The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson


5. Capitalism Over Self-Government

The Randian ideal is not a nation built upon self-government, establishing a free society in which capitalism emerges, but a nation built upon the relationships established by, and conducive to, capitalism. Capitalism replaces government of the people as the security for their rights.

Equal rights become the adjunct, not of republican government, but of the economic system.

This, however, is putting the cart before the horse in a free society, because capitalism flourishes best under the protections and guarantees of a republic founded on self-government. And it is a people themselves who are the safest depository of rights.

This is an important point, because Rand in other areas proposes ideas that undermine the concept of popular sovereignty. Thus, what she is really doing is replacing government of the people with capitalism and capitalistic principles. This idea runs into a few problems when it comes time to decide who is actually running things. But on that Rand punts, asserting that our free society was established under the Constitution, and its basic guarantees cannot be altered.

The foundation of American society is not the economic relationships of the capitalist system, but the natural rights derived from a proper understanding of human nature. A consideration of natural rights must come first, else we have no criteria for determining what are the proper relationships under capitalism. Shall we have laissez-faire capitalism, or some level of regulation? And if regulated, how much regulation? Who decides, and upon what principle? According to Rand, it should be laissez-faire capitalism.

Church and state were separated because the church previously had promoted itself through the agency of the state and to the detriment of the people. But under a separation of state and economics, especially with laissez-faire capitalism, the state no longer has a role to play in protecting the people and assuring their happiness. Laissez-faire means capitalism is outside the regulatory control of the state and that the people are entirely at the mercy of the capitalists. Thus, Rand assigns a very limited role to the government, which has the interests of all the people to look after, and an unlimited role to capitalism, over which the people of a nation will have no control whatsoever.

Separation of church and state has worked fine, because it means that any person can choose to affiliate themselves with any church they please, or no church at all, if that pleases them. But does the same condition apply under laissez-faire capitalism? Are the people free to participate or not to participate in the economy? Is the economy a function of society about which the people as a whole have no interests that need protecting?

Quite the contrary. Economic concerns were, and always have been, at the root of social and political concerns. The "rich" and the role they play have always been a threat to liberty, leading Jefferson to observe,

As a rule, the wealthy do fairly well under any form of government. The rich have always worked their way into government to their own advantage, and to the detriment of the poor.

Whereas Rand apparently would give the rich carte blanche, Jefferson felt that they were hardly the ones we would rely upon for the preservation of liberty.

Those seeking profits, were they given total freedom, would not be the ones to trust to keep government pure and our rights secure. Indeed, it has always been those seeking wealth who were the source of corruption in government.

Are we to assume that under laissez-faire capitalism, unregulated wealth would keep itself apart from government, would not be corrupted by the opportunity to use governmental powers towards its own ends? Shall we preserve liberty by limiting government and giving the wealthy full reign?

Putting an economic system outside the control of government ignores the natural tendency of individuals to use all powers for their own interests and to the detriment of others, if they can. Economical considerations form some of the strongest motivations in man. The idea that absolute economic freedom would be conducive to justice and fairness, not to corruption, might work in the world of fiction, but it has no relationship to the real world.

Recognizing this, and protecting against it, was one of the aims of the Founders. Rand proposed certain rules to protect citizens against one another, such as the "non-initiation of force," but only in a novelist's imaginary world could it be assumed that a rule would protect against those who would abuse power if the protection is not an intrinsic part of the way society is organized. Every government tends toward corruption abetted by self-interest.

    "In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate and improve." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.

Protection was to be found, not in admonitions or trust, but in strict oversight of government by the people.

    "It would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights. Confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism. Free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence. It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power. Our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no further, our confidence may go... In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft, Kentucky Resolutions, 1798.

Throughout the history of the world, men have struggled and died to win freedom from the corruptions of power. In this country, their struggles resulted in a form of government that guaranteed to all the blessings of liberty. The Founding Fathers determined that the key to securing this liberty was self-government, not an economic system.

    "May [our Declaration of Independence] be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government... All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man." --Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, 1826.

It is this right of self-government which secures our other rights, because it puts the people themselves in charge. It is the establishment of self-government that is the foundation upon which all other social functions are built. It is only under self-government that reason can be effective, i.e., that reason instead of force can be the power which directs the course of government.

    "I have so much confidence in the good sense of man, and his qualifications for self-government, that I am never afraid of the issue where reason is left free to exert her force." --Thomas Jefferson to Comte Diodati, 1789.

Thus, when Rand speaks of capitalism, as in the following passage,

    "A pure system of capitalism has never yet existed, not even in America; various degrees of government control had been undercutting and distorting it from the start." --Ayn Rand

she is putting capitalism and its requirements above government of the people. But it is the forms of self-government that allow capitalism to flourish, not the other way around. Unregulated wealth and power always tend to corruption, and corruption to despotism. Certainly, it succeeds in the beginning, else it would not commence on such a course. But for the long-term preservation of liberty, a nation requires a government of the people, not a society where wealth and power roam ad libitum.

Thus Rand builds her theories on the outcome without comprehending the true source of both liberty and capitalism. Ignoring the dynamics of the struggle for liberty throughout history, she assumes the results of that struggle and builds a system that ignores what created the system to begin with.

    Against Collectivism

Under the guise of opposing "collectivism," what Rand is actually opposing is self-government, i.e., government of the people.

    "A complex legal system, based on objectively valid principles, is required to make a society free and to keep it free--a system that does not depend on the motives, the moral character or the intentions of any given official, a system that leaves no opportunity, no legal loophole for the development of tyranny." --Ayn Rand: The Virtue of Selfishness

Law based on "objectively valid principles," however, ignores the fact that if there is law, there must be a lawgiver. Law emerges from a sovereign will, not from a philosophical principle. In a free society, we can criticize the results, and claim that certain acts are not in accordance with principle. But a free society can only be preserved by a free people, not by a set of rules, not even by the rule of law, for as Jefferson wrote:

    "Law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1819.

In a free society, the people themselves are the ultimate law-giver, the ultimate sovereign. That is where the ultimate power rests. The people are the safest guardian of their own rights, but even they are not 100% safe. It is not possible to have a free society with absolute protection against the development of tyrannny, else it would not be free. Like free enterprise, a society must be free to fail in order for it to be free to succeed.

The dictionary defines "collectivism" as "a political or economic theory advocating collective control, esp. over production and distribution." In its true meaning, the term refers to national systems for the centralized control of the economy, especially systems like communism and fascism. It is a problematic term, because it can be used as a label and applied indescrimately to any activity whatsoever of a central government (and often is). Apparently, Ayn Rand and many Libertarians use it in a very broad sense, and apply it far beyond the central management of industry. Rand spoke of collectivism as follows:

    "We cannot fight against collectivism, unless we fight against its moral base: altruism." --Ayn Rand: "Philosophy: Who Needs It"

But the moral base of true collectivism is not altruism, but despotism. It is an attempt to exercise central control over an economy, and hence a whole people. When Rand speaks of "collectivism," what she is referring to is the socialistic system that "altruistically" (using her caricature of the term) uses government to create a welfare state. But all of this rests on the perversion of both "collectivism" and "altruism."

If "collectivism" were held to the meaning in which it is normally understood, i.e., central control of economic production, we might have a basis for examining this ball of nebulous concepts. But the term is broadened in practice and application to include any regulation of free enterprise, any economic control that a free people might deem necessary for the general good.

Once we depart from the standard definition, however, the term "collectivism" can be applied as an epithet to denigrate any centrally administered function that we wish to oppose, while exempting any other central function if that function is more acceptable, calling the latter, perhaps, "protection of rights." Collectivism thus becomes a flexible term to be used for purposes of propaganda. If used merely as an epithet in opposition to almost any kind of collective action, it is strongly adverse to the thought of Jefferson, who viewed the collective as the source of all authority in the nation.

    "I consider the people who constitute a society or nation as the source of all authority in that nation." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793.

"Collectivism" thus becomes another propaganda buzz word to be used in opposition to any act taken for the public good. It becomes another propagand tool in the war against government of the people.

    The Relationship of the Trader

The meaning of a nation of equal rights for Rand is a nation of equal traders.

    "The symbol of all relationships among ... men, the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is THE TRADER."--From Galt's speech

But the Trader is only involved in economic exchange. He has no concern or care for the welfare of the person he is "trading" with. Here, then, is the true symbol of alienated modern man, off to himself, and only dealing with others, not as human beings with a full range of concerns, but as entities engaged in economic exchange. Thus Rand replaces human relationships based on equality, with trade relationships based on the possession of trading equivalencies.

    "A trader is ... a man of justice." (Galt)

In reality, a trader is a salesman, and more often a manipulator. In practice, this idealistic sounding hokum becomes the justification for manipulation and deceit. The trader becomes the person who gets the best deal he can get by whatever means he can. There is no necessary morality in the trader. In fact, morality comes into play in order to instruct the trader how to trade responsibly. A Trader as an ideal is behind a shield, dealing with people as though they were ianimate objects, mocking those who think otherwise.

    An Economy Relies on Social Relationships

Real talent is not enhanced by keeping it to oneself and separating oneself from society, but by sharing it and contributing to society. As one debater remarked, "A person becomes special through social interaction: by offering everyone else something they need and want." "NO ONE's talents--especially in fields like architecture--are indispensible to society. Society determines whose talents will be used." The development of talent and the development of the individual is in fact a social process! It is fantasy and folly to assume that individuals can take total credit for what they are able to achieve. "Rand's story was just allegory, and BAD allegory at that." This stuff appeals to the immature who overvalue their significance in the world. "In fact, successful people are always nice to the people who will benefit them. It is SOP. The anti-social are nothing, have nothing, and offer nothing. The anti-social become criminals, not successful business people." As a social animal, if we are to develop to our fullest capacity, we must do it in society with others, with the "collective."

Deprived of the social element, the individual becomes self-centered and self-obssessed--a worthless caricature of a human being, ill-adjusted and only able to be a productive member of society by being forced to overcome his immature rebellion by the need to survive. His justification for his actions reminds us of the rebellious teenager who rejects all external demands and tells his parents, "I didn't ask to come into this world!" The "new" virtues of this philosophy of the Trader are selfishness, self-centeredness, isolation, alienation, and arrogance. Unknown are the virtues of union and harmony as recognized by the Founders.

    "To restore... harmony,... to render us again one people acting as one nation should be the object of every man really a patriot." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas McKean, 1801.

In her writings, Rand speaks often of the moochers, leeches, looters and other parasites: those who live by draining the resources of others who are the productive members of society. But there are no greater parasites than the persons whose philosophy enables them to enter into a nation of people, whether by birth or by choice, who absorb training and benefits from this association, who accumulate wealth by means of this association, and then who declare themself individuals who owe that nation nothing other than what they consent to give, each as a separate individual, without regard to what the nation as a whole has deemed necessary for its survival, development and progress. Such an individual reserves to himself the decision whether these demands are legitimate or not, thus making himself as an individual sovereign over the will of a whole nation of people. When that is combined with the proneness to interest in opposition to the general good of any given individual, we are left with a nation in chaos and disintegration as each member places his will above the will of the nation itself. Rand's lack of vision was at an exceptionally basic level: the failure to see the individual as a part of the whole.

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Cross References

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© 1997 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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