An Untitled Letter

by Ayn Rand
From Philosophy: Who Needs It
Philosophy: Who Needs It
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This essay was originally published in January – February 1973 in The Ayn Rand Letter and later anthologized in Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982).
The most appropriate title for this discussion would be “I told you so.” But since that would be in somewhat dubious taste, I shall leave this [issue of the Ayn Rand Letter] untitled.

In Atlas Shrugged, and in many subsequent articles, I said that the advocates of Mysticism are motivated not by a quest for truth, but by hatred for man’s mind; that the advocates of Altruism are motivated not by compassion for suffering, but by hatred for man’s life; that the advocates of Collectivism are motivated not by a desire for men’s happiness, but by hatred for man; that their three doctrines come from the same root and blend into a single passion: hatred of the good for being the good; and that the focus of that hatred, the target of its passionate fury, is the man of ability.

Those who thought that I was exaggerating have seen event after event confirm my diagnosis. Reality has been providing me with references and footnotes, including explicit admissions by the advocates of those doctrines. The admissions are becoming progressively louder and clearer.

The major ideological campaigns of the mystic-altruist-collectivist axis are usually preceded by trial balloons that test the public reaction to an attack on certain fundamental principles. Today, a new kind of Intellectuals ballon is beginning to bubble in the popular press — testing the climate for a large-scale attack intended to obliterate the concept of justice.

The new balloons acquire the mark of a campaign by carrying, like little identification tags, the code words: “A New Justice.” This does not mean that the campaign is consciously directed by some mysterious powers. It is a conspiracy, not of men, but of basic premises — and the power directing it is logic: if, at the desperate stage of a losing battle, some men point to a road logically necessitated by their basic premises, those who share the premises will rush to follow.

Since my capacity for intellectual slumming is limited, I do not know who originated this campaign at this particular time (its philosophical roots are ancient). The first instance that came to my attention was a brief news item over a year ago. Dr. Jan Tinbergen from the Netherlands, who had received a Nobel Prize in Economic Science, spoke at an international conference in New York City and suggested “that there be a tax on personal capabilities. ‘A modest first step might be a special tax on persons with high academic scores,’ he said.” We reprinted this item in the “Horror File” of The Objectivist (June 1971). The reaction of my friends, when they read it, was an incredulously indignant amusement, with remarks such as: “He’s crazy!”

But it is not amusing any longer when a news item in The New York Times (January 2, 1973) announces that Pope Paul VI “issued a call today for a ‘new justice.’ True justice recognizes that all men are in substance equal, the Pontiff said. . . . ‘The littler, the poorer, the more suffering, the more defenseless, even the lower a man has fallen, the more he deserves to be assisted, raised up, cared for, and honored. We learn this from the Gospel.’”

Observe the package-deal: to be “little,” “poor,” “suffering,” “defenseless” is not necessarily to be immoral (it depends on the cause of these conditions). But “even the lower a man has fallen” implies, in this context, not misfortune but immorality. Are we asked to absorb the notion that the lower a man’s vices, the more concern he deserves — and the more honor? Another package deal: to be “assisted,” “raised up,” “cared for” obviously does not apply to those who are great, rich, happy or strong; they do not need it. But — “to be honored? They are the men who would have to do the assisting, the raising up, the caring for — but they do not deserve to be honored? They deserve less honor than the man who is saved by their virtues and values?

In Atlas Shrugged, exposing the meaning of altruism, John Galt says: “What passkey admits you to the moral elite? The passkey is lack of value. Whatever the value involved, it is your lack of it that gives you a claim upon those who don’t lack it. . . . To demand rewards for your virtue is selfish and immoral; it is your lack of virtue that transforms your demand into a moral right.”

What is an abstract ethical suggestion in the Pope’s message, becomes specific and political in a brief piece that appeared in the Times on January 20, 1973 — “The New Inequality” by Peregrine Worsthorne, a columnist for The Sunday Telegraph of London. In addition to altruism, which is its base, this piece was made possible by two premises: 1. the refusal to recognize the difference between mind and force (i.e., between economic and political power); and 2. the refusal to recognize the difference between existence and consciousness (i.e., between the metaphysical and the man-made). Those who ignore or evade the crucial importance of these distinctions, will find Mr. Peregrine Worsthorne ready to welcome them at the end of their road.

There was a time, Mr. Worsthorne begins, when “gross hereditary inequalities of wealth, status and power were universally accepted as a divinely ordained fact of life.” He is speaking of feudalism and of the British caste system. But modern man, he says, “finds this awfully difficult to understand. To him it seems absolutely axiomatic that each individual ought to be allowed to make his grade according to merit, regardless of the accident of birth. All positions of power, wealth and status should be open to talent. To the extent that this ideal is achieved a society is deemed to be just.”

If you think that this is a proclamation of individualism, think twice. Modern liberals, Mr. Worsthorne continues, “have tended to believe it to be fair enough that the man of merit should be on top and the man without merit should be underneath.” On top — of what? Underneath — what? Mr. Worsthorne doesn’t say. Judging by the rest of the piece, his answer would be: on top of anything — political power, self-made wealth, scientific achievement, artistic genius, the status of earned respect or of a government-granted title of nobility — anything anyone may ever want or envy.

The current social “malaise,” he explains, is caused by “the increasing evidence that this assumption [about a just society] should be challenged. The ideal of a meritocracy no longer commands such universal assent.”

“Meritocracy” is an old anti-concept and one of the most contemptible package-deals. By means of nothing more than its last five letters, that word obliterates the difference between mind and force: it equates the men of ability with political rulers, and the power of their creative achievements with political power. There is no difference, the word suggests, between freedom and tyranny: an “aristocracy” is tyranny by a politically established elite, a “democracy” is tyranny by the majority — and when a government protects individual rights, the result is tyranny by talent or “merit” (and since “to merit” means “to deserve,” a free society is ruled by the tyranny of justice).

Mr. Worsthorne makes the most of it. His further package-dealing becomes easier and cruder. “It used to be considered manifestly unjust that a child should be given an enormous head-start in life simply because he was the son of an earl, or a member of the landed gentry. But what about a child today born of affluent, educated parents whose family life gets him off to a head-start in the educational ladder? Is he not the beneficiary of a form of hereditary privilege no less unjust than that enjoyed by the aristocracy?”

What about Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, Commodore Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, Sr. or, in politics, Abraham Lincoln, and their “enormous head-start in life”? On the other hand, what about the Park Avenue hippies or the drug-eaten children of college-bred intellectuals and multimillionaires?

Mr. Worsthorne, it seems, had counted on “universal public education” to level things down, but it has disappointed him. “Family life,” he declares, “is more important than school life in determining brain power. . . . Educational qualifications are today what armorial quarterings were in feudal times. Yet access to them is almost as unfairly determined by accidents of birth as was access to the nobility.” This, he says, defeats “any genuine faith in equality of opportunity” — and “accounts for the current populist clamor to do away with educational distinctions such as exams and diplomas, since they are seen as the latest form of privilege which, in a sense, they are.”

This means that if a young student (named, say, Thomas Hendricks), after days and nights of conscientious study, proves that he knows the subject of medicine, and passes an exam, he is given an arbitrary privilege, an unfair advantage over a young student (named Lee Hunsacker) who spent his time in a drugged daze, listening to rock music. And if Hendricks gets a diploma and a job in a hospital, while Hunsacker does not, Hunsacker will scream that he could not help it and that he never had a chance. Volitional effort? There is no such thing. Brain power? It’s determined by family life — and he couldn’t help it if Mom and Pop did not condition him to be willing to study. He is entitled to a job in a hospital, and a just society would guarantee it to him. The fate of the patients? He’s as good as any other fellow — “all men are in substance equal” — and the only difference between him and the privileged bastards is a diploma granted as unfairly as armorial quarterings! Equal opportunity? Don’t make him laugh!

Socialists, Mr. Worsthorne remarks, have used “the ideal of equality of opportunity” as “a way of moving in the right, that is to say the Left, direction.” They regarded it as “the thin end of the egalitarian wedge.”

Then, suddenly, Mr. Worsthorne starts dispensing advice to the Right — which the Left has always insisted on doing (and with good reason: any “rightist” who accepts it, deserves it). His advice, as usual, involves a threat and counts on fear. “But there is a problem here for the Right quite as much as for the Left. It seems to me certain that there will be a growing awareness in the coming decades of the unfairness of existing society, of the new forms of arbitrary allocation of power, status and privilege. Resentment will build up against the new meritocracy just as it built up against the old aristocracy and plutocracy.”

The Right, he claims, must “devise new ways of disarming this resentment, without so curbing the high-flyers, so penalizing excellence, or so imposing uniformity as to destroy the spirit of a free and dynamic society.” Observe that he permits himself to grasp and cynically to admit that such an issue as the penalizing of excellence is involved, but he regards it as the Right’s concern, not his own — and he does not object to penalizing virtue for being virtue, provided the penalties do not go to extremes. This — in an article written as an appeal for justice.

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