Ilana Mercer recently made me aware of some off-the-wall [YouTube, sorry, couldn't resist MJ] comments by stand-up comedian David Cross on Ayn Rand. I'll just have to chalk up his, uh, misunderstanding to the fact that he's a comedian, and not somebody who has actually studied Rand's corpus. On his new Netflix special, he makes the following statement:
"Let's be honest, that's what makes America weak, is empathy. When we care about those less fortunate than ourselves, that['s] what brings us down. . . . Ask Ayn Rand—I believe you can still find her haunting the public housing she died in while on Social Security and Medicare."
Now, it's not my intention to simply defend Ayn Rand; she did a good job of that when she was alive, and her writings have stood the test of time, whatever one thinks about her position on this or that particular issue. But Cross is just all crossed up. About so many things.
First, let's clear up one grand myth: Ayn Rand never lived in public housing. I recently queried Rand biographer, Anne Heller, who wrote the 2009 book, Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Heller could provide us with every address Rand ever lived at, and not a single one of them corresponds to a public housing project. But even if Rand lived in the Marlboro Housing Projects in Brooklyn, who cares? More on this, in a moment.
Now, it is true that Rand did collect Social Security and Medicare. Ayn Rand Institute-affiliated writer, Onkar Ghate, addresses the so-called hypocrisy of this fact about Ayn Rand's life in his essay, "The Myth About Ayn Rand and Social Security." Ghate reminds us that Rand opposed
every "redistribution" scheme of the welfare state. Precisely because Rand views welfare programs like Social Security as legalized plunder, she thinks the only condition under which it is moral to collect Social Security is if one "regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism" (emphasis hers). The seeming contradiction that only the opponent of Social Security has the moral right to collect it dissolves, she argues, once you recognize the crucial difference between the voluntary and the coerced. Social Security is not voluntary. Your participation is forced through payroll taxes, with no choice to opt out even if you think the program harmful to your interests. If you consider such forced "participation" unjust, as Rand does, the harm inflicted on you would only be compounded if your announcement of the program's injustice precludes you from collecting Social Security.
Rand felt the same way about any number of government programs, including government scholarships, and such. In reality, Rand got a free education at the University of Petrograd in the Soviet Union, a newly-minted communist state; next to that, collecting Social Security is "a mere bag of shells," as Ralph Kramden would put it. But, you see, that's the whole issue, isn't it? Rand was born in the Soviet Union, and even that state wasn't "pure communism," as Marx envisioned it; for Marx, communism could only arise out of an advanced stage of capitalism, which, in his quasi-utopian imagination, would solve the problem of scarcity. The point is that there is not a single country on earth or in any historical period that has ever fit the description of a pure "-ism"; to this extent, Rand was completely correct to characterize her moral vision of "capitalism" as an "unknown ideal."
But there is a second point that is lost on critics who accuse Rand of hypocrisy; there is not a single person on earth who isn't born into a specific historical context, a particular place and time. At any period in history, we live in a world that provides us with a continuum of sorts, enabling us to navigate among the "mixed" elements of the world's "mixed" economies, that is, those economies that have various mixtures of markets and state regimentation. But as that world becomes more interconnected, the destructiveness of the most powerful politico-economic institutions and processes extend in ripple effects across the globe. And as F. A. Hayek never tired of saying, the more political power comes to dominate the world economies, the more political power becomes the only power worth having... one of the reasons "why the worst get on top." What Hayek meant, of course, is that in such a system, those who are most adept at using political power (the power of coercion) for their own benefit tend to rise to the top, leaving the vast majority of us struggling to make a buck. The "road to serfdom" is a long one, but serfdom is among us; it comes in the form of confiscatory taxation and expropriation to sustain an interventionist welfare state at home and a warfare state abroad.
I have always believed that context is king. And given the context in which we live, everyone of us has to do things we don't like to do. Even anarchists, those who by definition believe that the state itself lacks moral legitimacy, can't avoid walking down taxpayer-funded, government-subsidized sidewalks or travel on taxpayer-funded government-subsidized roads and interstate highways, or taxpayer-funded government-subsidized railroads, or controlled airways.
Then there's the issue of money. You know, whether of the paper, coin, or plastic variety. There are many on both the libertarian "right" and the new "left" who have argued that the historical genesis of the Federal Reserve System was a way of consolidating the power of banks, allowing banks (and their capital-intensive clients) to benefit from the inflationary expansion of the money supply. This has also had the added effect of paying for the growth of the bureaucratic welfare state to control the poor and the warfare state to expand state and class expropriation of resources across the globe. And it has led to an endless cycle of boom and bust. And yet, there isn't a person in the United States of whatever political persuasion who cannot avoid using money printed or coined by the Fed. Even among those on the left, so-called "limousine liberals" (a pejorative phrase used to describe people of the "left-liberal" persuasion who are hypocrites by definition) or those who advocate "democratic socialism" of the Sanders type, or those who advocate outright communism, own private property and buy their goods and services with money from other private property owners. It seems that there is not a single person on earth of any political persuasion who isn't a hypocrite, according to the "logic" of David Cross.
Ever the dialectician, I believe that given the context, the only way of attempting even partial restitution from a government that regulates everything from the boardroom to the bedroom is to milk the inner contradictions of the system.
But some individuals can't get restitution, because they were victims of another form of government coercion: the military draft. Ayn Rand believed that the draft was involuntary servitude, the ultimate violation of individual rights, based on the premise that the government owned your life and could do with it anything it pleased, including molding its draftees into killing machines, and sending them off to fight in undeclared illegitimate wars like those in Korea and Vietnam (both of which Rand opposed). What possible restitution is available to those who were murdered in those wars, or even to those who survived them, but who were irreparably damaged, physically and/or psychologically, by their horrific experiences on the killing fields?
The draft is no longer with us, and David Cross should be thanking that good ol' hypocrite Ayn Rand for the influence she had on the ending of that institution. Such people as Hank Holzer, Joan Kennedy Taylor, and Martin Anderson were among those who mounted the kind of intellectual and legal challenge to conscription that ultimately persuaded then President Richard M. Nixon to end the military draft.
And yet, Rand's taxes were certainly used to pay for the machinery of conscription and for the machinery of war; does this make her a hypocrite too, or should she have just refused to pay taxes and gone to prison? Yeah, that would have been productive. Perhaps she could have authored more works of fiction or nonfiction anthologies, chock-full of essays on epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, politics, economics, and culture from Rikers Island. Yeah, then Cross would have been correct: Rand surely would have been living in the worst public housing imaginable.
Thanks for giving me a chuckle, Mr. Cross.
Postscript: I was just made aware of a very detailed essay on the subject of "Ayn Rand, Social Security and the Truth," at the Facebook page of The Moorfield Storey Institute.
Postscript #2: Thanks to Ilana Mercer, who alerted me to Cross's "comedy," and for reprinting this post on her own "Barely a Blog." We're obviously compadres; a "Notablog" and a "Barely a Blog" are close enough to be cousins. :)