what free speech meant. In particular, she believed property rights were absolutely essential for free speech. One way to think about that is: one has the right to speak, one does not have the right to have others provide them with a microphone or a platform. When you get into a situation where government is providing people with forums, that a has real impact on freedom of speech. It causes the kinds of clashes we see today. I don’t think she’d be surprised at all. She wrote essays about things happening at UC Berkeley with student rebellions in the 1960s. Her argument was that these people were not in favor of free speech. In fact, those at places like UC Berkeley were very much trying to restrict free speech, by shutting down people’s property rights and issuing a takeover of the university. The same things happen now, so she predicted a lot of what is going on today.

Alex: I have a quote from Ayn Rand here from an interview she did with Playboy in 1964: “My views on charity are simple. I do not consider it a major virtue; and above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There’s nothing wrong in helping other people if, and when, they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.” Her works continue to resonate in the United States with many Republicans, many of whom also self-identify as Christians. How do you think you can reconcile that divide?

Steve: Ultimately, we can’t. You can’t reconcile Christianity with Objectivism for two reasons.

One [reason] is that Christianity is ultimately based around faith, which is, in her view and mine, the opposite of reason. You’re just taking something on faith; you’re not really thinking through whether there is actual evidence for it. That’s one, and that causes a lot of clashes between Objectivism and Christianity.

The other big one that leaps right out is her view on egoism versus altruism. Altruism is the idea that we have the moral duty to sacrifice our lives or our values for others. Her view was that altruism cannot be a moral duty because it destroys your ability to live the good-life. In fact, she went as far as to say that altruism destroys your ability to live in a virtuous manner, and that is very much a conflict between Objectivism and Christianity.

The quotation you mentioned does not mean she was against charity. One way to think about it is that she was in favor of justice, meaning you help those who deserve help and those you can afford to help. You have to think through your own interest and your own values in helping people. She was not against it. In fact, she was a fairly charitable person throughout her life. She just did not regard charity as a primary aspect of philosophy or a driving force in human affairs.

Alex: This last question here is a bit more concerned with applications of Objectivism to current affairs. How might we understand Objectivist positions when it comes to contemporary foreign affairs debates, for example? Might someone who identifies as an Objectivist tend towards being more hawkish or perhaps more isolationist?

Steve: I would say Objectivism is neither hawkish nor isolationist. It’s consistent with Objectivist view of morality and rights. In foreign policy, as in domestic policy, individuals, and by extension the government, ought to do what is in the interest of individuals.

The proper concepts that we need in foreign policy and in domestic policy are a sense of what our interests are. The government’s job is to preserve our freedom. We should take the same approach in foreign policy. I think it is similar to a domestic police force insofar as the police are neither isolationist nor hawkish. They go after the bad guys who violate the law. From a foreign policy standpoint, it’s analogous to that. When foreign aggressors try to attack us, try to violate our rights, or threaten us, our government has to do something about it.

However, the government’s job is not “to make the world safe for democracy.” So we ought to protect our own interests and be unapologetic about protecting our own interests, but we should not be going off and trying to rebuild the rest of the world or being the world police. That’s a very a quick summary of it.

To give a concrete example, protecting ourselves from Al Qaeda, from terrorists in the Middle East, from ISIS all ought to be a government priority. To take an example that intersects with free speech: when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa against Salman Rushdie (and it wasn’t  just against him; it was against all booksellers involved with him, many of which were Americans) our government should have done something about that. However, our government did nothing. It stood idly by, and basically appeased the dictatorship in Iran. That has caused repercussions for free speech today. That’s not a hawkish position as much as it is a: “our government should be protecting us position.” 

Alex: Thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a great summary of some of Ayn Rand’s central beliefs.

Steve: Thanks for having me.