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Friday, October 5, 2012

Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government

Most Freeman readers have probably come across books that purport to defend capitalism and the free market, but do so in a weak, apologetic way. The authors of such books may feel the need to couch their arguments in terms that sound appealing to Americans who have been steeped in anti-capitalist education; or perhaps they view capitalism as merely the least bad among competing systems.

If you cringe at books like that, allow me to introduce you to one that makes a full-throated, unapologetic case in favor of laissez-faire. Free Market Revolution by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins (respectively, executive director of and a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute) argues strongly and convincingly that the pursuit of self-interest—profit—is morally good and is the only path to progress and harmony. Their book couldn’t be more timely. In an election year, when candidates promise to either have government expand more or at best grow a little less rapidly, Brook and Watkins argue that our problems are rooted in vastly excessive government and we must cut it back to its proper functions before it’s too late.

The authors’ first task is to explain that America needs a revolution—a revolution in ideas. Unfortunately, most people believe that the pursuit of profit is morally suspect if not downright evil. Therefore, they are easy targets for demagogues who tell them that the government must impose heavy taxes and numerous regulations to protect consumers against voracious capitalists. Brook and Watkins do a superb job of refuting the destructive myths that capitalism is somehow dangerous but government power is benign.

For example, our most recent financial crisis has been blamed on “Wall Street greed” and “deregulation.” The people who spread those notions are desperate to protect the image of government as a kindly uncle who is always there to help us. Their claims are false. The financial crisis, Brook and Watkins demonstrate, was the result of foolish meddling in the housing market by unscrupulous politicians. (In doing so, they quote from a FEE essay that explained the housing bubble and subsequent crash.) This book contains the antidote to many of the poisonous lies that so-called “progressives” have spread about economics and politics.

Brook and Watkins never make the mistake of calling our current system “the free market.” Opponents of capitalism often premise their arguments on the idea that our poor economic conditions today prove that the free market is flawed. Our authors remind the reader frequently that nothing close to free markets operate in America today. Our economy is hampered with innumerable governmental mandates, prohibitions, taxes, subsidies, and special interest programs that waste resources, protect inefficiency, and retard progress. Readers not only learn how government obstructs the free market, but how the market’s price system can work, allocating resources to produce goods and services consumers desire the most and promoting innovations that make life better.

Americans would be far better off if we had never embraced the collectivistic ideas that self-interest is bad and compulsory “sharing” is good, for they have spawned the massive governmental leviathan we now face. The authors contend that if we are to escape from the clutches of that leviathan, we need to turn to the philosophy of Ayn Rand—hence the book’s subtitle. Rand, the Russian émigré who is most famous for her philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged, maintained that humans only flourish if they live by the “trader principle” of peacefully exchanging value for value. A corollary of that principle is that no one has a right to live at the expense of others through force or fraud. If we were to adopt those ideas as our guide, the massive, destructive welfare state that threatens to strangle us would wither away.

Brook and Watkins anticipate many objections to Rand’s thinking and refute them. For example, wouldn’t the elimination of the welfare system lead to widespread destitution? That is the standard line from so-called liberals, but the authors show that prior to the welfare state, people in need did not starve or freeze. Voluntary help was widely given, both by individuals and through a maze of mutual aid societies. We had a “safety net”—but one that did not create a mindset of entitlement and dependency. Because assistance was provided voluntarily, politicians could not use their phony “compassion” to buy votes.

John Adams famously wrote that the real American Revolution began long before the first shots were fired. It began, he said, when the people started thinking that they didn’t have to remain pawns of the British King and should run their own lives. Free Market Revolution could accomplish the same thing—a revolution in the minds of the people.


  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

  • Ayn Rand (1905–1982) was a Russian-American novelist, philosopher, playwright, and screenwriter. She is known for her two best-selling novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and for developing a philosophical system she called Objectivism. She corresponded with FEE's founder Leonard Read and provided a meaningful intellectual influence over free-market thought in the second half of the twentieth century. Her influence continues to expand through her fiction and nonfiction works and the educational work being done on Objectivism.