Among the many curiosities of our current political culture, one of the oddest is why the views of Ayn Rand, dated Cold War relics, continue to be so influential. That’s especially puzzling considering that the core tenet of the libertarianism she puts into the mouth of John Galt, clearly her mouthpiece in the novel “Atlas Shrugged,” falls to a classic problem from decision theory.
It’s hard to distill from Galt’s impassioned manifesto a succinct statement of Rand’s libertarian position. But we can say fairly that the world Galt wants to see supplant the corrupt one he thinks deserves to perish would be inhabited by sovereign individuals each guided only by his or her own rational self-interest.
Obviously in such a world, all cooperative undertakings would be purely voluntary. There being “no conflicts of interest among rational men,” as Galt says, nobody would be conscripted against his or her will in the service of anybody else.
This is a utopian vision nobody thinks can be fully realized. But it’s useful to think about Rand’s libertarianism in this pure form because that reveals a deep incoherence right at the heart of it: perversely, rationality itself will frustrate attempts at voluntary cooperation among Randian satisfaction-maximizers.
It’s easy to highlight the problem with an example from everyday life. Our area has experienced severe droughts in recent years. Suppose that local government, operating on Randian principles, issues a call for voluntary conservation — Navy showers, limited toilet flushing, no outdoor watering — the whole nine yards.
Assume about each one of us just two things. First, in deciding whether to comply, each will consult only his or her own rational self-interest. Second, since nobody has a threat advantage over anybody else, nobody can compel anybody else to comply. Now imagine yourself trying to decide whether you’re going to cooperate in this conservation effort under those assumptions.
Depending on whether you do or don’t, of all possible outcomes, four are of particular interest to you. And rational satisfaction-maximizer that you are, you rank them from most to least preferable as follows. Your first choice is that everybody else conserve while you don’t. Your second choice is that everybody, including you, conserve. Your third choice is that nobody conserve. And your fourth choice is that you conserve while nobody else does.
It’s not hard to see what your best move is. If you conserve, you give up your first choice. The best you can do is your second ranked outcome. But to even have a shot at that one, you have to risk drawing your very last choice, the one where you’re taking Navy showers and not flushing your toilet more than a couple of times a day while everybody else is using water with wild abandon.
So you might as well not conserve. If you do that, you get at least a shot at your first choice at the risk of nothing worse than your third, the “no cooperation” outcome where nobody conserves.
But of course since we’re assuming that everybody else in this scenario is a Randian satisfaction-maximizer just like you are, the rational choice for everybody else is the same as it is for you: not conserving. So it turns out that rationality itself precludes cooperation among Randian sovereign individuals who are rational satisfaction-maximizers.
You might say that Rand dodges this problem because she acknowledges, through Galt, the need for at least very limited government, one of whose missions is to enforce contracts. Since contracts would be backed up by coercive government power, that would remove the uncertainty about what other parties to voluntary agreements are going to do, making it rational for all parties to comply with them.
While Galt does endorse what’s been called the “night watchman theory of government,” it’s interesting that of his 291-paragraph declaration, exactly one paragraph is devoted to it. That suggests to me Rand’s recognition that she’d backed her hero into a corner.
Although Galt grudgingly endorses the government night watchman only to constrain the irrational and the predatory, if I have this right, it also has to compensate for the fact that sovereign individuals pursuing their rational self-interest can’t “get to yes” in schemes of voluntary cooperation. So even minimalist night watchman government isn’t a cure for, but a confirmation of, incoherence at the heart of Rand’s libertarianism.
People who’ve squandered countless brain cells trudging through countless pages of Ayn Rand’s prose might have done better to consider the more modest, but more defensible, libertarianism of John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty,” which you should have read in college. If you didn’t, it’s not too late.