Libertarianism's Iron Cage

From Ayn Rand to Rand Paul

In the past decade, libertarianism in the United States has come in from the cold. Once a fringe political movement associated with cranks, conspiracy theorists, and a few economists, it is now an ascendant force within one of our two major political parties. The change can be measured in the difference between the trajectory of Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who ran for president once as a Libertarian and twice as a Republican, and that of his son Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination. Despite having a devoted following, Paul père was never a real contender for the White House; he was always an outlier and long shot in the GOP field. Paul fils, by contrast, has been treated as a major player by the GOP establishment and the media alike. Meanwhile, causes long dear to libertarians have become nationally prominent, including same-sex marriage, the legalization of marijuana, and opposition to the government’s surveillance programs—the last spurred by a self-described libertarian, Edward Snowden. In the United States today, libertarianism is hailed by many as the solution to an economy and society stuck in bureaucratic mud, and candidates of all stripes can be found flirting with libertarian themes.

The movement’s growing momentum derives in part from the largesse of the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The latter ran as the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1980, and the two brothers have continued to give generously to libertarian organizations like the Cato Institute, the D.C.-based think tank. The Kochs now spend even more money promoting Republican candidates who lean libertarian, and in the post–Citizens United era, this strategy has given them and their political philosophy enormous influence. But libertarianism has also been attracting converts from left of center, especially among younger voters who find its anti-political, live-and-let-live message a refreshing departure from the meddling of big-government liberalism and culture-war conservatism. Indeed, many advocates of libertarianism present their position as a pure form of liberalism, and describe themselves as “classical liberals,” equally committed to economic and civil liberty, and equally opposed to state bureaucracy and the legal enforcement of moral codes.

Given such confusing alignments, it might be useful to sketch in some political terms and pedigrees. Is libertarianism in fact conservative, or liberal? In 1960, Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian-born economist and political philosopher known for his unswerving advocacy of free markets, published an essay titled “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Though Hayek’s work in economics has appealed enormously to the American right, his self-assessment was correct: the version of laissez-faire capitalism he promulgated allowed little room for tradition, religion, locality, or other core concepts embraced by conservative thinkers from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott. This is not to say that Hayek’s free-market fundamentalism is liberal, however. Where Adam Smith’s free market would liberate individuals from the caprices of an inflexible mercantilism, Hayek’s would chain individuals to a system of rules over which they have no control and which they cannot, by themselves, fully understand. As political philosophies, the liberal tradition to which Smith belongs, and the libertarian one, which includes Hayek, have little in common—and indeed are often mutually antagonistic.

Let me be clear that in criticizing libertarianism, I’m not dismissing its priorities wholesale. I am not condemning policies that break up monopolies in favor of a greater emphasis on choice, for instance; and while I have some misgivings about school vouchers, I also believe that inner-city parents should have the same flexibility of options enjoyed by wealthier, suburban parents. On another subject, there is nothing wrong with, and much right about, relying on private institutions such as churches to help those who cannot help themselves. A number of libertarian intellectuals, including a number of gay thinkers, have enriched our understanding of the importance of personal liberty. And of course we should be open to a variety of ways of making government function better.

Libertarianism, however, is not just a set of policy prescriptions, but an ideology. It is, moreover, a total ideology, one that addresses every aspect of how people live. There is a libertarian way of riding a bicycle, of taking your medicine, finding a spouse, giving blood, and even calling a cab (can you say, “Uber?”). Where liberalism raises questions, libertarians seek answers, and always find the right ones. Their philosophy is an antidote to the doubt, inconsistency, and vagueness that has always been built into liberalism. Libertarians come in different forms, and can argue vehemently over concepts and applications. Yet there nonetheless does exist a general libertarian outlook on life—and it is very different from the liberal one.


PERHAPS THE BEST place to begin distinguishing these two outlooks is the same place that liberals and libertarians themselves invariably start—namely, with that mystery known as human nature. What is the relationship between fundamental human capacities and the challenges—and rewards—of freedom? “He who lets the world choose his plan of life for him,” John Stuart Mill famously observed in On Liberty, “has no need of any other faculty than that of ape-like imitation.” Published in 1859, ten years before Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Mill’s essay was inspired by the writings of Wilhelm von Humboldt, who had added a touch of German romanticism to English ideas about individualism. We live for more than simply being free, Humboldt reminded his readers. We live to improve, to make and then remake ourselves in a never-ending state of self-development. Apes do not.

Were Mill writing today, his points of comparison with human beings would likely come from technology rather than biology. Computers do many of the things we human beings do, after all, and often much better than we do. But even those impressed with computers’ ability to play chess or translate a language are generally unwilling to predict the capacity of such machines to love, be influenced by conscience, or change their minds in response to the contexts surrounding them. How can a computer be “free”? Liberty is for people. Its exercise requires a being capable of knowing how to put that liberty to good use.

Computers “think” by following mathematical rules known as algorithms. So, in the libertarian view, do human beings. Indeed, the libertarian conception of human nature seems curiously, even paradoxically, machine-like. Seemingly free to make our own decisions, in the libertarian utopia we would in fact be little more than slaves of rules that conform our choices to the rigidities of marketplace rationality. We would not give special preference to our loved ones merely because we love them. We would honor and admire our country, but only insofar as it followed libertarian ideals; if it did not—if its citizens voted, say, for a system based on altruistic precepts—we would hate it and seek its destruction, as John Galt and his followers did in Ayn Rand’s popular novel Atlas Shrugged. At a personal level, emotions such as envy, guilt, and sympathy would be forbidden us. Human nature, libertarians insist, is one thing and one thing only: the capacity to make choices based on the rational calculation of self-interest. Great creative capitalists, they believe, understand this; everyone else is suffering from collectivism’s version of what Marxists used to call false consciousness.

Better than any other political philosophy, libertarianism embodies Max Weber’s nightmare of an iron cage, the apotheosis and province of “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.” But where Weber lamented the severe rationality that turns man into a “nullity,” libertarians praise it. Any motive other than rationality is a lower one. We are born to think, and the best among us are those who think the hardest, no matter where their thoughts may lead. Consequences are irrelevant to the libertarian; one must never be distracted from the one true course.

If these ideas are familiar to Americans, it is mostly due to the ever-resurgent legacy of Rand (1905–1982), the Russian-born philosophical novelist, whose oeuvre established her as the quintessential libertarian and inspired a kind of pop philosophical cult. It is common among contemporary libertarians to deny Rand membership in the club, but that is mostly because her ideological stridency is so revealing of libertarianism’s limits. Though Rand styled herself a heroic thinker about heroic thinkers, she did not in fact develop her ideas all by herself. As a young woman she met and befriended other libertarian thinkers, including Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of the author of Little House on the Prairie) and Isabel Paterson, a leading columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, who helped Rand’s The Fountainhead become a bestseller. Rand eventually broke with Paterson, part of a lifelong habit of cultivating cult-like followers, only to renounce them once they showed themselves insufficiently devoted to her. Even Rand’s most devoted follower (and eventual lover), Nathaniel Branden, would be forced out of the closed circle, as Rand indulged another of her Stalinesque purges.

It was ironic, to be sure, that this woman who fled the Soviet Union in its infancy, and excoriated its political oppression, would mimic in her own life the regime’s worst features. Rand’s habit of brutally excommunicating her followers was not merely a personal quirk, however, but rather a tactic inherent in libertarianism itself, a creed obsessed with ideological purity and given to ceaseless sectarian purges. As soon as the Koch brothers bought themselves influence in the Cato Institute, for instance, they immediately began to rid themselves of those big-tent libertarians, such as Cato’s president Ed Crane, who wanted the organization to attract libertarians from the left as well as the right. Like Ayn Rand, the Koch brothers took a “my way or the highway” approach, surrounding themselves with those who were in complete agreement with them. And that agreement had to be truly complete. “Koch called out Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan specifically as sellouts to the system, merely trying to make government work more efficiently when the true libertarian should be tearing it out at the root,” Brian Doherty, a historian sympathetic to the movement, has written.

This sort of denunciation is endemic to the school Ayn Rand did so much to promote. Name a libertarian, no matter how extreme, and another will turn up who finds that person too wishy-washy. Murray Rothbard, one of those cast out of the Randian inner circle for nonconforming views, hated the sectarianism of those who worshiped on the altar of The Fountainhead, calling them “posturing, pretentious, humorless, robotic, nasty, simple-minded jackasses.” But Rothbard himself had no patience for anyone he considered soft. “Milton Friedman is the Establishment Court’s libertarian,” he once opined, declaring it “high time to call...a statist a statist.” Ayn Rand herself described Friedman and George Stigler, another Chicago economist, as “a pair of reds,” and dismissed Hayek as “‘real poison’ who does more good to the Communist cause than to our own.” In the world of libertarianism, everyone is a suspect until proven innocent.

Why this closed-minded and tightly guarded boundary maintenance in the libertarian movement? The key may lie in the term “libertarian organization,” with its obvious contradictions. It is difficult to be a passionate advocate for freedom and also a member of a tightly knit group. Individualistic to the core, libertarians practice what Margaret Thatcher preached: there is no such thing as society. Yet while they despise the left, they often copy leftists in their behavior. Take, for example, Rothbard, an extreme-right libertarian who behaved in a sectarian manner characteristic of the extreme left. “Always conscious of movement strategy, he looked to ideological revolutionaries of the past, such as Lenin, for strategic insights into how to effect ideological change on a national level,” Doherty writes. “One of Rothbard’s pet Leninist tropes was the idea of the cadre—the dedicated inner circle of revolutionaries, 100 percent reliable in ideology and action, around which a movement could crystallize.”

Rand, as we have seen, approached politics in much the same way. And, as one of her biographers points out, her fiction closely resembled Soviet realism. When John Galt and his friends leave society behind for their hiding place in the mountains, they are acting as any Leninist vanguard would. “In essence,” concludes journalist Jonathan Chait, in one of the best analyses of Rand’s ideas, “Rand advocated a reverse Marxism. In the Marxist analysis, workers produce all the value, and capitalists merely leech off their labor. Rand posited the opposite.”


LIBERTARIANS LIKE TO see themselves, in the tradition of Montesquieu and Madison, as wary of power and ever eager to limit its reach. In reality, these are people who hate the state but love power; they typically seek to advance liberty by exercising a distinctly authoritarian personality and politics. Everything must be their way—or they will work to destroy it. Here, more than anywhere else, is where libertarianism and liberalism take different paths. As thinkers such as Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes have demonstrated, rights are indeed checks against the power of an arbitrary state. But in the absence of power to protect their rights, people have no such guarantees; they require the state, and its ability to further human development, in order to limit the State. No such paradoxes are available to the libertarian mind, which abhors the messy reality of modern liberal democracy. A is always A, Rand repeatedly proclaimed; A is never B.

Nowhere do libertarians express more passionate conviction than in their abhorrence of coercion. The great sin of government regulation, in their view, is not that it seeks to promote equality (misguidedly, they think), but that it involves coercion. Regulation, as the libertarian law professor Richard Epstein calls it, is a “taking,” and therefore unconstitutional. Each individual is entitled to what he or she owns, and if that person does not give permission for the government to take it away, then any such action by government is coercive. (The paramount bête noire in the libertarian panoply of enemy principles is eminent domain. Kelo v. The City of New London, a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that allowed cities to acquire private property in order to promote economic development, is the movement’s Dred Scott decision.) In reality, however, the true unrestrained power in the world of Ayn Rand is the power of acting only in one’s own self-interest. The potential violence of the state pales beside the violence required to build Howard Roark’s skyscrapers; indeed, it is only by seeking the state’s power that individuals can find any protection against the rapaciousness to which they are subjected in the workplace. Laissez-faire capitalism is not a beneficial harmony of interests to which we will return if we can only get government out of our lives. Far from constituting a refuge from violence, laissez-faire is a regime imposed by force. Unlike the rest of us, the Koch brothers have sufficient funds to impose their vision of the good society on the rest of us. The Koch brothers do not hate the state; they crave its use.

And so while libertarianism may at first glance seem to have a fair amount in common with liberalism, in fact, a more revealing comparison from the history of political philosophy lies in the work of one of liberalism’s greatest enemies—Carl Schmitt, the right-wing German political philosopher (and Nazi sympathizer) of the 1930s and ’40s. Both worldviews divide the political world into two camps, friend and enemy. Both focus on times of emergency and crisis rather than on everyday life. No wonder that libertarians find in gun rights the ultimate vision of the good society: where the state is absent, vigilante violence will flourish. There are few pacifists among libertarian activists and thinkers; though the movement theoretically opposes force, it has no place in its ranks for those who reject war. At times a libertarian such as Rand Paul speaks in the language of isolationism; what he offers, however, are the sentiments not of a proponent of world peace, but of a loner hunkered down with his gun, waiting for catastrophe.

This dreary image reveals libertarianism’s angst-laden vision of a society in perilous decline. It reminds us that libertarianism—like Puritan theology and unlike liberalism and progressivism—is declensionist, viewing our world as hopelessly tainted by sin, irretrievably distant from its Edenic origins. In libertarianism, the state is always growing, taxes are always rising, freedom is always disappearing, and the only hope lies in taking pride in being what libertarian social critic Albert Jay Nock called “a remnant.” There is a reason all the good guys in Atlas Shrugged withdraw into their hiding place in the mountains. Libertarianism chooses exit over engagement. To work with a corrupt society is to be corrupted by it.

The overt preoccupation with decline leaves libertarianism politically vulnerable; citizens in a democracy want to hear a bit of good news every now and then. Although libertarianism is a more powerful political force in the United States than in Europe, its greatest thinkers were European by birth—Hayek, Mises, and Rand, but also Frederick Bastiat, Carl Menger, and Tibor Machan, among numerous others—and the Euro-pessimism that clings to it would seem foreign to the sunny American optimism that made Ronald Reagan so popular. It is surprising that Republicans today, especially those committed to libertarianism, view Reagan as a saint who did no wrong. Reagan’s actual record—he left the welfare state by and large in place while raising taxes—hardly reflects a libertarian credo; and his appeal to the better angels of our nature is just as alien. Both Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan spent considerable years in Hollywood, and seemingly absorbed opposing aspects of its aesthetic: Reagan its sunny happy endings, Rand its ominous noir. The lesson that routinely eludes proponents of libertarianism—a lesson that American preachers, even those associated with evangelical churches, have learned—is that contemporary Americans generally resist making too many judgments of others, and vehemently resist others making judgments of them. By and large, uplift has replaced sin in American preaching.

And uplift is hardly the libertarian forte. Randians do not generally advocate violence in order to bring about the society they favor. But there is a violent side to libertarianism nonetheless, a ready hatred that many libertarians have difficulty keeping under wraps. Rose Wilder Lane once let it slip that she hated FDR so much that she hoped someone would kill him. And Ayn Rand’s fiction is drenched in contempt for those peons who fail to appreciate the benefits they glean from the creative class. In one of the greatest lines ever to appear in a book review, the ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers penetrated Rand’s utopianism to expose the rigid state power that lay behind it: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged,” he wrote in the National Review, “a voice can heard, from painful necessity, commanding, ‘To the gas chambers—go.’” Men and women without a conscience, Chambers understood, are capable of doing anything.

Chambers comprehended both the rigidity of libertarian singlemindedness and the mercilessness it entailed. Such qualities, again, would seem to make the creed ill-suited to a diverse democracy. The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin grew up in much the same way—indeed, in some of the very same places—as Ayn Rand, but unlike her, he became a proponent of value pluralism. By all three criteria Berlin used to define pluralism, libertarianism fails, and does so via a threefold insistence: 1) that there is a true answer to all questions; 2) that such truths are discoverable through reason alone and will eventually be proven correct; and 3) that anything discovered as truthful cannot contradict anything else discovered as truthful. Take, for example, the Friedmanites who insisted that the free market would have worked in Chile if it had been given a real chance, or the current governor of Kansas, whose faith in supply-side economics cannot be shaken: no matter how contrary the evidence, libertarianism can never fail, but can only be failed. There is no trial-and-error method, because there is no error. Strikingly modern in many ways, libertarianism has nothing in common with the most modern of all methodologies, the scientific one.

Berlin’s objection to this kind of intellectual monism paralleled his objection to totalitarianism. For him, the good society was not one that proclaimed itself the embodiment of everything virtuous. He was far too Kantian for that, habitually citing Kant’s dictum that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Rand, by contrast, viewed Kant as the most evil philosopher—her term—who ever lived. Beyond Rand’s sometimes laughable efforts to appear Kant’s equal in epistemology, it seems she was especially offended by the Kantian moral ideal of disinterest. In her view, the act of willing our actions to conform with a universal moral law marks the first step toward subjection.

Such dogged monism typifies a creed that goes out of its way to reduce the complexity of the world to one thing and one thing only—whether it be how we make decisions, what decisions we make, or what our decisions imply for others. The often-noted attraction of libertarianism to college students is, I believe, a reflection of this radically simplifying inclination. There is something deeply satisfying to young minds in the Faustian idea that all of reality can be unlocked with one simple key. Only when they grow out of that fantasy, and begin to understand just how complex the world actually is, do some adherents of libertarianism begin to realize the limits of what was once so appealing.


FINALLY, ONE MUST NOTE libertarianism’s abiding relationship to atheism. Ayn Rand hated God like she hated Kant, and for much the same reason. Not all libertarians necessarily follow suit; there is, for example, a certain kind of libertarianism that appeals to Baptists, who throughout their history often rejected the authority of the state. Among the many recipients of the Koch brothers’ bounty, meanwhile, are the Acton Institute, an organization devoted to reconciling laissez-faire capitalism with Catholic orthodoxy, as well as those Catholic universities willing to establish special programs of study consistent with the Koch ideological agenda. Although the Kochs themselves are prochoice and pro–gay marriage, they have sought to make common cause with Catholic social conservatives willing to promote their creed of deregulation and privatization.

Still, Christian libertarianism is not a term one commonly hears—not least of all because the libertarian lineage traces to a form of Social Darwinism, embodied in writers such as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, that was aggressively atheistic in its very inception. Christian liberals, on the other hand, are plentiful, and have long been so. Indeed, it is because the social Darwinists so strongly endorsed the theory of evolution that religious believers of the time insisted on a Christian ideal of charity as an alternative: Walter Rauschenbusch, founder of the Social Gospel, and Leo XIII, who issued Rerum novarum with its justification of labor unions, filled the gap that social Darwinism left open. Some celebrated liberals, such as Mill, wrote rarely about God. Others, such as Thomas Hill Green and R. H. Tawney, did so frequently; even John Rawls grew up in a religious home and considered theology as a career. Liberals, in short, can opt to choose God. Libertarians either cannot—or must twist themselves in knots in order to do so. The church, to most libertarians, is just another state. If modern society witnesses a war between science and God, libertarians stand in opposition to both.

All of this helps explain the gyrations of those who insist on being both libertarian-minded and Christian. Take, for instance, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a Catholic and fiscal conservative—and chair of the House Budget Committee—who is routinely touted as the brain behind Republican fiscal policy. In a speech in 2005, when very few people were watching (save one who managed to get it on tape), Ryan allowed that “the reason I got involved in public service by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” After gaining the Republican vice-presidential nomination, Ryan, of course, changed his tune: now Ayn Rand was only one of the thinkers who influenced him—in general rather than in the specifics, and in any case not really all that much. But cynics think the true Ryan is the one who takes Atlas Shrugged as his Bible, and I agree. Behind all the charts and tables, a Paul Ryan budget is a blueprint for social meanness, and those who delve deeply into it cannot be faulted for concluding that Ryan is a Randian through and through. Like those who came before him—and in my view, fortunately—Ryan is too much the social Darwinist to be a significant Catholic force in American life.

Has libertarianism had its day? As a political force, perhaps not. Democracy, after all, requires an opposition party; and as an ideology for those out of power, libertarianism, with its relentlessly oppositional appeal, makes for a near-perfect fit. Yet democracy also requires ideals to live by, and that, I think, is where the severity of libertarianism’s limitations becomes clear. Of course it may turn out that Americans dismayed by political cynicism and discord increasingly opt for a dysfunctional political system, preferring that nothing get done by government—in many ways, the actual libertarian program. But if we do ever long once again for leadership, and in that longing regain and express at least a modicum of trust in governance, then whoever ends up governing us well will need something more than a political philosophy based in pitilessness, rigidity, and a desiccated view of human nature.

Published in the September 25, 2015 issue: 

Alan Wolfe’s most recent book is At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews.

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