What Conservatives Owe Ayn Rand

By Gord Gekko
web posted April 1997

Conservatives and Ayn Rand always had a difficult relationship. 

While Rand herself condemned conservatism as a different form of collectivism, one that attempted to validate its core philosophy with religion or tradition, conservatives condemned Rand for her atheism. Those who follow Rand’s philosophy to the letter, Objectivists, occupy an odd place in the political continuum. Rand’s legal and philosophical heir Dr. Leonard Peikoff perhaps put it best when he recently stated, "Being atheists, we’re anathema to the right. Being capitalists, we’re anathema to the left. Being absolutists, we’re anathema to the middle."

 


Conservatism is perishing for a lack of a moral base and of a full philosophic defense.
- Ayn Rand,
Conservatism: An Obituary, 1962


Rand’s relationship with the right has always been at best cold and at worst, openly hostile. It is no secret that Rand despised influential The National Review. Whitaker Chambers wrote perhaps the most withering review of Atlas Shrugged after its release, while William F. Buckley fairly gloated in Rand's NR obituary that "Ayn Rand is dead. So, incidentally, is the philosophy she sought to launch dead; it was in fact stillborn." As late as last year columnist Florence King discussed a book that cast an unflattering view at Rand. 

While forecasting the imminent demise of each other’s philosophical and political systems might have been rather premature, there is a fundamental difference between conservatism and Rand’s objectivist philosophy. It is a flaw that conservatism has that the left, or any rival political ideology, can and very often does exploit. It is one that most conservative philosophers ignore at the peril of any real advancement of our philosophy. 

On the surface, conservatism would appear to be a cogent and easily defensible political philosophy. Indeed, much of conservatism is cogent and clear, founded upon logical and rational philosophical pillars. But while much of conservatism appears clear, it is a clarity that reminds me of carnival funhouse mirrors. You can still see yourself, just not the way you really are. Conservatism has been bent by many flawed ideas into something that is still recognizable, but sometimes clearly wrong.

The flaw we have is a lack of a consistent philosophical basis.

The key strength of Rand’s philosophy is that it is a completely consistent philosophy. That consistency allows for nothing that cannot be proven rationally. Conservatism today is a hodge-podge of different philosophical principles, a hodge-podge that leads to vicious in fighting.

Witness last year’s Republican National Convention. It was a convention that the media referred to as orchestrated, but featured public battles between those who wanted a more tolerant position on abortion and those who wished to maintain the decade and a half old status quo. In today's Republican party, do you heed the call of a Patrick Buchanan or Colin Powell?

Canadian conservatism too sees battles in the right. The Progressive Conservative Party has been the scene of incredible division since its mythic destruction in last federal election. Charest’s recently announced tax cut barely passed at the national convention and Mulroney’s last legacy may be former cabinet ministers still pushing the old agenda. Where does a David Frum, or for that matter, Gord Gekko fit in to a party so divided that to call it a national movement is risking a disrespect for precision?

One of the points of Enter Stage Right has always been to provide different voices in the conservative community a chance to influence the debate. At no time have I ever claimed that the editorial stands that this journal takes are consistent with mainstream conservatism in the United States or Canada.

What I have been claiming for nearly the past year in e-print is that conservatism needs a consistent philosophical backing for many of its main principles, a philosophical backing that Ayn Rand provided for her own philosophy, one that many conservatives would not find objectionable. The lack of this consistency will spend the end of our movement as a viable intellectual force.

Ask yourself what are the core principles that drive many of your beliefs. Why do you support a capitalist state? Why is individualism so important? What is the pillar that unites all of your beliefs? It is a question that many of any political stripe cannot answer.

This piece doesn’t profess to be an exhaustive survey of Rand’s writings, that being impossible in anything but an full-out academic work. What this will hopefully serve as is a call to arms for conservatives to begin considering different, and more rational, ways of explaining and promoting their politics. This piece will deal with two topics that I have been thinking about lately, and ones that traditional conservatism has often grappled with.

So what then do we owe Rand anyway?

Economics

The defense of capitalism is one of the most important duties of a conservative. It is under attack from all sides, even conservatives. Billionaire financier George Soros was merely the latest to cast capitalism in an unflattering light.

While conservatives do generally defend the freest system of human exchange, they do so in a manner that does it more long-term damage than any short-term good.

Defending capitalism by bringing using altruism is not a new argument; Arianna Huffington is simply the latest conservative to promote statist intervention in an economy to promote what she considers to be the social good. 

While Huffington may be one of the more prominent conservatives to push the idea of capitalism and altruism, she is hardly the only one. When faced by those who demand capitalists prove that the system doesn’t harm the poor, conservatives often fall back to the argument that capitalism serves the common good. Like enemies of the free market, those same conservatives cannot define what exactly is the common good. 

Allow me to submit that capitalism itself serves no interests like the nebulous common good. Capitalism is good, but only when unfettered by agendas that do not serve to promote the interests of freedom. 

Rand herself defined capitalism simply as, "a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned." As simple as that definition sounds, it requires an understanding of what the term "individual rights" really means. 

Rand states that in a capitalist society, all force in banished in human relationships. No human being, says Rand, may initiate the use of violence. If all relationships are voluntary, then people are free to deal with each other rationally. Each person has rights that no one may interfere with by using coercion or force. 

That also means that social agendas that interfere with a person’s rights are verboten.

It is those social agendas that are often provided as a practical justification of capitalism. The most common justification is that capitalism serves as the best system to promote the common good. One can hardly turn the television on without Arianna Huffington ‘promoting’ capitalism as the agent for positive social change. Huffington’s current proposal is what ends up being a forced contribution, collected by government that is given to charities, or forced charity. 

While capitalism is indeed the best system to promote whatever common good that people like Huffington dream up, Rand states that this is only byproduct of the system, not its actual intended outcome. Capitalism’s actual justification is that it is the only system "constant with man’s rational nature" and that its ruling principle is justice.

The common good, says Rand, is an ill-defined term that means nothing but that the interests of the individual are sacrificed to that of society. The end result of policies devoted to the common good are that some people, the productive ones, are used as sacrificial animals for the benefit of those who cannot or will not produce.

It is the individual that is paramount in Rand’s philosophical system, a principle that many conservatives also claim but rarely live up to. It is the individual that raises society, not the collective, an objectivist would opine, and it is their rights that are paramount, not society’s.

Capitalism rewards rationality, not subjective judgments and actions. Capitalism can only be defended by rational arguments, not hazy calls for the protection of the common good.

Individualism

Who isn’t sounding the clarion call of individualism today? If you are old enough, your kids may be listening to formulaic punk music that calls for individualism by adopting a collectivist philosophy. Perhaps you are listening to artists who paint degrading pictures of humanity while they tell you about individualism. Perhaps you are listening to some politicians who talk about individualist beliefs while they enact the latest statist laws designed, perhaps without their knowing it, to weaken a little further the rights of the individual.

Rife is the talk in both philosophy and pop culture about individualism, but what exactly is it? When conservatives promote individualism, are they really doing a disservice to the concept? All too often they are.

Perhaps the best way to define Rand’s idea of individualism is to let her do it herself. 

"Individualism regards man – every man – as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived by his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that in a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can only be achieved on the basis of the recognition of individual rights – and that group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members." 

As Nathaniel Branden states in his essay, "Counterfeit Individualism", "Individualism does not consist merely of rejecting the belief that man should live for the collective." Escape from responsibility, either real-life or philosophical is not individualism, nor is coloring your hair green and listening to Rancid. Individualism requires reason

Branden continues later:

"An individualist is, first and foremost, a man of reason. It is upon the ability to think, upon his rational faculty, than man’s life depends; rationality is the precondition of independence and self-reliance. An "individualist" who is neither independent nor self-reliant, is a contradiction in terms; individualism and independence are logically inseparable. The basic independence of the individualist consists of his loyalty to his own mind: it his perception of the facts of reality, his understanding, his judgment, that he refuses to sacrifice to the unproved assertions of others. That is the meaning of intellectual independence – and that is the essence of an individualist. He is dispassionately and intransigently fact-centered."

If conservatives are to be intellectually honest to the term ‘individualism’, then they can no longer entertain notions of government involvement in the lives of its citizens. Conservatives can no longer reject one form of collectivism in favour of another. Conservatives can no longer, if they wish not to be hypocrites, to uphold and argue for any belief that would compromise the integrity of the ultimate definition of individualism. A logical and rational subordination of society, ‘the common good’, ‘the brotherhood of mankind’, whatever collectivist jargon you wish, to the rational interests of the individual. 

Lessons for Conservatives…Courtesy of Miss Rand 

By introducing an emphasis on rationality, conservatives may yet begin to move to a more consistent understanding of their political philosophy. While I hardly doubt that Objectivist beliefs like atheism or pro-choice soon become conservative election platforms, there is some that conservatives can take from Rand’s writing and integrate into their worldview.

  1. Stop promoting slavery for a "good" cause over slavery for a "bad" cause. As Rand states, the issue is freedom versus dictatorship. Be consistent in what you support. Don’t condemn one statist principle only to later champion another. Statist controls are statist controls whether or not they further your beliefs.
  2. Defend capitalism. It is the only system that emphasizes human interaction based on rationality. Defend capitalism on the grounds of the individual, not the common good. Defending capitalism the wrong way only makes it harder to protect it from collectivism.
  3. Develop a moral base for conservatism. If you are basing your conservatism on spiritual or tradition, you are rejecting reason. All tenable philosophies must rest on a bed of logic and rationality. You don’t have to be Mr. Spock to believe in logic.
  4. Don’t compromise your values. Our so-called conservative leaders in the United States and Canada have only set the movement back by compromising our principles for small gains that end up disappearing. No more compromise solutions. If your values aren’t worth fighting for, then please don’t fight for them half-heartedly. There are enough of us who will stick it out if we have to.
  5. Appeal to the intellect. We are the movement of the intellect. We believe in the individual and the power of the mind. Stop the smear campaigns and the use of the tactics of the left. They don’t work for them; why think they will work for us?

"…what is one to think of men who evade the issue for fear of discovering that their goal is good? What is the moral stature of those who are afraid to proclaim that they are the champions of freedom? What is the integrity of those who outdo their enemies in smearing, misrepresenting, spitting at, and apologizing for their own ideal? What is the rationality of those who expect to trick people into freedom, cheat them into justice, fool them into progress, con them into preserving their rights, and, while indoctrinating them with statism, put one over them and let them wake up in a perfect capitalist society one morning?
– Ayn Rand




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