by N. A. Halkides 12/5/13
In Libertarianism Minus Conservatism = Zero, I detailed some of the philosophical shortcomings of Libertarianism and concluded with a lengthy plea to sensible Libertarians to join forces with the Conservative movement. I would like to make a similar plea to any Objectivists whom this article might reach as well as to fellow Conservatives to welcome whatever Objectivist aid we can get, and to do so I must first discuss the reasons for the current schism that exists between our side and theirs. I will then explain what I feel they have to offer us and what we have to offer them.
Though my plea here will be similar, Objectivism is very different from Libertarianism. For one thing, it is a complete philosophical system with a moral/ethical code from which its politics may be derived, thus avoiding Libertarianism’s negation of values and desire to conduct politics in a vacuum. For another, there was no Objectivist Party until 2008 (and it appears to exist outside of the “mainstream” of Objectivism, if there is such a thing), raising the important question of how exactly Objectivists ever intended to put their political ideas into action. For yet another, Objectivists are probably fewer in number even then Libertarians, meaning that simply getting them to vote Republican probably won’t change any election results – and indeed, I hope to reconcile them with Conservatives for a different reason.
It is not my purpose to launch into a survey of Objectivism, but for the benefit of Conservatives who may not be at all familiar with it, a brief summary is in order. Objectivism’s founder Ayn Rand began with the idea of the primacy of existence (metaphysics), moved on to validating man’s knowledge (epistemology), then held the individual human life as the primary value (ethics), and finally reached the conclusion that freedom, or capitalism, was the only moral political system since only freedom allows the individual to act in the furtherance of his own life. From even this summary three things are immediately obvious:
- Objectivism is nothing like Libertarianism because it presents a moral basis for its political conclusions.
- Objectivism will never be a mass movement (try to imagine a political party discussing metaphysics, for example).
- Objectivism’s political element is entirely consonant with classical liberalism, for instance the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) and therefore with the nucleus of political Conservatism, namely, limited government.
And yet from the beginning Rand was at war with early Conservatives, despite apparently having a sort of grudging respect for the raw intellect of William F. Buckley Jr. Whittaker Chambers published a scathing review of Rand’s seminal work Atlas Shrugged in Buckley’s magazine National Review, which Rand in turn referred to as “the worst and most dangerous magazine in the country”. Trying to evaluate this rift more than half a century later leads this writer to the conclusion that sex and religion were the main sources of the disagreement. Rand wanted Objectivist morality to replace traditional morality and was a strident proponent of abortion; Buckley was of course a strict Catholic who abhorred abortion.
That Objectivism recognized how political values must be informed by moral values is one of its many advantages over Libertarianism, but that brings us now to the question of how Rand and her followers expected to win any victories in the political realm. That Rand wanted Objectivist ethics to replace the largely Judeo-Christian moral code of Western Civilization seems incontrovertible, but did she really believe it was poised to do so? It seems impossible that she could have held such an unrealistic view, yet without this taking place there is no conceivable way that Objectivist politics could replace the soft tyrannies (Rand called them “mixed economies”) of Western Europe (and now America). Fifty years later, if we take a snapshot of Western ethics we see that in Western Europe the fight is over – religion has been abandoned and replaced it with exactly nothing, while in America Conservatives are still fighting to preserve traditional morality against the combined onslaught of the New Left, their unwitting Libertarian allies, and yes, today’s Objectivists. On neither continent do Objectivist ethics, which we might call a rational but non-religious code of morality, seem to be making any headway.
Then there is the question of the deadline by which the course of Western civilization must be reversed from statism to freedom if it is to be saved; that is, what in the last few years we Conservatives have begun calling “The Tipping Point”, by which we mean that the clients of the welfare state (direct beneficiaries and administrators, i.e. public-sector workers) have become so numerous that when combined with ideological/cultural Leftists they form a permanent voting majority. Once this point is reached in a democracy, increasing tyranny becomes inevitable as the majority (or more precisely, the government it puts in power) seizes the minority’s property and stifles its ability to produce wealth with ever-increasing economic controls. Barring a complete intellectual reversal (unlikely as by that time the schools and media would be largely state-controlled), secession, or revolution, complete dictatorship must logically follow.
Now Rand knew this as well as anyone – indeed, it is one of the subsidiary themes in Atlas Shrugged – so she should have been aware that Objectivists were fighting against time. Yet Objectivists until very recently often chose to vote Democratic, even though the Democrats have for many years been the party of the New Left. Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s intellectual heir, counseled his followers to vote Democratic to help destroy the Republican Party until the recent advent of Barack Obama finally awoke him to the terrible and imminent danger the country was in from the New Left and he reversed himself, supporting the Republicans against Obama. (See Peikoff on 10/19/2006 in Capitalism magazine: “What does determine the survival of this country is not political concretes, but fundamental philosophy. And in this area the only real threat to the country now, the only political evil comparable to or even greater than the threat once posed by Soviet Communism, is religion and the Party which is its home and sponsor.” And only six years later on 9/24/2012 Peikoff’s reversal: “Obama is in essence a destroyer for the sake of destruction, a nihilist, the first such to become President. The object to be destroyed is America.”)
One obvious mistake made by Peikoff and other Objectivists was to think that Conservatives were somehow in control of the Republican Party, a point to which I will return later. Another made at least by Peikoff was to underestimate the immediate danger presented by the Democratic Left, perhaps confusing its bankrupt ideology with political impotence. The depth of Rand’s and Peikoff’s antipathy toward religion is hard to overstate and equally hard to understand, but we must now make the attempt.
Rand believed that religion, being based on faith, did not provide a solid ethical foundation for political freedom but that Objectivism could. In fact she thought it was the non-Objectivist philosophy of the Founders that had deprived America, when a young nation, of the means with which to defend herself against the gradual encroachment of statism. Moreover, she and other Objectivists thought that religious beliefs led logically to theocracy, which will seem strange to Conservatives who have never advocated theocracy or anything close to it. (Note the similarity of this idea to the Libertarian complaints we are often regaled with – looks like the Libertarians have been cribbing from Objectivism again).
I cannot recall exactly what Rand’s line of reasoning was, but I believe it ran something like this: Conservatives accept the will of God as the chief good, therefore they will inflict any amount of suffering on people in order to force them to conform to the will of God (as the Conservative sees it), and it mattered not that Conservatives explicitly denied they believed in any such thing because theocracy was the logical end-point of a premise they denied accepting in the first place! In other words, Objectivists believe that Conservatives operate from the same fundamental premises as the Spanish Inquisitors or modern-day Islamists. So we have Peikoff’s belief that “the only political evil comparable to or even greater than the threat once posed by Soviet Communism, is religion” (emphasis added). This sounds absurd on its face, yet I have endeavored not to purposely exaggerate the Objectivist view, and I think we should take it seriously enough to expend the necessary time and effort in an attempt to refute it.
Now I am not an expert on Christian theology, but if we confine ourselves for a moment to the Ten Commandments, there would seem to be little there to which to object for the Objectivist. The first four Commandments refer to strictly religious duties which don’t seem unduly burdensome at that (no graven images, remember the Sabbath day, etc.). Of course, no one has the right to force anyone else to obey these four Commandments, but then I don’t recall any Conservative attempting to do so. There’s nothing controversial in the Fifth Commandment (“Honor thy mother and thy father”), while the last five Commandments forbid murder, adultery, theft, perjury, and coveting that which belongs to your neighbor, respectively. With the possible exception of adultery, one would think Objectivists could get behind this program wholeheartedly.
There were and are sound moral reasons for incorporating these Commandments into a system of public laws even if one rejects their divine origin, for they could be derived from an implicit realization that men had certain rights which other men should respect. Thus it would be a mistake to regard a civil law forbidding homicide as being an instance of theocracy merely because a Commandment states “Thou shalt not kill.” Moreover, the notion that Conservatism must somehow lead to theocracy would seem to be refuted by the fact that a highly moral and religious people, namely early Americans, in embracing the same ideas that modern Conservatives do, did not drift toward theocracy but instead established the freest republic that has ever existed upon this earth. Therefore it is not reasonable to conclude that Conservatism will lead to theocracy, a point which Rand seems to have missed. To put it another way, if Conservatives are trying to conserve the traditional religiously-informed morality that guided the Founders, than Conservatives cannot be disdained as Biblical literalists or would-be theocrats any more than the Founders could.
Perhaps, then, the sticking point was that while these moral precepts might be derived that way, as presented by the Bible and other authorities they were not: religious morality was based on faith, that is, on revealed wisdom. The story of the Commandments being etched in stone (literally) and given by God to Man may be taken as representative of this idea, whereas Rand thought she could derive Objectivist morality without recourse to any “faith” or its equivalent. Before examining this claim, we must digress for a moment and reiterate that America was not founded by Biblical literalists, even though the Founders and the thinkers they relied upon were most assuredly religious men. Religion certainly informed the morality of these men as surely as the early American churches informed American life and political thought, for example through the idea of the church (and similarly the government) as a voluntary compact between individuals. At the same time, it would be incorrect to believe that religion subsumed morality; Deism, for example, held that religious assertions should be held up to the scrutiny of reason. We might point out also that many distinguished philosophers and scientists such as Blaise Pascal and Isaac Newton expended much energy on religious questions. To delve more deeply into the question of religious faith versus reason would take us too far afield; we have wandered some distance as it is to establish that religion informed morality without completely dominating it. We might summarize the situation by saying that in early America, religion and morality were mutually reinforcing, and conclude that the moral views of the Founders (and by implication those of the modern Conservative mainstream) were supported by more than religious revelation.
We return next to the question of whether Objectivist ethics can be derived without depending on “faith,” that is, on assumptions. In any system of knowledge or body of ideas, at some point we are forced to rely on one or more axioms which we take as self-evidently true. Rand chose to begin in metaphysics with the Law of Identity, “A is A”. It can be readily admitted that this is a more primitive level than Jefferson’s “[all men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” yet we must observe (1) The Law of Identity is still an axiom; (2) while Jefferson and the Founders may have begun their science of politics with a statement of Man’s unalienable rights, this idea is not axiomatic when we enlarge our view to encompass the thinking that led up to this point; (3) Libertarianism’s non-initiation of force principle is axiomatic within such ideology as the movement possesses and furthermore is somewhere “downstream” of both Jefferson and Rand – and this is its great weakness. I bring this up not to get in a final kick at Libertarianism, but to emphasize how much stronger the position of the Founders was, even if we take Man’s unalienable rights as completely axiomatic: if asked why those who govern should not use force to compel obedience to their arbitrary dictates, the Libertarian could only answer “Because I assume they shouldn’t” whereas the Conservative and the Objectivist can both reply confidently “Because this would violate the individual’s rights”.
Returning to Conservatism versus Objectivism, without a thoroughgoing analysis and comparison of classic liberalism’s precursor ideas on the one hand to Objectivist theory on the other – and I don’t believe anyone has ever attempted such an analysis – there is no reason to believe that Objectivism is in a stronger position than classical liberalism to maintain the supremacy of individual rights in the political realm. I will suggest now another approach to this crucial question: by examining the erosion of human freedom that actually took place from America’s founding to the present day, we can see whether “Men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” and “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men” were indefensible principles or merely undefended ones. If the former, then Rand was right and freedom cannot be maintained without recourse to Objectivist ethics; if the latter, than Conservatives are right and freedom can be restored by simply returning to the moral and political principles of the Founders.
What Happened to Freedom in America?
Once again, lack of time forces us to make a brief and barely-adequate summary of a complex history that unfolded over the course of more than two centuries. Individual rights are absolute in the sense that they draw a line beyond which government may not go; over time this line was pushed back so that the area of individual autonomy into which government may not trespass was gradually reduced. The mechanism employed, to phrase it in the most general possible way, was to presume that matters previously believed entirely private (e.g. business arrangements between two or more private parties) became somehow public, that is, the general public (purportedly represented by government officials) had an interest, or a right in the legal sense of the term, to interfere with private liberty and commerce.
A major avenue of attack on property rights was provided by the income tax, a necessary predicate to the seizure and redistribution of private property in the name of (government-sponsored) charity, for without a progressive income tax there could be no redistribution of incomes. It is no accident that the bloated welfare state began only after the income tax was levied beginning in 1916. Thus government, which was supposed serve as the guardian of private property, once again became a far more serious violator of property rights than any gang of robbers could have been.
Another line was the abuse of the police power (the power to pass laws for public health and safety), which was also the rationale for imposing economic controls, to encroach upon non-economic freedoms as well, for example, to limit the application of the First and Second Amendments. The current Illinois State Constitution, adopted in 1970, is an excellent example of how not to write a proper State constitution, that is, one that guards individual rights from encroachment by State authorities. Here are its alleged protections of speech and gun rights (emphasis added):
SECTION 4. FREEDOM OF SPEECH
All persons may speak, write and publish freely, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty. In trials for libel, both civil and criminal, the truth, when published with good motives and for justifiable ends, shall be a sufficient defense.
SECTION 22. RIGHT TO ARMS
Subject only to the police power, the right of the individual citizen to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
In other words, you can speak freely, provided you do not “abuse” that freedom. And if, for example, criticizing public officials shall be deemed (by those same public officials, of course) to be an “abuse” – you have no protection at all. Even the fact that you can prove the truth of your words will not save you if some authority decides that your motives weren’t “good” enough or your purpose “justifiable” enough. Similarly, you have the right to bear arms – until the legislature decides that, in the name of public safety, you don’t have it any longer.
What all these encroachments on freedom have in common is that they implicitly or explicitly negate the concept of “right” even (in the case of the Illinois Constitution) while pretending to assert it: the individual cannot be said to have a right to free speech if the government can arbitrarily curtail it; he cannot have a right to bear arms if politicians can erase that right by a quick legislative finding that the public safety requires gun control; he has no right to the products of his own labor if the state may seize and redistribute them (to the supporters of the party in power, of course). Logically then, the way to fight these encroachments would have been to proceed in the manner of the Founders and assert that men did indeed possess unalienable rights. No stronger or more comprehensive defense is conceivable since this one meets the statist attack head-on at the level of basic political premises. And yet this was not done: the Republican Party (infested by Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt) made no attempt to meet the statists’ arguments, and freedom lost by default.
Indeed, even with the advent of modern American Conservatism beginning in the 1950’s, Establishment elements within the GOP remained firmly in control and continued (except for the brief years of the Reagan Presidency) to lose all the important political arguments by default to the increasingly Leftist Democratic Party, a pattern which has been repeated up to the present day. Note the absence of Establishment Republican objections to Obamacare on the grounds that it abrogates the rights of patients, doctors, and businessmen – the most they will say is that it “doesn’t work” or that it “costs too much”. Yes, Republicans are publicly committed to repeal, but only those who are also Conservatives recognize the great evil of Obamacare and of socialized medicine generally – the Establishment merely acknowledges the political necessity of supporting repeal given the overwhelming opposition to Obamacare among the Republican base (Conservatives).
My conclusion, then, is that Conservatives have been correct in their assumption that a return to first principles would also return this country to the state of freedom Americans used to enjoy, and that there is no need to resort to Objectivist ethics. If that is so, do Conservatives need Objectivist support to prevail in the ongoing battle against the Left and its allies?
It Doesn’t Take a Village to Raise a Child, but it Does Take a Party to Win in Politics
This question brings us into the realm of practical politics. You cannot fight effectively against a political party without a political party of your own. To fight against the Left, Conservatives must have a party, and the single greatest political obstacle they face at the moment is the unwillingness of the Establishment GOP to fight and fight hard against the Democratic Left. The Establishment is bad at tactics as well, meaning they both lack the will to fight the Left and the know-how to achieve victory. But Conservatives, while ready to fight the Left, often come up short as to practical battle plans. This is probably so because Conservatives, having been shut out of Party control by the Establishment, have not had much opportunity to hone their skills in this vital area. And here Rand, who would have made an unsuccessful politician but a good political strategist, has a great deal to offer.
Rand wrongly blamed Conservatives for the failures of the Republican Party, apparently not recognizing the Establishment/RINO factor, but correctly identifying the failure of Republicans to defend free-market capitalism. The most important of her insights was that the Left must be fought on principle – it is not sufficient to disagree with this or that element of its political program. A stance must be taken in favor of individual freedom and against collectivism – and clearly the GOP Establishment isn’t up to the task. Simply arguing that the Democrats want to spend too much won’t give Republicans victory over them; it must be explained to voters why Democrats want to spend so much (to buy votes, not because they care about people) and why income redistribution is wrong. Republicans need to say that government-controlled health care is wrong, not just that it doesn’t work. They need to defend the right of the individual to keep the products of his own labor, or at least most of them. Even some Conservatives are rather timid about clearly enunciating such principles – but if they don’t, the Left will win by default, just as it has been doing for decades.
By focusing attention on fundamental principles rather than unimportant distractions (e.g. the fundamental evil of socialized medicine instead of the latest glitch in Obamacare’s website), Objectivists can help Conservative leaders keep their eye on the ball and unseat the Establishment GOPers who are preventing them from attacking the Left head-on.
A Plea to Objectivists
So Objectivists have something to offer Conservatives. Is the reverse also true? Earlier, I stated that “You cannot fight effectively against a political party without a political party of your own” and prior to that wondered how Objectivists thought their ideas might ultimately triumph in the political realm. Perhaps Rand thought that Objectivist ethics would come to predominate, causing one party or another to adopt their logical consequence – capitalism – as the basis of its platform. I don’t think that was ever a realistic hope, but whether it was or not with the additional experience of the past half-century we can state that if Objectivist ethics are ever going to become generally accepted, it certainly won’t happen in time to prevent the Left from completely taking over and establishing dictatorships in America and all across Europe.
The modern-day Objectivist should be asking himself what he can do to stop the Left today. He should realize that the only way freedom can be preserved is that either (1) a democratic majority insists on maintaining it, or (2) a sizable minority, through force of arms or at least the threat of armed resistance, compels the majority to accept limitations on government power and the recognition of minority rights. (This is a debatable assertion, but again, to go into this matter further would be beyond the scope of this article, so it will be assumed arguendo). Option (2) in the context of the U.S. today means State nullification of Federal law, State secession, or outright revolution, and should be recognized as a last-ditch attempt to preserve liberty when all else has failed. Option (1) means working within the democratic process and requires a vital political party consisting of loosely-related factions to succeed. Objectivists do not have a viable political party of their own, reject Libertarianism, and revile (or should revile) the Democratic Party, now wholly committed to rule by force. That leaves the GOP and its coalition of small-government conservatives, social conservatives, practical-minded Libertarians, mushy middle-of-the-roaders, and perhaps some other minor categories.
Because their numbers are few, Objectivists should recognize the need to be part of the Republican Party coalition (or a Conservative Party coalition, should Conservatives finally annihilate the GOP). On their own, Objectivists cannot hope to prevail, and I hope I have answered their objections to joining up with Conservatives, many of whom are and will remain in the future deeply religious. Yet there is another bone of contention, one I brought up in the beginning but brushed aside to get into the thorny matter of religion and morality – abortion.
It will be distasteful to many to get too deeply into personalities, character assassination being the province of the Left, but there is no way to discuss the Objectivist view of sex and abortion without bringing up Rand’s personal life, about which I will say as little as possible. The fact is that Rand was a great believer in sexual pleasure and had a taste for good-looking men – nothing really terrible about that in and of itself, as Conservatives, who are not the puritanical prudes they’re often held to be, would mainly agree. But this belief in the goodness of sex led Rand to fall into the trap of espousing in this one area a kind of ethical hedonism, a trap she should have been more aware of since she understood the failings of this system of thought.
More intellectually adept then Hugh Hefner was with his “Playboy Philosophy,” she concocted an elaborate rationale for why sex was such a good thing that it practically eclipsed all other values. And this meant that nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of unrestricted sexual pleasure, not even such an obvious consequence as pregnancy. Not content to advocate family planning through contraception, Rand explicitly denied the humanity of the unborn infant, dismissing it as “a blob of protoplasm,” and insisting that individual rights necessarily included abortion. So extreme was Rand on this issue that because of it she preferred Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan(!) in the 1976 Republican Presidential nomination campaign.
None of Rand’s followers have departed from her pro-abortion position as far as I know (Peikoff has explicitly reiterated it). It is unlikely that Objectivists will be persuaded by Conservative arguments against abortion, and it is equally unlikely that despite pressure from Objectivists, Libertarians and the pro-abortion faction within the Republican Party, Conservatives will simply abandon their defense of the unborn and adopt a pro-abortion stance. What then to do? I would remind Objectivists that their real enemy is the Democratic Left, an enemy grown strong with the increase in the size of the entitlement class and its control of most of society’s major institutions. This enemy is on the move (Obamacare, amnesty for illegal immigrants, assaults on the remaining institutions such as the church and the family that it does not yet control) and is not far wrong in sensing victory within its grasp. It can still be defeated, but the hour is late: It has a death-grip on the largest state in the union, California, which cannot be broken by any means conceivable to this writer before that State’s complete and utter collapse, and is planning to replicate this situation in every other State it does not already rule.
If the Left is not stopped soon by democratic means, we will have two basic choices – submit or actively resist, obstruct, and oppose the government, perhaps through armed force. In such a dire situation, I would urge Objectivists to put the abortion issue aside for now and join with Conservatives to stop the Left. When freedom has been restored and measures put into place to keep it reasonably secure (I have in mind here Constitutional Amendments), then the argument over abortion can be taken up, and the alliance very likely split up. But for now, all those who value any kind of personal liberty should unite against their common enemy, the Democratic Left. • (11301 views)