The following article was originally published in in print for SpeakFreely: The Conflict Issue, April 2023.
Liberty is losing. The ideas of classical liberalism and of the Enlightenment have offered humanity its most glorious days, and a previously unimaginable progress. Yet, these very ideas are in the minority and out of fashion, both in politics and in the wider culture. And here is a fact that will be surprising to some: freedom is not only under attack by the Left. The attack on freedom is two-front: by the Left, and the authoritarian and illiberal Right.
It should not be difficult to persuade you that the Left is an enemy of freedom. From old style socialism to the new ‘Social Justice Warriors’, what animates them is the same: hatred for free enterprise, disdain for the giants of production and their achievements, a complete lack of understanding for how the economy works, and a zeal to silence intellectual dissent to their disastrous ideas.
So you might assume that whoever fights the Left must be on the side of freedom. Thus, many people are pulled toward the seeming alternative: the loudly anti-Left, take-no-prisoners new Right that is fighting the culture wars. This is the Right of Donald Trump, of Steve Bannon, of Victor Orban, of Georgia Meloni, of Turning Point USA, and of the loud culture warriors on Twitter.
But here’s the catch: the fact that two different groups are at war with each other, doesn’t mean the differences between them are fundamental. The Left and the Right DO fight passionately with each other. Even more, they DO sincerely hate each other. But so do the Sunnis and the Shi’ites in Islam; so did the Soviet and the Chinese communists during the 1960s and 1970s; so do the hooligans of rival football teams. But does this mean any of these tribes-at-war are different to each other in the essence of their ideas?
The new Right is attacking the Left not from a position of principled philosophical opposition, but to overcome a competing tribe that stands in its way to power. They fight the Left in a way that reveals their own hostility to everything that a free society relies on: property rights, free speech, and the sanctity of the individual. The new Right fights the Left not in defence of freedom, but because they want their own version of controls, regulations, and authoritarianism.
You will find this new Right under different names: Trumpian Right, populist Right, nationalist Right, national conservatives, and more. These factions might have small differences and varying political agendas, but they share one fundamental characteristic: a conscious opposition to individual liberty and its political expression: free market capitalism. It is the Right that considers a big mistake their alliance with people who cherish the ideas of individual rights and of a free market. This is because their standard is not freedom and individual rights, but ‘conserving’ a way of life, protecting an undefinable ‘common good’, and subjugating the individual to the bonds of the ‘community’ – usually of the nation. Rightly, they assert that the ideal of liberty is ineffective in safeguarding tradition, as its focus is a different goal: the protection of individual rights. In their worldview, your liberties should end where the ‘national cohesion’ or the maintenance of ‘tradition’ or where the ‘word of God’ begins.
Predictably, this new Right does not believe in the principle of free speech, when it comes to what they consider ‘obscene ideas’, or to pornography, or to the right of private companies (which they revile as ‘Big Tech’) to control the rules and procedures on the platforms these entrepreneurs have created and own. Nor do they believe in free trade, the tool that has been on the forefront of the tremendous progress we have seen in the last 200 years. If free trade means that we buy “too many” goods from Asia, instead of from local producers, or that American factories move to Bangladesh, then free trade is bad. Again: their standard is not the freedom of individuals to pursue their goals, but ‘the cohesion of community’. So, if a factory leaving a city means ‘less cohesion’ for that community, then the freedom of that factory owner be damned.
Does this economic illiteracy and collectivism remind you of anything? Because it reminds me strongly of the Left. They share the same fundamental view of the world: a society and an economy supervised by central planners, to operate for whatever these philosopher-kings consider ‘the common good’. The individual’s life, judgement and freedom are subordinated to the group, the tribe, the race, or the nation.
This means that what passes today for the Left and the Right are not two fundamentally different philosophies; they are two different tribes at war with each other on who will impose their authoritarian vision on the rest of us. The tribalist fight of the Left vs the Right is not about a defence of freedom. Actually, their war is a two-front assault on freedom, as both sides despise the idea that your life is yours, to be lived as you see fit. If you understand freedom and care about it, you do not have a stake in the ‘Left vs Right’ conflict.
So how does one fight for freedom? Making the economic case for liberty and showing how it brings more prosperity is important, but by no means enough. Not many young idealistic people will go to the barricades for a rise in the GDP. Nor is the solution an unprincipled supposed support for freedom that relies on no moral base, or that has an ‘anything goes’ attitude, as the one adopted by some ‘libertarians’.
There is a need for a defence of freedom and capitalism that will appreciate them as fundamentally good and as essential for one’s life and flourishing. Because freedom to think, to produce, and to trade is necessary for pursuing our goals in life: happiness, a career, wealth, and love. Freedom is an existential need; not a luxury.
The good news is that an unapologetic defence of capitalism and of its philosophical basis exists, and it comes from Ayn Rand. Such defence of freedom as existentially necessary, and of the right of the individual to their own life and happiness is portrayed in her novels, and first and foremost in The Fountainhead and in Atlas Shrugged, the most glorious celebrations of the thinker, the entrepreneur, the industrialist, and the producer ever written.
The war against freedom is harsh, relentless, and comes from all sides of the political spectrum. Yet, there is a most potent weapon at our disposal for the defence of liberty: the philosophy of Ayn Rand. It is time to pick it up, and fight.