Heather Wilhelm Responds to her Critics

Heather Wilhelm has posted a response to critics of her Wall Street Journal column arguing that Ayn Rand is bad for the free market cause. I was one of those critics, even though I have many reservations about Rand myself. Wilhelm’s response concedes that Rand may have had some value for free market advocates, but claims that the emphasis on Rand today makes it harder for libertarians to appeal to the political middle by making the case that free markets benefit all of society:

The main point of the article, which I think is pretty clearly articulated in the last paragraph, is this: For the free market movement to succeed in this day and age, it needs to continually stress the moral case for economic liberty. This is why the political left has been so successful. They have convinced the majority of the population that big government is the only thing in society that truly and effectively “cares”.

Ayn Rand has done a lot of things for the free market movement, and, as I point out in the piece, she has influenced many key people who have made progress in terms of advancing political liberty….

What I’m critiquing, and I state this explicitly, is the current fixation on Rand, which I think is counterproductive. I’m not saying everyone should throw Ayn Rand or her ideas out the window. I’m saying we have to be smarter in how we present free market ideas to the political middle—the people who are ultimately going to determine whether we live in a collectivist society or not. Ayn Rand does a lot of things, but she doesn’t effectively communicate the power of free markets to improve the lives of people–all people, including the poor and disadvantaged–around the world.

Rand inspires many people. Unfortunately, some of her fans have succumbed to a sense of cultlike dogma, where any attack on Rand is heresy….

Free market supporters won’t get anywhere if we can’t adapt our message to our target audience—and if you look around at what’s happening, the free market movement at large isn’t exactly knocking the ball out of the park.

I certainly agree that Rand shouldn’t be worshipped as a “cult” figure, and that free market advocates could do a better job of adapting their message to different audiences. At the same time, I still think that Wilhelm’s argument misses her target. First and most important, she fails to come to grips with the obvious fact that Rand was – and remains – the most successful modern popularizer of libertarian ideas. Millions of people continue to buy her books and be influenced by them. And far from all of these people are already committed free market supporters – as shown by the fact that many of today’s free market advocates got that way in part as a result of reading Rand. Second, as I noted in my original post criticizing Wilhelm, Rand’s work does include important elements focusing on the benefits of free markets for ordinary people and they way in which government planning harms them. This is one of the main themes of Rand’s most famous book, Atlas Shrugged.

Third, Rand’s message that big government unjustly confiscates the property of successful wealthy entrepreneurs may have more appeal to “the political middle” than Wilhelm believes. For example, a recent Tax Foundation poll shows that some 66% of Americans believe that no one should have to pay more than 19% of their income in taxes (including all levels of government), and 88% say that no one should have to pay more than 29%. These are of course far lower percentages than the current income tax burden on the wealthy, or even the middle class. The same poll also shows that some two thirds want to abolish the estate tax completely. The average American isn’t nearly as supportive of entrepreneurs as Rand was; but they do seem open to the idea that these people should have more freedom and keep more of their income than they do under status quo policies.

Finally, I completely agree that free market advocates shouldn’t be “fixated” on Rand and that we must make the case that strict limits on government power benefit the vast majority of people, including the poor – an argument that has been a major theme of my own work (see here for some links). But I see little evidence that we are neglecting such arguments in favor of some distinctively Randian message. Virtually all the major pro-free market think tanks, activist groups, and scholars spend most of their time making exactly the kind of arguments that Wilhelm recommends. That’s the central focus of the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Institute for Justice, most libertarian academics, and nearly every other pro-market organization with any prominence. I’m certainly open to the idea that we can do a better job of making our case. We have made many mistakes. But an unhealthy “fixation” on Rand isn’t one of them. Indeed, Rand’s success in reaching so many more people than other free market advocates suggests that the rest of us should do more to learn from her achievements.

UPDATE: I should mention that there is little evidence to support Wilhelm’s point that “the left” has successfully persuaded the public that “big government is the only thing in society that truly and effectively ‘cares'” To the contrary, public trust in government is very low, and 57% of Americans say they think that the federal government is doing too many things that should be left to the private sector. Polls routinely show that members of Congress are among the least trusted and most negatively regarded of all professions (see e.g. here and here) – right down there with us lawyers. Free market advocates’ inability to persuade the general public isn’t due to an optimistic belief that government really “cares.” Rather, it is a result of a wide range of other factors, including the inability or unwillingness of many voters to connect their general distrust of government to specific policy issues such as health care, education, and environmental protection.