Fair Is Fair

This is apparently whizzing around the internet. The question is whether this means that Ayn Rand was a hypocrite. Though it has been decades since I read it, I immediately recalled a short piece by her, I think it it was titled “On Scholarships,” in which she expressed the view that if one is forced to pay taxes, one should not compound this harm by refusing to receive public benefits in compensation. I think that pretty much settles the question of public versus private style hypocrisy, for while Social Security and Medicare are not scholarships, the principle seems to be the same. Rand did nothing here in her private life that she didn’t publicly advocate that others do.

I think that people who perceive Rand through the lens of her effect on American politics, who are supporters of the programs she would have dismantled, fail to appreciate the experiences which led her to this conclusion. Rand grew up in the Soviet Union, at a time when it was almost impossible to get an education or pursue a career of any kind without receiving assistance from the government, because the government had all but destroyed other possibilities. In that context, “why should I destroy myself to express my commitments?” makes some sense. If Rand is to be faulted here, I should think that one of the main objections would have to be a failure to appreciate the magnitude of the difference between the United States and the Soviet Union, and we have her in part to thank for the unfortunate rhetoric that now circulates in our country likening one’s political opponents and competitors with totalitarianism. But this speaks to other shortcomings than hypocrisy.

Is Rand’s position itself cogent? I don’t think so, for several reasons. First, even given several of her assumptions, her position leaves open the possibility of taking every possible advantage of public support as long as one disapproves of it. (I’m not sure how vocal this disapproval has to be; it seems clear that discernible expressions of approval are impermissible). It seems to me that this only makes sense in the context of a system like the Soviet Union, where all alternatives are effectively precluded. Surely in a society where opportunities for activity without public support are available, someone who disapproves of public support should strive to pursue those opportunities as much as possible to the exclusion of publicly supported ones? And what precisely does it mean to say one “disapproves” if one does nothing concrete to manifest this disapproval? This seems to me not nearly demanding enough morally, given the other assumptions. Second, if accepting public assistance is to be understood as restitution, shouldn’t there be some obligation by the libertarian recipient to confine what they receive to something approximating what is taken from them? Again, in a totalitarian society, such calculations become meaningless, impossible, but that is far from the case here. And there are further moral reasons why it might be wise to do so. Patronage softens one’s resolve to judge patrons honestly, and often involves submission to conditions that might compromise one’s autonomy. It is for this reason that Hillsdale College famously eschews federal aid or students who receive it. According to Rand, they are just being silly.

Whether Rand’s whole position even makes sense from the get-go is another matter. It depends on a certain understanding of what taxation and property rights are that can certainly be questioned, which leads to the conclusion that taxation, regardless of representation, is theft. I think that’s wrong in ways that are not likely to be controversial to non-libertarians: tax obligations and property rights are both creatures of the law and the state, which when democratic, are the product of collective decision-making and self-governance. There are moral interests which give rise to these kinds of laws, to be sure. But one should not confuse the moral interests with the laws themselves. Furthermore, excessively taxing the productive to excessively subsidize those who choose despite their capacities to be unproductive falls afoul of certain important moral interests, but this is not stealing, however much we might like to call it that.* One can both revile theft and view all sorts of redistributivist policies with worry and dismay without regarding the operation of law in a free society as itself theft. All that would require much more elaborate defense, but then again, so would Rand’s views. Fair is fair.

*I’m not assuming anything particular policy answers to this description, just that if one did, we would be right to be concerned about it.

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