The official quote came from the Russian Born Russian-American Philosopher, writer, and screenwriter Ayn Rand. The actual quote is as follows:
Remember also that the smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights, cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.
Did Ayn Rand say it? Yes. She wrote it in a published work of her own. While it may have appeared earlier in print, we can definitively say that it also appeared in a book, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, where she laid out the arguments for and against the economic practice. The work in question Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal was published in 1966. However, the book was merely a collection of essays and we’re working to find the first reference to the quote from the respective essay in question. For now, however, we’ll say that the evidence seems to be sufficient to put her as the original author of the quote.
Ayn Rand Definitely Said It. So What’s the Story?
Ayn Rand wanted to combat arguments against popular sovereignty (a democratic vote) for deciding individual rights for any given outcome that involved civil rights. In other words, she thought that putting the rights of minorities (particularly individuals) to a vote of the majority was particularly distasteful and repugnant. Perhaps ironical, this line of reasoning has been used for why states’ rights should never be employed in the United States for arguments ranging from Gay Marriage to Abortion. Particularly in the case of the former, that is the case on gay marriage, the right of the individual is being decided upon by an overwhelming majority.
Stepping back a bit more, the quote is about the political notion of the “Tyranny of the Majority.” One of the major weaknesses of democracy is how susceptible the public is to the whim of the majority. Leaving the question of whether one’s individual rights should be the subject of a vote. Noam Chomsky once noted that history has provided two potential solutions to this well-known flaw in the democratic method. The first comes from Socrates, whose initial impulse was to “get rid of inequality.” The second, if one can believe it, comes from James Madison whose solution was to “get rid of democracy.”
While the framing may be unfair to the founding fathers’ doctrine, the characterization nonetheless is not without some truth. The idea of the electoral college, along with the three forms of government served as a way to prevent the mob-like mentality of the public from overriding the constitution’s claim of individual rights and liberties. This is the primary argument against the utilization of a direct election.
For this reason, Rand was aggressively against the notion that the rights of individual citizens were subject to a vote. Arguing that the entire point of the constitution is to protect the minority from the majority and, furthermore, there is no greater minority than the individual.
Wasn’t Ayn Rand Conservative?
If you’ve heard Ayn Rand in contemporary discourse, it’s most likely by a conservative defending small government (very unlikely it was uttered by a philosopher or a historian). Ayn Rand was one of the leading voices around the notion of libertarianism, the view that the Government should play the smallest role possible in the daily lives of its citizens. However, unlike many modern-day republicans who claim to desire the same thing, Rand (arguably) took this all the way down to its logical conclusion. Believing that the Government should not discriminate against homosexuals (despite finding the practice of homosexuality personally and morally abhorrent).
If that view was not enough to take her out of fashion with conservatives, another point was that for decades Ayn Rand was one of the most prominent atheists in public life. A view that she would defend on everything from late-night shows to radio interviews to in-person debates.