Bryan Caplan  

The Resonance of Libertarian Oratory

Lunch with John Nash... How a Rational Politician Trea...
My co-author Scott Beaulier's now blogging and teaching a course about Atlas Shrugged.  He always was lucky... except for that time that he accidentally decapitated himself during his first session of Dungeons and Dragons, but that's another story.

Anyway, Scott's class just read Hank Rearden's trial scene in AS, and he's got a question for them:
Throughout that section, Rand hints at the general public being generally sympathetic to Hank.  This is at least the second time where the public appears to be mildly pro-capitalism--the first case occurs after Dagny and Hank successfully complete their first ride on the John Galt Line.  While the general public seems to, at times, be naturally libertarian, their attitude about capitalism and government is easily swayed by the looters...


[H]ow accurate is Rand in her description of the general public, and would they easily tip back in our direction if we just had a Hank Rearden or two in court every day? 

Sadly, I think Rand's just engaged in wishful thinking (though not quite as wishful as the trial in The Fountainhead when Roark gets acquited for blowing up a public housing project).  If the American public really swooned to libertarian rhetoric, political competition between power-hungry politicians would ensure an ample supply.  It's true, of course, that a few notables have made libertarian speeches resonate with a mass audience; Ronald Reagan and John Stossel come to mind.  But overall, statism is an easier sell.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Bob Murphy writes:


But that's not Scott's question. He's not asking if the voters would vote Libertarian over Democrat. He's asking if the Randian heroes were in court, getting railroaded by the looters, which side the public would take.

Maybe you're still right; most people had no sympathy for those "religious freaks" that got burned up while the FBI tanks rescued them from themselves.

But I think Scott's question is more interesting if you use true exemplars of the Randian worldview. After all, is it any surprise that if you're listening to professional liars (politicians), you will pick the liar who promises to steal more on your behalf?

Brandon Berg writes:

Roark loaded up the jury with the kind of people who were most likely to be sympathetic to his cause, so it's not necessarily as unrealistic as the idea of the general public supporting capitalism.

MHodak writes:

Well, it depends on what Rearden's salary and bonus were last year, duh.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

"If the American public really swooned to libertarian rhetoric, political competition between power-hungry politicians would ensure an ample supply."

I think this point fails, because the biggest hurdle for libertarians is that they are philosophically opposed to trading favors to get things done. Public rhetoric aside, this means they will be locked out of most legislative bargaining and can't use favors to raise campaign contributions.

megapolisomancy writes:

"It's true, of course, that a few notables have made libertarian speeches resonate with a mass audience; Ronald Reagan and John Stossel come to mind."

The revolution has started at CNBC!

8 writes:

Great link megapolisomancy, I was just thinking of it.

The libertarians don't win day-to-day and never will. They won't achieve victory by adding up small wins. If they win, it will be in extreme cases, and swift and total like the falling of the Berlin Wall. They will win when the majority of the people decide they are Henry Reardon.

Larry Peoples, Sr. writes:

Libertarianism is about individual freedom and personal responsibility. Who in the hell wants that nowadays?

PMB writes:

"But overall, statism is an easier sell."

That's part of Rand's point. Statism is an "easier sell" *because* it appeals to the moral premises most people hold. So, to challenge statism, in her view, what you have to challenge is the moral theory it's based on.

That's what Rearden did in his speech. Indeed, when Rand reprinted it in her book "For the New Intellectual" she titled it, "The Moral Meaning of Capitalism."

So then why, if statism is an easier sell, have we managed as well as we have? Rand's answer, which comes through in Atlas, is that on an emotional, "sense of life" level, most Americans are pro-freedom, pro-self-interest. (This was more true when Rand wrote Atlas than today.)

That's what Rearden was tapping into, and why--for a brief moment--the public seemed to understand the issue and support him.

But it was not sustainable. Without a conscious, rationally-defended understanding and defense of egoism and capitalism, Rand held, a nation's sense of life cannot protect it.

[For elaboration on this issue, see Rand's essay "Don't Let it Go" in her book *Philosophy: Who Needs It.*]

So I wouldn't put it as, "the American public really swooned to libertarian rhetoric." Rather, it's that at sense of life level, Americans valued freedom and the pursuit of happiness--and that for America to start moving toward freedom, it's necessary to provide a conscious, consistent, philosophical defense of those values.

JP writes:

Something else to bear in mind when thinking about Rand's trial scenes -- at the time she was writing, U.S. juries were more middle-class (and also more male and more white) than they are now.

PMB writes:

Here's an analogous case to Rearden's that just occurred to me: the reaction to the Kelo eminent domain case.

There was a huge backlash against the decision. The general sense was, "The government better not try to kick me out of my home." This was the sense of life reaction--similar to the public's reaction to Rearden's trial.

But observe that because it was an EMOTIONAL reaction is faded quickly. People did not see this as a principle--they did not view Kelo as a violation of the principle of property rights. And so it quickly faded from memory, and in most cases governments have gone right on swiping property under eminent domain.

Thus, in Atlas, one day people cheered Hank Rearden. The next day, they supported new measures to shackle him.

RL writes:

There's also, as a practical matter, the fact that juries are now instructed it is not their right or function to judge the justice of the law, and they take this limitation seriously. Good little jurors. So even when they support you, they still vote to against you because "It's the LAW" and who can imagine democracy working any other way.

Jason writes:

I think Steve Jobs is as close to Hank Rearden in the flesh as we have in the real world. I also think people love all of the products and services that capitalism has provided. (posting this with my iPhone). It's just that most people are ignorant when it comes to economics. I will say that many people responded to Ron Paul's message and Thomas Sowell sells plenty of books.

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