A Bit of History

When I first heard the term “libertarianism” in the early 1950s, I mentioned it to Ayn Rand as a possible name for our political philosophy. She was suspicious of the term and inclined to dismiss it as a neologism.  “It’s a mouthful,” she remarked.  “And it sounds too much like a made-up word.”

          I answered  “Maybe so, but what alternative do we have?” 

          She said, “We’re advocates of laissez-faire capitalism.” 

          I answered, “Sure, but that’s kind of a mouthful too–it’s not a one-word name–and besides, it puts the whole emphasis on economics and politics and we stand for something wider and more comprehensive: we’re champions of individual rights. We’re advocates of a non-coercive society.”

       I suggested that “libertarianism” could convey all that by means of a single word–especially if we were to define “libertarianism” as a social system that (a) barred the initiation of force from all human relationships and (b) was based on the inviolability of individual rights.  

          Ayn considered this suggestion briefly, then shook her head and said, “No. It sounds too much like a made-up word.”  

          Later, when many advocates of laissez-faire took up the word, and some of them were anarchists (notably Murray Rothbard), Ayn felt vindicated at rejecting a term broad enough to include Objectivist advocates of pure capitalism, on the one hand, and “anarcho-capitalists,” on the other. She did not realize that the majority of people who called themselves “libertarians” were advocates not of anarchism but of constitutionally limited government (in essence, the Objectivist model), and that she could have fought for her interpretation of the term “libertarian” just as she fought for her interpretation of the word “selfish. “There was no good reason to surrender a much-needed word to the opposition.

        Later still, when she saw that libertarians often supported their position with aspects of her philosophy, without necessarily subscribing to the total of Objectivism, she became angrier still and decided that all libertarians were, in effect, and in her own inimitable style, “whim-worshipping subjectivists.”

       Being a more balanced and reality-oriented teacher of Objectivism than Leonard Peikoff, David Kelley addressed libertarian groups with the aim of persuading them that Objectivism was the best possible foundation for their political beliefs. For this he was denounced by Peikoff as a traitor to Objectivism. .

       In any event, today libertarianism is part of our language and is commonly understood to mean the advocacy of minimal government. Ayn Rand is commonly referred to as “a libertarian philosopher.”

          Ladies and gentlemen of an Objectivist persuasion, we are all libertarians now. Might as well get used to it.

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15 Comments on “A Bit of History”

  1. haroldzoid Says:

    Dr. Branden, I’m ready.

    Glad to see you are writing regularly online. Your two works “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” and “The Psychology of High Self-Esteem” have helped me immensely. Thanks.

  2. Harold

    Glad to read that. Thanks for the feedback.

    May I sugget that you check out “The Psychology of Romantic Love?”

  3. javidreza Says:

    Interesting. Do you recommend any recent books on “libertarianism” and the new century?


  4. Dear javidreza,

    I suggest three books by David Boaz in the following order:


    “The Libertarian Reader”

    “Toward Liberty” (with Ed Crane)

  5. afilsforyourthoughts Says:

    Dear Dr Branden,

    Thank you for that bit of history.

    This topic is extremely interesting to me, because one of the things that stood out for me about Ayn Rand is her precision in writing. And while I believe her writing reflects her clear thinking, I sometimes believe that she attaches to some words meanings that those who use the words don’t mean. For example, she says that “sacrifice” is to give up what you value more to what you value less. However, I know I’ve used sacrifice a million times to mean the exact opposite. To give up a night of rest in order to finish a project is still a “sacrifice” of your rest, but you do it willingly because you value the success of your project over a night’s rest.

    Therefore, we can’t be quick to assume that we understand what others mean, simply because we define terms more precisely than they use them.

    Also, I wish to make a suggestion: I am very happy to see you writing actively online, but I have some questions to ask you regarding Objectivism and Ayn Rand that do not directly relate to your blog posts. Would you consider having an “Ask Dr Branden” section for us to send you our questions, and you respond to them either by future blog posts, or any other method of your choosing?

    Many thanks for your blog, and I look forward to reading more from you.


  6. Ralf Wilmes Says:

    This article inspired me to search and read the two relevant articles in the Kelly-Peikoff debate. I continue to be extremely passionate about Rand’s novels and idea’s, but definitely feel disappointed to see the intolerance and dogmatism of some Objectivist ‘followers’. I do think that your or Kelly’s approach (for which my sincere thanks) contribute much more to the pro-individual and rational society Rand describes.

  7. Dear Haider,

    Regarding the issue of sacrifice; Rand made her position quite clear, in that she defined exactly what she meant by “sacriface.” You are using the term in a way that is quite commom, but I suggest you can get her meaning and its place in the structure of her thought.

    As a potential, you have “Ask Dr, Branden” now. I mean peoople can ask me questions and I will do my best to respond. But remember: questions should be no longer than 3 sentences. Also remember: this will not be psychotherapy. Please understand this.

  8. afilsforyourthoughts Says:

    Dear Dr Branden,

    I certainly agree with Ayn Rand’s criticism of sacrifice, as she defined it. But we cannot assume that when people use the word, they mean what Ayn Rand means.

    My questions border on discussion topics, because I would need to explain what my point of view is and where I’m finding it difficult to understand the Objectivist take on some issues.

    But to keep it short and sweet for now:

    I find it difficult to fully understand Ayn Rand’s understanding of feminism. What does she see being different between men and women? And are there any inequalities between the two?

    I know she doesn’t believe women should aspire to be president, which you disagree with, but how did she reach this conclusion? And how can I better understand feminism when the whole topic is highly influenced by politics and culture?

  9. Ralf Wilmes Says:

    Despite my reading of your works, I still do not fully grasp the distinction between the pillars self-assertiveness and integrity, whereas the separation of the other pillars is clear. Is it possible to have an high level of assertiveness together with a low level of integrity? I know you write that the pillars work together but if assertiveness is authenticity then how can I act against my values at the same time?

  10. Dear asif,

    In a manner of speaking, I would like Ayn Rand to speak for herself on this issue.

    I wrote a short book entitled “A Woman’s Self-esteem,” and in that book there is an essay entitled “Was Ayn Rand a feminist?” I urge you to get that book and read that essay, because it is the best way I can think of to respond to your request. I don’t think you will be disappointed. You will read about Ayn Rand explaining her views to a very young Nathaniel Branden.

  11. afilsforyourthoughts Says:

    Dear Dr Branden,

    Thanks for the resource. I will read that book before I expand the discussion.

    I recently bought a couple of your books, but “A Woman’s Self-Esteem” wasn’t one of them. And since I look forward to reading that book, as well as some other books of yours, I have a suggestion 😀

    You can have an Amazon Store on your site, with all your books and book recommendations. That way, you earn commission for the books you recommend through your site. I think you deserve it…


  12. Dear Haider,

    A very good suggestion. We wil look into it.

  13. Dear Ralf,

    A hold-up man points his gun at you and says “Give me your money because I’m in a rotten mood tonight and don’t give me any sweet talk.”

    We would say this man lacks integrity but we would not say he needs lessons in self-assertiveness.

    A person might be honorable within the limites of his knowledge, yet lacking in the social skills that are sometimes needed to be fully self-assertive.

    Hope this clarifies.

  14. Ralf Wilmes Says:

    Thank you, that pointed gun helped: it’s the double meaning of ”being honest” that confused me.. About integrity: I’ve heard many people state that lying is ‘useful’ at times. Is lying in this case a breach of integrity if they honestly believe this?

  15. Dear Ralf,

    It would be a mistake to assume that we are always aware of the effects on us of some of our choices and actions. For example , if a woman lies to her husband about the price of a dress she brings home, she may feel that her lie is “useful.” She has avoided a conflict with her husband. Multiply her action by tweny or thirty times and then consider whether or not there are consequences for her self -esteem.

    Often our self-esteem is corroded by hundreds of lies and deceptions that we can no longer even remember.

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