Ayn Rand Anniversary Speech

François-René Rideau


This is a speech I have prepared for the NYC Junto on 2005-01-06. The actual speech delivered, notably shorter, is on my blog.

1 A Tribute to Ayn Rand

I am François-René Rideau, a one-man think tank from France, and the webmaster of Bastiat.org. I am honored to be able to speak to you tonight, and since this meeting is dedicated to the hundredth anniversary of Ayn Rand's birthday, I would like to begin with a tribute to Ayn Rand.

I had already been initiated to libertarian ideas at the time I was offered a copy of a book by an author completely unheard of in France. It was a tremendously thrilling fiction novel, hiding a deeply thought out treatise of ethics. It heralded ideas and values I had only ever seen being attacked, without ever having seen them stated or explained. It was not just a book with a point, it was a book with a whole philosophy. I'm talking of course about Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand.

As a philosopher, one of the great talents of Rand was her ability to pinpoint essentials and to clearly conceptualize them. Then as a writer, she would paint them with a large brush, so as to make them immediately understandable to people who look at the big picture. The downside of this style is that it skips over details that are sometimes marginally meaningful. Hence, people looking at brush strokes will find plenty to object to, and those who want to sidetrack the main issues will be able to do so at length. What makes this relevant is that Rand built a trademark for the whole of her unmodified and unmodifiable ideas. Her detractors will thus use her quirks and inaccuracies as an edge for package-dealing the rejection of the whole Rand brand. Note that the rest of the libertarian movement has the opposite problem, having no prominent brand with a coherent content to sell to the public; opponents may thus easily pick inconsistencies between several different libertarian brands and flaws or concessions in some of them, so as to discredit them and argue for statism.

Which brings me to the question the organizers suggested I could answer: ``What is the reaction in France to Ayn Rand's ideas?´´ Well, the answer is quite short actually: <french accent>The reaction to what???</french accent> The same answer could of course be given about the reaction of the American public in general: Ayn Rand is essentially unknown. The difference is that in France, academics don't even have to find a quick pretense so as to dismiss the significance of Ayn Rand, since this significance is never even brought to attention.

2 The Lack of Influence of Libertarian Ideas

This raises the broader question of the silence and public ignorance about libertarian ideas at large. [1] Indeed, Ayn Rand herself claimed in What is Capitalism? that no one in the XIXth century has tried to defend Capitalism on moral grounds; she seems to have been ignorant of the related works of the English free trader movement and of the French school of classical liberalism. — And I'm thinking notably of every libertarian's favorite classical author (at least, mine), Frédéric Bastiat, and his designated successor, the father of Anarcho-Capitalism, Gustave de Molinari. Of course unlike Ayn Rand, they never got around to systematizing the moral theory and philosophy behind Capitalism — though in Bastiat's case, the unfinished treatise Economic Harmonies shows it is his untimely death rather than a lack of desire and understanding that postponed this systematization. Still, they did conceptualize the morality of free trade and make a frequent argument for it, albeit usually putting such an argument after ``practical´´ explanations that answer the explicit concerns of the public at the moment.

Ayn Rand characterized Capitalism as the Unknown Ideal, the secret of life that is being savagely attacked and systematically silenced at the same time. Well, the fact that even Ayn Rand ignored the above authors shows that their works had fallen into quite an oblivion. What libertarian ideas suffer from is not just a lack of public awareness on their regard, a gap that Rand's or anyone's works could possibly fill; it is a dynamic process of disinformation that has been going around for ages, that has suppressed libertarian voices before Rand's, that has suppressed Rand's voice, and that will continue suppressing libertarian voices, until ways are devised to make the truth emerge.

To illustrate just how far the problem goes, consider that free trade ideas have had their time of relative popularity among intellectuals, after the publication of Adam Smith's treatise The Wealth of Nations in 1776; they are now deformed and defamed. Socialist ideas were about non-existent at the time of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations; they are now dominant, praised, their values made into the semi-official religion of modern times. In the same time, socialist ideas have grown from nothing and conquered the minds and hearts of the majority, whereas libertarian ideas have been stable in being mostly reserved to a rare intellectual elite that remains in utter political irrelevance. So this is not just a matter of ``new ideas that haven't had the time to spread´´. There has to be a dynamic explanation to this process, and if we want our ideas to succeed, we must understand these dynamics.

If libertarians ideas are right, why don't they succeed? [2] If socialist ideas are wrong, why do they actively prevail? What hope is there, and is there anything we can do? Do we need to care at all? Or are ideas irrelevant because, as Karl Marx said, the material ``conditions of production´´ completely determine the social superstructure?

3 Why Ideas Matter

Frédéric Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand all stressed the importance of opinions, ideas and philosophy, in determining accepted social rules and consequent social events. I would like to go further. Opinion is not only instrumental in achieving Liberty, it is constitutive of what Liberty is. [3]

Indeed, civil liberty, as opposed to metaphysical liberty, is all about people being convinced that you have rights that should be respected. You are free, in a juridical sense, if and only if other people are of the opinion that they should respect your rights and not violate them. If people are convinced of that opinion, then they won't hurt you, they won't support those who hurt you, those who feel concerned by criminality will step up to actively defend you when you are in need, and people in general will organize with you for mutual defense. If people are not convinced of that opinion, then they won't help you when you're in trouble, they will hurt you when they can do it for their profit, and they will support those who aggress you in the name of some overarching good, and people in general will organize in opposite gangs that compete for whatever they can get out of aggression. As long as some people are willing to support aggression, either as victims, as aggressors or as accomplices, then there will be political entrepreneurs willing to collect on this willingness and to live off the proceeds of aggression, the life and blood of the sacrificial victims. [4]

Thus, in a strong sense, the liberties that a person enjoys are all a matter of other people's opinion. Implementing liberty is convincing people about the nature, validity and importance of human rights.

Most importantly, there is no technological escape from having to convince people.

All these fine technical advances may open new spaces that are not yet invaded by the State. But unless the invasion itself is stopped, technology can bring momentary relief, it can create ``Temporary Autonomous Zones´´, where freedom lovers can flee for a while and organize, but it cannot solve the problem of Liberty.

Technology cannot make governments irrelevant. It cannot make us run away faster than the government will run after us. Governments too participate in technological arms-race; technology can and will be used to give governments more power to control individuals. And even when they won't run after you, governments will put walls around the food and water supply, and they'll catch you when you eventually come to eat and drink; a few might escape for a while, but unless governments are fought on the battleground of opinion, they will continue to extend their grasp on the vast majority, and to present a deadly threat to those who are currently out of its reach.

Liberty is a matter of philosophy. The only kind of technology that can help establish liberty is technology that will make it possible to convince a lot of people of the philosophy of liberty, and make it dominant. Until we develop such technology, we will have to curb our spine and support the overwhelming parasitic behavior of the State.

4 Obstacles to Liberty

Ayn Rand pinpointed, and rightly so, that the superiority of libertarian ideas resides in their rationality, as opposed to the irrationality of collectivist tenets. Now, this superiority only happens at the tiny margin where rationality plays a role in convincing people: rational arguments are all good and well, and they can have an overwhelming power of conviction when they are considered rationally; but most people most of the time in most discussions never get to the point of considering someone else's arguments rationally. If we want to this margin to make a difference, we must not only learn how to lead people to this point of rational reflection, we must also and most importantly learn how to play on par with our opponents where rationality isn't involved yet: we must learn the general methods of rhetoric.

For an argument to be accepted, there are four steps which must be passed, in this order: first, the argument must be heard; second, it must be listened to; then, it must vanquish prejudices; lastly, it must be understood. Only on the last point does rationality matter; and yet at each step, libertarian ideas encounter stumbling blocks, that we must learn how to get over.

Getting heard. The first obstacle to getting libertarian ideas out is the stranglehold of the Establishment over the mass-media, education and all public communications. Ayn Rand has described its mechanisms quite well. The Establishment sustains itself thanks to the self-interest of those who live off the proceeds of plunder. It will always be abundantly funded until the very end. Indeed when the Establishment is starved, or when there is a broad enough base of people who actively resist to the point of rivalling with it in terms of resources moved, then we already have won, and any outstanding declaration to be made is a mere formality. In the meantime, the Establishment is thriving, with its rival bands massively competing for stolen resources, for extending their share as well as the total plunder base. The dominance of the Establishment doesn't mean that we cannot be heard at all; but it means that we must be ready to communicate in a hostile environment; it means that we must not rely on the support of the mass-media or of anyone, lest we first manage to create that support; we must learn to build our own communication infrastructure from the ground up.

Getting listened to. People are already overwhelmed by the incessant flow of seductive voices trying to grab their attention and to obtain their support; as a healthy measure of defense, they get used not to listening to things to which they do not relate. So as to attract their attention we need to learn to discuss about people's actual concerns, even though they may seem to us as being secondary or as residing upon false premises. We must be ready to take people all the way up from where they are to where we want them to be, introducing our ideas only in relation to their problems. Otherwise, we will be categorized as impractical loonies and we will be filtered away promptly from their attention.

Vanquishing prejudice. An argument that is directly opposed to what the listener values will be rejected without having a fair hearing. On the contrary, so as to be able to change a person's mind on a small point that the person used to value, we must rely overwhelmingly on things that the listener values. We must learn to not be confrontational with people's existing beliefs, and instead to cultivate common grounds. The process of vanquishing prejudice can be long and tedious, and must be repeated individually: people get crazy as a mob, but come to their senses one by one. Also, it is hopeless to target people who have a vested interest in the Establishment, unless they are amongst the few who have an even greater vested interest in Reason.

Getting understood. Last but not least, for a rational argument to be accepted, the very last step is getting understood. Problem is, not everyone can understand the ins and outs of an argument; not everyone can relate an argument to the many concerns that one has, without getting drowned in a jungle of relations that are irrelevant to the crux of the argument. To understand a rational argument requires a mind trained to rational discussion, which is seldom available in a society that favors political pull over rational creativity. It also requires a sufficient intelligence, which is a hereditary trait possibly absent in a very large proportion of the people to convince. Hence, most people might not be targets for rational argument. On the other hand, we might not need to convince them rationally; we are not worse off with these people than are the plunderers who try to acquire their support. Those people whom we must convince are the opinion leaders of the future: the philosophers, artists, journalists, politicians and other kinds of bigwig intellectuals. If we have the good rhetoric, the rest will follow.

5 The Enterprise of Liberty

Convincing other people is a long and difficult task, that requires the development of proper social skills and institutions. It is an Enterprise of its own, to be approached as such. [5]

We have limited resources; we must manage them properly. With these resources, we must develop better ideas and better arguments, and we must use these arguments to market our ideas. In this, usual marketing techniques and pitfalls apply. We must define our targets, and cater to their needs. And so as to survive and extend, we must follow the bottom line: the self interest of the participating individuals, the sustainability and hence profitability of the structuring institutions.

Liberty will not prevail by chance. It will prevail because some people will have taken its success seriously, and will have done what has to be done to make things happen. You can be among these people. You can become an activist, or you can fund activism by people who specialize in the field. But, if you want Liberty to prevail, it is your responsibility to entrust proper resources to people who will advance its cause. You may decide to fund my think tank or another one. In any case, it is up to you to do something, because you are the ones who know better.

I hope you enjoyed this talk. You will find it, as well as my other speeches and writings, on my web site, http://fare.tunes.org/.

And now, I would like to propose a toast to Ayn Rand, who valiantly carried the flame of Liberty where no one dared venture openly. To Ayn Rand!


[1]: Ayn Rand did not endorse the word ``libertarian´´; well, so did Gustave de Molinari reject the word ``anarchist´´; yet if words are to be used to name things according to their scholarly accepted meaning, Ayn Rand was a prominent libertarian, and Molinari was the founder of free-market anarchism. Strategic considerations and personal enmities do not change the nature of ideas, and I expect my audience to be able to outgrow such concerns, and to understand the meaning of such a common albeit non-consensual label, at least in the context where I presently use it.

[2]: The ``market failure´´ of libertarian ideas on the market of ideas, is of course related to said market conspicuously not being a free market. This isn't in contradiction with the theory, but this means that we must study more carefully the dynamics of the creation and destruction of freedom in non-free markets if we want free markets to succeed.

[3]: See my speech The Enterprise of Liberty vs The Enterprise of Politics.

[4]: I invite you to read my article on the fundamental law of Political Economy, the Law of Bitur-Camember.

[5]: Once again, see my speech The Enterprise of Liberty vs The Enterprise of Politics.

Faré RideauLiberty, as it isSite by Faré RideauDonate: bitcoins 1fareF6wCNYYiLPGmyQjrd3AQdHBb1CJ6 or paypal