A qualified defense of Ayn Rand on Medicare

Michael Ford at Huffington Post calls out Ayn Rand for accepting Medicare payments when she was ill with cancer:

An interview with Evva Pryror, a social worker and consultant to Miss Rand’s law firm of Ernst, Cane, Gitlin and Winick verified that on Miss Rand’s behalf she secured Rand’s Social Security and Medicare payments which Ayn received under the name of Ann O’Connor (husband Frank O’Connor).

As Pryor said, “Doctors cost a lot more money than books earn and she could be totally wiped out” without the aid of these two government programs. Ayn took the bail out even though Ayn “despised government interference and felt that people should and could live independently… She didn’t feel that an individual should take help.”

But alas she did and said it was wrong for everyone else to do so.

This isn’t accurate. While there’s some surface irony in Rand accepting Medicaid payments, in her non-fiction writing she stated clearly that she thought it appropriate for people who share her beliefs to do so:

A different principle and different considerations are involved in the case of public (i.e., governmental) scholarships. The right to accept them rests on the right of the victims to the property (or some part of it) which was taken from them by force.

The recipient of a public scholarship is morally justified only so long as he regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism. Those who advocate public scholarships, have no right to them; those who oppose them, have. If this sounds like a paradox, the fault lies in the moral contradictions of welfare statism, not in its victims.

Since there is no such thing as the right of some men to vote away the rights of others, and no such thing as the right of the government to seize the property of some men for the unearned benefit of others—the advocates and supporters of the welfare state are morally guilty of robbing their opponents, and the fact that the robbery is legalized makes it morally worse, not better. The victims do not have to add self-inflicted martyrdom to the injury done to them by others; they do not have to let the looters profit doubly, by letting them distribute the money exclusively to the parasites who clamored for it. Whenever the welfare-state laws offer them some small restitution, the victims should take it…

The same moral principles and considerations apply to the issue of accepting social security, unemployment insurance or other payments of that kind. It is obvious, in such cases, that a man receives his own money which was taken from him by force, directly and specifically, without his consent, against his own choice. Those who advocated such laws are morally guilty, since they assumed the “right” to force employers and unwilling co-workers. But the victims, who opposed such laws, have a clear right to any refund of their own money—and they would not advance the cause of freedom if they left their money, unclaimed, for the benefit of the welfare-state administration.

True, The Fountainhead wouldn’t have been quite as compelling if Roark were depicted collecting unemployment and living on food stamps. But given all the future taxes he surely ended up paying on his skyscrapers, he would have been totally within his rights to do so. That’s Rand’s argument, anyway, and whether or not it’s convincing her actions were in accordance with her stated beliefs.

This is a question that at some time or another confronts everyone of libertarian stripe. Whatever we think the ideal way is of funding various goods, we live in a world where we are taxed to pay for them and where private alternatives are crowded out by government services. For most of us, the question is not “Will I ever use services funded by taxes?”; it’s “Given the extent to which I am taxed to pay for services I may need, under which circumstances can I justify accepting them?” The answers to which we arrive have as much to do with our practical situations and personal integrity as they do with strict principle. To criticize a dying person who paid taxes all her life for accepting aid in her final days, and who had defended taking such aid years earlier, is uncharitable to say the least.

[Via BoingBoing.]


The influential book meme

Tyler Cowen has started a meme among bloggers by encouraging us to list the ten books that have most influenced our view of the world. I’m happy to play along.

The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek — As close as any book gets to defining my own political views: Classically liberal, non-dogmatic, skeptical of government power, somewhat deferent to evolved institutions, nurturing of spontaneous order, and always cognizant of the limits of knowledge.

The Economic Way of Thinking, Paul Heyne — The title explains it all. Heyne explained economic principles by grounding them in human action, making the subject enlightening and approachable. I’m grateful that my high school economics teacher chose this particular textbook for our class. In contrast, my college peers were expected to start their study with macroeconomics and no background in micro; they were understandably perplexed. I wish that more students were introduced to economics via this book.

On Liberty, John Stuart Mill — “The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

The Fountainhead/Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand — I count these as one because I read them in quick succession, in fact for a few months in high school nearly every book I read was penned by Rand. Thankfully I avoided the ideological lure of becoming a pure Objectivist but it was these books that transformed me from a moderately conservative teenager into the kind of college student who plans spring break around a visit to the Cato Institute. As I wrote in an earlier book meme post, “It’s safe to say that without Atlas… no Torch, no IHS seminars, no Cato internship. And no eventual burn out that led to becoming a barista? Perhaps. The alternate life in which I didn’t read this book while young is hard to picture.” Conor Friedersdorf includes Atlas in his list as well, in part for its depiction of the rewards of work. For that inspiration I’d cite instead…

A River Runs Through It, Norman MacLean — “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” Previous blogging about this here.

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins — A stand-in for any number of books about evolution, selected for the starkness with which it depicts evolution as a process not directed to any particular end. What survives is what replicates.

The Gay Science/Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche — “The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

The Art of the Bar, Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz — It’s odd to put a bartending book in the same list with Nietzsche and Hayek, but mixology has become my primary non-writing creative outlet. It’s not from this book that I learned to tend bar but it was the one that inspired me to start inventing my own drinks.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov — My introduction to science fiction, a genre that paints the universe as vastly wonderful and inspired my optimistic views of science and technology. Ironically, the premise of Foundation — that a social scientist could predict humanity’s future for centuries and guide the government needed to shape it — is as anti-Hayekian as it gets.

A decade-plus of Superman and Batman comics — A boy could have worse influences than these iconic heroes.


Reassessing Atlas

Like many libertarians, I have a love/hate relationship with Ayn Rand’s books. There’s no doubt that reading them in high school was a transformational experience that, along with studying economics, put me on the path toward liberal ideas and political advocacy. But the books can be a little too transformational, luring inquisitive minds into the trap of ideology; I’d suggest that young people reading them do so with a healthy dose of criticism. Reading news like this, however, tilts the balance strongly in Rand’s favor:

The House voted this week to reauthorize and reform national service laws, which could open the door for compulsory national service. The plan will explore whether to establish a “volunteer corps” to see if “a workable, fair, and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people” should be developed.

Translation: Think military draft, only you don’t get a gun and you still have to do it if you have flat feet.

At a time when the government is seriously considering coercing all Americans to toil in its service, I’ll take my doses of radical individualism wherever I can find them. Leo Grin captures what’s great about her books in an otherwise critical roundup of perspectives at NRO:

At base, Rand’s fiction is the stuff of fantasy and myth, in the best sense. Howard Roark and John Galt fill outsized roles once occupied by the likes of Achilles and Odysseus, Arthur and Lancelot. Impossibly brave and resourceful, towering in their loves and hates, they stand as sterling exemplars of treasured traits. The need for such larger-than-life heroes is evergreen.

How quickly we have forgotten the unutterable darkness of the shadows cast by various strains of collectivism throughout the 20th century! More than a hundred million dead, entire populations subjected to inhuman servitude: Against that monstrous, encroaching gloom, Rand crafted tales that sanctified freedom and individualism, burning away the saccharine happy-face of liberalism and exposing the fangs and poison sacs beneath. True, outside of Rand’s fevered imagination, Atlas is unlikely ever to shrug with such thunder and panache. But for more than 50 years, countless readers have been quietly transformed by the strength and resonance of her capitalist clarion call.

Still relevant in the Age of Obama? With all due respect to Whittaker Chambers, if we didn’t already have her, we’d have to invent her, double-quick.