For New World Radical's very first interview, it seemed only logical to speak with the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights. In case you haven't figured it out yet, I'm a staunch advocate for capitalism and a big believer in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. The quote just below this blog's title, if you hadn't noticed, are words taken from one of Rand's many essays on capitalism, Conservatism: An Obituary. In an age where both political parties seek to increase the scope of government, it struck me as an even more timely statement today than when it was written in the 1960s and published in the collection of essays titled Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
Don Watkins, an analyst at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, took time away from his busy schedule as a columnist at Forbes.com and a writer for “The Objective Standard,” to chat with NWR about Adam Smith, "The Giving Pledge" and, among other things, the difference between Objectivism and Libertarianism.
New World Radical: As an avid supporter of laissez-faire capitalism, I often look to Adam Smith's writings as well as Ayn Rand's. Both writers champion free markets yet there seem to be a few notable differences in opinion. For instance, Adam Smith was against tariffs and regulations on business yet he also believed some government intervention would be necessary to "protect" society from monopolies. What can the Ayn Rand Center say about government intervention as it relates to monopolies as well as individual liberty?
Don Watkins: At the time Adam Smith was writing, "monopoly" referred to a special grant from the government that legally protected a company from competition. The Post Office is a modern example of a government-backed monopoly. If you try to compete with them in traditional mail delivery, the government will shut you down.
It was only after Smith that critics of capitalism like Karl Marx started to claim that monopolies could exist on a free market, without a favor from government. The definition of monopoly shifted from "special grant by the government" to the deliberately vague "sole or dominant firm in a given market." In order to protect us from such "monopolies," critics of capitalism called on the government to intervene in the market via mechanisms like antitrust.
I agree with Adam Smith that government-backed monopolies--monopolies created by the government's coercive restrictions on competition--are a menace. The cure for such monopolies is economic freedom, i.e., capitalism.
For the same reason that I oppose government-backed monopolies, I staunchly oppose any form of antitrust (and the non-objective notion of "monopoly" that underlies it). For more, I highly recommend your readers watch a talk by my colleague Alex Epstein, The Monopoly Myth: The Case of Standard Oil.
NWR: Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and Ted Turner are among a couple dozen American billionaires involved in the "The Giving Pledge," an invitation to the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes. What is your opinion of "The Giving Pledge"?
DW: ARC's executive director Yaron Brook and I recently wrote a piece for Forbes.com on this issue. Here's part of what we had to say:
It is no accident that the Giving Pledge is not a call for charity but a public pledge to give. As Matthew Bishop and Michael Green observe, 'Richesse oblige is part of American culture. The peer pressure to give is great (for donors large and small) . . . The Giving Pledge has upped that peer pressure . . .' The Pledge treats your wealth, not as a justly earned reward, but as a gift from society--one that came with plenty of strings attached. The message is: Fulfill the obligation that came with your riches, give your wealth away--or hide your face in shame.
But your wealth was not an undeserved gift. Every dollar in your bank account came from some individual who voluntarily gave it to you--who gave it to you in exchange for a product he judged to be more valuable than his dollar. You have no moral obligation to "give back," because you didn't take anything in the first place.
NWR: When asked what he attributes his wealth to, Warren Buffett told journalist Christiane Amanpour that he was simply "born in the 1930s in America, born in the right country at the right time." Do you think that is an accurate assessment of his success? Buffett went on to remark, "The idea of dynastic wealth is crazy...it's kind of un-American." Do you think that's a healthy view of wealth and inheritance?
DW: The fact is, many, many people were born "in the right country at the right time" and they did not become Warren Buffett. All of us experience our share of luck, good and bad. The question is, what choices do we make in the face of the "hand we're dealt"? Buffett exercised the judgment and effort necessary to make himself a spectacular success. The fact that some part of his success was due to fortunate circumstances outside his control doesn't dilute his achievement one bit.
The central issue regarding inheritance is that your wealth belongs to you, and no one but you has a right to decide who gets it after your death. That said, a parent can legitimately decide he doesn't want his children to inherit so much wealth that they don't have to earn a living.
Finally, notice that Buffett's attitude is contradictory. If his success really was a matter of luck, as he claims, then why should he make a distinction regarding between whether one's luck involves being born an American or being born a Buffett? When Buffett calls inheritance un-American, he does so on the premise that in America people earn their wealth--which is precisely what he denies by chalking his fortune up to lucky circumstances.
NWR: Everybody agrees the U.S. needs to get a handle on its debt. November's election brought in an allegedly new breed of politician, one whose focus lies in economic issues and more specifically, is geared towards cutting spending. In which direction does ARC think our government needs to head, economically speaking? Should the so-called "Bush era tax cuts" be renewed? And in terms of cutting spending, which areas would you say are ripe for cutbacks?
DW: There is no question that government spending is out of control. But that is a derivative issue. If you hold the view, as most people do, that government should do everything in the world (and in space), then there is no way to curtail government spending. You can see the conflict many on the right are confronting as they demand cuts in government spending, and at the same time are defending the biggest sources of spending: entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.
My view is that the central question is not "How much should government spend?", but "What is the government's proper function?" I agree with the Founding Fathers: the only role for government is to protect individual rights from violation by force or fraud. If the government got back to that highly delimited role, then there would be no problem of spending.
NWR: This question is from a reader: How are Ayn Rand's economic and political ideas similar to, and different from, Libertarian thinking (ie, The Cato Institute)?
DW: Ayn Rand once wrote that "I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows."
Rand did not believe that one could effectively advocate capitalism apart from a philosophic view of human nature and morality. She did not regard it as an accident, for instance, that the United States was created during the Enlightenment, by men committed to reason, individualism, and the inalienable rights of man. Those ideas, she argued, are the indispensible foundation of a free society.
"Libertarianism," as an ideology, is based on the idea that freedom can be defined and defended without a philosophic base, or, what amounts to the same thing, on any philosophic base. Ayn Rand was a staunch opponent of this view, to say the least: Whereas these "Libertarians" seek to maximize people's ability to do whatever they feel like, she aimed to protect the individual's right to act according to his rational judgment.
Today, however, "libertarian" is little more than a vague political label, which is applied to anyone who claims to support free markets. If one uses "libertarian" in this broad sense, the basic difference between Rand and libertarians is that she advocates a unified, consistent philosophy--a philosophy which holds that the only proper political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism.
NWR: What issues have been priorities or areas of focus for ARC recently?
DW: ARC's mission is to fight for laissez-faire capitalism, and that goal determines our priorities. One of our central aims is to help the public better understand capitalism and its moral and political foundations. That involves as one crucial element explaining how free markets are the solution to today's political policy debates. As a result, we have written extensively on issues such as:
• The cause and cure of the financial crisis
• The need for freedom in health care
• The irreplaceable value of industrial energy, and the threat posed to it by environmentalism
• The meaning and value of free speech
• The need for a foreign policy of American self-interest
• The central importance to a free society of private property rights
NWR: How can readers get involved and take action if they see something on ARC's site that inspires them? How can someone get involved with ARC, either directly or indirectly?
DW: The list is practically limitless, but I'll name two things.
First, you can visit our website: www.aynrandcenter.org. On the main menu just click on "Participate" and you will find out how you can, for instance, engage in activism or bring an ARC speaker to your city. Our site will also explain how to provide financial support to ARC or how to become a volunteer.
The second point I'll mention is this: if you see an interview, an article, or a book of ours that you like, tell other people about it. Send it to a friend, post a link to Facebook, or mention it on your blog. We believe that ideas determine the direction of a culture, and by helping our material gain a wider audience--even if it's just a few of your friends or co-workers--you are helping to fight for a free society.