Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson
Seven Essays on the Philosophy of Ayn Rand


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, which are 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 which 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.

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 are possible, and can be made through the amendment process, hence the above statement by Peikoff 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. Prohibition was instituted through the amendment process, and most observers would agree that that was a violation of individual rights. There is no absolute protection against these violations. All political powers may be used for good or for evil, and they must be held in check to assure the former and not the latter. The only protection, ultimately, is the vigilance of the people themselves, who are the overseers of the government. The tendency of all governments is toward corruption, and if the people are not the ultimate control, governments will hardly control themselves.

There is no natural right to do this, perhaps, but a majority does have the power, hence the first phrase is flat-out wrong, and, in fact, infringing on the rights of the minority 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 or "ought" to 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.

This is another point that Objectivists ignore or fail to comprehend. Jefferson was certainly a republican, but transcending any dedication to a form of government, he believed that the people of a nation had a right to choose any form of government they please.

Whether "anything they please" is fair and just and in accordance with natural right is not restricted as a matter of power, but it is restricted as a matter of PRINCIPLE.

The will of the majority must in all cases prevail, whether it is right or wrong; 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 whoever or whatever had that power, and would not be a democratic republic. This, then, is a point that the Objectivists overlook: sovereign power always includes the power to do wrong, otherwise whatever prevents the doing of wrong would itself be the sovereign power. That is why the only safe place for ultimate sovereign power is in the people themselves.

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." And although it exists as a possible threat to the liberties of the individual, we must remember that all other holders of that power are even greater threats and throughout history have proved themselves the real sources of tyranny! The sovereignty of the people 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 and correctly.

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 and ultimately self-defeating. She transfers the security for our inalienable rights from the people themselves to a theory written on a piece of paper, and to institutions that are more naturally bent towards tyranny than are the people. But as Jefferson wrote, it is the people who are the safeguard for our rights.

NO SAFE DEPOSITARY BUT THE PEOPLE! Rand thus appears willing to sacrifice the true principle upon which the whole American system of government is founded and the very thing this nation represents, the very thing that was designed to protect our liberties, in order to establish her system of individual selfishness. Her 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 this theory provides no real world mechanism, no living holders of power, that would make it effective. Rand's 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 in the real world of power relationships.

That theory, expressed by Peikoff, 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.

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. The would deny the right of the people as a whole to do things that any individual has the right to do, such as to perform charitable acts. 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.

Moreover, the rights of the whole are equivalent to the sum of the rights of the constituent individuals.

For these reasons, majority rule is the first principle of a people that would govern themselves, because that is the only way in which they can make decisions as a whole.

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. And in our government, the holders of power, those who have ultimate control over the persons who occupy positions of power, are the people themselves. 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 (indeed, they purport to be the true supporters of liberty), but because they oppose unawares the only means for sustaining liberty that exists in the world.

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

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."

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. And since everything in her system is theoretical and existing on paper only, any theoretical possibility is considered a real threat.

Notice that Rand says that everything about one's life is "at the mercy of any gang that may muster the vote of a majority." And what tender mercies will we receive at the hands of that gang if the majority of the people are not standing in their way? What alternative holders of power does she suggest that we turn to? Close examination reveals that she replaces all such holders of sovereign power with a theoretical vacuum: NOTHING! Sovereign political power is merely written out of the script. Individual rights are secured by written documents and a government with officials presumably responsible to... individuals. And if government officials do not act as they should, they are replaced by a vote of the individuals -- necessarily a majority vote of the individuals. So that even Rand's theoretical system must depend on a "vote of a majority." And is this majority of individuals somehow constitutionally free from being mustered by "any gang"? Thus, even this vacuum of popular sovereignty in Rand's system is seen to be false and self-contradictory. There can be no protection of individual rights without popular sovereignty and democracy.

If democracy is disallowed the only alternative is some kind of authority exercised superior to the people, and government by the people ceases to exist. There are no other alternatives: ultimate governmental power must be exercised by either the one (dictator), the few (aristocracy), or the many (the people). When exercised by anything other than one person rule, it is necessarily by the majority. Jefferson made no distinction between democracy and republicanism, and considered majority rule an indispensable part of self-government.

Peikoff'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, and the people, through their representatives, may alter the basic principles of government and obtain the infringement of individual rights, if that is their collective will. Only the spirit of the people keeps them from doing so.

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.

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, contradictory 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.

NEXT PAGE Duties Owed to Society


Go to the Essays

Front Page | 1. Reason as Absolute
2. Safety in Error | 3. Happiness as Moral Purpose
4. Selfishness as Virtue | 5. Capitalism Over Self-Government
6. Non-Initiation of Force | 7. Adversaries of Democracy

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