The Jeffersonian Perspective

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


Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson


7. Democracy's Adversaries

The philosophy of Selfishness and Individualism logically extends to an opposition to democracy, since democracy empowers the people in their collective capacity, not as isolated individuals, and implies duties and responsibilities owed to the whole community, and determined by the whole community. The latter especially is anathema to an Individualist. But the question arises, How can a person be for individual rights and opposed to democracy, the only form of government that secures individual rights? Rand does it by supporting the processes of democracy for electing office-holders, and at the same time extolling a government, presumably established by some kind of benevolent fiat, that guarantees each individual his rights but denies the people as a whole any kind of control over the government that might allow them to meddle with those rights. Inevitably, these positions involve several contradictions and distortions of fact.

Objectivism has problems with majority rule and finds some aspect of it unacceptable. In fact, Objectivists have made many statements about majority rule in a democratic republic that are simply not correct.

    "But the majority has no say over the BASIC principles governing the government. It has no power to ask for or gain the infringement of individual rights." --Leonard Peikoff

In a very narrow sense, this is almost correct. The government of the United States was established with its basic principles incorporated into republican institutions, a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. These basic principles are protected from casual change by a requirement for super-majorities; but changes can be made through the amendment process, hence the above statement is not accurate. In fact, the government was established with a sanctioning of the institution of slavery, which certainly was an infringement of individual rights, as are some of the proposals today to break down the wall of separation between church and state. There is no absolute protection against these violations. The only protection, ultimately, is the vigilance of people themselves, who are the overseers of the government.

    "Individual rights are not subject to a public vote: a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority." --Ayn Rand, "Collectivized 'Rights,' " The Virtue of Selfishness.

There is no right to do this, perhaps, but a majority does have the power, hence the first phrase is flat-out wrong, and, in fact, it happens and has happened frequently. From slavery at the time the nation was founded, to racial discrimination more recently, depriving some people of their individual rights has been a common occurrence. That is the danger of self-government: it is not a perfect safeguard. The majority has the power--though, of course, not the "natural right"--to violate the equal rights of a minority. If we think of the substance of government being shaped by two forces, power and justice--the raw capacity to effect political outcomes on one hand, and the philosophical principles by which such outcomes should be determined on the other--then this much is certain: In any democratic republic, in any government of the people, the people have the power and the raw capacity to make the government anything they please. Whether "anything they please" is fair and just and right is not restricted as a matter of power, but it is restricted as a matter of PRINCIPLE.

    "Bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801.

The will of the majority must in all cases prevail; but as a matter of right principle, that will must be reasonable and must not violate the equal rights of the minority. The protection of the minority thus becomes a matter of admonition that these rights be respected. But the power is there for the majority to misuse if it so chooses. This possibility of abuse must be left open in order for self-government to function, for if there were some power that could overrule the will of the majority and tell the people as a whole that there are certain things they can not do, that power would be superior to the people themselves and the government would be a dictatorship, ruled by whatever had that power, and not a democratic republic.

This awful fact--that the people do indeed have the power to make government oppressive for a minority--is precisely what is the glory and the danger of republican government. It is one of the things that makes democracy "the worst form of government--except for all others." But it is the central dynamic of our government, and is the reason why it is so vitally important that the people have a certain level of education and understand the role they are to play in self-government. They have this power, and it is essential for the welfare of the nation that they use it wisely.

    "[Our] object is to secure self government by the republicanism of our constitution, as well as by the spirit of the people; and to nourish and perpetuate that spirit. I am not among those who fear the people. They and not the rich are our dependence for continued freedom." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816.

Thus, when Rand finds it necessary to deny this power of the majority in support of her theory of individual rights, she forces herself into a position that is indefensible. She transfers the security for our inalienable rights from the people themselves to a theory written on a piece of paper. But as Jefferson wrote, it is the people who are the safeguard for our rights.

    "The mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816.

    "The people...are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787.

    "I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820.

Rand thus appears willing to sacrifice the true principle upon which the whole American system of government is founded, the very thing this nation represents, the very thing that is designed to protect our liberties, in order to establish her system of individual selfishness. This theory of individual rights would destroy the only system that can guarantee individual rights. In its place would be ideas on a piece of paper that exist only as abstractions, because there is no real world mechanism, no living holders of power, that would make them effective. This system, where people are not held together by duties and obligations to one another, requires that civil rights not rely on the people, but on some theoretical guarantee. Such a system is just not workable.

    "The American system is a constitutionally limited republic, restricted to the protection of individual rights. In such a system, majority rule is applicable only to lesser details, such as the selection of certain personnel. But the majority has no say over the BASIC principles governing the government. It has no power to ask for or gain the infringement of individual rights." --Leonard Peikoff

This theory necessarily embraces a kind of constitutional benevolent dictatorship wherein the form of governmental power is supported only by the paper it is written on, not by any living entity. This is not the theory of American government. The American system of government is a republic restricted within constitutional limits. Those constitutional limits are retained in their proper form, not by paper assurances, but by the power and the spirit of the people themselves. This is the whole point of American self-government: our liberties are protected by the will of the people. And it is only that kind of protection that assures the preservation of individual rights.

    "In a government bottomed on the will of all, the life and liberty of every individual citizen becomes interesting to all." --Thomas Jefferson: 5th Annual Message, 1805.

Those who hate majority rule despise the idea of a nation controlled by the people en masse, having the power to effect measures that may happen to be an imposition on certain renegade individuals. But this was not the sentiment of Jefferson. He looked upon the people as the ultimate sovereign and wanted to enlarge the extent of their power and control.

    "Democrats consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them, therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1825.

For these reasons, majority rule is the first principle of a people that would govern themselves.

    "The first principle of republicanism is that the lex majoris partis is the fundamental law of every society of individuals of equal rights; to consider the will of the society enounced by the majority of a single vote as sacred as if unanimous is the first of all lessons in importance, yet the last which is thoroughly learnt. This law once disregarded, no other remains but that of force, which ends necessarily in military despotism." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, 1817.

Nowhere, of course, does Rand say that she supports a government of force and military despotism. But the theories of government she does support will inevitably devolve to just such a government. That which gives law its power and efficacy is not the paper it is written on, but the holders of power that back it up. A statement of law has meaning only when it is the expression of the will of a person or a body of people with sovereign power. And in a free society of individuals with equal rights, that power must rest in the people themselves. If that ultimate source of power is subverted, some form of tyranny will necessarily take its place. Because they would undermine this source of sovereign power, the conclusion is inevitable: the doctrines and teachings of Ayn Rand are some of the most insidiously destructive enemies of man's liberty present in the world today, not because they oppose liberty, because they purport to be the true support of liberty, but because they unknowingly oppose the only means for sustaining liberty.

    Undermining Democracy

Rand betrays her contempt for democracy in her narrow, distorted definition:

    "'Democratic' in its original meaning [refers to] unlimited majority rule....a social system in which one's work, one's property, one's mind, and one's life are at the mercy of any gang that may muster the vote of a majority at any moment for any purpose." --Ayn Rand: "How to Read (and Not to Write)"

This is a misrepresentation. "Democratic" comes from the Greek words, "demos" meaning the people, and "kratia" meaning power or authority. In its primary meaning, it means simply government by the people, which can be direct or through a system of representation. Majority rule is merely the means by which the people express their will. There is no other way a whole people can effectively express their will. A pure democracy is one in which the people vote directly on every issue, and on every piece of legislation that comes before them. Such democracies have never endured for long, and they are completely impracticable for a great nation, as Madison pointed out so clearly in Federalist No. 10, and as Jefferson pointed out also, though he referred to them as "republics."

    "Such a government is evidently restrained to very narrow limits of space and population. I doubt if it would be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816.

But Rand extends her condemnation of democracy beyond merely those tiny "pure" democracies when she describes it as "a social system" in which, she indicates, one's whole being is "at the mercy of any gang," so that the unmistakable impression is left that in reality, Rand is constitutionally opposed to what we know as government of the people. What she describes as happening "at any moment for any purpose" is an exaggeration, of course, but it is a theoretical possibility in any government of the people.

If democracy is disallowed, however, the only alternative is some kind of authority exercised superior to the people, and government by the people ceases to exist. Jefferson made no distinction between democracy and republicanism, and considered majority rule an indispensable part.

    "Every man, and every body of men on earth, possesses the right of self-government. They receive it with their being from the hand of nature. Individuals exercise it by their single will; collections of men by that of their majority; for the law of the majority is the natural law of every society of men." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Residence Bill, 1790.

Rand's statement quoted above that "the majority has no say over the BASIC principles governing the government. It has no power to ask for or gain the infringement of individual rights" is patently not so, and is ignorantly unaware of the process by which power exerts itself in any government. Republican government relies solely on the spirit of the people.

    "It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.

No government can be established with nothing to back it up other than a piece of paper. The piece of paper only declares the will of whoever has power and through what chain of command it will be exercised. This will is what creates law.

    "I subscribe to the principle, that the will of the majority honestly expressed should give law." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1793.

All provisions for government are subject to and controlled by the sovereign entity that exercises power. The piece of paper--the Constitution--merely identifies power centers and how they shall function. It gives the participants both a guide for the orderly exercise of power, and an established claim against any usurper of power. But political power in a government is not merely a matter of ideas; it is a matter of vested authority, operating according to a specific process which has been codified, recognized and legitimized. Without such a constitution (which may or may not be written), governmental power belongs to he who seizes it and exercises it. The idea that political power can be established and function without a living person or body of persons who shall be in ultimate control is unrealistic. Yet, that is exactly what Rand implies. It is her attempt to make the individual supreme, even over all individuals collectively, that leads her to this untenable position. She is compelled to make the whole system of government serve only to protect the individual, and for each individual somehow to be a supreme sovereign in his own little sphere. It is with such blatant impracticalities that Rand shows herself to be a novelist, not a philosopher.

    Duties Owed to Society

It is in the denial of individual duties and responsibilities owed to one's country, whether agreed to on a personal basis or not, that Objectivism becomes a destructive influence to the nation. These ideas insinuate themselves into public debate in a multitude of ways, and are no doubt at least in part responsible for much of the anti-government sentiment that prevails today. Gone is the conviction that the government is "us," formed by We, the people, and that we are a nation of people who must take responsibility for what our government does on our behalf. In its place is a belief that the government is an outside force, imposing its rules, regulations and laws upon us, and that we have been reduced to some degree of servitude. Of course, this is a self-fulfilling conviction, because the moment we put ourselves in spirit outside "the people" as a collective, we are in fact outside, and the government ipso facto becomes an oppressive force, at least as far as we as individuals are concerned. On this point, at least, the belief creates the reality.

    The Dangerous Influence of Objectivism

In a popular magazine article several years ago, the author claimed there was a Library of Congress survey that found Atlas Shrugged cited as the second most influential book in the lives of respondents after the Bible! Thus, we have reason for suspecting that the influence of these ideas is widespread, especially amongst the better educated, replacing, apparently, such intellectual fads as Marxism and communist ideology. In ideas expressed on the Usenet Newsgroups, including quotes from Rand and statements in signatures, even in some statements by members of Congress, we can see how these ideas have seeped into the American consciousness. Inevitably, this influence leads to anti-government sentiment and the denigration of government functions and institutions. The Non-Initiation of Force doctrine has as its partially disguised goal the discrediting of democracy itself. As one Rand follower reasoned on the internet:

    "Democracy in the truest sense of the word negates freedom because unlimited majority rule could (and most likely would) lead to the tyranny of the majority over the minority (i.e., 51% enslaving the other 49%). Freedom is protected by principles not by votes. Freedom means that individuals must not be physically coerced, not even by majority rule. Freedom means individual rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, capitalism, [and] free traders, not masters and slaves." --Greg Miller

Notice the paradox: 51% ruling over 49% is evil. And what would be good? 10% ruling? No one ruling? A nation without authority to govern itself? And if a nation shall govern itself, how shall it be done? By a majority or a minority? And if neither, shall it be by a rule of law? But administered by whom? A ruling elite? Notice especially the statement, "Freedom is protected by principles not by votes." As if principles were self-activating and did not require the agency of real, live human beings to make them effective. Democracy, under this dogma, is replaced by a piece of paper, an expression of ideas.

The above illustrates where these theories lead when pursued to their logical end. They have a certain appeal to persons of a theoretical frame of mind, who are usually very intelligent people, but who have lost sight of the realities of human existence, the realities of power exercised through government. Such theories are seldom completely thought through, and invariably fail to answer the vital questions relative to the self-governance of a whole nation. And in the intellectual vacuum that they leave, only disintegration and tyranny can step in. Fortunately, the vast majority of citizens so far ignore these doctrines. But the significant minority that are taken in by them serve as a cadre that can be used by those who would undermine republican government in the name of greater "freedom" for the individual--a theoretical freedom that upon closer examination means the adherents have been hoodwinked into surrendering their birthright.


The results of Objectivist thinking form certain patterns:

1. Simple, black and white alternatives.
There is a tendency toward one dimensional thinking, since objectivists are taught that there is one correct answer to everything and the problem is to find that answer. Because something either is or is not so (which is "objectively" true; but unfortunately our individual minds must deal with reality filtered through our own perceptions), they tend to put everything into rigid categories. Only one answer to every question leaves no room for nuanced understanding and thinking. It rarely makes allowances for the possibility of error and avoids an open mind that eagerly considers contradictory evidence.
Example: "Intellectual freedom cannot exist without political freedom." --"For the New Intellectual."

Of course intellectual freedom exists without political freedom! How else would a movement to overthrow tyranny occur? People living under tyranny may be oppressed, but as Jefferson said,

"Almighty God has created the mind free and manifested His supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint." --Thomas Jefferson: Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1779.

Of course, what Rand probably meant was a kind of generalized idea that only under political freedom does intellectual freedom flourish. And even with political freedom, there is no guarantee that specific individuals will experience intellectual freedom. That, however, is too indefinite, too "iffy" for categorical minds accustomed to clear alternatives. But it is just such simplistic alternatives that convert a "philosophy" into mere propaganda.

2. Ignoring the obvious.
Because Objectivists consider so much in terms of abstract, artificial rules, they often simply ignore whatever does not fit the requirements of rule-making. This can be some of the most obvious, elementary perceptions. Rules often replace practicality, and the result is just as often laughably impractical.

The most obvious and significant example of this is the idea that people in business are in it solely for themselves. No person who thinks solely of his own needs and wants will last long in business, because the survival of business is founded on serving the needs of others. He who does not accept the public's decision to quit buying buggy whips faces only failure. But this simple level of interconnection, of response and dependency, forms no part of a simplistic view.

3. Discard clearly defined terms.
In thinking of "concepts, not definitions," meaning is hard to nail down and effective communication with persons who are not "True Believers" is almost impossible. Words no longer mean what they do to everyone else, but become symbolic representatives of whole conceptual frameworks, which can only be properly understood by the cognoscenti. Such conceptualization often swallows-up distinctions whole.

Examples are terms like "selfishness," "statism," "collectivism," "democracy," and many others. Walls of meaning are broken down, and selfishness means self-interest, democracy means giving the masses the power to destroy individual rights, and so on. Words thus become propaganda missiles.

Needless to say, these are the kinds of traps that only highly intelligent people fall into. Persons not given to intellectualization think and react more instinctually, and are not bothered by such complicated thought-mazes. Many persons of high IQ tie themselves up into mental Gordian knots that an ordinary person of good character and common sense can cut through with one stroke of simplicity. This fact, reflected in Jefferson's preference for the ploughman over the professor, or Buckley's preference for the first twenty names in the Boston Telephone directory, is probably one of the chief things that have thus far saved the republic.

    Results and Conclusions

There is no possibility that the Objectivist philosophy could ever be implemented in a free society. It is too full of contradictions and naive assumptions. It is too much of an orthodox belief system with a complete set of devotees, factions and ousted renegades to be taken seriously by any but camp followers. What it could do, if it is embraced by a significant number of persons, is contribute toward undermining the confidence in existing governmental institutions, cause a breakdown of governmental authority and a disintegration of the nation's spirit. This it may have already done, to some extent. If, as was stated above, the influence of Atlas Shrugged in the lives of individuals was second only to the Bible, these ideas hold sway over at least as many minds of the better educated in our society as Marxism did in the 40's and 50's.

Rand's philosophy appeals to self-centered leanings that are present in all of us, which struggle for ascendency in all our consciousnesses, and which too often easily and even eagerly embrace a philosophical system that will justify them and reinforce them. While it is a self-assuring philosophy, it is not a transforming and uplifting one. It does not inspire gratitude, generosity and magnanimity, but rather self-seeking, opportunism and a disregard for others.

Objectivists generally find their critics to be very ignorant of Objectivism and to be unqualified to form a judgment on it. To a large extent, they are probably right. But what such Objectivists fail to realize is, a philosophy is not a thing to itself, a doctrine of secret knowledge to be appreciated only by a group of cognoscenti. If it is to influence public policy, its purpose is not reserved for discussions between philosophers, but consists of ideas for public consumption and for solving social problems. If philosophy has any value at all, it explains to us the deeper meaning of the world around us, and it does this in a way that imparts insight and wisdom to all seekers, not just to the select group. In other words, it must enter the free marketplace of ideas and demonstrate new and insightful understandings on public issues. It must deal with the facts that man faces in his ordinary life. The idea that "only an Objectivist can say what Objectivism is" is an absurdity for a philosophy that is supposed to become the central idea of a whole nation of people. Contrast that with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote:

    "I know my own principles to be pure and therefore am not ashamed of them. On the contrary, I wish them known and therefore willingly express them to everyone. They are the same I have acted on from the year 1775 to this day, and are the same, I am sure, with those of the great body of the American people." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Smith, 1798.
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Cross References

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