What Rationality Means in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy of Objectivism

Ayn Rand, novelist and philosopher of Objectivism, a philosophy for living on Earth.

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand’s idea of rationality is one of the most misunderstood concepts in her Objectivist philosophy. It seems that almost everyone just assumes they know exactly what rationality means. Then, upon learning that Rand advocates consistent rationality, tend to judge Rand’s philosophy by their preconceived notion of rationality, without realizing their understanding is deeply flawed.

Here I’ll explain what rationality means in Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I’ll quote Rand for a brief, positive explanation of her concept of rationality. Then, because misconceptions are so prevalent, my further explanation will largely take the form of a series of myths about rationality, with genuine rationality explained in contrast to the myths.

In her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” Ayn Rand describes rationality:

Rationality is man’s basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues. …

The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. It means one’s total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one’s waking hours. It means a commitment to the fullest perception of reality within one’s power and to the constant, active expansion of one’s perception, i.e., of one’s knowledge. It means a commitment to the reality of one’s own existence, i.e., to the principle that all of one’s goals, values and actions take place in reality and, therefore, that one must never place any value or consideration whatsoever above one’s perception of reality.  It means a commitment to the principle that all of one’s convictions, values, goals, desires and actions must be based on, derived from, chosen and validated by a process of thought—as precise and scrupulous a process of thought, directed by as ruthlessly strict an application of logic, as one’s fullest capacity permits.

So rationality consists of two components: a mental component and a physical component. It involves both thought and action. The thinking portion can be described as the rigorous application of objectivity in one’s own life. So when I discuss the myths about rationality, you should understand that what I say about the mental aspect of it applies to Ayn Rand’s concept of objectivity, as well. (Objectivity is frequently mischaracterized, along with rationality.)

Now to the myths:

Myth: Rationality means not making errors about facts.

Truth: Rationality means judging facts to the best of your ability on the basis of observation, rather than going by faith or feelings. Doing this is not a guarantee that you won’t make mistakes. Rational thought can still result in major errors about what the facts are.

The evidence may seem to point to one conclusion, because of limitations in what evidence you have access to. But there may be other evidence you’re not aware of that would lead you to a different conclusion. So long as you’re continually thinking and following the evidence to the best of your ability, you are acting rationally in regard to the facts.

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How Government Welfare Programs Are Immoral and Hurt Everyone, Including the Poor

US Federal Government spends 19% of its budget on overt welfare programs, (including Medicaid).

In 2016, the US Federal Government spent $740 billion, or 19% of its budget, on overt welfare programs, (including Medicaid). It spent $1.57 trillion on Social Security and Medicare. Together these make up 60% of its budget. (Source)

A very common view today is that the government needs to provide welfare programs for the poor. This is the view that “redistribution of wealth to the needy” is a noble project, and such “government assistance” is necessary to keep people from starving in the streets.

This essay will challenge and refute this view. In Ayn Rand’s ideal society, under laissez-faire capitalism, there would be no welfare programs, and this would be a good thing.

The people who didn’t vote for welfare programs, yet are taxed to support them, did not consent to the taking of their money. They signed no “social contract,” and simply living near other people does not give those other people a right to take their money. If you doubt this, watching this short video should be helpful:

Welfare programs are immoral for the same reason that three people using guns to force a fourth to pay for all their dinners is immoral: It’s an injustice that violates the rights of the victims. It has the same moral status as a robbery.

Yet people still attempt to justify using government to “redistribute” (steal) money by force, by appealing to alleged good consequences that result from the practice. The main line of argument is that welfare benefits are needed to prevent the poor from starving, while wealthier people can “afford” to have a corresponding amount of money taken out of their incomes. Thus, the argument goes, there is a net “social benefit” to welfare redistribution.

This argument is wrong on four counts:

  1. Welfare is not needed to keep good people from starving.
  2. The effect of redistribution on the wealthy should not be thought of in terms of whether they can “afford” it.
  3. There is no such thing as a “social benefit,” in the way this argument assumes.
  4. Even if we dismiss the idea of “social benefit,” the argument falsely assumes that the “beneficiaries” of welfare really benefit, overall, from redistribution.

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A List of Voluntary Ways to Fund a Government

US Capitol Building. Represents politics and government.Here’s a list of possible ways I’ve thought of or heard to fund government, without the government initiating force to collect taxes:

  1. Fees for government enforcement of contracts. This was Ayn Rand’s idea.
  2. A lottery.
  3. If a court finds a party at fault in a civil judgment, it collects a small fee from that party to help pay court costs.
  4. Courts impose fines on those who are convicted of misdemeanors and felonies.
  5. Imprisoned convicts work and help maintain prisons in order to receive food and luxuries above a bare minimum to keep them alive. The best-behaved might work on/maintain other government buildings.
  6. A small annual fee might be required for someone to maintain citizenship. Non-citizens would still be protected by the government in its jurisdiction, but would not be able to vote for government officials, and wouldn’t receive US government protection when traveling internationally.

These are, of course, in addition to any straight donations, which Yaron Brook discusses in this video:

Feel free to leave any other ideas in the comments.

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Related Posts:

How to Show That Taxation is Robbery

Wealth is Created by Action Based on Rational Thought

An Objectivist Refutation of Anarcho-Capitalism (Market Anarchy)

Why Moral Theory is Needed in the Fight for Liberty, Not Just Economics and the Non-Aggression Principle

Socialism and Welfare vs. Justice: Why Inalienable Private Property Rights are Required for Justice

What I’d Like to See Gary Johnson Say to Bernie Sanders Supporters

Gary Johnson - Let Gary Debate - #letgarydebateWhat I want to see presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, say to those who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary:

So Bernie Sanders and I mostly agree on what are generally called “social issues.” We both support gay marriage, drug decriminalization, the right of a woman to choose abortion, etc. Where we differ is in what is generally called “economic policy.” Bernie wants more taxes and regulations on “millionaires and billionaires.” He says that large gaps in income and wealth are “wrong, immoral, and not what America should be about.” But why? When someone makes more money than I do, and he does it honestly, without stealing and without government favoritism, I say “Good for him” or “Good for her,” not “How dare that person be rich; I’m gonna cut that bastard down to size with taxes and regulations.”

But high inequality is inherently bad economically, you say? It contributes to stagnation? There’s no good reason to think so.

Studies that supposedly show that higher inequality reduces growth generally find tentative results that are very susceptible to the authors’ biases. They generally tend to ignore the fact that there are different kinds of economic inequality that there is strong theoretical reason to believe have very different impacts on growth. For example, there is the sort of inequality that results from government favoritism, as in the Saudi royal family and the Russian “oligarchs,” and the sort of inequality that results from free and voluntary trade, as in the case of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

When we look at the big picture, we find that many countries that have high wealth inequality also have high GDP per capita and high economic growth. If we look at West Germany and East Germany in the 1970s and ’80s, we see two very culturally and geographically similar societies. West Germany was a relatively free market with relatively high wealth inequality, while East Germany was a society where the government tried to enforce wealth equality. West Germany was clearly better off than East Germany, economically.

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Socialism is Not “Worker Control of the Means of Production”

"There is only one way to shorten and ease the convulsions of the old society and the bloody birth pangs of the new - revolutionary terror." --Karl Marx

Karl Marx – The man who has influenced the thinking of socialists around the world more than any other.

I often hear socialists say that socialism is “democratic worker control of the means of production.” But is it really? In this essay, I’ll explain why it’s not, and why the issue of socialism vs. capitalism is a moral and political issue of property rights, rather than an economic issue of “modes of production.” Obfuscation and confusion aside, this ultimately holds true whether the socialism under consideration is classic Marxist socialism, “libertarian socialism,” or whatever other sort of socialism you want to name.

In a mostly capitalist country, like the US in the 1880s, there are many different kinds of business organizations: There are for-profit corporations, non-profit corporations, sole proprietorships, partnerships, credit unions, retailers’ cooperatives, consumers’ cooperatives, and employee cooperatives. That’s right, worker cooperatives can and do exist in what Karl Marx would call a “capitalist society.” Examples of consumers’ cooperatives include REI in the US and “The Co-op” in the UK. Examples of employee cooperatives include the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley, California, the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco, and the Citybikes Workers’ Cooperative in Portland, Oregon. These latter three are companies where employees own and control the means of production in their company, democratically.

If “socialism” meant “worker control of the means of production,” as in a co-op, then people are perfectly free to have “socialist companies” under a laissez-faire capitalist government that protects private property rights.

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Bernie Sanders and the Injustice of “Democratic Socialism”

This essay is Part 3 of a three-part series on socialism:

Bernie Sanders Talking

Bernie Sanders

In the first essay of this series, I took socialism, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, and showed why it is immoral (unjust) in theory and in its “purest” practice. Then, in the second essay, I explained why, in the real world, attempts to approach pure socialism have always resulted in oppressive, dictatorial governments with high degrees of corruption. (Again, as explained in the second essay, worker-owned cooperatives cannot generally be called “socialism.”)

In this essay, I’ll discuss partial socialism, as it presents itself in the Scandinavian countries of Europe, (like Sweden,) in the US, and in the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. Some people will say that pure socialism is impractical and/or inconsistent with human nature, but still think that there should be a “balanced” mixture of socialism and capitalism. Capitalism, they think, mustn’t be “unfettered,” but rather must be reigned in by government regulation and welfare programs. This they will often call “democratic socialism” or “social democracy.”

I’ll explain why partial socialism and welfare programs are unjust and destructive of people’s well-being.

Socialism Lite

Once again, from the Oxford English Dictionary, socialism is defined as:

A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

But “the community as a whole” is not a single entity, and does not think with a single mind. There is not even a single, definite organization encompassing “the community as a whole.” So it can’t really do anything or own anything. In socialist practice, “the community as a whole” is taken to be represented by government. (And as I explained in Part 2, the logic of socialism means that this government doesn’t even have to be “democratic,” in the way that term is often understood. At least in the Marxist version, it can also be represented by an informal government, consisting of organized gangs of proletarian thugs with guns–this is Marx’s “revolutionary terror.”)

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Why Fairness Does Not Mean Justice: Some Further Argument

Equal is Unfair: America's Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality, book coverOver three years ago, I wrote an essay discussing the proper meaning of the concepts of “fairness” and “justice,” as I understand them: On Fairness and Justice: Their Meanings, Scopes, and How They Are Not the Same.

My major points in this essay were 1) that the concept of “fairness” presupposes that one is talking about a zero-sum game: a situation devised by a purposeful intelligence to measure people’s attributes, where one person winning requires that another person loses; 2) that life in society and in general does not meet this criterion for “fairness” to apply: people “win” by creating valuable things, and do not need to deprive others of these things to have them; and 3) that societal justice requires the protection of individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property, and that it consists in each individual generally being rewarded in proportion to his mental effort and virtuous actions.

In this previous essay, I explained my view of “fairness” and illustrated it with examples, but I did not argue extensively for my conception of that term–why my conception of fairness is correct. I have been prompted to provide further argument by the upcoming release of a book called “Equal is Unfair,” and one of the co-authors’ (Yaron Brook’s) reply to me regarding “fairness”:

I have great respect for Dr. Brook, and am looking forward to his latest book, but I think he’s wrong here: fairness does not mean justice. And the purpose of this post is to argue my case. I encourage those who have not read my previous essay to read it before proceeding on in this one, since it will help set the context for my arguments: On Fairness and Justice.

One of the first things that should spring to mind when someone mentions the word, “fairness,” is the realm of sports and competitions: Is it fair when women are put in competition with men? Is it fair when one team learns the other team’s plays through spying? Is a race where one athlete has artificial legs fair? Is a weightlifting competition fair when steroids are secretly taken, or openly allowed? Is it fair when the Patriots let air out of the football?

Does justice have the same intimate connection with such competitive sports? Is that one of the first things you think of when you think of justice? Probably not. This is our first clue that fairness and justice are different concepts: they seem to be associated with different realms of life.

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