Although the characters of Ayn Rand's novels were practical men of action, the same cannot be said for many of Rand's followers. The reasons for this are many and cannot be fully analyzed in a brief essay. Here I would like to focus on one area of practical action: that of socio-political activism. What forms of such activism are consistent with Objectivist principles? Rand's writings and own behavior may provide clues that will help those influenced by her ideas to answer that question.
Despite the stereotype of Rand as a political writer, the characters of her novels are notably lacking in political activism. Kira Argounova, the heroine of We The Living, is positively apolitical. In Anthem, Equality 7-2521 vows that he will bring down the One State someday, but that day is far in the future. Howard Roark, the protagonist of The Fountainhead, never talks about or gets involved in political causes. Even in Atlas Shrugged, Rand's most overtly political novel, there is no active political movement opposed to the statist trend portrayed in the country (a kind of Depression-era United States that has devolved into fascism), and the most that victims such as Rearden do is refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the government (Galt's strikers go one step farther and withdraw from society altogether). Other than perhaps Austen Heller in The Fountainhead (who actively defends individual rights in his columns and speeches), Rand's novels provide little to no guidance regarding the proper scope of practical political action.
In 1940, Rand volunteered for the campaign of Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate for U.S. President who opposed Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his second run for re-election. She headed a kind of "intellectual ammunition department" for the headquarters of the Willkie Clubs, whose mission was to "unearth and disseminate facts and statistics damaging to the Democrats" (B. Branden, 161). She also spoke in the parks, cafes, and movie theaters of New York City in defense of Willkie. Unfortunately, although Willkie began the campaign by saying positive things about free enterprise, he ended it as a confirmed middle-of-the-roader -- the kind of "me-too" Republican whom Rand would loathe for the rest of her life.
Rand seems to have been something of an independent Republican. Despite never-ending disappointments, she always held out hope that somehow, somewhere, some Republican politician would stand up for capitalism (her favored word for a fully free society). She hoped that of Wendell Willkie in 1940 and especially Barry Goldwater in 1964. She had nothing but contempt for so-called conservatives who mixed religion and politics (e.g., Ronald Reagan, and to a lesser extent Goldwater) or who were watered-down liberals (Herbert Hoover, Thomas Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon). Although in a letter to Goldwater (June 4, 1960) she equated conservatism with capitalism and (American) liberalism with collectivism, she was consistently critical of both conservative and liberal politicians, and indeed reserved her harshest criticisms for those me-too Republicans, who she thought did "more for the cause of Communism than Earl Browder and the Daily Worker" (Letters, 308). In her early praise of Goldwater, she said that he was "the first Republican candidate in over three decades who has not shown any inclination toward 'me-too'ism'" (March 1964, 12) -- given her disdain for Hoover, presumably that means the last Republican president she might have thought to be consistently freedom-oriented was Calvin Coolidge. Late in life she did have a few nice things to say about President Ford ("he is an honest man who shows no symptoms of power-lust", TARL 383), but she feared that President Reagan would do tremendous long-term damage to the nascent movement for liberty, since he was "a conservative in the worst sense of that word -- i.e., an advocate of a mixed economy with government controls slanted in favor of business rather than labor (which, philosophically, is as untenable a position as one could choose...)" (November-December 1975, TARL 382).
As late as 1964, Rand argued that Goldwater's proposal to "unite all Conservatives in a common cause" was "the most crucially important goal in politics", but that "it cannot be accomplished without ... a set of rational principles, which all those who join can accept with full understanding and conviction." Although Rand calls this a "philosophical base", she must mean a base of specifically political philosophy, not anything much deeper (e.g., she did not mean a philosophical base consisting of her own philosophy of Objectivism, since presumably not all advocates of a free society could accept her philosophy with full understanding and conviction). As she wrote in "How to Judge a Political Candidate" (March 1964):
One cannot expect, nor is it necessary, to agree with a candidate's total philosophy -- only with his political philosophy (and only in terms of essentials). It is not a Philosopher-King that we are electing, but an executive for a specific, delimited job.... we have to judge him as we judge any work, theory or product of mixed premises: by his dominant trend.... A vote for a candidate does not constitute an endorsement of his entire position, not even of his entire political position, only of his basic political principles....
However, by 1972, Rand no longer thought that a common cause was feasible (January 3, 1972):
It is too late for a movement of people who hold a conventional mixture of contradictory philosophical notions. It is too early for a movement of people dedicated to a philosophy of reason.
Instead, she urged her followers to seek "opportunit[ies] to unite many people of different viewpoints in an ad hoc movement for a specifically defined goal" (March 13, 1972), such as the movement for educational tax credits. Although she did not describe other such movements, presumably their "dominant trend" would need to be in the direction of freedom (examples might include Proposition 13 and similar tax-limitation proposals).
It is not clear why Rand turned against involvement in American electoral politics between 1964 and 1972. As far as I have been able to determine, she did not verbalize that change of heart until January of 1972. Prior to 1972, it appears that Rand found it perfectly acceptable -- indeed, "crucially important" -- to seek common cause with conservatives. The results of that policy must have become clear to Rand between 1964 and 1972, and the most likely cause was probably Nixon's imposition of wage-price controls in 1971 (which also led to the founding of the Libertarian Party on December 11, 1971).
Despite her early flirtation with conservatism, Rand recognized that the worst kind of conservative advocated a mixed economy with government controls favoring business interests. Surprisingly, she said that of Ronald Reagan, who is usually thought of as the arch-conservative in recent times, and the father of the modern conservative movement. Although her statement seems to be a pretty accurate description of all conservatives (not conservatives at their worst), apparently Rand thought -- or hoped -- that conservatives at their best were consistent advocates of a fully free society. Even as late as 1980 she was lauding the swing to the right, which she interpreted as a movement towards capitalism. Yet Rand's notion of the best kind of conservative seems to have been an unknown ideal.
So what of seeking common cause with libertarians? One might conclude that such an alliance would make quite a bit of sense; after all, in general libertarians do have a consistent political philosophy (their consistency is one reason the Libertarian Party never does well at the polls, but that's another matter). Yet despite the fact that many libertarians directly trace their intellectual lineage to Rand's ideas, she was always critical of both the libertarian movement (which she dismissed as "hippies of the right") and the formal Libertarian Party -- a hostility that has been maintained by her disciples. In retrospect, this is not surprising, since most small subcultures and radical movements tend to be riven by internal strife (e.g., Trotskyites vs. Leninists on the left); in this light, the rift between (some) Objectivists and the libertarian movement is no exception.
Does it make sense for Objectivists to involve themselves in Libertarian Party politics? I once argued that it does [Saint-Andre 1994], on the ground that Objectivists can provide intellectual guidance and direction, effectively functioning as the philosophical conscience of the LP. The trends I pointed to then -- radicalization of the Democratic Party by the relativist left and of the Republican Party by the Christian right -- have become only more pronounced since 1994, which is why the Libertarian Party remains the only consistent alternative to creeping socialism and creeping fascism in America. To my mind, the main arguments against working within the LP are more practical than philosophical: the LP is effectively marginalized by America's two-party system, politically feckless even after 30+ years, and perhaps even organizationally corrupt. I worked for a number of years within the LP, and the experience was demoralizing. But for those Objectivists who want to pursue electoral politics, the LP seems to be their most natural home. Alternatively, one could eschew party politics altogether by running as an independent candidate or voting for pro-freedom candidates from any party (which is more in line with the entrepreneurial nature of American politics and culture anyway).
There are many varieties of political experience, not only the electoral or legislative kind. For instance, as a legacy of Progressive reforms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many American states and cities grant the power of initiative and referendum, which enables concerned citizens to gather enough signatures to place single-issue questions on the ballot. Given the stranglehold of America's political duopoly and the unlikelihood that any third party (Libertarian or otherwise) will be able to break through electorally, such ballot initiatives provide a valuable avenue for political reform -- one that is fully consistent with Rand's call for ad-hoc, single-issue movements rather than common electoral causes. This mechanism has been used to limit taxes (e.g., California's Proposition 13 and Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights), decriminalize marijuana usage for medical purposes, institute term limits on elected officials, and the like. Possible applications of the ballot initiative process that are consistent with the goal of a fully free society include repealing estate and income taxes, removing occupational licensing laws, recognizing the right to homeschool one's children, restricting the power of eminent domain, explicitly allowing concealed carry of weapons for self-defense, and decriminalizing so-called victimless crimes.
Another opportunity to influence the political process is to testify at government meetings or act as an independent watchdog. These activities do not require one to seek election, but may enable one to improve or expose government policies and processes more effectively than by being directly involved as a legislative representative.
Yet another avenue of political reform is to work through the judicial branch of government, bypassing the legislative and executive branches entirely. This strategy has been honed to near-perfection by the Institute for Justice, a non-profit, public-interest legal organization -- once aptly described as a "merry band of libertarian litigators" -- that focuses on issues of occupational freedom, eminent domain abuse, free speech, and school choice. Similar organizations could be founded in areas complementary to those pursued by the Institute for Justice, such as Internet and communications policy, economic regulation, medicine, alternative arbitration mechanisms, and self-defense.
Ayn Rand argued many times that politics is highly derivative: it depends on a philosophical base of ethics and first philosophy, and is thus the last realm of human interaction to change, not the first. On this basis, she urged her followers to work towards an intellectual revolution rather than a political revolution, e.g., by speaking out whenever possible and appropriate on the important issues (the Internet makes this much easier than during Rand's lifetime; for instance, if you don't already have a weblog, consider starting one). One can find value in this insight even if one does not agree with her social theory (which strikes me as a kind of superstructure theory similar to that of Karl Marx, but replacing economic class with philosophical ideology as the driver of historical change). Yet working solely on the philosophical level -- for instance, encouraging Objectivist thinkers to seek academic positions in hopes of influencing future generations -- is a frustratingly slow way to work for social change.
Is there a middle way between overt political activism and long-term philosophical change? One example may be Rand herself: she was a popular novelist who worked at the level of culture rather than philosophy or politics. Furthermore, her very success was itself an inspiration. Rand didn't (primarily) whine about the sad state of American literature -- she worked hard at her writing and published several blockbuster novels. Too many latter-day Randians seem to have forgotten that hard work is not only a primary Objectivist virtue, but a core value of American culture. Thankfully, there are plenty of exceptions: practical Objectivist achievers who are quite successful in fields as diverse as art and technology, law and medicine, science and business. Such people are shining examples of what it means to live Rand's philosophy, not just talk about it.
Opportunities abound. Rather than complain about the state of the schools or universities, homeschool your kids as millions of Americans do today, or found a new kind of academy (the University of Phoenix did). Don't lament the low quality of too much contemporary art: write or paint or compose something better (countless artists are doing so). Are HMOs and insurance companies stifling the medical profession? Build an alternative network of doctors and nurses who accept payment directly from their patients (or join the existing SimpleCare network). NASA got you down? Make your own rocket to the stars (Burt Rutan did). If you think government courts are corrupt, offer voluntary dispute resolution services (plenty of mediators already do). Instead of using fiat money, pay for things in gold, silver, or local currencies. Join one of the thousands of neighborhood watch groups nationwide rather than bemoaning the lack of government police officers in your area. Et cetera.
All such activities strengthen the fabric of civil society and encourage independence from established power structures, thus making eventual political change that much more natural. And if Atlas ever does start to shrug, we're going to need a strong civil society to replace failed government programs and the large corporate welfare queens that are co-dependent on government power.
You may object that many of these activities require a critical mass of participants. That's often true. But such networks can start small (e.g., among a group of friends, within a homeschooling group) or locally in your neighborhood, town, or city. Or you can consider moving to New Hampshire, where the Free State Project is working hard to concentrate a large number of freedom-oriented people, thus providing a natural laboratory for such social experiments -- even for those who don't want to get involved in the political process.
The intent of this essay has not been to provide the final word, but to suggest avenues of practical action and encourage further thinking. Given the wide range of methods and mechanisms for pursuing social and political change today, any self-respecting Objectivist or fellow-traveller has plenty of options to choose from, and can find activities consistent with the principles of Rand's philosophy. The only challenge may be finding the most productive activities on which to focus one's time and energy. But since the process of making such decisions is strongly influenced by one's own circumstances, abilities, and inclinations, I leave that challenge as an exercise for the reader.
Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Randian Reflections