October 28, 2020 Reading Time: 12 minutes
atlas statue

“How Many Americans Will Ayn Rand Kill?” When New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s article for October 22, 2020 was first posted on the internet that was the title of his piece. Someone at The Times must have had second thoughts about it, because now if you download Krugman’s piece the title has been changed to, “When Libertarianism Goes Bad,” but he still takes a named swipe at Ayn Rand in the body of the article, along with libertarians in general. 

What are Ayn Rand and libertarians guilty of? Well, according to Paul Krugman, they are selfish, inconsiderate, freedom-obsessed individualists who will not even show the basic decency and social sense for the “common good” to wear a face mask to ward off spreading of the coronavirus. What can be wrong in mandating and insisting upon everyone wearing a mask, if it saves lives? 

Krugman’s Selective Call for Imposed Paternalism

Now, Krugman does see limits to compelling people to do things. He says that, “The government has no business dictating cultural tastes, your faith or what you decide to do with other consenting adults.” But for Krugman, not wearing a face mask in the face of the coronavirus is “essentially a form of pollution;” that is, something you do that affects others in society without their knowledge or consent. People resisting wearing a mask are “to indulge their petty obsessions.” 

How and why he decides that wearing a face mask should be mandatory in the face of the coronavirus but not for other forms of potentially harmful interactions between people he chooses not to share. 

For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2017-2018, there were over 2.3 million cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the United States: 115,000 cases of syphilis, 580,000 cases of gonorrhea, and more than 1.7 million cases of chlamydia. The CDC warns that if “left untreated, STDs can be transmitted to others and produce adverse health outcomes . . .”  

Why should not all males in consenting sexual relationships be mandated to wear condoms before entering into intercourse or other close sexual contact as a protection for all those with whom they may have such intimacy? Why shouldn’t every sexual partner have to “sign in” through an app on their mobile devices confirming that they are properly protected or can certify that they have been recently tested for STDs before participating in all sexual acts? 

There is no reason why “selfish” and “individualistic” acts of passions of the moment should put others at risk, considering the danger to the immediate partner of an infected person and all others with whom they might then come into intimate contact. Everyone could be required to wear some device that can measure heart rate, blood pressure and quickness of breath, plus other symptoms of sexual arousal that can be transmitted to a central monitoring agency as a measurable indication that sexual intercourse might be near. That monitoring agency could then send out a message that both partners must immediately communicate with them before any further close contact occurs. 

While we are at it, what about drunk driving fatalities and serious injuries? It is estimated that about 40,000 people are killed each year in drunk-driving related accidents, and as many as 2 million suffer permanent injuries in such traffic incidents. Why not mandate the installation in every automobile a breathalyzer device that anyone sitting behind the wheel of the vehicle must use, and if the blood-alcohol content is above a certain level the car’s ignition will not start? Many lives and injuries would certainly be saved.    

If Paul Krugman believes in placing the common good before people’s personal pleasures, he should endorse such proposals. Isn’t that what government is there for, according to Krugman, to protect people and others from the thoughtless acts of individuals in society? 

Flu Season Illnesses and Deaths No Less Serious than the Coronavirus

No doubt, Krugman and many others would accuse me of resorting to ludicrous or “unrealistic” examples. However, if you accept his premise, I do not see why the logic of the principle could not be taken in these directions. But let us put them aside, and use a different example closer to the coronavirus, that being the ordinary but no less serious and sometimes deadly flu. 

Turning once more to the Centers for Disease Control, it was reported that during the 2018-2019 influenza season, 35.5 million people got sick with the flu in the United States, out of which 16.5 million required treatment from a healthcare provider, 490,000 ended up being hospitalized, and 34,200 died from the flu. 

For the most recent 2019-2020 influenza season, the CDC estimated before all final data is fully available that as many as 56 million people contracted the flu, up to 26 million required medical visits, possibly 740,000 people needed hospitalization, and upwards of 62,000 people died from the flu. 

Summing over the last two influenza seasons, over 90 million people in America suffered from the flu, as many as 1.2 million required hospitalization, and almost 100,000 people died from the flu. As of the third week of October 2020, close to 8.9 million cases of the coronavirus have been reported in the U.S., with over 230,000 deaths from the virus. 

The flu, clearly, is far more widespread, being over ten times as great in infecting people over the last two seasons than those hit by the coronavirus in 2020. Even though less than half of the number of deaths from the coronavirus, the 100,000 fatalities caused by the flu over the last two seasons still reflects a large number of victims. 

Krugman’s Logic Says Corona-Like Restrictions Needed in Flu Season

Following his logic, Paul Krugman should insist that from October into April, the traditional flu season period according to the CDC, every American should be mandated to wear a face mask. Bars and restaurants and any sizable social gathering should be closed or severely curtailed in its activities in terms of crowds. Church attendance for those seven months should be prohibited or constrained in how many parishioners may congregate at one time. 

But most of all, all Americans, whether living in crowded cities or more thinly populated rural areas, should be mandated to wear those face masks in all social interactions and stay at least six feet away from anyone with whom they are associating. Young people, who are far more susceptible of becoming seriously ill from the flu than from the coronavirus, should be required to stay away from school and use distance learning via the internet for over half of each year. 

And when serious waves of the flu hit cities or regions of the country, people should be obligated to follow government-imposed lockdowns and shutdowns. If it be said that all this might have permanent negative effects on economic and social life since the flu returns in one form or another every year, it seems, surely we must “follow the science” and set aside our personal and selfish desires for income and financial stability for the “common good.” 

I see no reason for any eye-rolling in this example as might be given from my earlier ones about sexually transmitted diseases and drunk driving. Tens of millions of lives are impacted every year by various strains of influenza and a not negligible number of people lose their lives every year from the flu. 

If the “common good” comes before selfish individual interests, then all such constraints on personal freedom and social interactions should come under the Paul Krugman-mandated standard of enforced political paternalism. 

Ayn Rand and Her Place in the Freedom Movement

But what does this all have to do with Ayn Rand? First of all, who is Ayn Rand? 

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was one of the most widely read and influential novelists and political philosophers of the 20th century. At least 30 million copies of all of her books have been sold worldwide, with her two major novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), the biggest bestsellers of her writings. Her nonfiction works also have had a huge impact over the decades, especially The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1967). There have also been movie adaptations of both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged

In my opinion, it is not an exaggeration to say that the revival of a political philosophy of individualism, free markets, and strictly limited constitutional government during the post-World War II period in the United States was given an essential impetus by her novels and political writings, the latter of which she kept producing until her death. Indeed, along with Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992), and Chicago economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006), Ayn Rand reestablished the free market and individualist tradition in America in the aftermath of the New Deal days of the 1930s and the wartime planned economy of the 1940s. 

Jerome Tuccille’s 1971 book, It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand, was not overstating the fact that for many who came to “individualist” ideas in the 1960s and 1970s, it did start with her books. I know, because I was one of them as a teenager in the mid-1960s. While Tuccille’s account is filled with often delightful humor and satire in explaining the intellectual “odyssey” of so many who came to be influenced by Ayn Rand, over half a century ago, the continuing impact of her ideas cannot be denied or discounted. 

Her Personal History and the Impact of Novels

Rand’s perspective was unique for a variety of reasons. First, she was born in Imperial Russia and as a young woman lived through the Russian Revolution and Civil War, and, then, under communist rule until she immigrated to the United States in 1925. Her first novel, We the Living (1936), captures the brutal reality of life under Soviet rule, because she lived it as a philosophy student at the University of Petrograd. Her second novel, Anthem (1938), is a futurist anti-utopian story of a complete totalitarian state under which even your name has been taken away and replaced with a number in a fully collectivist society.

The second unique quality about her is that she decided to offer a philosophy of man, human society, and the political order not as a dry, dusty tome of nonfiction, but in the form of fiction writing so the ideas could be captured and conveyed through the thoughts, hopes, dreams, experiences, and actions of imaginable people who had to live through the concrete reality of abstract social and political ideas put into practice. 

Her character portrayals in the novels have been praised as deeply moving and profoundly realistic or as one-dimensional and cartoonish. Regardless of how a reader may finish, say, Atlas Shrugged, and view it “purely” as a work of fiction in terms of character development, the message that the reader is left with leaves little to the imagination and cannot do anything but make him or her think seriously about what a good and humane society could and should be all about that is based on the liberty of the individual. 

Reality, Reason, and Rights in Ayn Rand

At a time when philosophy more frequently than not tells people that reality is subjective – “It’s all in your head, man” – and morality has no basis other than how a person “feels” about things – “Hey, I’m ok, you’re ok” – Ayn Rand insisted that an objective reality does exist, that human beings are part of it, and that men and women can apply their reason and experiential capacity to understand both themselves and the world around them. 

This includes attempting to make reasoned and reasonable judgments concerning what social arrangements and political order are most consistent with not merely human survival but potential human development both in material and nonmaterial ways. Crucial to this, and no doubt Ayn Rand’s most controversial premise, is that individuals have a right to live for themselves; that is, they should not be viewed or treated as a human means to collective or group ends in society. 

Your life is your own, in other words, to live as you choose, but with the caveat that if you expect others to respect your individual rights to your life, liberty and honestly acquired property, you are reciprocally expected to show and practice equivalent regard for the same rights possessed by all others in society. Only those who are not familiar with the reasoning behind similar (but not exactly the same) ideas found in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1689) and captured in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 would find such a view as Ayn Rand’s about man and society “shocking” and somehow outside “polite” ethical discourse. (See my articles, “John Locke and American Individualism” and “A Declaration of Independence from Big Government” and “The Real Spirit of the Declaration of Independence”.)

If everyone has a right to their own life and to live the way that gives meaning and value to it, as they decide it could and should, then all human relationships and associations must be based on mutual agreement and voluntary consent. Force and fraud are prohibited both morally and legally in the good society that Ayn Rand imagines could and should be the best of all that human beings can live in. 

The role of government is a protector of these rights through limited and proscribed use of policing force, along with a judicial system based on an individual rights-based conception of the rule of law, and national defense confined to securing people’s life and liberty against the aggressions of foreign governments. 

Personal Freedoms in Rand’s View of Politics

Contrary to some portrayals and misrepresentations of her views, Ayn Rand forthrightly defended the same equal individual rights for all women as men and argued for a virtually unreserved right of every woman to have ownership of her own body in terms of her right to an abortion. She was strongly and unequivocally anti-racist, insisting that racism was based on the crudest and most primitive of collectivist tribalism and must be rejected and opposed in any and all forms. 

She advocated the widest defining and protecting of the rights to freedom of speech and the press, association and of religious beliefs, though she was an unequivocal atheist who rejected all forms of superstition and notions of faith without reason. 

These latter aspects of her defense of personal freedom and limited government often made her as disliked and even hated by conservatives as by the “left” collectivists. Her principled and uncompromising defense of laissez-faire inside and outside of the market arena of supply and demand, therefore, often made her unacceptable to those both on the political “right” as well as the “left.” She was not a “friend” of William F. Buckley and National Review, to put it mildly. 

This is why Paul Krugman would pick her out for special treatment, with an unsubstantiated attack accusing her and her ideas as being behind the failure of successfully suppressing the coronavirus due to the resistance of those inspired by her to not do what the government tells them to do, rather than what they decide to do in their own self-interest, which Krugman sees as harming others including their death; all due to an unwillingness to wear a face mask. 

Rand’s View of Emergencies and Benevolence

No one can know what Ayn Rand would actually say and advocate if she were alive in such a situation as the coronavirus crisis. But we do know that she once penned an article on, “The Ethics of Emergencies” (1963). Contrary to a good deal of the nonsense written about her, she believed in benevolence and concern for not only those whom one “selfishly” cares for – spouses, children, other family member and friends – but also one’s ordinary fellow human beings, “strangers” about whom you usually know little or nothing. 

Any rational and reasonable person who values life for all the goodness and meaningfulness that can come from a life happily lived, extends good wishes for the life, betterment, and health of all other fellow human beings. Such general humane benevolence, she argued, could and often takes the form of helping out a neighbor, for instance, who has fallen ill or on unexpected “hard times.” This may take the form of bringing over some meals or arranging among the other neighbors a charitable collection to assist him over his time of trouble. 

She was adamant that this was not a concession or presumption that you owed that person a permanent living or that they had a claim on you or your generosity, but “on the ground of that generalized good will and respect for the value of human life that one helps strangers in an emergency . . . An emergency is an unchosen, unexpected event, limited in time, that creates conditions under which human survival is impossible . . . In an emergency situation, men’s primary goal is to combat the disaster, escape the danger and restore normal conditions.” 

From my reading of Rand’s works, I would conclude that if there was substantial medical and scientific evidence that wearing a face mask and “distancing” during human interactions were both of value to preserve one’s own life and, with that general spirit of benevolent concern and sympathy for one’s fellow human beings, demonstrable as helping the wellness of others during such an “emergency” situation, then the reasonable and rational thing to do would be for a person to cover their face and keep those six feet apart as a matter of personal valuing choice. 

What she would, most likely, thoroughly reject was the idea that government and the Paul Krugmans of the world should have the presumption, power and political authority to compel and command others in society on how to confront and combat something as serious and even deadly as the coronavirus. 

Those in government should not have the authority to preempt and prevent the free individuals of the society from finding and devising ways of best determining the nature of the threat facing them in the form of the virus and how best to associatively find ways of overcoming the medical and related social dangers from the contraction and spread of the coronavirus. And that would include not having the power to command the wearing of face masks. 

The heroes in all of Ayn Rand’s novels are “men of the mind,” the imaginers, the creators and doers who bring about change, improvement, and general human betterment as the “unintended consequence,” the “invisible hand” benevolent outcome, from free minds allowed to work, profit, and freely associate with others in their interactive roles as producers and consumers in the unrestrained free market of ideas and goods and services. 

Ayn Rand’s Philosophy of Freedom is the Better Way

The best avenue for fighting the coronavirus, Ayn Rand would likely argue, I believe, would be for government to get out of the way and allow the free market to work without regulations or restrictions, commands or controls, under the presumption that those in political power can ever know better than each individual human being to find, over time, the best ways to solve the problems confronting all of us. (See my articles, “To Kill Markets is the Worst Possible Plan” and “Leaving People Alone is the Best Way to Beat the Coronavirus” and “Government Policies Have Worsened the Coronavirus Crisis”.)

To turn such political power over to the government is to imply that you are not the determining master of your own life, that you are, ultimately, owned and controlled by those in political authority, to be told how to live and act, and for them to dictate to you their decisions about how best to preserve your life, a life whose betterment and existence is then at the mercy of the government; your life, that is open to being sacrificed to a greater good and general welfare that they presume to define and determine. 

Accepting such a philosophy and politics is to prevent each and every one of us as distinct and unique individual human beings from having the rightful autonomy of using our own reason and judgment about how best, in free association with others, to navigate through such troubling times as the coronavirus. 

Ayn Rand’s way of individual freedom and free markets, at the end of the day, is the better one to be concerned about for saving lives in the face of the coronavirus, while the real killer in all this has been and is the misguided and harmful political paternalism for which Paul Krugman keeps so deeply yearning. 

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

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