In political philosophy, Ayn Rand made a radical break with the feeble, apologetic remnants of the pro-capitalist movement. She stood alone in defending capitalism on the basis of individual rights. The principle of individual rights had virtually disappeared from political discussion by the late 1950’s when Atlas Shrugged was published, having been obliterated by the equivocations and misdefinitions of its enemies and alleged friends alike. (Ayn Rand’s only, partial, ally in this respect was Isabel Paterson, whom she influenced; and Paterson insisted that rights could be based only upon “a divine source.”15)
Ayn Rand took the traditional American concept of rights (due principally to John Locke) and did three things: 1) she clarified what a right is, 2) she established the moral foundation of rights, and 3) she identified the objective means of determining when a right has been violated.
Ayn Rand restored the proper concept of rights by an explicit definition: “A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”16
In answer to such perverted notions as the “right” to a job, to housing, and to an education, she stressed that “The concept of a ‘right’ pertains only to action — specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.”17
The earlier “natural rights” tradition, following Locke, had based individual rights upon religion. Locke was appallingly explicit about this: all men are “the servants of one sovereign master [God], sent into the world by his order, and about his business — they are his property . . .”18
Ayn Rand showed that the actual foundation of rights lies in the nature of man and in the ethics of rational selfishness. Since each man exists for his own sake, not as the servant of any other being, he has a right to his own life. Others cannot claim one’s life — in whole or in the smallest part of it — because no value can logically precede one’s choice to live. One’s life is an end in itself, an ultimate value standing at the base of all other values and moral claims.
All the other (legitimate) rights derive from the right to life. “Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action — which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life.”19
The question “Why does man have rights?” is the question “Why should man be free?” The answer to both questions, Ayn Rand showed, is: his survival requires it. The individual has the right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness because these are the “conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival.”20 Man’s tool of survival is his mind, and the mind will not function under compulsion. Thus the fundamental political alternative is: liberty or death.
“Since knowledge, thinking, and rational action are properties of the individual, since the choice to exercise his rational faculty or not depends on the individual, man’s survival requires that those who think be free of the interference of those who don’t.”21
If left at this level of abstraction, the theory of rights would have been incomplete. The questions that immediately arise are: “What is freedom? What constitutes the kind of ‘interference’ that violates man’s rights?”
Ayn Rand’s answer cut through centuries of confusion surrounding the topic of rights. “To violate man’s rights means to compel him to act against his own judgment, or to expropriate his values. Basically, there is only one way to do it: by the use of physical force.”22 “Freedom, in a political context, has only one meaning: the absence of physical coercion.”23
It was 36 years ago that Ayn Rand wrote these words: “A right cannot be violated except by physical force . . . Whenever a man is made to act without his own free, personal, individual, voluntary consent — his right has been violated. Therefore, we can draw a clear-cut division between the rights of one man and those of another. It is an objective division — not subject to differences of opinion, nor to majority decision, nor to the arbitrary decree of society. No man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against another man.”24