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As her ghostly avatar patrolled the corridors of the doomed Taggart Comet in ‘Atlas Shrugged’, Ayn Rand reached Car No 4. It gave her an opportunity to not merely repeat her previous condemnation of the press,but to reinforce it, because the man in Drawing Room B, was no mere journalist.

He was a newspaper publisher who believed that men are evil by nature and unfit for freedom, that their basic interests, if left unchecked, are to lie, to rob and murder one another – and, therefore, men must be ruled by means of lies, robbery and murder, which must be made the exclusive privilege of the rulers, for the purpose of forcing men to work, teaching them to be moral and keeping them within the bounds of order and justice

As far as the first part of this indictment is concerned, many people would agree that there are, and have been, newspaper magnates with beliefs just as described. At any rate, they seem to have run their newspapers on those assumptions, often with a few additional traits, such as rabid nationalism, extreme sentimentality, and love of animals. All traits, be it noted, they shared with Adolf Hitler, the idol of the 1930’s Daily Mail,. Frighteningly, the success of some such newspapers suggests that their proprietors’ might be analyzing humanity accurately, although it is at least arguable in such cases that their readers didn’t start with those traits but were encouraged into them by the diet of news and comment that they were fed.

After the ‘therefore’, however, Rand headed out into the world of pure fantasy, unless and except she considered that the man she described, and perhaps a few of his colleagues,to be the real rulers. The barons of the press have never seen themselves as being at the beck and call of anyone else. Their ideal has always been a body politic where the nominal rulers dance to their tune.

Whatever the reality, if things really are this bad, it is pointless to look to Rand for a solution. Her ideal state is one in which government, in so far as it exists at all, is forbidden from making any laws that might disadvantage business. And in these days the media, including the newspapers, are very big business indeed!

As so often, it has been Murray Rothbard who has taken Rand’s poorly thought-through propositions to their logical conclusions. On p182-183 of Man, Economy, and State he set out the principles under which the press baron should operate.

In a free society, as we have stated, every man is a self-owner. No man is allowed to own the body or mind of another, that being the essence of slavery. This condition completely overthrows the basis for a law of defamation, i.e., libel (written defamation) or slander (oral defamation). For the basis of outlawing defamation is that every man has a “property in his own reputation” and that therefore any malicious or untruthful attack on him or his character (or even more, a truthful attack!) injures his reputation and therefore should be punished. However, a man has no such objective property as “reputation.” His reputation is simply what others think of him, i.e., it is purely a function of the subjective thoughts of others. But a man cannot own the minds or thoughts of others. Therefore, I cannot invade a man’s property right by criticizing him publicly. Further, since I do not own others’ minds, either, I cannot force anyone else to think less of the man because of my criticism.

The press baron would, no doubt, be delighted to endorse these principles. He does not, after all, ever force anyone to hate benefit claimants, or refugees, or political opponents. He does not need to, because he knows that by making any case long enough and loud enough, he will persuade enough of his readers to agree with him. Note that for Rothbard even an untruthful attack must to be tolerated, although elsewhere in the same book he makes it clear that an untruthful description of property in a transaction can be, and must be, forbidden. Property, for the Austrian school, trumps people, every time.

And for Rand? The only difficulty in all this is to understand why she considered the press baron deserving of death. After all, according to her, he did seem to have believed in teaching men to be moral and in “keeping them within the bounds of order and justice”. Her John Galt alter-ego accepted the necessity of a police force for just such a purpose.