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


7. Democracy's Adversaries, Cont'd

It is in the denial of individual duties and responsibilities owed to one's country, whether these are agreed to on a personal basis or not, that Objectivism becomes an undermining 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 represents "us," is controlled ultimately by We, the people, and that we are a nation of citizens 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 level 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.

It is inevitable in any society that there will be differences of opinion, and as with any such differences, each side may think it is "right" and the other side is "wrong." How, then are these differences to be resolved. Ayn Rand says, Let reality be the judge; let reality make the determination. Such an idea, however, naively ignores the fact that both sides in any disagreement think they have reality on their side. Sometimes they even think they have God -- the Author of Reality -- on their side!

When there are differences of opinion with regard to government policies and programs, these differences invariably involve questions on which reasonable people might disagree. The idea that we should let "reality" decide provides no enlightened guidance under those circumstances. There is no infallible source that can determine what is reality; the question then becomes, "Whose view of reality?" Those who disagree with government policy often feel imposed upon. They feel that they are being coerced to conform to a policy which impinges on their freedom and with which they disagree. Some feel that government itself is oppressive, coercive, and despotic; and that it is the right of the people to revolt and overthrow such government. Only if we conceive of government bending to the will of a collective people can we take the attitude expressed by Jefferson:

If there is no such thing as a collective, as a society; if there are only individuals, then the whole fabric that supports government falls apart. Some governments indeed are despotic. But if the government is following the will of the majority, it is then a despotism of the majority, not of the government, and it must be handled differently than would follow if it were a despotism of the government.

In such a situation, the deciding question becomes: Are these problems with government policy due to the oppression of a truly despotic government, or are they due to the policies of a representative government that are favored by a majority of the citizens? In other words, Are these things that are forced on an unwilling population, or are they things that a majority wants, but a minority disagrees with strongly? If they are the oppressions of a despotic government, then it is indeed the right of the people to rebel against them. But if they are things that most citizens agree with -- or at least are willing to go along with -- then the problem is not the government, but the education and enlightenment of the people.

This difference between a truly despotic government and a government of the people with which some disagree, is the fundamental distinction that must be made in a free society. It is ONLY when the government is despotic, when the people cannot control it, that they have a right to overthrow it. We will never have a government that is better than what the people themselves want. The only way we could possibly even think that we can have such a government is if it is to be a dictatorship. And as soon as we have that, we have a government more despotic than anything the people could ever want. This points up the problem with those who oppose "majority rule." Anything other than a government in which the people have ultimate control inevitably and necessarily leads to despotism as the interests of the governors oppress the governed.

It is when individuals fail to make this distinction between a despotic government (invariably controlled by a minority) and a government following the will of the majority, that they begin attacking a government that they think is despotic because it has policies they don't like. This leads to blowing up buildings and doing all kinds of wrongful acts, when they should be trying to change the hearts and the minds of the large numbers of people who give either tacit or active support to the government policy that is so disagreeable. Instead of seeking to destroy the system, they should be working through the system to bring about change. Such individuals are, in fact, out of touch with their fellow man, and do not realize that their views, however justified and righteous they may seem, are not shared by most of their fellow citizens. And Jefferson was absolutely clear on what we should do in such a situation, even --or especially -- if we are "right."

Therefore, we can only acquiesce in the decision of the majority, and then inform and educate the people in hopes that they will get right what they now have wrong. This is the only way that a free society can function. It cannot function if a small number of people are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause, that they are willing to tear down the whole government and society in order that their views may prevail.

Although Objectivists do not actively attempt the destruction of a government that does not function as they think it should, they also do not seem to recognize the necessity of government controlled by majority sentiment with which they may disagree. These are another example of Objectivist ideas that are not pursued to their fullest conclusion. But some other people influenced by these kinds of ideas, DO carry them that far. As a result, these anti-government ideas have a very pernicious influence on some individuals and result in destructive anti-social acts, even though the Objectivists can disclaim any connection with those acts and can point to other tenets of their beliefs that are opposed to violence. But Objectivists contribute to this by attacking a government and a system, when in fact the government and system is pretty much working just as it was planned to work. It is the people themselves, and their failure to take the responsibility that the system demands, that is the basic cause of the problems. But instead of working the problem from that view and supporting the system, they support the sentiment of individuals in opposition to the very system that is designed to secure the best interests of all individuals. It is when Objectivist philosophy establishes these abstract paradigms that serve as well their own ideological ends, but also serve the distorted ends of some individuals who do not embrace the other mitigating beliefs of the Objectivists, that it becomes a highly destructive, anti-social influence in our society. Fortunately, this influence is active with only a small number of citizens. Were it to spread as widely as the Objectivists might wish, this nation and everything it is supposed to stand for would be doomed. Like Marxism, Communism, Fascism, Nazism, etc., the essence of Objectivism is NOT centered on the will of a nation's people, but on theories and beliefs that can only be implemented if they are IMPOSED on the people. As Karl Popper wrote,

In other words, when dogma and theories come before people, theories can only be implemented through authoritarian or totalitarian force. In a democracy, however, the people are sovereign and come before all theories.

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:

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 practical 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.

Objectivism is a theoretical belief system based on a fictionalized world view. It is no accident that it has been promoted mainly through works of fiction, since such works allow the author to pick and choose those elements of reality that suit her purposes and create, as it were, an imaginary world of controlled dimensions, responses and reactions. Were it based on real events, those events would be taken as the standard and be subject to further critical analysis and reinterpretation of the original conclusions. But being a work of fiction, it is saved from any such involvement with reality and real analysis. And like any work of fiction, this belief system is based on those elements of reality that suit its purposes. Moreover, it creates from those elements its own redefined view of reality, rather than trying to study and understand reality itself in an open-ended, purely scientific way. Aspects of reality that do not fit the theoretical paradigm are defined out of existence. That is why it is so dogmatic and doctrinaire. It is not a means for discovering reality and truth; it is a means for reinterpreting reality and is something superimposed upon reality, because it is a belief system that must be inculcated. In this respect, it is little different from communism, religious cults and other similar ideologies which it so staunchly opposes (as they all oppose one another). If it were a means of discovery, it would be open to self-criticism and different points of view; it would grow and evolve; it's founder, Ayn Rand, would gradually fade out of the picture as the sum of knowledge expanded (which true knowledge inevitably does). On the contrary, like every other cultish belief system, it severely castigates any deviation from the "party line" and breaks into cliques, each claiming to possess the true doctrine. And through it all, Ayn Rand and her teachings remain the central figure.

By narrowing one's vision, one can produce almost any kind of "philosophy" one wants, and even make it consistent within itself. But this is not philosophy; it is a deceptive system of propaganda, designed not to broaden and expand understanding and the search for truth, but to displace those aims. It provides "answers," not tools. Philosophy attempts to give us the broadest possible understanding of life on this planet, whereas deceptive propaganda restricts the view and confines it to what the propagandist wants the victim to believe. This is never so obvious as in the redefining of common terms and the denial of commonly understood meanings. These are not new or broadened understandings, but merely sophistic manipulations of abstract ideas, designed to create a specific world view. And, as always happens with such deceptions, they make their strongest appeal to young people, many of whom lack the mature grasp of reality that would cause them to reject such simplistic perceptions.

Being a self-supporting system, refuting the particular arguments of Objectivism becomes a futile task, because it defines its own reality based on a mass of half-truths, evasions, distortions, and even outright lies. Untying that Gordian knot becomes a vast undertaking, since the Objectivist always has sufficient resources to shift the theoretical ground and deflect any inroads into his imaginary space. All religions include a large number of myths, which are just another name for fictions. Fictions help fill in the spaces between doctrinal foundations when reality is uncooperative. And Objectivism similarly rests on fictional foundations, most obviously in its basic texts in which good and evil, noble and contemptible, are clearly drawn and rarely intermixed as they are in everyday reality.

Objectivism makes its greatest appeal to those young people who are looking for simple answers and who lack the knowledge and experience that would cause them to see the inadequacies of such ideas. Once infected by it, they tend toward a "diminished awareness," and will see and interpret experience in these simplistic terms. And once a person holds a theory that explains the world, the theory tends to blind him to other ways of looking, for as Jefferson wrote,

As a result, it becomes an ideology, and allegiance seldom flags unless the victim is able to develop an absolute intolerance for the slightest deviance from truth. All too often, however, the use of deception and distortion in defense of "our" side is interpreted by many inexperienced people as "cleverness" and is given an amused respect. It takes quite a bit of maturing for any person to fully appreciate that deception and distortion are the tools of manipulation, and their use in philosophy are not only never justified: they are sure signs that the philosophy is corrupt.

Not all Objectivists are young and foolish, of course. How can we explain the number of mature, intelligent persons who call themselves Objectivists?

By skipping over some of the rudiments of human existence -- especially those fundamentals which the previous discussion compared with the fundamentals derived from the writings of Thomas Jefferson -- it is possible to construct a philosophy that is appealing and appears workable. After all, old-fashioned selfishness, egotism, and the rush that comes from feelings of absolute certainty have been around for a long time, even before anyone attempted to elevate them to virtues. Millions have lived their whole lives with those as their central focus, and stand ready to embrace a well-developed philosophy that idealizes materialistic goals. Therefore, anyone who can do this, and do it with intelligence and wit, is bound to find a ready audience. Once the faulty foundations are accepted, it is possible to build a highly intellectual structure based on those foundations that makes perfect sense, given the imperfect fundamentals. And since all of this only justifies a longing that has tried to assert itself for thousands of years, it should come as no surprise that it finds many adherents. Moreover, the philosophy does not produce a life-style that is completely unworkable. Indeed, ruthless selfishness brings with it many immediate benefits, else why would anyone ever even consider it? How many persons in government, in the professions, in business, have ignored illegalities in order to secure self-centered rewards? Would not milder forms of these pursuits that involve no illegalities be even more welcome?

But as with all deviations from the narrow path, there is a price to pay. Immediate gains, even a pumped-up self-esteem, do not compensate for the loss of those characteristics that describe a fully functioning human being -- one whose satisfactions are long-term and substantial. The feeling of emptiness that is the inevitable result of selfishness and the sense of alienation that it brings cannot compensate in the long term for the superficial ego satisfactions.

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.

What Rand probably intended was a kind of generalized idea that only under political freedom does intellectual freedom flourish. But to flourish is not an absolute concept and does not lend itself to black-and-white, either-or thinking. It should be borne in mind that 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 -- into a mechanical belief system that does not make room for the growth, development, and maturing of the intellect.

2. Ignoring the obvious.
Because Objectivism considers so much in terms of abstract, artificial rules, it often simply ignores whatever does not fit the requirements of rule-making. This can include 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 in the age of the automobile. But this simple level of interconnection, of response and dependency, forms no part of a simplistic view. Rather than broadening one's perception and forming the basis for an expanding awareness, this kind of thinking reduces the perceptual framework and confines it to rigid categories and slogans.

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 wholesale.

Examples are terms like "selfishness," "statism," "collectivism," "democracy," and many others. Walls of meaning are broken down, and selfishness means self-interest, statism refers to support for any type of centralized government, democracy means giving the masses the power to destroy individual rights, and so on. Words thus become propaganda missiles -- part of a rigid, dogmatic belief system that becomes the mold in which all thinking is cast.

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.

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 were embraced by a significant number of persons, is contribute toward undermining the confidence in existing democratic 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. It's sloganeering serves as a seductive shorthand solution for problems that can only be dealt with through broad awareness and mature understanding. 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 those self-centered leanings that are present in all of us -- leanings that struggle for ascendency in all our consciousnesses, and that all 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 if, indeed, it is to become the public philosophy, its purpose is not reserved for discussions between philosophers; it should consist 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 a 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:


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

© 1997 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.
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