In Praise of Toleration

Ayn Rand would not like this book.

She wouldn’t like its subject matter. For Rand, libertarians were “hippies of the right,” who “subordinate reason to whims and “substitute anarchism for capitalism” — a “monstrous, disgusting bunch” of “intellectual cranks” who “plagiarize my ideas.” Rand evidently regarded libertarians’ arguments as unworthy of engagement, since she never, in fact, engaged with them. A book celebrating this dreadful movement and tracing it to her would be far from welcome.

Nor would Rand like the book’s style. Rand’s tolerance for humor in general was limited; her tolerance for humor directed at herself and her own ideas was zero. In Rand’s view, humor was a “denial of metaphysical importance to that which you laugh at”; this made humor a “destructive element,” legitimate only when directed at objects despicable or worthless. But to “laugh at that which is good, at heroes, at values,” was “monstrous,” and to “laugh at yourself” was the “worst evil that you can do,” a form of “spitting in your own face.”

That Rand’s conception of humor might be bizarrely narrow — that there might be forms of affectionate humor, in which respect and admiration could be mixed with a keen appreciation of foibles and a heightened sense of the ridiculous — seems never to have crossed her mind. Thus, a book by a devoted libertarian making fun of the libertarian movement even while celebrating it would have baffled her; and a book making fun of Ayn Rand herself, even while acknowledging the value of her influence, would have enraged her.

But Jerome Tuccille didn’t write this book for Ayn Rand. He wrote it for, as he says in the dedication, “deviationists all over the world.” Welcome, deviationist!

We can argue about when the libertarian movement began. We could point to the Old Right of the 1930s and ’40s, to the classical liberals and individualist anarchists of the 19th century, or even to the 1640s with the Levellers in the English Civil War. But the libertarian movement as we know it today began with the publication of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in 1957; and in the decades that followed, reading Atlas Shrugged was the most common entry point into that movement (as it was for me as a geeky high schooler in 1979).

That’s not to say that the libertarian movement was made in Atlas’s image. Influence takes many forms, and reacting against various aspects of Rand’s thought — her egoism, her atheism, her adulation of big business, her doctrinal rigidity — was as common a libertarian response as was emulation. But Rand had set the terms of discussion by asking the right questions and highlighting the crucial issues, and had laid out a radical and inspiring vision of individual human creativity and initiative set free from rulership, violence, and unreasoned dogma — a vision that no one could confuse with the conventional political nostrums of left and right.

Jerome Tuccille was present at the creation as the ripples from the massive pebble that Rand had dropped into world culture were beginning to spread out in various directions, sometimes merging with other ripples to form new shapes and trajectories as the terrible beauty of the libertarian movement was born.

Tuccille knew most of the major figures and organizations, and in It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand he offers us a lively and frequently hilarious memoir of the movement’s early days — before the Libertarian Party was founded, before today’s vast constellation of libertarian think tanks and periodicals existed, and before Friedrich Hayek’s and Milton Friedman’s Nobel Prizes and Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia would win libertarianism a tincture of respectability in mainstream circles (if “mainstream circles” isn’t too mixed a metaphor).

Tuccille’s portrait of the libertarian movement is drawn in broad impressionistic strokes; it’s not intended, and should not be regarded, as a literally accurate record of all the doctrines and personalities involved. In reality, for example, Ayn Rand did not endorse anarchism, condemn private charity, or deny the existence of degrees of evil; Andrew Galambos credited Thomas Paine with ghost-writing the Declaration of Independence, not with inventing the word “liberty”; not all libertarians were enthusiastic about the Barry Goldwater campaign (Murray Rothbard, for instance, denounced Goldwater as a dangerous nuclear warmonger); and Rocco Fantozi’s name was not Rocco Fantozi.

It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand is a jazz improvisation on the early history of the modern libertarian movement, not a transcript. But what a sax solo! (Of course, Rand didn’t like jazz either.)

In light of the widespread tendency to regard libertarians as right-wing apologists for the corporate elite, one of the many strengths of Tuccille’s book is its stress on libertarianism’s distance from conservatism. “The ‘capitalist’ system under so much attack from left-wing groups today,” Tuccille reminds us, “is actually state capitalism, an economic ideal as far removed from the ideal of free-market capitalism as an equal degree of state socialism would be”; and the “squabbling over property rights that always plagues attempts at dialogue between the Left and Right” stems from a failure on both sides to distinguish between “legitimate private property” and “monopolistic corporate property established with the help of the state.”

(Rand, who sometimes championed the corporate elite as “America’s persecuted minority” and at other times condemned them as an “aristocracy of pull” reaping the benefits of “a mixed economy with government controls slanted in favor of business,” would perhaps have agreed with Tuccille’s remark on even-numbered days.)

In the years after the first publication of It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand, the movement would continue to grow and change. Tuccille would go on in 1974 to run for governor of New York on the Free Libertarian Party ticket, famously courting publicity by reenacting, in Central Park, Lady Godiva’s famous anti-tax/anti-clothing ride (not himself taking the role of Godiva, I hasten to add); and the Internet would give a dramatic boost to libertarians’ numbers and influence.

Ayn Rand is no longer as dominant an entry point into libertarianism as she once was, though her books continue to sell well and her public visibility is higher than ever (indeed, part two of an Atlas Shrugged film trilogy is being released in the same month as this e-book). Perhaps nowadays it usually begins with Ron Paul — though it often ends someplace very different.

Tuccille describes the early libertarian movement as having an Ayn Rand right, a Karl Hess left, and a Murray Rothbard middle; and as having myself one foot in each of those camps (yes, I have three feet; you have a problem with that?), I can happily report that all three are still going strong, though the Randians have finally split into officially pro-tolerance and anti-tolerance factions (and some of the former could even admit to enjoying this book).

Some of Tuccille’s predictions from 1972 are a bit saddening, as in the case of his forlorn hope that in the near future we would all be “living in a less militarized and more decentralized atmosphere than exists today.” But he is sometimes more successful as a prognosticator, as when he notes in his 1997 afterword: “The computer has already replaced the Molotov cocktail as the preferred weapon of revolution, and the hacker may hold the key to subverting the system from within” — words that can be seen as prophetic 15 years later, in our age of WikiLeaks and Anonymous.

Tuccille characterizes today’s libertarian movement as “sober and cleanshaven” in comparison with its beginnings; but if you want to see the freewheeling, eccentric, occasionally feud-riven crazy quilt of “left-wing anarchists and acid-dropping love children; middle-class tax resisters and blue-collar hard hats; right-wing free traders and intransigent individualists” whose portrait Tuccille limned with mingled affection and frustration four decades ago, with its mix of neckties, tie-dyes, and dollar-sign pins, just browse the libertarian blogosphere — or stop by one of the annual libertarian festivals like Libertopia or PorcFest.

Even the floating ocean platform libertarians that Tuccille describes are still with us, with serious funding behind them this time around, though many of the captains have recently (as of this writing) jumped ship, or platform, to a charter city project on the terra firma of Honduras.

The party (not necessarily the Party) continues. Come on in, the water’s fine. Or possibly spiked with acid.

Roderick Long

The Daily Reckoning