My very first exposure to libertarianism was provided by Ayn Rand, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated today.
One afternoon in the fall of 1974, I was sitting around watching television. At the time, I was temporarily working as a waiter in Dallas, having just completed three months of infantry school in Georgia to fulfill my Army Reserves active-duty commitment, before returning to finish law school in Austin the following semester. An afternoon movie quickly engrossed me, becoming my first exposure to libertarianism — The Fountainhead, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. The credits stated that the movie was based on Ayn Rand’s novel by that name and so I ran out at once, bought it, and read it. Howard Roark and Dominique Francon quickly became my heroes!
A few years later, I was rummaging through the Laredo public library for something to read and I discovered four volumes of a series of books entitled Essays on Liberty, which had been published by The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington, New York. Reading those uncompromising essays caused the seed that Rand had planted a few years before to burst forth into what has become a lifelong love of libertarianism. Soon after that, I discovered Atlas Shrugged, which I’ve read three times (okay, skimming through Galt’s speech the third time around!), along with The Virtue of Selfishness, Anthem, We the Living, the Objectivist journal, and most of Rand’s other work.
It was Ayn Rand and FEE’s founder Leonard Read who changed the course of my life. The reason: Both of them emphasized the fundamental importance of moral principles in political and economic analysis. When it came to moral principles, Rand and Read did not deal in shades of gray but rather in black and white. It is morally wrong to take what doesn’t belong to you. It is morally wrong to coercively interfere with the peaceful choices that people make in their lives. It is morally right that people be free to make whatever choices they wish so long as their conduct is peaceful, even if — or especially if — their choices are considered irresponsible or immoral.
In the intellectual arena, that means the unfettered right to write, read, or watch whatever you want without governmental interference. In the economic arena, it means the unfettered right to pursue any business or occupation without governmental permission or interference, to engage in mutually beneficial trades with anyone else anywhere in the world, to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth, and to do whatever you want with your own money — spend, save, hoard, invest, or donate it.
Thus, when it comes to morality, there was only one real choice for structuring a political order — libertarianism, where people are free to live their lives the way the choose, so long as their conduct is peaceful, and where government’s primary role is protecting the exercise of such choices by punishing violent, anti-social people who would interfere with them through such actions as murder, assault, stealing, burglary, trespass, rape, and fraud.
Fortunately, God has created a consistent universe, one in which freedom produces prosperity and harmony and nurtures the values that most of us hold dear, such as compassion, love of one’s neighbors, and honoring one’s parents. But it was not the utilitarian case that attracted me to libertarianism. It was the moral case for freedom presented by Ayn Rand, most eloquently in Atlas Shrugged, and Leonard Read.
Therefore, the main reason that I’ve never been attracted to so-called reform plans whose purpose is to reform, not repeal, socialist programs such as Social Security and public (i.e., government) schooling is that such plans, by their very nature, implicitly call for the continuation of an immoral act. As Rand and Read both emphasized, the right approach to an immoral action is to call for its end, not its reform.
One of the highlights of my life occurred in 1990 when, in response to my September 1990 Freedom Daily essay, “Letting Go of Socialism,” which criticized public-school vouchers (and Social Security reform plans), Milton Friedman leveled a criticism against me in a public speech that was later reprinted in Liberty magazine. His criticism was that my position was too uncompromising, comparing it to the uncompromising positions of Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises. It was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received — and from a Nobel Laureate to boot!
Another highlight in my life was watching Rand deliver her last public speech in 1981 at Jim Blanchard’s National Committee for Monetary Reform (NCMR) annual conference in New Orleans. She died soon after that, on March 6, 1982.
As I wrote in “Letting Go of Socialism” some 15 years ago, “People everywhere are letting go of the socialist nightmare. But they are looking through a glass darkly with respect to what should be the alternative. It shall be the Americans, I am firmly convinced, who will yet let go of socialism, once and for all, and lead the world to the highest reaches of freedom ever dreamed of by man!”
When that day comes, it will be Ayn Rand who will have played a major role in the restoration of American liberty.