Responses to “Objectivism, the Philosophy of Ayn Rand” by Leonard Peikoff (section on Government)

What I’ve done here is take various passages directly from Leonard Peikoff’s book, Objectivism, the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (specifically, the section on Government) and presented them in italics. My response to each passage is in regular type. Since Rand appointed Peikoff as the “heir” to Objectivism, I have treated his analysis of Rand’s writings on the same level I would treat Rand, especially since much of the book is simply restating ideas found in Rand’s essays.

I’ve added some relevant quotes at the end of this entry to further reflect the notions in my responses.

“By its nature, the concept of a right pertains, in Ayn Rand’s words, “only to action- specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.”’

This quote is pivotal to understanding Rand’s theory on rights. This sets it distinctly apart from other rights systems. What I mean here is the common view of rights as positive. She would hold that no one has the right to anything, or of anything. Free speech, property rights, and other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights exist only in the context of the notion that no one can stop you from speaking your mind, or may take what is yours, or may stop you and other individuals from assembling. But as she states in her essay, Man’s Rights, the economic bill of rights proposed by FDR is actually a list of enslavements for others. For someone to have a right to free health care, or the right to a job, is to imply that someone must obtain that at the expense of someone else. The only right to Health Care or to employment that Rand would support is the right to pursue employment or to seek out Health care. In thinking about this right now, I’m forced to consider what Rand’s stance on Civil Rights was/should be. Without looking up what Rand actually stated on the issue, I will endeavor to think about what she would say, knowing her stance on human rights. In public places, and government organizations, she would no doubt be opposed to segregation. There is no way in which Racism is compatible with Rand’s Objectivism. She speaks of all humans in her theory, and any hidden racism she may have had may be discounted, since it does not coincide with her view on the autonomy of the individual, be he white or black. Moving on, it’s obvious that she would support the end of discrimination based on race in any public organization. But would she support then end of discrimination by private businesses and persons. It would seem she opposed to any sort of “compulsion, coercion, or interference” from the government to tell those individuals whom they should hire or serve in their business. I suppose that she would say that in a lassaize faire system, those businesses, were they rational would not deny service to a paying customer simply because he was of a different race. This would be self-destructive action contrary to that of the rational person. Also, a rational employer would not turn away someone who was more qualified for a job simply because of the colour of his skin. Again, if someone is a businessman, his actions should be guided by the set of values appropriate to the businessman – so it would seem fitting of Rand to say – and to act against those values would ultimately be self-destructive. But what would Rand say to a system that is this backward, where businessmen act contrary to how a good businessman should act, yet remain successful. The antebellum south is the best example. It seems unlikely that such practices would ever have simply gone away without the intervention, coercion, and compulsion of the government forcing private businesses to engage in what Rand would call the proper business tactics. Does Rand’s view of compulsion apply to those individuals and organizations that fail to act rationally? The answer, sadly, I think, is yes. She would say to the black man in 1960’s South Carolina that he does not have a right to be treated fairly by others. He only has the right not to be physically forced not to seek employment, or threatened not to do so. But if a racist producer as Rand would identify him, would choose a less qualified white man than our more qualified black man, then that is not the black man’s issue, it is simply the poor business practices of a businessman on level with buying more than he is selling, having poor customer service, or a shoddy advertising campaign. Rand never in all her writings implies that her conclusions are applicable only to some perfect society she has dreamed up, started by Equality 5-7251(?), where all men are rational and never act contrary to actions appropriate to the life qua rational life. Quite the contrary, she implies that her conclusions are right in principle. It is always wrong to lie. It is always wrong to initiate physical force. It is always wrong to accept something from someone without some sort of reciprocity. Thus it would seem that Rand’s response to the black man’s plight in 1960’s South Carolina is essentially a tone of “tough bananas.” No one can force the poor businessman to engage in smarter practices, in this sense fairer practices. And the black man does not have the positive right to a job, since this would force some business to give it to him. So while Rand would approve of a man’s right to engage in action that wasn’t directly harmful to anyone, she, in principle, could not oppose someone’s action that was indirectly harmful to anyone, even if it was harmful to a group of individuals on a whole. Now, in today’s society, Rand is more compatible with civil rights, though she would completely opposed to affirmative action, in any of its incarnations, because it forces a business to hire individuals it may not wish to hire, for whatever reason that business may not want to hire them. But other than that, it would seem that to be a racist businessman is detrimental to said businessman’s business. If it is made known that he engages in racist hiring practices, it is quite probable that he will lose a lot of business from persons of the mindset that racism is fundamentally wrong. Where such racism, 40 years ago, would not have been so detrimental to one’s business, today, it is likely to hurt it quite a bit. But for this society to emerge, it took the compulsory civil rights movement.

“A man must respect the freedom of human beings for a selfish reason: he stands to benefit enormously from their rational actions. But a man gains nothing from respecting the freedom of animals; on the contrary, uch a policy would seriously jeopardize his survival.”

I picked this quote from the passage because, I think it reveals the true nature of Rand’s view on the rights of others, and it is rather troubling to her philosophy. She would say that one must respect the rights of others because it is right to do so, that one must respect the lives of others. But she only proves that it is one’s own life that one should truly be concerned with. Her jump to the conclusion that one should respect the rights of others in principle seems to be malformed. As I have concluded before, the only logical thing for Rand to do here would be to adopt some sort of social contract explanation for the respecting of others rights. Adam Smith’s conception of self-interested capitalism was intended to benefit the whole. Rand’s is intended to benefit only the individual, and whatever else happens is of no concern to the individual unless it affects him directly. It would seem that she is saying that one must respect the rights of others only because it is in one’s self interest to do so. But this contrasts with her theory that it is right objectively to do so. I’ve given this lots of thought, and whatever else may be contested within Rand’s philosophy, this is the main error. She works from a self-validated value system, and expects that individual to somehow respect the self-validated value system of someone else. Even if both these rational individuals’ goals and values are the same, that is only so by coincidence, not by principle, and that is not why one must respect the rights of others, as Rand would say. She does state that it is wrong for physical force to be used against an individual who is pursuing the goals he values as necessary for that person’s survival. She only does so from the perspective of the individual being forced. It is wrong for that individual to be forced or compelled to do something for that individual. She gives no valid argument why it is wrong for someone to use physical force if it would benefit that person and help that person meet the goals necessary to fulfilling the values appropriate to surviving and living the rational life. This is not an easy point to pick up on, since one almost reads Rand with the notion that non-contradiction is key to her philosophy. She states it all the time as the central notion of objectivism. A is A, Existence Exists…etc. She fails to extend this notion of non-contradiction to interpersonal relations. If I view myself as a ration individual who needs to survive, and the best way for me to survive is to take unfair advantage of someone else, there is no contradiction for myself. Rand has given me no basis for respecting that other person’s rights not to be forced into action, only my rights not to be forced. This is what she intends to say. However, her most successful argument for why we should respect others’ rights is in the above quote: we have much to gain from others permitted to act rationally. Her view of government is that it’s purpose is to serve the individual, and that it derives it’s power from the individual. (“Government is a social creation, and a society consists of individuals. Any powers of government, therefore, must derive from those of the indivuals who create it.”) Those individuals are all going to be thinking self-interestedly. They are all going to be considering the fact that they do not want their rights to not be forced physically to engage in action or thought contrary to what they rationally know to be correct, to be breached. Considering this notion, the government that these individuals approve of will be used to prevent others, and those individuals from using any sort of physical force. Those individuals all relinquish that right, and give it to the government. What Rand describes of a world without such a government sounds awfully like a Hobbesian state of nature, where everyone is armed, suspicious of everyone, and looking out solely for themselves. Rand’s theory regarding government is essentially Social Contract theory. Individuals, out of self interest, enlist in a society where they relinquish some rights (in this case, the rights to use physical force) so that they may be secure to live without fear of being forced to do something against their will, knowing that they cannot use any such force against similarly minded individuals. Everything here points to Rand being a social contract theorist, at heart, with regard to political theory of government. She would never say that this is so, she would argue that she is opposed to using physical force against others in principle, but this principle is grounded primarily in the notion of “I should use physical force against you because it ultimately will be detrimental to my own well being.”

“The rights of man, rand hold, can be violated by one means only: by the initiation of physical force…one cannot expropriate a man’s values, or prevent him from pursuing values, or enslave him in any manner at all, except by the use of physical force. Whoever refrains from such initiantion- whatever his virtues or vices, knowledge or errors – necessarily leaves the rights of others unbreached.

A quote to further emphasize the point made above. Rights are only negative in Rand’s system. One respects the rights and liberties of others simply by not forcing them physically to act against their will. So simple, yet so not fully supported by Rand except through some form of social contract theory.

Re: Sherman antitrust of 1890 “hence the door was open to the Hegelian idea that compulsion – compulsory schooling, compulsory taxation, compuslsory competition, and so on – is the means to freedom; i.e., the door was open to the destruction of the concept of rights.

Ok, I understand what Rand is saying about compulsion. Forcing others to do something they don’t want is wrong. But the reason I chose this quote was because of her opposition to compulsory schooling. First, I wouldn’t say that children are the most rational of beings. In fact, for this faculty to be fully formed and excercised later in life, that child must be educated in some way. I don’t see who is being compelled to do something against their will. Certain adults are not forced to become teachers, the ones that are teachers are so because they chose to be such. They are not forced to teach in certain schools, nor are they forced to do so without pay. In fact, there is a teacher shortage. To combat this, individuals are not compelled to become teachers by force, rather they are offered incentives to join the teaching profession, or to teach in less than desirable conditions. It seems she has a beef with compelling children to go to school against their will, or against the will of their parents. The primary concern of government, as rand would say is to protect the rights of its individuals. The secondary concern, therefore should be in the protection and general improvement of the nation. This is in everyone self-interest, so it seems right to compel children to go to school, since an educated populace is more likely to be successful than an ignorant one. The same logic applies to compulsory taxation. For the protection of the individual, the government must have money. This money is generated from the citizens of that country. Very few will voluntarily offer this money. The view of the government towards the individual regarding taxation may be viewed as such: my goal is to protect you, to do so, I need some money. Since non-reciprocal action is bad, I will need some money from you to protect you and other citizens, but don’t worry, they’re paying for it as well, for the same reasons.” Compulsory competition is the only valid concern of Rand’s.

Re: physical force “Force, her ethics teacher, is a form of action – the only one- which paralyzes and negates the victim’s mind. It is thus the only evil one man can perpetrate agains another which negates the victim’s tool of survival, i.e., which literally stops the action of human self-preservation”

“An individual can be hurt in countless ways by other men…but as long as his property is not expropriated, and he remains unmolested phsycially…he remains free to think, to learn from his experiences…Only the crimeof force is able to render its victim helpless. The moral responsibility of organized society, therefore, lies in a single obligation: to banish this crime, i.e., to protect individual rights.

“The opposite of individualism is any morality that values something – anything – above man the individual, and any politics that places any consideration above individual rights. If we set aside the alledged claims of God, animals or the ozone layer to preeminence in this connection, then the philosophical competitor of individualism is collectivism.”

“Government is a social creation, and a society consists of individuals. Any powers of government, therefore, must derive from those of the indivuals who create it.’

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Published in: on October 25, 2006 at 1:43 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Here are three questions.
    What new insight have you gained on the degree to which Rand relies on empirical results for support of her theories? Is there something general you can say about her empiricism and her theory, or the combination of the two?

    The issue of education being compulsion is an interesting one. When there is an objective standard of well-being, it seems like we can, with confidence, recommend some courses of action for everyone. I suppose it is clear that her account of freedom interferes with this, in cases. But there are limits– we should not be free to create any political rules we want, etc. Can you describe these limits with precision? (By the way, it is interesting to see Hegel blamed for compulsary education and not, say, Plato. Plato is being given a break, I guess.)

    Finally, can you list a few reasons why Rand might object to being classified as a social contract theorist at heart?


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