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Objectivism Misfires

This is the tenth entry in my Antistatism Series.

Objectivism has nothing substantive to say about the private ownership of firearms, and nothing at all to say about the revolutionary and radical implications of the Second Amendment. Objectivists, in the aggregate, tend to follow Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff in thinking of the right to keep and bear arms as a peripheral issue in politics. After all, “A political battle is merely a skirmish fought with muskets; a philosophical battle is a nuclear war.” For Objectivists per se, there is no concern that Americans might ever need to shoot their way to a free country; they intend to think, write, and talk themselves into that state.

Since Objectivism itself has no substantive position on the right to keep and bear arms, Objectivists have assumed varying positions. Some are trenchant supporters of the Second Amendment; some are tepid supporters; some seem to want no truck with guns at all. If there is a consensus among Objectivists, it is this: Individuals have the right of personal self-defense, and a proper government must permit the personal ownership of small firearms at least for this reason, and probably for sport and target shooting as well. Notably, there is not a consensus amongst Objectivists against what is presently called “reasonable gun-control.”

Leonard Peikoff, for example, argues that the right to self-defense implies that citizens should be permitted to own only those firearms suited to the purpose of personal defense or other “domestic use[s],” and that the private ownership of fully automatic weapons, or other weapons that are demonstrably ill-suited to stopping a burglar or dropping a moose, should be outlawed. Given the radical meaning of the Second Amendment, that it exists to empower the people to forcibly check the expansion of government power, it is clear from his position here that Peikoff either misunderstands, rejects as outmoded, or rejects fundamentally the principles of the Second Amendment. (Lest it appear I might agree with Peikoff on this issue, let me pause to note that, while I have argued in this series that the Second Amendment is outmoded, I have not said what implications, if any, this has for contemporary gun-control debates.)

As I have already alluded, Objectivists have no interest in violent revolution, except to preempt one through intellectual and cultural revolution. As is plain from their reverence for the Declaration of Independence, Objectivists agree with the Founders on right of revolution (in theory). It should also be plain, from their treatment of gun rights, that they part ways with the Founders, radically, when the question arises of what the people should do when, in the the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.

No. That is wrong. Objectivists do not part ways with the Founders when this question arises; they part ways with the Founders when it doesn’t arise.

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Update on The Antistatism Series and Universals

A recent comment on “It’s Ours To Lose” has inspired me to write up a brief progress report on my Antistatism Series. I’ve been considering posting a progress report for … years … now, but I’ve had other things on my mind.

First, since this may not have been clear, the series is not […]

The Catastrophic Failure of the Second Amendment

This is the ninth entry in my Antistatism Series.

The Second Amendment is a historical relic of an attempt to "put teeth" in the right of revolution, to put a general and pervasive fear of violent uprisings into Federal officials, and, in the final analysis, make an honest woman out of "popular sovereignty." It failed — utterly, completely, catastrophically.

The practicality of the Second Amendment’s principles depends on a number of social conditions, all of which could reasonably have been thought to have been present in American society at the time of the drafting of the Constitution. None of these conditions can reasonably be thought to be present in American society now.

  1. Military-grade weapons are readily accessible to the general population.
  2. At least a basic understanding of individual rights and the proper role of government is prevalent in the general population.
  3. An intellectual leadership exists that is able and ready to incite revolution or rebellion when needed.

Another way of putting this is that, for armed revolt to work as a last-resort means of restoring a decaying society to a former state of liberty, the people must have the means and the motive to defend their liberty, and must be able to recognize the opportune time to act.

I believe it is highly improbable that the ideological conditions that make armed rebellion a credible check against unlimited government will ever again be realized. But even if a significant minority of the people understood and were willing to defend their rights as individuals, and even if the necessary intellectual leadership were in place, the balance of power, measured in materiel, has irrevocably shifted to the government. The imbalance will only become more pronounced with time.

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The Radical Meaning of the Second Amendment

This is the eighth entry in my Antistatism Series.

The Second Amendment to the United States’ Constitution was meant to strengthen a check on the power of any Federal army: the state militias. The Founding Fathers were prudently wary of standing armies, especially large ones kept in time of peace. Such armies were the concrete means by which tyrannical Federal plans could be actualized in force. The state militias offered the possibility of resistance, but only if they were maintained at readiness.

The Second Amendment is merely the most prominent of several interrelated constitutional checks on the Federal government’s power to raise and maintain a fighting force, and is not the only one concerned with the militia.

  • Article I, Section 8 grants Congress these powers:
    • To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;
    • To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;
    • To provide and maintain a navy;
    • To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces;
    • To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;
    • To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
  • Article II, Section 2
    • Grants that the President of the United States is to be commander in chief of the militia of the several states, but only while the militia is on duty in the actual service of the United States.
  • The Second Amendment states: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
  • The Third Amendment states: “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

To be fully understood, the Second Amendment must be seen in the context of all of the above Constitutional provisions, as well as in its larger historical context. I will not here provide the full historical context of the Second Amendment. What I will do instead is break the text down into sections, explicating each from the perspective of that context.

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The True Nature of Government

Government is force.

What Really Limits Government?

Force limits government. First, government is limited by the force it has at its disposal. A government whose agents are armed only with truncheons is far more limited than a government whose agents are armed with machine guns, tear gas, and the hydrogen bomb. Second, government is limited by the force its subjects have at their disposal. Finally, a government is limited by the force other governments have at their disposal.

A constitution can limit a government no more than blueprints for a dam can limit a flood. A dam must be built of something concrete, and likewise a government must be held back with force of arms.

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The Practicability Gap: A Recap

This is the sixth entry in my Antistatism Series.

The last two posts in this series, “Practicability,” and “Heaven, Hell, or Hades?,” showed that Ayn Rand’s politics is incomplete because it provides no sufficiently realized account of limited government’s practicability. Objectivism states that a government of delegated and enumerated powers, limited to the purpose of enforcing the principle of individual rights, is requisite in order for man to reap the benefits of social organization. Objectivism does not, however, make any explicit argument that such a government can actually be established and maintained.

Objectivists, of course, universally believe in the practicability and sustainability of limited government. If they believed otherwise, their politics would be futile and impractical, and therefore immoral by their own standards. Since their philosophy lacks any explicit argument for the practicability and sustainability of its core institution, how do they justify their belief?

As we have already seen, Objectivists justify their belief in limited government by gesture to the first century of American republicanism, roughly 1789–1889. (The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 makes a convenient bookend.) This brief golden age of free minds and free enterprise is for Objectivists a “proof of concept” demonstrating the practicability of limited government. The fact that limited government failed, or is in the midst of over a century of slow, ugly failure, does not, for Objectivists, indict limited government itself. Rather, the Objectivist view is that American Constitutional government was doomed to failure from the start because it lacked a proper philosophical foundation. Now that Ayn Rand has provided that foundation, they believe, it has become possible to restore limited government and to maintain it.

Any Objectivist, therefore, can stand on one foot and explain in two words why things have a chance to be different next time: Objectivist philosophy. The question is: does this explanation count for anything, or is it just empty posturing?

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Heaven, Hell, or Hades: What Comes After the Revolution?

This is the fifth entry in my Antistatism Series.

The more I study the Enlightenment, the more astounded I am at the depth and breadth of its contours, and at boldness of its heroes as they sought to shape the West to their new vision. One contour that I think Objectivists admire too distantly was the attempt by the Founding Fathers to engineer a future for themselves and their countrymen by balancing the forces of society and government against each other. The philosophy of statecraft embodied in the U.S. Constitution is one of containment. What is contained? The whim of the mob and the ambition, self-importance, avarice, and, especially, corruption of men-in-government. The ideal the Constitution sought after was perhaps a government of laws and not of men, but the very tripartite structure it established stood testament to reality: all governments are and must be governments of men. Because this is so, the founders thought, a good government must be divided against itself and against the people; it must be made inefficient on purpose, unwieldy on purpose, self-frustrating on purpose. It seems an Objectivist’s constitution would likely repeat this structure, but would it make use of divided government for the same reasons? Does Objectivism agree with the Founding Fathers’ premise that governments-as-such tend toward tyranny?

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Practicability: The Unanswered Question of the Objectivist Politics

This is the fourth entry in my Antistatism Series. Here my argument begins in earnest. We shall see that Ayn Rand tacitly admits that an account of the practicability of government is a necessary component of any political philosophy — and then proceeds to not provide one.

Objectivism has disturbingly little to say about what might happen after the new-and-improved U.S. Constitution is ratified. I believe that the closest approach to these considerations in the main body of Objectivism, and perhaps in all the extant work of Objectivists, is in Ayn Rand’s essay “Government Financing in a Free Society.”* In that essay, Rand takes up the question of how a properly limited government could be paid for without taxation. She admits that it is necessary to account for the practicability, in principle, of voluntary government financing, but demurs that the specifics of a system of finance are beyond the scope of politics, and belong rather to philosophy of law.

Obviously, if it is necessary to account for the practicability of government finance in a free society, it is necessary to account for the practicability of limited government as such. But no argument for the practicability of limited government, other than for the practicability of its finance, is presented anywhere in Objectivism.

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Closing the Book on the Open Letter

This is the third entry in my Antistatism Series. Before I can make my own case for antistatism, I must pause to redress a famously misaddressed letter on a related subject.

In 1969 Roy Childs began an Open Letter to Ayn Rand with these words:

The purpose of this letter is to convert you to free market anarchism. As far as I can determine, no one has ever pointed out to you in detail the errors in your political philosophy. … Why am I making such an attempt to convert you to a point of view which you have, repeatedly, publicly condemned as a floating abstraction? Because you are wrong. I suggest that your political philosophy cannot be maintained without contradiction, that, in fact, you are advocating the maintenance of an institution — the state — which is a moral evil. To a person of self-esteem, these are reasons enough.

In part, Childs’ Letter, “Objectivism and the State,” was a response to Rand’s article “The Nature of Government,” in which she had called anarchy a “naive floating abstraction.” Childs went on in his Letter to complement Rand’s dismissal:

[L]imited government is a floating abstraction which has never been concretized by anyone … a limited government must either initiate force or cease being a government … the very concept of limited government is an unsuccessful attempt to integrate two mutually contradictory elements: statism and voluntarism. [Emphasis in original.]

Even those admirers of Ayn Rand’s who are wholly unfamiliar with Childs will be unsurprised to learn that his Letter failed utterly to persuade the philosopher it addressed. Could Childs have done better, then? What arguments would have been more persuasive? Why did Childs fail, fundamentally?

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Anarchism, Capitalism, and Antistatism: An Introduction

Some time ago I promised a series of posts that would outline my argument “against limited government.” The first of these posts was “More Eggs,” which should be considered to be a kind of extended epigraph. The present post shall serve as a general introduction.

When I said I would provide a series of posts arguing against limited government, I meant exactly what I said and said exactly what I meant. I will not be arguing for anarchism, but rather against the state. I will be arguing for precisely this proposition: Limited government is impracticable.

My arguments are directed, primarily, at Objectivists, though I am sure that Objectivists will not be the only thinkers who will benefit from them. My reasons for focusing my arguments on Objectivists are many, but the one essential reason is this: I believe that a free society must rest on intellectual foundations; I believe that Objectivists are the thinkers best equipped to provide these foundations, and I believe that Objectivists are squandering their efforts in this area.

There is no such thing as an anarchist Objectivist. Indeed, no serious Objectivist is sympathetic to anarchism in the least. Since I will be arguing for radical antistatism, which should be understood for now to be the view that limited government is impracticable, a view which seems to have anarchic implications, I expect to find Objectivists to be an unsympathetic audience. Fortunately, some of some Objectivists’ distaste for radical antistatism is based on basic misunderstandings that are easily cleared up.

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