Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was born 111 years ago today, in St Petersburg, Russia. Through, in particular, her hugely influential novels such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, she was (and still is) responsible for more young people becoming interested in the ideas of individual and economic freedom than any other author. One can see why. Rand offers young people a philosophy which reminds them of their own worth, gives them heroic models to aspire to, and provides a coherent world view that seems to answer all their questions. In the novels, the key protagonists are ambitious, purposive, independent and strong – ruthlessly self-interested and yet deeply moral. The morality of self-interest conquers all, she insists. The altruism that philosophers and clerics teach us is destructive and contrary to reason. It has consigned us into obedience to mystics and bullies who claim to know what is good for us. It is evil because it destroys and diminishes human life, instead of promoting it. Human life is the standard of morality, and your own life is the purpose of morality. You should not consent to be a sacrificial animal for others, but be confident in standing up for your own interests, and acting on them.
But that does not mean doing whatever you like. Though you should strive for your own happiness rather than serving other people’s, you need to be clear what happiness is, of what things are really important to you. Rather than indulge every passing whim, you need to take a long-term view of what is actually in your rational self-interest.
To Rand, what marks out human beings is their reason: their ability to understand the world by forming and organising logically consistent concepts based on their perception of reality. We betray our species and our selves if we do not use this powerful tool of knowledge.
Capitalism is usually regarded as immoral because it is not altruistic. But Rand believes that its basis in self-interest makes it the only moral system in history. There is no need for force to make people conform to some altruistic ideal. Indeed, the one rule of capitalist morality is that nobody may initiate the use of force. Instead, rational self-interested individuals get along by freely trading with each other, without any need for compulsion – benefiting not just themselves, but their trading partners in the process. The basis of capitalism is not conflict, but collaboration, between self-interested people. That is precisely why reason and freedom from compulsion have been associated with happy and prosperous times; while attempts to create some altruistic paradise have instead produced misery and squalour.