The ‘Rand’omness of Rush’s Libertarianism
[Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of essays that looks at selections from Rush and Philosophy (Open Court Press: 2011), edited by Jim Berti and Durrell Bowman. The book came out in March 2011 and looks at Rush’s music through different philosophical lenses.]
Commentators like to point to the celebration of libertarian ideas in Rush’s music but Steven Horwitz, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., says Rush’s music is more consistently a celebration of individualism than libertarianism, although that’s not to deny the deep strains of libertarianism in the band’s music.
In “Rush’s Libertarianism Never Fit the Plan,” Horwitz describes libertarianism as the view that people should be free to live their lives as they see fit, while respecting the rights of others to do the same. Government’s only job is to prevent us from harming others, which would deny others their freedom, equal to our own freedom. “As the old saying goes, my right to swing my fist ends at the beginning of someone’s face.”
With this as our view of libertarianism, it’s easy to see why commentators would stick that label on the band. “Anthem,” “2112,” “Something for Nothing,” and “Natural Science, among many others, express various strains of the ideology, and Horwitz points out that Neil himself has, at various times, described himself as a “left libertarian” (a libertarian who believes in a social safety net), although Alex and Geddy have never slotted themselves into the libertarian camp. [For an interesting take on Geddy’s libertarianism, click here.]
Horwitz doesn’t mention this, but a number of high-profile libertarians in the United States have said they’re big fans of the band, including Neel Kashkari, the U.S. Treasury official under President George W. Bush who in 2008 got the infamous Term Asset Relief Program (TARP) off the ground (that was the big bank bailout that, ironically enough, libertarians and others criticized as too much government intervention), and Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky who received a letter from Rush’s management during his 2010 run for office asking him not to play Rush’s music at his campaign events.
Of course, Ayn Rand was a libertarian and Neil’s appreciation for her work, at least in his early years with the band, is well known. (Ayn Rand and Rand Paul: what’s up with that?)
Horwitz’s point is that the libertarian strands in the band’s music are undeniable but that to call the band libertarian would require ignoring a significant portion of the band’s output. Horwitz didn’t identify the songs that either run counter to or else just don’t fit nicely into libertarian ideology, but he might have pointed to a number of songs that appear to be critical of rampant materialism, which is a by-product of free economic markets (“Superconductor,” “The Big Money”), environmental disaster caused by that rampant materialism (“Second Nature,” “Red Tide”), and the need we have for other people in our lives (“Hand Over Fist,” among others).
The ideology the band espouses more consistently is individualism, Horwitz says, which is compatible with libertarianism (you can’t have inventors and entrepreneurs without it) but the two aren’t reducible to one another.
Throughout the band’s body of work, the idea that it’s individuals, as their own power centers, striving to project their self-worth, is paramount. “What you do is your own glory” in “Something for Nothing,” “He’s noble enough to win the world” in “New World Man,” “Nobody gets a free ride” in “Marathon,” and so on. The list goes on and on.
Horwitz doesn’t pursue this strain of thought, but to say the band celebrates the individual doesn’t mean there’s no recognition of how rough life can get when you’re out there on your own striving. Roll the Bones from 1991 is almost entirely devoted to how chance and unforeseen circumstances can upend people, and a good amount of the band’s output in the last dozen years or so touches on the precariousness of our lives in a world where “the stars look down” while you get buffeted about mercilessly.
But, in the end, it’s better to be buffeted about as a self-empowered individual than to be, like the Maples in “The Trees,” reliant on the state to enforce equality by cutting the tall down to size.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault
Read the first essay in this series: “Philosophy of Mind has a Headache; Cygnus has Aspirin.”
Read the second: “It’s Just Chemistry: Rush Try to Make Sense of Reality.”
Read the third: “Is Rush Helping Humanism Out-maneuver Religion?”
Read the fifth: “Rush’s Table of Virtues.”
Read the sixth: “Rush’s Rosier Shade of Reality.”
Read the seventh: “The Trees: More Than Meets the Eye?”
Read the eighth: “Plato: ‘Rush Non in Forma Petra Musica'”
Read the ninth: ‘Rush Music: Spontaneous as a Baroque Jam Session
Here’s a fun piece of satire on how Rush and other Canadians unleashed Ayn Rand on the United States in an effort to destabilize the country.