Thinkers of Freedom and IJ

June 1, 2006

Whether they have adopted her philosophy wholeheartedly or found her writings of more transitory interest, countless individuals working to secure liberty have found inspiration in the works of Ayn Rand. With her unique ability to depict the heroism, idealism and romance behind the creativity of the individual, Rand inspired readers to come to the defense of free minds and free markets. Her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, remains a bestseller a half century after its publication.

It should be no surprise then that, while we are not an Objectivist organization, Rand has had an important influence on the Institute for Justice. The nature of that influence plays out in a variety of ways. Let me illustrate.

In founding IJ, we announced that our approach to public interest law would be based on a long-term, philosophically and tactically consistent strategy. I had read Rand while in college and, among other things, was impressed with her discussion of why it is important to have a positive, consistent philosophy of life, and why philosophy in general should be of interest to all. So in founding the Institute for Justice, the idea that our work would be based on sound philosophical underpinnings was a natural outgrowth of this early encounter with Rand.

Rand also played a significant role in the intellectual development of many others at IJ. That is particularly noteworthy because it takes very special qualities of resolve and commitment to liberty’s enduring principles for an individual to join and succeed at IJ. These must be combined with an idealism able to withstand the travails of the real world. It is no wonder then that many here credit Rand’s call to action in defense of capitalism, the individual and freedom as a catalyst that sparked their determination to dedicate their lives and careers to making a difference in the struggle for liberty.

Like the Founding Fathers, Rand was influenced by Locke and clearly articulated a view of the individual and the state that is very consistent with our mission. In our cases, we are up against laws that violate the basic rights of our clients and many others like them. We hear from some liberals and some conservatives that courts must defer to legislative edict even when rights are violated. We disagree. Rand’s writing echoes Madison and underscores the flaw of such deference. She says, “Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from growing oppression by majorities….”

Likewise, Rand’s views on the Constitution and property rights will sound familiar to all acquainted with IJ publications. For instance, she wrote of the Constitution that “it is not a charter for government power, but a charter of the citizens’ protection against the government.” All of our litigation is based on this premise. As for property rights, Rand writes not only of their philosophical importance, but also of their practical implications: “Without property rights, there is no way to solve or avoid a hopeless chaos of clashing views, interests, demands, desires and whims.” Without exception, in our cases against eminent domain abuse, we see the truth of this insight.

And speaking of whims, Rand does a great job of depicting just how arbitrary, petty and downright evil those in power can be when allowed to control the lives of others by mere caprice. She writes, “When men are caught in the trap of non-objective law, when their work, future and livelihood are at the mercy of a bureaucrat’s whim, when they have no way of knowing what unknown ‘influence’ will crack down on them for which unspecified offense, fear becomes their basic motive, if they remain in the industry at all . . . .” But it is when she depicts the type of people eager to exercise such bureaucratic whim that Rand brings home what we are up against. And it is uncanny how often we encounter opponents right out of Randian central casting. Consider the following.

Dr. Ferris in Atlas Shrugged said, “You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against . . . . [W]e’re after power and we mean it.” When the Institute for Justice defended commuter van entrepreneurs seeking to compete with New York City‘s public bus monopoly, the Transit Workers Union brought dozens of thick-necked members to demonstrate against us shouting with clenched fists raised high, “What do we want? Power! What do we do? Take it!”

Dr. Robert Stadler, also in Atlas Shrugged said, “Well that may be vicious, unjust, calamitous—but such is life in society. Somebody is always sacrificed as a rule unjustly, there is no other way to live among men.” In the early days of the Kelocase, the head of the New London Development Corporation dismissed the concerns of homeowners by saying, “Anything that’s working in our great nation is working because somebody left skin on the sidewalk.”

With similar arrogance, the president of the National Education Association, who opposes school choice for kids trapped in terrible schools, said in a nationally broadcast debate, “We can’t let those kids escape from the public schools.”

Or consider Orren Boyle in Atlas Shrugged, who said, “After all, private property is a trusteeship held for the benefit of society as a whole.” There has not been an eminent domain abuse case yet where this sentiment was not expressed in some fashion.

If Rand is known for her villains, her heroes are even more vividly portrayed. And here too we encounter real life examples, this time in our clients. When Shamille Peters speaks of a longtime dream to run her own floral shop, she is reminiscent of Dagny Taggart standing on the railroad tracks as a child and vowing to one day run a railroad. When Lonzo Archie stood up to the power structure of the State of Mississippi and refused to give up his home for a Nissan plant, he evoked the image of Hank Rearden when he refused to give up Rearden Metal to those who demanded it for the public good. And when taxicab entrepreneur Leroy Jones said he wanted nothing from others, just a chance to “do it myself,” Howard Roark couldn’t have said it better.

In coming years, as you read of IJ cases, we hope that the clash of principle versus expediency, heroes versus villains, and the rule of law versus bureaucratic whim, will be made as manifest as it is in the work of Ayn Rand.

Chip Mellor is IJ’s president and general counsel.

Also in this issue

Join the Castle Coalition Today

Thinkers of Freedom and IJ

One Year After Kelo, Reform Continues

Pennsylvania’s River of Red Tape: IJ Challenges a Rafting Cartel

Free Speech: Seeing Double in Washington State With Two Free Speech Cases

Subscribe to get Liberty & Law magazine direct to your mailbox!

Sign up to receive IJ's bimonthly magazine, Liberty & Law, along with breaking news updates about the Institute for Justice's fight to protect the rights of all Americans.