Rand Paul and the Libertarian Wrong

May 24, 2010 | By | 8 Replies More

Rand Paul, senate hopeful for Kentucky, made a fool of himself with remarks about the 1964 Civil Rights Act and racism and affirmative action et cetera et cetera so on and so forth.  If Kentucky votes him into office, they get what they deserve.  There was a brief moment when I thought Ron Paul was worthy of some respect—he seemed willing to speak truth to power.  I found that I disagreed with him on specifics, but it is useful (and rare) to have someone doing the Emperor’s New Suit schtick.

However, anyone who names a child after an ideological demagogue has some serious problems with reality.  (To be clear, Rand, under the circumstances, can only refer to Ayn Rand, the patron non-saint of the Libertarian Movement.)

Rand’s pronouncements about the rights of business owners to deny service to anyone they see fit is perfectly consistent with Randian philosophy and politics.  Basically, it says that the person whose name is on the title owns what the title describes outright and has, by dint of absolute moral dictate, dictatorial command over said property and ought to be allowed to do with it what they wish.  Without explanation to anyone and certainly without anyone else’s permission.

Image of Rand Paul by Gage Skidmore (creative commons)

Image of Rand Paul by Gage Skidmore (creative commons)

Sounds good, doesn’t it?  I mean, you worked for it, you sweated, earned the means of acquisition, put your name and fortune on the line to own it, worked to make it do what you intended, you should therefore enjoy all rights and privileges in the say of what to do with it.  Your home, your rules.  There’s a feel-good quid pro quo to it that appeals a basic sense of fairness, suggests a rough equivalence between work and risk and rights.

This is fundamental to Ayn Rand’s whole premise, that the creator, the mind behind creation, the one who brings something into existence is the one who has the only natural say in what that thing so created can and will do and who it shall serve.  For an avowed atheist, Rand had a very mythic, godlike attitude toward life.

And I suppose if you could somehow make the case that a single individual did indeed create something from whole cloth and by virtue of his or her singular efforts sustained it and drove it and made it successful, there might be a good and valid point to this view.

But is that ever the case?

Rand’s famous tome, Atlas Shrugged, makes the argument that the movers and shakers, the people who Do, are absolutely vital to the world.  Nothing would exist without them and if they should withdraw their talent and genius and effort, the world would come to a halt.  She makes the case for the Indispensible Man.  And in the novel (for those of you who have not read it), a man named John Galt, fed up with the growing People’s Movements around the world, which he sees as essentially parasitic, calls a strike of the truly important people.  He convinces the men and women who truly matter to leave the world, retire, disappear, and when they have all left, it seems no one can do what they did, and everything falls apart.  The final image shows them emerging from their high-tech hideaway to assume command as the true and rightful aristocracy of ability.

It is, in her narrative, a very small group.

Just for the sake of argument, let me state here that I have seen places where there is indeed a single person whose work and ability are so central to what that business does that if they left that business might very well fail.  I suppose to one could draw from that the counter argument that a single individual could build a business from first principles and be the only one who could make it work.

But it doesn’t work that way in reality and this is where the Randians fall short in their formulation.

If it is a business, it cannot possibly come into existence in the kind of vacuum that Rand seems to describe.  It emerges from a community.  It exists because it fulfills a need in the community and it succeeds in direct relation to how well it serves that need and how much the community values its work.

This is not to say the individual is insignificant.  On the contrary, the individual is the one who recognizes, organizes, develops, and then taps into that need.  But once the concept is complete and the seed is planted, nothing further can happen without the community.

What do I mean by that?  In this country, the community has already provided—communications, infrastructure, raw material, financing, licensing, insurance, regulation that allows for growth, legal structure, security, and—most importantly of all—customers.  The individual cannot accomplish all that alone.  The individual takes advantage of all these things provided by the community in order to build the thing he or she has conceived.  Once built and open for business, the only thing the individual can do of an absolutist nature is shut it down.  Because the ongoing operation of that business is now a co-dependent symbiosis, not with individuals, but with the community.

And that is why a business owner doesn’t have the right of judgment to say who shall and who shall not be served—because once the doors are open, that business had joined with the community and become part of it.  If a member of that community comes in to be served, the business owner can only withhold service if that customer violates the greater community standard (no shirt no shoes no service, etc).  And when that action occurs it is not so much the individual expressing an opinion in isolation but the business owner reinforcing community standards that he or she accepted when joining the community as a business.  When you accept all the help provided by the community to enact your concept, you agree to those standards, and cannot arbitrarily dictate who you will or will not serve.

What is so damn difficult to understand?

We have a national heritage of the rugged individual which is based partly on reality but largely on a myth.  That myth is the cowboy, the mountain man, the single-minded industrialist.  The independent farmer.

The cowboy was a wage earner.  The cattleman for whom he worked depended on the markets and the price structure Back In The World to exist, and the money he derived from that interface is all that kept him “independent.”  The mountain men were in many instances businessmen who spent their off time in cities, spending what they’d earned.  The single-minded industrialist depended on the financial landscape provided by the community to become an industrialist.  The independent farmer was only ever independent insofar as he was not dependent on urban markets.

The other, less pleasant icons, like the gunslingers, were either maladjusted or parasites.   The settlers, who often get a bad rap in old westerns, came west and one of the first things they did was start a community, because they knew they couldn’t survive alone.

We have lionized these icons.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with that until we try to hold them up as counterexamples to the very systems that they themselves were part of.  Then we run into problems.

Even as a teenager, breathlessly reading the 1000-page-plus epic of Atlas Shrugged, I thought there was something wrong with Rand’s premise—that somehow, all these supposedly indispensable people really were so unique as to constitute a separate species.  No one could take their place?  The only other people on the planet were social parasites and the hapless incompetents like poor Eddie Willers?  That was not my experience.

So while many may feel a tang of sympathy for the idea expressed by Rand Paul, that the private business owner should be free from the dictates of the community, it’s an idea based on an erroneous notion of how such things exist.  Business is not free from the community—it can’t be—it only exists because of the community.

And if that person standing there waiting to be served has different skin color, too bad—he or she is a part of the community that has granted you the ability to have a business for them to stand it.  You can’t throw them out without, by extension, throwing the whole community out.

But this is civil liberties 101.  Why should any of this have to be explained to someone who thinks he has the ability to serve in the Senate?


Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Civil Rights, Culture, Current Events, Politics

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (8)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I agree with your points here, Mark. I would add that there is also a biological basis for your arguments. http://dangerousintersection.org/2009/10/18/the-n

    As you mention, the evidence conflicting with the ideology of Ayn Rand is ubiquitous. George Lakoff has gathered massive amounts of linguistic evidence demonstrating the two basic ways of portraying government; in both cases, it is metaphorically conceived as a family. In the case of conservatism, it is a family where the father figure lets the children fend for themselves as soon as possible. http://dangerousintersection.org/2009/06/29/twili

    Quite often, people who have fallen in love with simple rules ("I did it, so it's mine and no one else's") hide behind formalism as their mechanism for reasoning. But as you've earlier pointed out, it is emotion-driven blinders that maintains the illusion, as described in your earlier post on "tortucanism." http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/01/11/tortu

    What's left when one wears the blinders is arrogant hard-heartedness, as argued by Ebonmuse. http://www.daylightatheism.org/2008/03/three-obje

  2. byafi says:

    Your initial comment that Rand Paul was named after Ayn Rand is an error which by now should no longer be made.

    Regrettably, the post went downhill from there. Your respect for the collective is sad, as no collective ever accomplishes anything. It is simply a shorthand way of avoiding recognition of the individual.

    Or, please produce a collective which created anything but in which no individual did so. Of course, you cannot.

  3. byafi,

    "Or, please produce a collective which created anything but in which no individual did so. Of course, you cannot."

    Oh, well, you should read the Constitution of the United States, then go on to read an account of its creation. While many individuals certainly contributed, it is definitely an artifact of a collective.

    On a more dubious level, the atomic bomb. Again, while individuals certainly contributed, no single one is responsible for the device's creation. It is the product of a collective effort.

    As with most who find the idea of community as central to achievement an odious and oppressive notion, you have obviously not done your homework. That would be too risky—you might find out that the adolescent I Am All to which Rand's philosophy appeals most strongly is based on no solid ground.

    Besides, you thoroughly missed the point. I never said individuals were not important—only that they cannot achieve without the matrix of the community. Even Einstein gave due to those who had created the foundations upon which he based his insights. The trouble is, you seem to think it is either-or, rather than a symbiotic whole.

  4. As a codicil to my remarks above, let me opine that part of the problem here is the way history is written. For the most part, it is catalogue of "great men" and a few "great women"—individuals. This is so because it is easy to hang events around the neck of a personality. But it allows the error of understanding history as a series of events and achievements made by so-called indispensable individuals when it is mostly anything but. Individuals rise to the surface of historical narratives, true, but just below the surface you find the support mechanisms, assistants, groups, and broader movements of populations without which none of these people would have been able to accomplish a damn thing. That's not anyone's fault. What is our fault is the gullibility with which we accept the concept and fail to recognize the reality.

  5. Finally, mea culpa—Rand Paul is not named for Ayn Rand. Rand is short for Randal. Or Randy. Sorry 'bout that.

  6. Erich Vieth says:


    You’ve challenged Mark to do the following. "Name a collective which created anything but in which no individual did so. Of course, you cannot.”

    This is a hopelessly vague question. Further, it is oxymoronic. How could a group of people ever accomplish anything without individuals doing some of the work? Please state the universe of groups falling into that definition, from which we may select even one, if you can. What could it possibly prove that there aren’t any such groups? Please point to even one such group, where no individuals do anything at all, yet where the group accomplishes something. You propose a pointless exercise that proves nothing at all.

    You seem argue that all "collectivists" disparage the accomplishments of all individuals. This is not true. No “collectivist” I know disparages all of the efforts of individuals. But you seem to be disparaging any attempt by anyone to coordinate the efforts of individuals. Please answer the reverse of your question: “Identify an individual who created anything but who was not part of any sort of organizational structure.” Of course, you cannot name even one, even if you were to limit the term organizational structures to formal government structures.

    I am curious who you had in mind as such a fully independent person—a person who never suckled off the energy, ideas, nutrition, housing, encouragement, technology or emotional support of groups of people of which he or she was a member.

    Mark mentioned Einstein in his comment, as someone who acknowledged that his accomplishments depended on being networked. Perhaps you’ll then mention Isaac Newton? Then again, Newton made clear that he wasn’t an island either: “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Or are you suggesting that Newton was a fool? Are you disparaging Immanuel Kant, too, in that he gave David Hume credit for waking him from his “dogmatic slumbers”? I do not know of any accomplished person who claims to have accomplished everything they did on their own.

    Please list your major three accomplishments in your life. Imagine that you are starring in a video documentary that features your three biggest accomplishments. Don’t be shy. Please list your three main accomplishments. Then tell us you, in good conscience, who you would need to list in the “Credits” that will scroll at the end of the video. Would it be something like this: “All credit goes to Byafi,” with no mention of even your parents (even if they “only” feed you, kept you safe and changed your diapers)? Wouldn’t you mention even a few teachers or a few authors who inspired you? Wouldn’t you even give some credit to even Ayn Rand, who enchants you? Would you fail to even give credit to your intellectual enemies, who encouraged you to take the alternate path that you took? Would you give some credit to public schools? Oh, perhaps you didn’t attend public schools, but many admirable people did receive excellent public education—didn’t you interact with any of those people in ways that you consider formative? But even if you received a private education, didn’t public money pay for the police force and fire departments that kept you safe? Did you ever drive to a public library on a public highway? And I do know that the FDA has screwed up a lot lately. But it did react to the Tylenol poisonings by requiring drug manufacturers to make drug packaging safer. Maybe you're alive because of that government intervention. Is that thought even possible in your mind?

    I often work at courthouses where public-payroll Sheriffs search people coming into the building. I know, from seeing their stash, that they keep hundreds of guns and knives out of courtrooms. Is that government effort worthy of any applause? Would you applaud if a private security officer did the same thing. If so, Hmmmm.

    Are you claiming that formal social structure NEVER enhances human accomplishments? Please note that it wouldn’t be fair for you to list only government programs that have failed and private programs that have succeeded. As you know, that wouldn’t be a fair sampling. Make sure to think about NASA and government immunization programs when you consider government programs. When you complain about Katrina, make sure that you complain equally about the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where the U.S. Government has offered only rhetoric and where BP has spent the last month ruining at least 65 miles of Gulf of Mexico Beaches.

    How do you plan to enforce your version of justice? Will it just “happen,” even though private justice has never just happened (see here http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/02/22/payda… ).

    My 9 year old daughter asked me a question that you need to ask yourself. “Who invented the iPhone?” Please tell me his or her name, and don’t dare disappoint me by telling me that “he” or “she” was a small part of a huge collective that received some government spin-off technology, or government financed research generated over the past decades.

    Perhaps you meant to ask this as your question: “Name people whose accomplishments were never enhanced by their membership in any collective.” I cannot name any such person, even if we further define collective as “government collective.” What does my lack of an answer prove? The importance of social structure.

    Here’s another question for you: “What is the word for someone who fails to give the enormous credit due to others who allowed him/her to be in a position to feel as though he/she accomplished something substantial?

    Answer: Ingrate.

    I do worry that we are talking past each other. Can we agree that even if we get rid of government, we'll still have large groups of individuals? Please do me the favor of telling me your positive agenda for running those big group of individuals (even if it makes you too nervous to call that organization a “government.” Don’t be like some of those shrill atheists out there who are only willing to argue that they are against something they don’t like. Tell us what you would do if you were in charge. Or, perhaps, this is your chance to be highly courageous and admit that in your version of Utopia no one needs to be in charge but that the millions of individuals will love this situation. That it will be like other places known for the lack of government (e.g., Somalia), but "better."

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    From Michael Lind at Salon.com:

    "On rereading "Black Like Me" with Rand Paul's controversial comments in mind, I was struck by how very few truly public places there were in the apartheid South. Employers, subdivisions, stores, restaurants, gas stations, hotels — Rand Paul would have allowed all of these to be segregated to this day because they are privately owned. According to this disingenuous theory, in the segregated South everyone, black or white, should have had a right to work, eat and sleep at the small-town post office or police station, because they were public agencies — but no right to work, eat or sleep anywhere else."


  8. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    Say its like 15,000 BC and Oxycontl, an artisan trained in atlatl construction invents an new type of atlatl, made from a strong and flexible wood with a weighted dart socket, creating a whipping effect and thereby the effectiveness of the weapon fivefold.

    This innovation is so great that the demand increases, and Oxycontl soon has more atlatl orders than he can keep up with, and the payments of rabbits for his atlatls keep him and his family fed and clothed.

    Soon the new idea spreads to nearby villages and before long other atlatl makes have copied the idea, but since the wood eventually looses its springyness, there is plenty of demand for replacement atlatls to go around.

    Oxycontl lives in a time and culture where the concept of ownership is totally unknown. His people do not understand the concept of possession, nor the concept of intellectual property. Also absent from his culture is the nebulous concept of "lost income".

    So Oxycontl's invention brings him some short-lived fame and he is soon forgotten as the guy who improved the atlatl. But his invention is beneficial to him , his family, his village and his people, because it makes hunting more successful, providing more food and furs for everyone and freeing up some of the time that used to be taken up in the hunt, to promote another new idea, agriculture.

    Ogg, a traveler from a distant land who has never seen an atlatl before, is intrigued by the weapon and learns to use one. Before returning home, he trades a few of the blue stones from his homeland north of the great northern plain for one of Oxycontl's improved atlatls.

    On his trip across the great plain, Ogg notices a problem with the new atlatl design. It makes a fairly loud "whooshing" noise when used. In the forests where Oxycontl lives, the the sound is quickly diffused by the foliage, but in the chest-high grasses of the plains, the sound not only carries, but alerts his quarry to his location, thus making hunting more difficult.

    Ogg finds materials to fashion an old fashioned spear to provide him with food for his trip home, but he hangs on to the altatl.

    One day, while watching some children at play, Ogg realizes that a small green stick with the leaves doesn't go "whoosh" , but makes a quieter rustling sound when whipped. He tries the atlatl after attaching some leaves to it and the whoosh is silenced, but leaves are destroyed after two or three uses, and have to be replaced. Ogg eventually figures out that, by using a flat round weight instead of a long narrow one, the weapon becomes almost silent.

    A protoge' of Ogg's later refines the design by moving the socket to the dart, and replacing the clunky cup with a piece of antler carved into a hook which fits into the end of the dart. He finds that by drilling a conical hole into the the weight, it can be used to hold the hook in place in a split on the end of the atlatl, making it possible to easily replace the flexible stick with another should the stick break.

    If this story played out under the economic structure envisioned by Rand, Oxycontl could demand payment for his invention by claiming ownership of the idea of the improved atlatl. He would have needed to hire some goons to enforce his claim, and his inventions would be limited to a few, as he would be the sole supplier.

    Ogg would not have been allowed to own the new atlatl, as there would be no way to keep him from making unauthorized copies of the weapon.

    Therefore Ogg would have never found the problem that led him to invent the silent atlatl, and he would not have a successor to invent the advanced silent atlatl, and then in the 1800, archaeologists would not be speculating on the purpose of the small carved rocks with conical holes and small winged shapes.

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