June 2020
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It’s Ours to Lose


Many who have learned from Ayn Rand believe that Enlightenment civilization, the bequeathal of Aristotle, Newton, and Jefferson, declines precipitously toward a renaissance of the medieval, of the Paleolithic, or worse, with perhaps an interregnum of digital-age totalitarian fascism along the way. Picture a televangelist smiling beatifically. Then picture him in sanguine raiment and steel-toed boots, still smiling, stomping on humanity’s face, if not forever, for a very, very long time.

Against the Dying of the Light

Objectivism is a life-affirming philosophy. Its adherents tend to be optimists, or at least admire and strive toward a rational, justified optimism. In this context, an important Objectivist idea is the “impotence of evil.” Ayn Rand wrote that “The spread of evil is the symptom of a vacuum. Whenever evil wins, it is only by default …” (from “The Anatomy of Compromise,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, 149.)

This is a powerful idea, and Objectivists take it seriously. Despite their pessimism about the present course of Western (especially American) Civilization, they are hard at work trying to build up and apply the intellectual force necessary to make the right course correction. They believe they can win, and their notion of victory is expansive. It is nothing less than the total reformation of American culture.

[The Ayn Rand Institute (ARI)] seeks to spearhead a cultural renaissance that will reverse the anti-reason, anti-individualism, anti-freedom, anti-capitalist trends in today’s culture. ~ Introduction to Ayn Rand, Objectivism and ARI

Philosophy and History

Objectivists believe they can move the world because they have in hand a very long lever, and intend to capture a very solid point upon which to rest it. According to Objectivism, philosophy moves history, and Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is much more comprehensive, consistent, and powerful than the mish-mash that informed the Framers of the Constitution. By capturing the commanding heights of the West’s ivory towers, Objectivists hope to educate a vanguard of teachers, writers, journalists, and public intellectuals of all kinds in Objectivist fundamentals. These opinion leaders will, in turn, drive the intellectually inert masses toward a second renaissance culture: a rebirth of reason.

Race for the Prize

The essential Objectivist view of their enterprise is that it is a race against time. Will they capture enough influence in academia, and parlay and extend that influence to political elites, or even a new Objectivistic “common sense” among the masses that upholds objective reality, reason, self-interest, and capitalism? As long as America is free from censorship, Objectivists believe they have more than a fighting chance. If current trends continue, however, Objectivist activism will eventually be criminalized. If that happens, the Objectivists’ plan will have failed.

Tilting at Windmills

I believe many Objectivists would agree with the following characterization of their quest for cultural reformation and rebirth, or at least admit that it is a very reasonable evaluation of the evidence: Objectivists are doing good work applying the right ideas in the ways most likely to effect cultural change, but the cultural momentum of statism, theism, and altruism is so vast that victory is highly improbable in our lifetimes, and humanity may well have to endure at least another dark age before Ayn Rand’s ideas triumph.

I find it peculiar that adherents of a philosophy for living on earth, a philosophy that rejects any dichotomy between the moral and the practical, would dedicate themselves to a strategy that is unlikely to succeed. I think there is only the barest possibility, the most minimal evidence, that the Objectivists’ strategy can work in time.

Nonetheless, an Optimist

Despite my pessimism about the Objectivists’ strategy, I admire it. It does at least offer the possibility of victory. Furthermore, it is not hard to imagine a host of plausible reasons people might support such a strategy, even if they shared my dismal outlook on its prospects.

Leonard Peikoff’s work on his forthcoming The DIM Hypothesis seems to support a very pessimistic outlook on the possibility of victory in our lifetimes. In one of his podcasts, he discussed his reasons for continuing the struggle for reason and freedom against such overwhelming cultural forces. As I recall, part of his answer could be summed up like this: Fighting for the right lost cause is fun. I think he is right. Exercising our faculties in order to shape the world to our vision is fun; it is satisfying, even if that vision is never fully realized. If I weren’t myself such an optimist, I might well join in.

Kobayashi Maru*

I don’t believe in the no-win scenario. The plain implausibility of victory in our lifetimes through ARI’s victory-through-attrition intellectual land war in Asia suggests to me, with equal plainness, that the correct strategy is to seek another strategy, not to capitulate cheerfully to the intellectual activism of Don Quixote.

The ARI strategy is essentially one of recruitment. Create more Objectivists and get them to the high ground. Change the minds of today’s university student to hold the minds of tomorrow’s professors. This is very time and resource intensive. ARI is accruing resources impressively, but it cannot buy time. What if this long march were totally unnecessary? What if there were a more direct route to victory? What if Objectivists could change the rules of the game? Instead of trying to recruit a greater intellectual force, what if victory could be achieved by deploying their existing forces effectively?


A few years back, ARI spokesman Onkar Ghate gave a fascinating talk on the parallels between the American Revolution and Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. When he began to discuss (at about nine minutes into the talk) the Founders’ motivation for revolution, Ghate asked why they were not satisfied to live under the rule of Great Britain. After all, by any standard, the yoke of British tyranny was a light one. His answer: the Founders were men of idealism and self-esteem. As idealists, they were not satisfied with a government that was “good enough.” As men of self-esteem, they believed they deserved to achieve the ideal of a free society, and, further, that they were competent to realize this ideal. But where is this idealism and self-esteem evident in the Objectivist movement?

Given the obvious imperatives of idealism and self-esteem, the lack of revolutionary fervor among Objectivists has always been puzzling to me. The present government of the United States is as intolerably tyrannical as that of Great Britain in the late 18th Century. Yet Objectivists’ actions (if not always their rhetoric) demonstrate that they believe ours is a “good enough” government to live under, at least while engaging in long-range intellectual activism. But, as much as it pains me to approvingly quote a villain, “In the long run we are all dead.” It makes no moral sense for egoists to devote themselves to an activism that, as Objectivists occasionally allow, seems nearly certain not to succeed in our lifetimes.

The Sanction of the Victim

By wasting their efforts on this longer-than-life-range activism Objectivists, following ARI’s lead, give their sanction to the status quo. If all efforts among idealists were tempered with genuine self-esteem, the focus of activism would be the living present, not the all-too-distant future.

It is true that there are few idealists, idealists of Ayn Rand’s kind, in America today. With a band of such modest numbers, it might almost seem we are alone. Seeming alone, perhaps some of us are afraid. Nonetheless, men of idealism and self-esteem cannot complain of being nearly alone and sometimes afraid in a world they never made. Ayn Rand already answered them: Why didn’t you?

The likes of our current rulers should hardly inspire boredom, let alone fear. Their power over us, such as it is, is had by default. Let all men of reason, idealism, and self-esteem give up hope in the utopias of the vanishing future and put confidence in our ability to realize our ideals in the solid present, and tyranny may yet wax sanguine in the West, but it will have nothing to do with us.

8 comments to It’s Ours to Lose

  • MichaelM

    I’ve been reading your posts with some interest, having entangled myself recently in a slew of limited government v. anarchy threads in the Mises.org forum and WSJ community in order to get a firm grip on the subject. Bumping into your “anti-statism” was a surprise—a non-way in lieu of a third-way—political agnosticism, as it were—and, as far as I know, an original tack to take. As relentlessly thought through as it is, however, I also bumped into a few unaddressed issues that left me still comfortable Rand’s limited government.

    Before tackling anti-statism, permit me a comment on anarchy qua nihilism: While it is true that the anarcho-capitalists desire to replace the technology (in the broadest sense) of limited government with a different technology, in actuality, they cannot and do not. The impossibility of their notion manifests itself both in the definition of the perceived problem and in their preferred solution.

    THE PROBLEM is perceived to be a contradiction inherent in institutionally monopolizing defensive force that results in the use of force to prevent or stop an individual exercising his independent moral right to defend himself with force, thereby initiating force contrary to Objectivism’s moral mandate against initiating force. There is no such contradiction. The anarchists assume that the division implied by “no initiation of force” between the force they would prohibit or allow is the same implied by Objectivists. It is not.

    Unlike the anarchists, Objectivism recognizes that the condition we call liberty that is necessary for one to apply his reason and effort in production and trade in the service of his life in unimpeded autonomy, requires the absence of all arbitrary force, of which initiated force is one category. Unlike the anarchists, it requires all rights and every aspect of their enforcement to be objectively defined, proven, and objectified (concretized).

    Consequently, the Objectivist politics prohibits all arbitrary force and requires all defensive force exercised against it to be objectified—to be known or knowable in advance by all subject to it. The prohibition of the arbitrary exercise of otherwise morally justifiable defensive force is necessary, because over half the value of liberty is in the justifiable expectation of it in our daily lives. The anarchist’s choice to defend himself with force exercised by his own standards at his own time, is as great a threat to the liberty of the populace as any aggressively initiated mayhem.

    Thus the alleged contradiction of a government using force to stop an otherwise morally justifiable use of defensive force is actually just a paradox. The real contradiction lies with the anarchists who attempt to institutionalize the arbitrary. And the nonsense that idea constitutes certainly does not qualify as an alternative “technology” no matter what context you put it in, so the accusation that anarchy is a form of nihilism is warranted.

    THE SOLUTION anarcho-capitalists turn to when Objectivists point out that condoning the arbitrary exercise of defensive force can only result in chaos is to arm the invisible hand—to establish a “free market in force.” In order to do this, they must first ignore Rand’s warning that mind and force are mutually exclusive opposites and cannot both be “free” at the same time in the same place. Second, they have to steal the concept of “free market.” Only in a defined and defended jurisdiction already voided of force can a market ever be said to be free. Yet another bit of nonsense supporting the accusation of nihilism because it cannot qualify as an alternate “technology” either.

    Ultimately, it is arbitrary force that is the Achilles Heel of the a-capitalism.


    Re your anti-statism, I guess I skipped the part where you explained why you call opposition to limited government that. Statism is a perfectly good and properly understood word evaluating subjectivist political institutions by the degree to which they are not restricted to enforcing individual rights. Regardless of whether an Objectivist limited government would or would not meet your criterion of being practicable, it is, in principle, not statism.

    Another thing I did not find was a viable accounting for your use of the word “tend,” as in “all governments would always tend toward tyranny.” A government is a set of principles, guidelines, and instructions that have no tendencies whatsoever. The transition from free nation to tyranny is effected by the free will choices of those who operate and sustain it to abandon, ignore, or replace that set. While it is valid to refer to the historical record of past tendencies of those choices, it is not valid to base anything on an expectation of the same or any other tendencies in the future without lapsing into the embrace of the devil we know as determinism. Similarly, your belief in tendencies inherent in human nature is a determinist notion. Determinism in any measure is untenable since it precludes the possibility of validating its own truth. Arguing the impracticability of limited government by asserting such tendencies is a favorite fallacy of philosophically challenged anarchists.

    I also cannot accept your contention that the Objectivist politics of limited government is meant to be justified by citing “the statecraft of the Federalists.” Objectivists are well aware of Constitutional contradictions and the failure of their politics to recognize slaves as human beings. In 43 years as an Objectivist, I have never seen a reference to early American government that was not qualified as a just relatively good example of limited government in action. One does not validate political principles by pointing to concrete examples anyway. Nor is a philosophy of statecraft necessary to validate a normative politics. When you say,…

    “If the moral is the practical, as Objectivism insists, then proper government must be practical, but if a venture is impracticable, it cannot possibly be practical,”

    …you may not conclude from it that anyone’s inability to detail a future working model has any relevance to the philosophical validity of the politics. It says nothing about the validity of the Objectivist claim that freedom from arbitrary force and coercion is the good in the context of politics. And it does not dilute the fact that the only antidote to arbitrary force is objective force. That the philosophy does not pursue the nuts and bolts of practicability is not a flaw—particularly not in the case of Objectivism that is at least many decades away from dominating any culture enough to make the question important. And by that time much would have already been answered and achieved in the slow migration of popular philosophy to rationality.

    Rand stood firmly on the principle that only ideas matter. Persuasion must precede their application. Also, political success is not a primary goal of an Objectivist. The philosophy defines how one should live a human life under any circumstance—how to live a rational life in an irrational world, as Rand put it. There is nothing longer-than-life about that range. Besides, when I first read Rand, Objectivism was a dozen people gathered around her coffee table. Its penetration into the culture has progressed exactly as she predicted, and by my measure, far exceeded expectations. The “revolutionary fervor” you long for would be an act of self-sacrifice prior to establishing a cultural base. Only die-hard pragmatists need to bolster their confidence in a politics with practicability in a different and future context.

  • Agonist


    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think there are significant aspects of my argument that you have not digested. Which aspects, I’ll try to say in a later comment.

    For now, as a note to myself:

    1. I don’t think your rebuttal to the anarchists’ “government is a coercive monopoly” argument works. It’s rationalistic, in the Objectivist sense of the term, and clearly and objectively identifiable as such. In my rejoinder, I may find time to do the needed identifying. (I should say, however, that I don’t feel very inspired about defending the anarchists on this point, even though I agree with them, because the “government-is-a- coercive-monopoly” tack is, itself, rationalistic (again in the Objectivist sense).

    2. Re: nihilism / the enshrinement of the arbitrary: Tu Quoque

    3. Re: “tend” — governments are indeed not “sets of principles.” Governments are people doing things. It would make more sense to argue that constitutions are sets of principles. Your whole line of argument here is rationalistic in the extreme. And re determinism: you’re barking up the wrong tree there. Institutions have tendencies; individuals have free will; this is not a contradiction and is not even a paradox. … Institutions are sets of purposive practices … Also, if “institutions have tendencies” implies determinism, so must “If you understand the dominant philosophy of a society, you can predict its course.

    4. Practicability: in theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice, they’re different.

    5. Objectivists misplace the dovetail between philosophical politics and politics as a special science.

    Best regards,


  • MichaelM

    Lots of characterizations anxiously waiting to be shown to actually apply …

  • Agonist

    Let me begin with your defense of the charge of nihilism that has been leveled against anarchism.

    1. Yes, at least some anarchists want to replace the state with alternative technologies, broadly defined.
    2. Prima facie, then, anarchists are not nihilists.
    3. But this is merely appearance because:
    4. These same anarchists and all of their alternative technologies allow for the arbitrary (non-objective) use of defensive force.
    5. Any attempt to institutionalize the arbitrary is a contradiction.
    6. Anarchists’ alternative technologies are incoherent (contradictory).
    7. [A contradiction cannot exist.]
    8. Anarchists advocate an impossible substitute for the state.
    9. [Since their substitute is impossible, it is the same as nothing.]
    10. Advocating nothing in the stead of the state is tantamount to political nihilism.

    • Therefore, the charge that anarchism is a species of nihilism is warranted.

    Is this a fair condensation of your argument?

    I think you are tacitly equivocating on the meaning of “nihilism.” Nihilism does not mean merely advocating ideas the results of which would be destructive or disastrous. What does it mean? I’d say it means something like: an indiscriminate or universal hatred of values which characteristically manifests itself in the advocacy of or participation in destruction for destruction’s sake.

    In other words, nihilists advocate destruction consciously and deliberately. If anarchists advocate an alternative technology for the state, they do not merely want to destroy the state and watch the world burn. That would indeed make them nihilists and their political philosophy a species of nihilism. Even if their idea is contradictory and would have disastrous results, they must have advocated it because it was contradictory, not in spite of this if the charge of nihilism is warranted.

    A charitable reading of your argument might take it to have meant that anarchists advocate impossible substitutes for the state because they secretly want society to collapse into violent chaos. If you did mean to, or would like to have implied this, maybe you could begin to make the implication explicit by arguing that anarchism is an inherently dishonest idea … but I don’t think you’d get far.

  • MichaelM

    As you are not terribly inspired to defend the anarchists, I feel the same about Peikoff’s comment. Not that he was not right to say it, but it is a highly specialized philosophical charge I never would level in a blog comment because very few people could relate it to their or anyone else’s political position. But curmudgeon and loose cannon that he on occasion can be, experience has taught me that when one who dallies in skepticism as you have challenges him, I better doubt you first. I did, and found that his accusation fit well with my favorite analyses of the flaws in the anarchist argument.

    Now that you have dragged me (or is it lured?) into the subject, however, I must admit that it does enrich the issue a bit, so I will experiment with adding it to my repertoire.

    You are right to question what I was thinking “nihilism” to be in this context, because it mostly just welled up from past learning. On checking those impressions v. definitions and such though, I’ll stick to my story and support it with some carefully reigned in contexts.

    I do not think that this has anything to do with the anarchist’s desires and intentions re “destruction” per se. Their nihilism is a snuck-up-from-behind de facto kind of error. It is their epistemological and ethical nihilism that, in spite of their best no-initiation-of-force intentions, collapses their house of cards. And in OPAR, mentioning the 20th century cultural/political nihilism spawned by Kant, Peikoff remarks that “The collapse of a negative, however, is not a positive. the atrophy of a vicious version of unreason is not the adoption of reason.”

    Snuck-up or not, they are none the less guilty. Epistemologically, nihilism is the extreme of skepticism, and when it comes to a government of volitional men, their view is a stubbornly blind skepticism of the capacity of human beings to both understand and define justice AND volitionally choose to sustain it. Ethical nihilism rejects the possibility of absolute values and the efficacy of ethics itself. That is exactly what they do in choosing to cobble their case for anarchy on pragmatic economic principles to the exclusion of objective ethical necessities.

    Now the destruction for destruction’s sake you miss in their intentions, arrives in the only conclusion their epistemological/ethical nihilism leaves them with for a politics: all former systems of order must be destroyed … and … replaced with an impossibility—arbitrary order, i.e. with no order. And as the Objectivists so often harp, that will inevitably result in chaos—in a sizable number of Pol Pots.

    This nihilism needs to be viewed stretched across the span of its hierarchical timeline. Epistemological nihilism begets ethical nihilism that begets political nihilism that culminates in existential nihilism. It is understandable that without some serious digging into the implications, the ostensively civilized desires and intentions of guys like Stefan Molyneux or Lew Rockwell or David Friedman are not easily recognizable as enablers of the Pol Pots that would be their legacy.


    Here’s another viewpoint that occurred to me when I mentioned Pol Pot. I have not fully developed this yet, so I’m not 100% fluent in it, but I think it is a viable point:

    From Rand I learned that the left-right dichotomy is a false alternative—an instance of the mind-body dichotomy. Specifically, the left is just the politics of subjectivism, the right is the politics of intrinsicism, and liberty is the politics of objectivism. In the broadest sense, the left subjectivists leave man’s mind (spirit) free to roam, because to a subjectivist, reason is impotent anyway; but they are compelled to bring order to the material world by force. The right intrinsicists, to the contrary, leave the temporal and unimportant material world free, while imposing order on the spirit in the name of their gods or traditions, or founding fathers, or whatever authority they have inherited.

    She also explains that mind and body are inseparably integrated and that inevitably, to control one is to control the other. The more aspects of life to which they apply their controls, the more identically controlled life is. And when all of the spiritual or all of the material world is controlled the de facto result is totalitarianism. The Stalins become indistinguishable from the Hitlers. That is who Pol Pot was—an end-of-the-line nihilist.

    My point is, that nihilism is the natural consequence of fully integrating subjectivism with intrinsicism.

    The contemporary anarcho-capitalists, therefore, are nihilists, because they seek a subjectivist absence of order to be enabled by an intrinsicist reification of the infallible “market.” They don’t look like nihilists, but only because they are just in its early stages of relying on epistemological and ethical nihilism to support their nihilist political theory. The existential nihilists will not appear on the scene until and unless enough of a populace embraces their notion and sets about the practice of it.

  • Agonist

    And here I gave you this nice new rope to hang yourself with and you go and just use the same old one. Perhaps you’ve heard about Greeks bearing gifts … 😉

    I think we should, at our earliest conveniences, follow our mutual inclinations to let the question of nihilism be, primarily because I see that it would be more profitable to go to the the root of your concern (anarchism as anti-life) than it would be to continue to wander amid these arid abstractions.

    I can make a very slight, but nonetheless valuable, bit of headway toward the root of your concern by answering your question about my use of the term “antistatism.” The Ayn Rand Lexicon says “statism” means the principle that man’s life belongs to the state, that state power is concentrated at the expense of the individual, and, most essentially, I think, that the state has the right to initiate the use of physical force against its citizens.

    My view is that any implementation of a state, even a truly capitalist state, must and will initiate physical force against its citizens. Since a state will use force aggressively, advocating a state at all is advocating a state with the sanction or right to initiate physical force against its citizens (subjects). In other words, Objectivist capitalism entails statism, and Objectivists are crypto-statists, even though their capitalism is, ostensibly, anti-statist.

    What has just preceded is not my argument, but a precis that, necessarily, gets ahead of itself. My argument is the Antistatism Series itself, and is not finished. Asserting, as you do, in medias res of my argument, that Objectivist capitalism is not, in principle, a form of statism, is begging the question. Whether Objectivist capitalism is statist in principle, even if it is individualist in intent (and I will stipulate to the latter), is the very matter under question. When you write “I guess I skipped the part where you explained why you call opposition to limited government [antistatism],” my answer is: you didn’t skip it, you’re standing in it.

    (The post that will probably most directly address your question will be: “Consent of the Governed: Anti-Concept.” I am considering bumping it up in my planned production sequence, but I doubt, even if I do this, I’ll be able to get to it in the next several months. In any case, because the whole idea of the series is to reproduce for its readers some of the vast inductive process that led to my own radical antistatism, no one post or argument is meant to be conclusive. As I said at the outset: “The nature of my enterprise precludes any possibility of quick and neat demonstrations. But quick and neat demonstrations are the province of rationalists anyhow …”)

    Now, regarding your nihilism argument, you still seem to be saying that anarchists are accidental nihilists, which I still hold to be an abuse of concepts. It is worth noting that I am making a charge against Objectivists superficially similar to yours against anarchists: “they know not what they do.” But intent is part of nihilism, and it is no part of statism. A person is a statist if he advocates a state sanctioned to initiate force against its citizens (subjects). The sanction that a state (or a stateless society) operates under is in its constitution, though, not in the intent of its framers or imaginers. This is why I am much more sympathetic to Leonard Peikoff’s paradoxical (though tenable) argument in OPAR that anarchism is a form of statism than I am to his straightforward but untenable argument that it is a form of nihilism.

  • MichaelM

    I am not saying that the anarcho-capitalists are “accidental” nihilists. They are naive. Then when their naivete is explained to them, they consciously choose to continue on the same road in denial—simply because it sounds so right to them. You are doing the same thing, except instead of pressing on, you just stop and sit down in the middle of the road and content yourself with throwing pebbles at them as they pass you going that way and at me passing in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, I do not accept your contention that intent is a prerequisite for nihilism.

    Don’t bump up “Consent of the Governed” for my sake. Whether it be a government of a single person powerful enough to sustain autonomy for all by means of defensive force contrary to the wishes of all others living in that government’s jurisdiction, or it would be one anointed by unanimous consent, it would be moral and just governance.

    The morality of a government is not contingent in any way on the consent of any particular individual. It is contingent only on the particular purpose for which it uses force. Specifically, it may only be used in defense against force—i.e. to guarantee that:

    No person may use physical force or the threat thereof to take, withhold, damage, or destroy any tangible or intangible value of another person who either created it or acquired it in a voluntary exchange and who reciprocates correspondingly.

    A government that uses force to sustain that principle is not statist whether or not any or all of the governed consent.

  • Agonist

    Your writing around “nihilism” — what, precisely you mean, or think is generally meant, or think ought to be meant by the term — has become for me something like a Zen koan. The following criticism is meant to stress our differences trenchantly enough that, sooner or later, the koan cracks like a piñata.

    Our disagreement here is primarily over what “nihilism” means. (I say “primarily” and not “essentially” because our essential disagreement is over whether limited government is practicable. (I mean: if you thought that anarcho-capitalism were practicable, and could secure individual rights, I doubt you would persist in identifying it as a species of nihilism.)) Before we can agree on whether anarchism is a species of nihilism, we first must agree on what nihilism is.

    I provided a working definition of “nihilism” (and thereby, an objective basis for debate) in my very first substantive comment. Your third substantive comment, in contrast, still has not offered an alternative definition of this key term. According to Objectivism, definitions provide words with identity. (IOE2, 11) Your argument, deliberately or not, leaves “nihilism” without an identity. One effect of this amorphousness at the heart of the debate is to virtually guarantee that the meaning of “nihilism,” and, consequently, the question of whether it can be legitimately predicated of anarchism, is held perpetually in suspense.

    While I am enjoying the back-and-forth of our exchanges, debate is a means to an end for me, not an end in itself. I either want to convince you, or be myself convinced, or, at the very least, leave readers of this exchanged convinced that they have learned something valuable. My purposes here require me to do my best to keep the proposition under debate clearly defined.

    So what is the proposition under debate? It is “anarchism is not nihilism.” Your comments here on nihilism have been in response to this passage from my “Anarchism, Capitalism, and Antistatism: An Introduction”:

    Peikoff bases his charge of nihilism on his notion that anarchists want to smash the state — which, in the Objectivist view, is the very institution that makes social life possible — and replace it with nothing. This is true of some anarchists, and Peikoff could be understood to have been arguing that this nihilistic kind of anarchism is the one kind that has had some cultural influence, but individualist anarchists are of a different kind entirely. Individualist anarchists believe that some sort of technology (and please understand “technology” in its broadest possible sense) is needed to protect individual rights in a society; they want to replace the state not with nothing, but with an alternative technology. … Since individualist anarchists want to replace the state with an alternative technology, individualist anarchists are not nihilists, and anarchism is not nihilism.

    You will note that I am unequivocal here: “anarchism is not nihilism.” I am not saying something wishy-washy like, “It seems overly strident to accuse anarchists of nihilism.” I am saying that anarchism is not nihilism at all. Period.

    But I don’t merely assert that anarchism is not nihilism, I provide an argument. The argument, in short, is that since anarchists do not wish to destroy social order, but rather change the means of maintaining it, and since nihilists (in a political context) are those who see no value in social order or those who wish to annihilate social order, anarchists are not nihilists.

    Now it seems to me that anyone responding to my argument here and wanting to prove that anarchists are nihilists after all has only two choices. First, he can attempt to show that political nihilism means something other than wanting to destroy the possibility of social order. Second, he can attempt to show, in some way, that anarchists do want to destroy the possibility of social order after all. Following the first route would mean making an argument focused on redefining nihilism (or demonstrating to me that I have illegitimately redefined it myself). Following the second route would mean making an argument about the nature of anarchism, and would, logically, have to proceed from an established agreement over what “nihilism” means.

    As I understand nihilism, it is an ideology of negation. You are a nihilist with respect to the chicken dinner if you poison the bird before serving it. If you inadvertently set the oven temperature too high and burn the bird to a crisp, you’re not a chicken-dinner nihilist, you’re just a bad cook. If anarchists advocate unworkable theories in spite of their unworkability, they are bad political philosophers. If they advocate unworkable theories because of their unworkability, then they are nihilists.

    Your first comments on the nihilism issue seemed to me to be proceeding down the second route, attempting to show that anarchists do want to destroy the possibility of social life after all. But it was not clear to me that we agreed on what “nihilism” means, so your attempts to show that the alternative technologies of some varieties of anarchism are unworkable (contradictory) appeared as a glaring non sequitur.

    In order for it to make any sense at all to even bring up the workability of anarchist state-supplanting technologies in this context, you have to have first shown that advocating unworkable state-supplanting technologies is nihilism. And before you can do that you have to define “nihilism.”

    Since you did not define “nihilism” in your first comments, I paused to offer my own definition, which you ought to have taken as an opportunity (or invitation, even) to offer your own. I wrote:

    I think you are tacitly equivocating on the meaning of “nihilism.” Nihilism does not mean merely advocating ideas the results of which would be destructive or disastrous. What does it mean? I’d say it means something like: an indiscriminate or universal hatred of values which characteristically manifests itself in the advocacy of or participation in destruction for destruction’s sake.

    The closest you come to a direct response to this definition is this:

    You are right to question what I was thinking “nihilism” to be in this context, because it mostly just welled up from past learning. On checking those impressions v. definitions and such though, I’ll stick to my story and support it with some carefully reigned in contexts.

    I do not think that this has anything to do with the anarchist’s desires and intentions re “destruction” per se.

    First: Huh? What does it mean to “[check] impressions v. definitions and such”? And what does it mean to support a story with “carefully reigned in contexts”? (I try to support arguments with evidence, not “stories” with “contexts.” I admit, I wouldn’t know how to support a story with a context even if I wanted to.)

    Second: When you say that you don’t think “this” has anything to do with the anarchist’s desires and intentions, you are, conspicuously, not saying exactly what you do think it has to do with.

    Immediately after this omission, you go on to vaguely approximate extreme skepticism about the state with extreme epistemological skepticism:

    Epistemologically, nihilism is the extreme of skepticism, and when it comes to a government of volitional men, their view is a stubbornly blind skepticism of the capacity of human beings to both understand and define justice AND volitionally choose to sustain it.

    This is just a smear, an attempt at refutation by association. Extreme epistemological skepticism, or nihilism, is the view that knowledge is impossible. This kind of universal skepticism is obviously false. Extreme skepticism toward particular knowledge claims, however, is often fully warranted. For example, I doubt you would call extreme skepticism toward the claims of religion a form of nihilism.

    By the end of your second substantive comment, then, you had offered nothing more than negations and vague approximations where you ought to have offered an explicit definition of “nihilism,” preferably in terms of genus and differentia.

    In your third substantive comment, you proffer this exceedingly strange paragraph:

    I am not saying that the anarcho-capitalists are “accidental” nihilists. They are naive. Then when their naivete is explained to them, they consciously choose to continue on the same road in denial—simply because it sounds so right to them. You are doing the same thing, except instead of pressing on, you just stop and sit down in the middle of the road and content yourself with throwing pebbles at them as they pass you going that way and at me passing in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, I do not accept your contention that intent is a prerequisite for nihilism.

    The strangeness becomes more apparent when the first and last sentences are juxtaposed:

    I am not saying that the anarcho-capitalists are “accidental” nihilists. … Meanwhile, I do not accept your contention that intent is a prerequisite for nihilism.

    [I am not saying that ancaps are unintentional nihilists. … Meanwhile, I believe it is possible to be an unintentional nihilist.]

    In one paragraph you have said what you are not saying anarcho-capitalists are and you have said what is not a prerequisite for nihilism.

    Attempting to avoid defining the terms of this debate by resorting to negations or vague approximations has been a hallmark of your arguments from the beginning. In your first comment, for example, you concluded that “the accusation that anarchy is a form of nihilism is warranted.” But the proposition under debate is not: “People are not warranted to accuse anarchism of being a species of nihilism,” it is: “Anarchism is not nihilism.” The former is a proposition about what people might be justified to believe about anarchism, the latter is a proposition about anarchism itself. If one concludes that people are warranted to accuse anarchists of nihilism, though, that could be taken to be vaguely approximate to concluding that anarchism is nihilism. Perhaps this is good enough for your purposes here, but it is not good enough for mine.

    As Ayn Rand noted:

    When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.

    Since I’m sure you do not want to appear to be on the “irrational side,” I expect a definition of “nihilism,” as you see it, is forthcoming.

    Before you provide your definition, preferably in terms of genus and differentia, let me take a moment to compare my definition of nihilism to other relevant examples. My off-the-cuff definition was, again: “an indiscriminate or universal hatred of values which characteristically manifests itself in the advocacy of or participation in destruction for destruction’s sake.”

    The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:

    Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.

    I think the bit about the “impulse to destroy” is interesting. Note that this definition says that nihilism is a belief. This seems to support my contention that nihilists advocate what they advocate because they believe in nothing and want to annihilate values. As you have been presenting nihilism, it is not a belief itself, but a consequence or implication of another belief.

    Leonard Peikoff, in a discussion of Weimar culture, had occasion himself to define nihilism (The Ominous Parallels, 207):

    “Nihilism” in this context means hatred, the hatred of values and of their root, reason. Hatred is not the same as disapproval, contempt, or anger. Hatred is loathing combined with fear, and with the desire to lash out at the hated object, to wound, to disfigure, to destroy it.

    The essence and impelling premise of the nihilist-modern is the quest for destruction, the destruction of all values, of values as such, and of the mind. It is a destruction he seeks for the sake of destruction, not as a means, but as an end.

    It seems to me that, whatever your definition of “nihilism” might be, it must be highly idiosyncratic, a departure from all commonly understood meaning of the word, and an artificial construct, existing solely for the purpose of justifying an implausibly wide-ranging charge against a diverse group of anarchists.

    Whether it is idiosyncratic or not, I am eager to hear it. If possible, I would like you to do the following:

    First, define “nihilism.” Do this in terms of genus and differentia.

    Second, state precisely in what way anarchism is nihilism.

    Third, say what term should be used for someone who does not believe society is valuable or who advocates for the destruction of the conditions which make social existence possible.

    Fourth, say what term should be used for someone who believes society is valuable but advocates changes to society which would (unbeknownst to him) result in society’s destruction.

    Fifth, if you advocate using the same term for both intentional and accidental destroyers of society, please justify this. As part of this justification, please explain why “nihilist” is not the more accurate term for the intentional destroyers and “dangerous fool” is not the more accurate term for the accidental destroyers.



    Two final points:

    [Anarchists] are naive. Then when their naivete is explained to them, they consciously choose to continue on the same road in denial—simply because it sounds so right to them. You are doing the same thing, except instead of pressing on, you just stop and sit down in the middle of the road and content yourself with throwing pebbles at them as they pass you going that way and at me passing in the opposite direction.

    First, in my reading of the above, you are arbitrarily, rationalistically, and sleazily accusing me of evasion. Attempting to deduce that my epistemological rigor is lacking simply from the fact that we disagree is clumsy at best. If you did not mean to accuse me of evasion, please try to be more precise with your words in the future.

    Second, when you write that “[a] government that uses force to sustain [the principle of the non-initiation of force] is not statist whether or not any or all of the governed consent,” do you mean to say that consent of the governed is not necessary in order to legitimize government, that a legitimate government can govern over the objections and against the wishes of every last one of its citizens? (It seems like that is exactly what you mean to say, since it is what you said.)

    — — — — —

    Now, allow me to return to the points I have yet to address in your original comment:

    Institutional Tendencies — Until reading your comment, I do not remember ever having come across an Objectivist (I am assuming you are one, but feel free to correct me) who argued, specifically, that institutions do not have tendencies. I had hypothesized that Objectivists would have to tend to make arguments like this, however. It is gratifying to see my hypothesis confirmed, even if it does leave me scratching my head.

    The reason why it leaves me scratching my head is that I cannot imagine any legitimate (i.e., inductive) cognitive process that could lead to this bizarre conclusion. As I see it, the evidence that institutions have tendencies is so obvious and overwhelming that claims to the contrary can only be deductions from prior principles, rather than identifications of the facts of reality.

    The bulk of what I have to say about institutional tendencies is planned for two later posts in the series (posts 11 and 12 in the expected order). I will, therefore, limit myself here to noting that, if institutions do not have tendencies, then the career of Scott Adams is inexplicable.

    Also, my off-the-cuff comments on “tend” at the beginning of this thread were pretty good, and I see no need to expand on them here. I can hardly believe you wish to stick to your guns on the notions that governments are sets of principles and that they have no tendencies whatsoever. If you do wish to expand on or defend this, please do, and I may expand on my points above as a rejoinder.

    Statecraft — You grossly misread me on what I think Objectivists admire and look to as a model in the legacy of the Founders. I never say nor imply that Objectivists should (or do) attempt to validate their general political principles by pointing to a concrete. I say that they use (usually tacitly) the model of the American republic as evidence of the practicability of limited government. Slavery has absolutely nothing to do with anything in this context.

    Theory versus Practice — When you say, “you may not conclude from it that anyone’s inability to detail a future working model has any relevance to the philosophical validity of the politics,” (emphasis mine) I think you’re going up against both reality and Objectivism. As I said in “Practicability: The Unanswered Question of the Objectivist Politics”:

    In [“Government Financing in a Free Society,”] 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.

    Ayn Rand thinks one does have to account for the practicability of at least certain aspects of the theoretical governments which will conform to Objectivist principles. I agree with her; apparently you do not.

    I also note that you are using a weasel word: “detail.” I never said that theoreticians must be able to detail a future working model of a limited government in order to validate a politics. Attend to what I actually said, and some of your confusion on this issue will resolve itself.

    Your Comments onIt’s Ours to Lose” — When you write about persuasion coming before application and Rand’s ideas about how to live a rational life in an irrational world, you are totally missing the point of my essay. I’m not arguing that life in a less-than-ideal society is no good, and therefore we should risk everything to try and have a chance at a meaningful life. I’m arguing that, as good as life is, it isn’t ideal, and that, as men of self-esteem, we should be striving for the ideal. I’m also arguing that striving for an ideal that is likely to be achieved only in future generations only makes sense if there isn’t and can’t be any reasonable expectation of achieving that ideal in our own lifetimes. I’m also arguing that, if we stop wasting resources on ARI’s cultural war of attrition, and put our minds to achieving liberty in our lifetimes, we can achieve it. Finally, when I point out the lack of “revolutionary fervor” among Objectivists, you seem to take me to mean that I think Objectivists should be agitating to fight a revolutionary war. I do not mean this. I’m not talking about guns. Here, as when you mistake “defense agencies” for the larger category of “alternative technologies,” you’re committing the fallacy of the frozen abstraction.

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