Huemer on Rand at Cato
By Bryan Caplan
Rand is the most popular libertarian thinker because of her great novels, not her comprehensive philosophical system:
Rand, I believe, is the most compelling writer of the group. More importantly, Rand was not only a philosopher, but a compelling novelist.
Some followers of Rand may scoff at this explanation. “No, it is all down to her philosophical ideas,” they may say. “Rand’s works outsell those of von Mises because she has a coherent, comprehensive philosophy!” … Let us consider the evidence. Atlas Shrugged outsells Human Action by a wide margin. As of this writing, the Amazon sales ranks are 101 and 16,331, respectively… But Atlas also outsells Rand’s own non-fiction books, by similarly wide margins. The Virtue of Selfishness trails at 11,993, with Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology all the way down at 120,117. If the greater market success of Rand as compared with von Mises were due to Rand’s broader philosophy, wouldn’t we see this reflected in sales of Rand’s non-fiction works, in which she explicitly develops that philosophy?
Rand’s effort to argue people to libertarianism by way of egoism (see “The Objectivist Ethics“) is hopeless:
Objectivists seem to find that essay completely convincing. But hardly anyone else finds it at all
convincing. This is not a trivial observation–one often finds that
people who do not accept a whole philosophical system nevertheless find
certain parts of it plausible. And one often finds that people who are
not ultimately persuaded by an argument nevertheless see some
plausibility in it. But neither of these things is true of the argument
of “The Objectivist Ethics”–hardly anyone finds that argument even
slightly plausible, unless they also buy into virtually all of Ayn
Rand’s views. This is not true of most of her other views:
one would not be surprised to find a non-Objectivist who nevertheless
thinks Rand’s political views are reasonable, or her epistemological
views, or her aesthetic theories. The explanation is simple: the theory
of “The Objectivist Ethics” is simultaneously the most distinctive and the least plausible, worst defended of all of Rand’s major ideas.
(For Huemer’s defense of the last sentence, see his detailed critiques in footnote 5).
It would be discouraging, of course, if Rand’s egoistic defense of libertarianism, though unconvincing, were actually true. But it’s not: Egoism and libertarianism are incompatible, for obvious reasons:
The straightforward argument for respecting individual rights is that
when one violates another person’s rights, one uses that person without
his consent, and one thus treats that person as if he were a mere means
to one’s own ends. That argument, of course, could not be advanced by a
true egoist, who must hold that it is obligatory to treat other persons
(and everything else) as mere means to one’s own welfare.
Huemer’s characteristically commonsensical conclusion:
[D]efenders of liberty are far more likely to convince others of the need
to respect individual rights through the straightforward “persons are
ends in themselves” argument mentioned above, than through an argument
that relies upon (a) first convincing the audience that the right
action is always the most selfish action, and (b) then convincing the
audience that it is impossible to benefit from violating someone else’s
P.S. This is a perfect time to urge Mike to start working on Ethical Answers, the book I say he was born to write. Contra Rand, men’s interests sometimes conflict; but if Mike writes this book, it will be good for him, us, and the world.