Objectivism Versus Conservativism: Four Letters

Irfan Khawaja

Fora: Newspapers and Magazines: Reason magazine, The Princeton Packet, The American Enterprise, and The Chicago Tribune (1996-2000)

For a variety of reasons, people often confuse Objectivism with conservatism, and generally, with "right-wing" politics. Unfortunately, Objectivists themselves contribute to this perception by making common cause with conservatives, and by failing adequately to reject and criticize their views.

Objectivism obviously isn't conservatism, and in my view, isn't "right-wing," either. It never hurts, however, to restate the obvious. Following the lead of Ayn Rand's 1960 essay, "Conservatism: An Obituary" (in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal), the following letters identify four core right wing doctrines (biological determinism, servitude, local control, and political "realism") and contrast them with the relevant opposing principles (free will, individual rights, and justice).

1) Free Will Versus The Argument from Depravity: A Response to Professor Michael Ruse. (Reason magazine, March 2000).

In "Conservatism," Ayn Rand identifies a common conservative argument that she calls "the argument from depravity" (pp. 198-199). In my own paraphrase, the argument runs as follows: A perfectly utopian society would be one in which pure rationality and pure altruism would reign, and in which both would be enforced by law. Unfortunately, though noble, such a society is impossibly beyond our reach. After all, rationality and altruism are moral ideals, but such ideals cannot be realized in reality. The argument for the latter claim goes as follows: moral ideals are high and noble things, but because human beings are somehow victims of an innate and ineradicable tendency to irrationality and evil, human beings are low and base creatures. Consequently, any attempt to realize moral ideals in the "real world" is doomed to fail—as, e.g., the experience of the French Revolution, and twentieth century totalitarianism demonstrates. Thus, the best we can hope for is the society of devils known as "the free society."

Since Original Sin is somewhat out of vogue nowadays, the version of this argument that now flourishes comes from Sociobiology. In the following letter, I take issue with the Sociobiological biases of a recent book symposium in Reason magazine, and in particular with an essay by Michael Ruse, Professor of Philosophy and Zoology at University of Guelph (Canada), and author of many works on the philosophy of biology.[1]

Letter To the Editor:

Though I appreciated many of the book recommendations in the recent symposium, I was somewhat disappointed by the emphasis on sociobiology and the implicit commitment to determinism in many of your writers' selections.

I was surprised by the partiality to E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. For one thing, Wilson's synthesis is hardly new; it's decades old. More importantly, as applied to human action, its thesis has been subjected to ample and devastating criticism, one of the most effective by Philip Kitcher in Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature (MIT Press, 1985), which goes unmentioned in the symposium. Thus Michael Ruse badly misses the point when he implies that it's a good thing that Wilson's book causes "consternation in the ranks of social scientists, feminists, Marxists, liberals, and many others." In fact, Wilson's thesis about human action merits outright dismissal by anyone who rejects the idea that human agents are controlled by their genes—or, indeed, by anyone who rejects Professor Ruse's apparent belief that sociobiology shows us that "the whole of life is a sham."

That brings me to the topic of free will. Oddly, neither the term nor the concept are much discussed in the symposium despite its obvious connection to the issues covered there. Though some of your authors criticize the "nature vs. nurture" dichotomy, Deirdre N. McCloskey seems to be the only one to see the crucial point that free will provides the way out of it. It's worth noting, however, that of the many philosophers Professor McCloskey cites, one—Susan Wolf—is a renowned defender of determinism.[2] Significantly, despite her recognition of the relation between nature, nurture, free will, and character, Professor McCloskey doesn't mention a single explicit defense (or defender) of free will in her article.

The locus classicus of an individualist defense of free will is, of course, Ayn Rand's "The Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness—a profoundly "biological" work that also goes unmentioned in the symposium.

2) Individual Rights Versus Servitude: A Response to Admiral James Webb (The American Enterprise, July/August 1997.)

In her essay on Vietnam, "The Wreckage of the Consensus," Ayn Rand describes as "the most immoral contradiction" in the debate about Vietnam as being that of "the so-called `conservatives' who posture as defenders of individual rights, particularly property rights, but uphold and defend the draft. By what infernal evasion can they hope to justify the proposition that creatures who have no right to life have a right to a bank account?" (Capitalism, p. 227). In "Conservatism," she also criticizes what she calls "the argument from tradition," which holds that beliefs or practices are good because they embody what has been handed down by "the American tradition" (Capitalism, p. 199).

Conservatives today have not stopped defending our involvement in Vietnam, thirty years after our defeat there. The standard argument combines an appeal to altruistic servitude with an appeal to tradition. The argument, in short, is that servitude is itself a grand old American tradition. That's true, of course: servitude is a genuinely American tradition; it harks all the way back to the slave trade of the seventeenth century. The problem is, it isn't a justifiable tradition, and the beliefs that support it aren't true. Another problem is that it conflicts with those parts of our tradition that are justifiable and true, e.g., that we have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In this exchange, I take issue with the defense of the draft offered by Admiral James Webb, a veteran of that conflict, and a former Secretary of the Navy.

Letter To the Editor:

In his criticisms of the undifferentiated group described as "the Vietnam war protesters," James Webb writes: "The main imbalance in the war was simply that the privileged avoided their obligations, and have persisted since that time in demeaning the experience in order to protect themselves from the judgment of history ("Peace? or Defeat?" May/June 1997).

What obligations? Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution expressly gives Congress the power to declare war. Is it Mr. Webb's contention that the absurdly named "Vietnam Conflict" was ever a war declared in a constitutional manner by Congress? If not, what is the constitutional justification for the putative "obligations" he cites?

Mr. Webb derides the "privileged" who were able to avoid military service. Apparently, the "privilege" he has in mind is the right to one's own life and liberty. Since when did those become "privileges" in the United States? Not, I would have thought, since the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids "involuntary servitude except as a punishment for a crime." Mr. Webb tells us that "two-thirds of those who served in Vietnam were volunteers rather than draftees." Does he regard that as a sufficient justification for the involuntary servitude of the other third?

Finally, Mr. Webb invokes "the foundations of American society" and "the judgment of history" in favor of the war. Apparently, this is a version of our principles and history that tells us that our nation was founded so that we might all better serve as cannon fodder for the state, to fight and die on the battlefields of its choosing. I find this impossible to reconcile with the Constitution's guarantee of "a Republican Form of Government," intended to "secure the Blessings of Liberty." I also find it very difficult to grasp how a man who invokes "the foundations of American society" can so blithely ignore the document that gives American society whatever foundation it has in the first place.

Mr. Webb is no doubt an honorable man, and his military service deserves respect. I do not intend to "demean" that. But 55,000 men died in Vietnam because their government enjoyed the power to compel them to die but lacked the courage even to issue a declaration of war. That is not "nobility," it is tyranny—and neither Mr. Webb's honor nor his rhetoric nor his polls provides a justification for it. Nothing can.

Reply from James Webb:

Let me hasten to agree with Mr. Khawaja that it is a tragedy a declaration of war was never sought after our troops were committed to combat in Vietnam. My reasons for agreeing, however, have nothing to do with his argument about the draft. A declaration of war would have ended the dissent movement (as happened in the contentious first days of our involvement in World War I), created treasonous penalties for those who were collaborating with the communists, and served strict notice to enemies and allies alike.

With respect to conscription, it is hardly tyranny to demand that citizens obey the laws of a democracy. People were drafted because of the Selective Service Law, which was in place before Vietnam and was a natural descendant of the militia laws that existed even during colonial times. That those who benefited most from our system chose to flout their obligations under such laws is an enduring national stain. That many of those same elites then transferred their feelings of guilt by terming others, who obeyed the laws and faced a determined enemy at great cost, "mindless" at best and "baby-killers" at worst, still demands historic and societal resolution.

Response from Irfan Khawaja (October 2000):

I can only register minimal agreement with James Webb's response. Like him, I have zero sympathy for the leftist anti-war protesters who supported the Vietnamese Communists. It was maximal hypocrisy on their part to criticize the draft on the basis of individual rights while defending a Communist regime dedicating to the total destruction of all rights. I agree that that shameful fact does indeed demand moral and intellectual resolution.

And yet, how far in principle is Mr. Webb's position from that of the Communists or the leftists? Like them, he asserts that human lives are the property of the state, to be used and discarded at its whims. Like them, he has no justification for this claim but to appeal to the brute force of law. But contrary to Mr. Webb, it is precisely tyranny to demand that citizens obey a law like the Selective Service Law. Any law that violates the right to life and liberty is tyranny, regardless of the procedures that led to its passage. Again, contrary to Mr. Webb, we don't live in a "democracy"; we live in a constitutional republic that is constitutionally required to respect individual rights. That was the point of the passages from the Constitution I cited, none of which mention "democracy."

Mr. Webb decries the war protesters' disrespect for the rule of law. But consider his own contempt for the rule of law. A declaration of war should have been issued, he tells us, "after our troops were committed to combat in Vietnam" (my emphasis). So, according to him, Congress' constitutional power consists not in declaring war, but in rubber-stamping wars that have already begun. Unfortunately, there is no way to reconcile such a claim with the Constitution. It doesn't even occur to Mr. Webb to ask whether troops should have been committed to Vietnam in the first place. Presumably, in his kingdom, it would have been treason to ask such a question.

It goes without saying that I don't think draft-dodging was morally wrong, so no one need incur guilt for having evaded it as such.[3] The guilty parties are those who sent men senselessly to die in a war they never bothered to justify—and those who continue to defend it in defiance of the fact that it can't be justified.

3) Justice Versus Local Control: A Response to New Jersey State Senator Gerald Cardinale. (The Princeton Packet, September 1, 2000).

In her essay "Racism," Ayn Rand praised the civil rights movement for its "fight against government-enforced discrimination" (p. 153), and criticized conservative advocates of states' rights who, in condoning racism, "do not seem to possess enough concern with principles to realize that they are cutting the ground from under their own feet" (p. 153-54).

Few defend states' rights today; the analogous cause is "local control" at the municipal level, which is espoused by both liberals and conservatives. The general idea behind local control is to use the law as a tool for maintaining the economic or demographic status quo in suburban municipalities. The inevitable effect is to lock inner-city blacks and immigrants out of the suburbs—an effect that both liberals and conservatives welcome, because (among other things) it keeps their voting constituencies exactly where they want them.

The following letter defends the so-called Mount Laurel decision in New Jersey against a conservative critic. The Mount Laurel decision was a judicial response to decades of "exclusionary zoning" by New Jersey's municipal governments.[4] It's not clear to me whether Ayn Rand herself would have found Mount Laurel defensible, and I'm not sure I find it all defensible, either. Nonetheless, I think the general principle behind it—rectificatory justice—is defensible.[5]

Letter To the Editor:

I take strong exception to state Sen. Gerald Cardinale's letter (Aug. 25) in which he charges, among other things, that the Mount Laurel decision represents "autocracy" on par with Soviet totalitarianism, and grounds for the impeachment of members of the state Supreme Court. Such claims repeat former Governor Thomas Kean's equally ill-conceived assertion that Mount Laurel was a kind of "communism."

Nothing could be further from the truth. In truth, the Mount Laurel decision was a justified response to a kind of autocracy. Ironically, the autocracy in question involved precisely the same kind of coercion as that found in the former Soviet Union: the blatant denial of property rights and the right to freely appropriate and develop land.

Prior to Mount Laurel, exclusionary zoning allowed local governments to set up a coercive barrier to a free market in low-income housing development. The de facto "justification" for these barriers was racial: the fear prevailed that if local governments did not have literally autocratic control over development, the "wrong" element (i.e., black people) would come to live in the "right" towns (i.e., predominantly white towns). Mount Laurel was a noble attempt to put an end to that disgraceful part of New Jersey's history. It was, in the philosopher Robert Nozick's terms, a case of "rectificatory justice"—not in the name of autocracy, but in the name of liberty and property.

No, Mount Laurel was not perfectly conceived, and has not been perfectly implemented. But before denouncing it, Sen. Cardinale owes us the recognition of what injustice it was intended to address. Above all, he has no grounds for the ludicrous comparison of it to the policies of the Soviet Union. In the absence of such a recognition, his remarks are uninformed, inflammatory, and irresponsible.

4) Justice Versus Power Politics: About a Woman Secretary of State. (Chicago Tribune, 1/18/96.)

Ayn Rand's essay "About a Woman President" (reprinted in The Voice of Reason) is probably the most embarrassing thing she ever wrote. To counteract that essay, I add the following letter defending the legitimacy of a woman as Secretary of State. I hasten to add that—for reasons unrelated to her sex—I don't think Madeleine Albright has been a very good Secretary of State.

Letter To the Editor:

Robert Evans Burnette (Dec. 13, 1995) worries that the appointment of UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright to the position of secretary of state will greviously offend "volatile" regimes in "the Middle East and nearby countries." Since these countries "control the flow of petroleum to the industrialized world," we must, apparently, replace Ms. Albright with a man in order to appease their sense of "propriety."

It apparently has not occurred to Mr. Burnette that the leader of the Palestinian delegation to the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, Hanan Ashrawi, is a woman. Given Mr. Burnette's thesis, Ms. Ashrawi's presence on the delegation should not have been possible. Nor has it occurred to Mr. Burnette that the recent leaders of three Muslim countries—Turkey, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—have been women. Why didn't the "strict religious regimes" to which Mr. Burnette alludes take the appropriate diplomatic measures against these countries? In fact, it should be obvious that Mr. Burnette's ascription of anti-feminist "notions of propriety" to "60 million Arabs" and others is a veil (so to speak) for his own anti-feminist sentiments.

[1] For a primer, see Ruse's "The Significance of Evolution," essay 44 in A Companion to Ethics, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), edited by Peter Singer.

[2] In my original letter, I mistakenly described Philippa Foot as a determinist, misremembering the thesis of her essay, "Free Will as Involving Determinism," (Virtues and Vices, [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978]). The essay is a critique, not a defense, of soft determinism.

[3] An incidental bit of history: My colleague Allan Gotthelf, of The College of New Jersey, tells me that the Objectivist Club of Columbia University held a public demonstration protesting President Kennedy's sending of military advisors to Vietnam in 1962—a full six years before the famous demonstrations (or riots) of 1968.

[4] For details, see David Kirp, et. al, Our Town: Race, Housing, and the Soul of Suburbia (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995).

[5] For a more explicit defense of the principle in a classical liberal context, see Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp. 152-3, 230-31. I defend rectificatory justice in a forthcoming paper, "Classical Liberalism and Federal Welfare Policy," to be presented at the Enlightenment conference in June 2001.