Rand the Intuitionist
By Bryan Caplan
Last week I saw the debate between my co-author Ilya Somin of the GMU Law School, and Will Thomas from the Atlas Society. The topic: Are there conflicts of interest between rational people? If you’re inclined to respond, “Of course. So what?,” the answer is: A great deal… if, like Objectivists, you’re both an ethical egoist and a rights-based libertarian. How can you always do whatever best promotes your rational self-interest, and consistently respect the rights of others? Only if violating the rights of others never promotes your rational self-interest.
Will Thomas began his statement by biting the bullet: There are no conflicts of interest between rational people. Somin presented the obvious counter-examples. By the end of the debate, Thomas seemingly revised his original position to read: There are no fundamental conflicts of interest between rational people under normal circumstances. (Somin properly objected that what Thomas calls “normal circumstances” are historically and globally abnormal!) In the Q&A, I suggested it would be clearer to simply say: There are few major conflicts of interest between rational people, but I don’t think I convinced Thomas to adopt my formulation.
The solid core of Thomas’ position is just basic economics as taught by Frederic Bastiat and Julian Simon: the mutual gains to trade, the social value of production, the human mind as the ultimate resource. But of course this only gets you to “few major conflicts of interest,” not “none.”
To cement his case, though, Thomas resorted to an argument bad enough to make almost every economist and logician on earth scoff: It’s in your interest to respect others’ rights because it is in your interest to live in a rights-respecting society. There are few balder examples of the fallacy of composition. One could just as easily claim, “It’s in your interest to remain seated at concerts because it is in your interest for concert-goers to remain seated.”
The most striking thing about the debate: It illustrated the conflict between Ayn Rand’s often absurd official arguments, and her frequently persuasive unofficial arguments. Officially, Rand tells you to respect others’ rights because there are no conflicts of interest between rational people. Say what? But when Hank Rearden stands up for his rights in Atlas Shrugged, he discusses the harmony of interests only to deny its relevance:
I could say to you that you do not serve the public good – that
nobody’s good can be achieved at the price of human sacrifices – that
when you violate the rights of one man, you have violated the right of
all, and a public of rightless creatures is doomed to destruction. I
could say to you that you will and can achieve nothing but universal
devastation – as any looter must, when he runs out of victims. I could
say it, but I won’t. It is not your particular policy that I challenge,
but your moral premise. [emphasis mine]
Instead, Rearden says something compelling enough to make coercive altruists doubt themselves:
If it were true that men could achieve their
good by means of turning some men into sacrificial animals, and I were
asked to immolate myself for the sake of creatures who wanted to
survive at the price of my blood, if I were asked to serve the
interests of society apart from, above and against my own – I would
refuse. I would reject it as the most contemptible evil, I would fight
it with every power I possess, I would fight the whole of mankind, if
one minute were all I could last before I were murdered, I would fight
in the full confidence of the justice of my battle and of a living
being’s right to exist. Let there be no misunderstanding about me. If
it is now the belief of my fellow men, who call themselves the public,
that their good requires victims, then I say: The public good be
damned, I will have no part of it!
Passages like this tempt me to write a whole essay on “Rand the Intuitionist.” Her moral proofs were feeble, but her moral insight was often razor sharp.