Was Ayn Rand a hypocrite for receiving Social Security and Medicare?
A common “argument” against Ayn Rand is that she is hypocritical and her philosophical system, Objectivism, is unsustainable in the real world because Rand received public health insurance and pension.
Ayn Rand was one of the strongest critics of the welfare state and its ethical system, altruism. She championed laissez faire-capitalism, rational selfishness and a state whose sole purpose is to protect individual freedom. That she still received public support apparently shows that she was a hypocrite.
We will see that the criticism is false, that the critics assume a false premise, that they claim that Rand took a stand she never did, and that they then accuse her of breaking the stance she never took.
Facts about Ayn Rand, Medicare and Social Security
Was Ayn Rand really enrolled in Medicare and Social Security? The short answer is: Yes. But what exactly are these public programs, why and how was Rand enlisted, and what was the extent?
Medicare and Social Security are public, compulsory health insurance and social security programs in the United States, respectively. The programs function like this: you have to pay a certain proportion of your income to the government, which you hopefully get back in the form of services when needed.
In the book 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand, Evva Joan Pryor recounts how she assisted Rand and her husband Frank O’Connor in applying for government grants from the mid-1970s and beyond. Pryor was a consultant who was put on the case by Rand’s lawyers:
McConnell: How and when did you meet Ayn Rand?
Pryor: It was around 1976 when I worked as a consultant for her attorneys, Ernst, Cane, Gitlin & Winick. My masters degree was in social work, and I had been with Mobilization for Youth and was also teaching at NYY as an adjunct [instructor] and working as a consultant to a number of other organizations. A problem came up, and her attorneys asked me if I would meet with her.
McConnell: What was the problem?
Pryor: She was “retiring,” and Paul Gitlin and Gene Winick, her attorneys, felt she should discuss applying for Social Security and Medicare. The office asked that I go over and talk with her about it.
McConnell: Tell me about your first meeting with Ayn Rand and how these matters developed.
Pryor: I had read enough to know that she despised government interference, and that she felt that people should and could live independently. She was coming to a point in her life where she was going to receive the very thing she didn’t like, which was Medicare and Social Security.
I remember telling her that this was going to be difficult. For me to do my job, she had to recognize that there were exceptions to her theory. So that started our political discussions. From there on—with gusto—we argued all the time. The initial argument was on greed. She had to see that there was such a thing as greed in this world. Doctors could cost an awful lot more money than books earn, and she could be totally wiped out by medical bills if she didn’t watch it. Since she had worked her entire life and had paid into Social Security, she had a right to it. She didn’t feel that an individual should take help.
McConnell: And did she agree with you about Medicare and Social Security?
Pryor: After several meetings and arguments, she gave me her power of attorney to deal with all matters having to do with health and Social Security. Whether she agreed or not is not the issue, she saw the necessity for both her and Frank. She was never involved other than to sign the power of attorney; I did the rest.
Rand herself did not actively seek for Medicare and Social Security, but was recommended to enroll by their lawyers who almost insisted by putting a consultant (not a social worker, as someone claims) on the case.
However, there is little doubt that Ayn Rand and her husband received public support in the last few years of their lives. It has been confirmed by Pryor, in addition to Rand’s secretary Cynthia Peikoff and employees at The Ayn Rand Archives.
By submitting a so-called Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the US federal government, freelance writer Patia Stephens found that Rand received USD 11,002 from Social Security in the period between December 1974 and March 1982. This amounts to USD 1,572 annually in the seven years Rand was enrolled. The number for Medicare has not been found.
The Moorfield Storey Institute asks questions
We could have ended the factual presentation of Rand’s handouts there, but a commendable post from The Moorfield Storey Institute (MSI) has a number of interesting and relevant considerations.
MSI is questioning whether Pryor actually did anything about the Social Security application, since she did not state anything beyond that Rand “was never involved other than to sign the power of attorney.” According to MSI, this does not indicate whether Pryor actually applied for support or whether Rand knew about it, since Pryor also says she acted regardless of whether Rand agreed or not. Nor is there any evidence that Rand’s and her husband’s benefits were ever used.
Rand was not poor and penniless towards the end of her life. She had several hundred thousand dollars in cash reserves and a steady income from royalties. In 1982 at the time of her death, Rand’s estate was worth about USD 1 million, which her heir Leonard Peikoff could enjoy, and something he used to establish the ideal organization Ayn Rand Institute in 1985. According to MSI, Rand was so well off that she paid a heart surgery for a brother-in-law in Russia, as well as employing a secretary, a housekeeper and a chef. The latter even received USD 10,000 from Rand’s estate as a thanks for well done services after Rand’s death. That is almost all of the alleged sum Rand would have received from Social Security.
If Rand didn’t suffer any financial distress, what might have been the motivation to be enrolled in Social Security? According to MSI, the reason may have been for the sake of Frank O’Connor, who never earned as much as her. Her lawyers appealed to Rand and argued that she could die before Frank and that he would struggle if his health costs would skyrocket. Rand may therefore have joined Social Security for Frank’s sake.
As for the alleged sum of the payments that Patia Stephens dug out, MSI points out that it would have represented only a small portion of Rand’s total tax burden. Social Security taxes were introduced in 1937. As a best-selling self-employed writer in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, Rand paid substantial sums in Social Security taxes for 47 years. Even if you subtract the unknown Medicare expenditure, it would not have exceeded Rand’s cumulative taxation by far.
As for the name Ayn Rand used when applying for support, it was
as Ann O’Connor, according to Huffington Post. That is a mystery, as her legal name in the United States was the anglified version of her Russian name, Alisa Rozenbaum—i.e. Alice Rosenbaum. After marrying Frank O’Connor, her name was changed Alice O’Connor (source: A Companion to Ayn Rand). In any case: Using her legal name in communication with public authorities is not an attempt to conceal that she received support, as some people on the Internet claim.
The facts are presented and reviewed critically. Ayn Rand probably received support from the Social Security and Medicare public programs. She did not want to be enrolled in the programs, but her lawyers insisted and she may have joined for her husband’s sake. Whatever she received was much lower than what she had paid in taxes throughout her active professional career, and she didn’t really need the benefits. For example, her estate was worth USD 1 million at the time of her passing.
Point 1: Right to what you pay for
According to Evva Pryor, Ayn Rand reluctantly accepted that Pryor and her lawyers managed her and her husband’s health finances. Pryor had to discuss with Rand for a long time about the program, as Rand did not like public intervention in the lives of individuals. Pryor even had to argue that Rand had worked and paid taxes all her life and had a right to receive benefits in return.
This is a significant point: Ayn Rand had already paid money into the US public system, so why shouldn’t she get them back in the form of services when she and her husband were old and getting weaker? Why should she add an extra burden on herself?
Ayn Rand was a supporter of trade and justice. When two parties enter into a transaction, both parties are under normal circumstances expected to benefit. If you are at the store to buy bread, the store earns by the trade-off by getting your money and you earn from the trade-off by getting food. In a “trade” between government and citizens, money is deprived of residents such as Ayn Rand (whether they want it or not), who then in theory will receive reimbursement in the form of Social Security, insurance or the like.
Rand was against any system where the government with physical coercion or threat of physical coercion performs such “deals,” but like everyone else, she was forced into the system. Rand had no choice—her money was already taken by the government. She was therefore in her full right to receive benefits back.
Incidentally, there is nothing wrong with life insurance and pensions by themselves. In a free society, private and voluntary versions of these will be sensible measures to live well off towards the end of your life. However, in an unfree or semi-free society, you have to settle for what you get from the government, since you already have paid a significant proportion of your income in the form of taxes. In semi-free societies you can in all fairness buy private health services beside the public service, but then you have already helped to finance the public service and few people have sufficient funds to pay double up. And then it’s a matter of moral justice.
Point 2: Moral resistance against force
In Letters of Ayn Rand we can read a letter Ayn Rand wrote to a fan named Milton W. Broberg in 1964:
I hope that you will not find yourself in need of public assistance. But permit me to say that if you do need it, you should not hesitate to call on it, because you are certainly entitled to it—in view of the taxes you have paid and in view of the fact that today’s political system makes it impossible to provide for his old age. This does not mean that the welfare state is right, but so long as you oppose the welfare state, you should not be its first victim and should not be made to suffer while your own hard-earned money is being spent to support bums all over the world.
Rand writes that Broberg should accept public support because:
- She has paid taxes
- The political system makes it impossible to provide for her old age
- She should not suffer while her money is being used on others, especially those who support such a system
This viewpoints is explained in detail by Rand in the essay “The Question of Scholarships” from 1966:
The recipient of a public scholarship is morally justified only so long as he regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism. Those who advocate public scholarships have no right to them; those who oppose them have. If this sounds like a paradox, the fault lies in the moral contradictions of welfare statism, not in its victims.
Since there is no such thing as the right of some men to vote away the rights of others, and no such thing as the right of the government to seize the property of some men for the unearned benefit of others—the advocates and supporters of the welfare state are morally guilty of robbing their opponents, and the fact that the robbery is legalized makes it morally worse, not better. The victims do not have to add self-inflicted martyrdom to the injury done to them by others; they do not have to let the looters profit doubly, by letting them distribute the money exclusively to the parasites who clamored for it. Whenever the welfare-state laws offer them some small restitution, the victims should take it.
It does not matter, in this context, whether a given individual has or has not paid an amount of taxes equal to the amount of the scholarship he accepts. First, the sum of his individual losses cannot be computed; this is part of the welfare-state philosophy, which treats everyone’s income as public property. Second, if he has reached college age, he has undoubtedly paid—in hidden taxes—much more than the amount of the scholarship. Or, if his parents cannot afford to pay for his education, consider what taxes they have paid, directly or indirectly, during the twenty years of his life—and you will see that a scholarship is too pitifully small even to be called a restitution.
Third—and most important—the young people of today are not responsible for the immoral state of the world into which they were born. Those who accept the welfare-statist ideology assume their share of the guilt when they do so. But the anti-collectivists are innocent victims who face an impossible situation: it is welfare statism that has almost destroyed the possibility of working one’s way through college. It was difficult but possible some decades ago; today, it has become a process of close-to-inhuman torture. There are virtually no part-time jobs that pay enough to support oneself while going to school; the alternative is to hold a full-time job and to attend classes at night—which takes eight years of unrelenting twelve-to-sixteen-hour days, for a four-year college course. If those responsible for such conditions offer the victim a scholarship, his right to take it is incontestable—and it is too pitifully small an amount even to register on the scales of justice, when one considers all the other, the nonmaterial, nonamendable injuries he has suffered.
The same moral principles and considerations apply to the issue of accepting social security, unemployment insurance, or other payments of that kind. It is obvious, in such cases, that a man receives his own money which was taken from him by force, directly and specifically, without his consent, against his own choice. Those who advocated such laws are morally guilty, since they assumed the “right” to force employers and unwilling coworkers. But the victims, who opposed such laws, have a clear right to any refund of their own money—and they would not advance the cause of freedom if they left their money, unclaimed, for the benefit of the welfare-state administration.
The essence of Rand’s argument is that only opponents of an immoral and compulsory system are the only moral recipients of the funds. You should not make yourself a martyr by refusing to receive public benefits—then you penalize yourself doubly and give your opponents an undeserved advantage.
If you oppose a compulsory system such as the welfare state, you have the full moral right to benefit from the public support that happens to exist. You did not ask for the system, but it is what you get. Your opponents welcome the system and have no moral right to receive benefits—as they have no moral right to rob their fellow citizens.
Ayn Rand received public support, but it was in accordance with her philosophy, Objectivism. The reason is because the welfare state is a compulsory system and you should not make yourself a martyr and refuse to get any benefits from the amount you have paid in taxes—in order to emphasize the immorality of the system.
Objectivism is a system for living in happiness and in accordance with reason as a human being on Earth. Placing a double burden on yourself is not in line with this philosophy—as an adversary of an immoral system and as a champion of a moral system it is only right to accept the little consolidation being offered.
Ayn Rand would have been a hypocrite if she had written that it was wrong to receive public support when being opposed to the welfare state, but she never did—quite the contrary. Critics operate with a wrong premise: They believe that if you are opposed to a system you consider immoral, you must reject all services, regardless of whether it makes your life worse. Rand never stood for such a rationalist system, she was concerned with living a good life as a rational being—even within a system making this difficult.
PS: Health Services and Freedom
It is easy to overlook an important point in Evva Pryor’s above recounting: “Doctors could cost an awful lot more money.” In a society where the health sector is among the least free, services and equipment will necessarily be more expensive than they should have been.
The reasons for this are many, but among the most important are regulations, tariffs, taxes, fees and lack of incentives for innovation and efficiency in a public health service where the services are “free.” Learn more about this in Leonard Peikoff’s essay “Medicine: The Death of a Profession”.
This fact adds to Rand’s double burden argument. If you are already living in a society with costly healthcare and forced confiscation of your income, why should you not benefit from (sub-optimal) services you have already paid for? Why should you suffer more by first paying for the public service (which is overpriced) and then paying for the private service (which is also overpriced)?
Sources and references
- The Myth About Ayn Rand and Social Security – Ayn Rand Institute
- Ayn Rand, Social Security and the Truth – The Moorfield Storey Institute | Facebook
- Lying about Ayn Rand and Social Security – Classically Liberal
- The Question of Scholarships – ARI Campus
- 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand – Google Books
- Letters of Ayn Rand – Google Books
- A Companion to Ayn Rand – Google Books
- Social Security – Wikipedia
- Medicare – Wikipedia
- Ayn Rand and Social Security – Snopes
- Ayn Rand Received Social Security, Medicare – Patia Stephens
- Ayn Rand and the VIP-DIPers – Huffington Post