“making smoking a moral obligation” (1972): Rothbard on Why Ayn Rand was Not a Libertarian

objectFact: Ayn Rand was not a libertarian and that claim is relatively uncontroversial among historians. Rand believed in US intervention in the Middle East and supported western conquest of “primitives“. More importantly, the entire framework is different between most interpretations of right-libertarianism and Rand’s Objectivism. Objectivism claims to be a holistic worldview, not merely a political system. Rand argues that logic alone leads to egoism. Capitalism (in a minarchist form) is then argued to be consistent with said egoism. Any belief in principles like non-aggression (Anarcho-Capitalism), economic laws (Austrian Economics), or self-evident natural laws is entirely secondary and inferior to that of egoism. Thus, if libertarianism is to be defined as the belief that “liberty” is the primary political virtue, Rand Objectivism cannot be described as libertarianism.

I will be turning this into a series on the historic tension between libertarianism/objectivism and what better place is there to start than showcasing an article by Murray Rothbard? As I have mentioned before, Rothbard wrote a letter in 1957 to Rand to praise her for a book Atlas Shrugged. However, by 1972, Rothbard had changed his mind and labelled Rand’s Objectivism a cult of personality. In his essay Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult, Rothbard argued that “not only was the Rand cult explicitly atheist, anti-religious, and an extoller of Reason; it also promoted slavish dependence on the guru in the name of independence; adoration and obedience to the leader in the name of every person’s individuality; and blind emotion and faith in the guru in the name of Reason.” That is pretty harsh words coming from a fellow atheist.

Though it uses hypocritical arguments at times (for example Rothbard also engaged in purging in the 1980s, albeit for different reasons), Rothbard makes some pretty good points. I highly recommend reading it. My favorite part is when Rothbard discusses Objectivism’s pro-smoking stance:

The all-encompassing nature of the Randian line may be illustrated by an incident that occurred to a friend of mine who once asked a leading Randian if he disagreed with the movement’s position on any conceivable subject. After several minutes of hard thought, the Randian replied: “Well, I can’t quite understand their position on smoking.” Astonished that the Rand cult had any position on smoking, my friend pressed on: “They have a position on smoking? What is it?” The Randian replied that smoking, according to the cult, was a moral obligation. In my own experience, a top Randian once asked me rather sharply, “How is it that you don’t smoke?” When I replied that I had discovered early that I was allergic to smoke, the Randian was mollified: “Oh, that’s OK, then.” The official justification for making smoking a moral obligation was a sentence in Atlas where the heroine refers to a lit cigarette as symbolizing a fire in the mind, the fire of creative ideas. (One would think that simply holding up a lit match could do just as readily for this symbolic function.) One suspects that the actual reason, as in so many other parts of Randian theory, from Rachmaninoff to Victor Hugo to tap dancing, was that Rand simply liked smoking and had the need to cast about for a philosophical system that would make her personal whims not only moral but also a moral obligation incumbent upon everyone who desires to be rational.

I will continue this topic next post.

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