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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.

Though I am not aware of any serious or extended Objectivist argument that the right of revolution — backed up by popular sovereignty, in turn backed up by force of arms — has been superannuated by Ayn Rand’s political philosophy, such an argument is tacit in the Objectivists’ silence. The tacit argument is that, once an objective government has been established, it will usher in an era of perpetual justice and domestic tranquility. Jefferson’s famous Tree of Liberty will no longer need to be refreshed. Everyone will live happily ever after.

Objectivists seem to think: Since ideas move history, and since Ayn Rand’s capitalism is the ultimate (or insuperable) pinnacle of political ideology, once Capitalism is established, history will end; there will be nowhere to go but onward. (Picture it: there is an almost Egyptian permanence to it: sometime in the distant but plausible future, President Galt Ramses Cincinnatus LVII of Atlantis presides, like his predecessors, over a state powerful enough to wipe all other states off of the face of the earth. After a suitable term in office, he refuses to stand for reelection (there being no need for term limits in utopia), and beats his sword into a ploughshare, like all before him, and all who will come after. On and on, ad astra, ad nauseam.)

It is inconceivable to Objectivism that a proper government, once established, would ever need to be overthrown. This is because reality never enters into the rationalistic and utopian Objectivist conception of the state. This stands in stark and unflattering contrast to the reality-oriented statecraft of the Founders, who recognized that a disarmed citizenry has, in the end, no means to enforce its rights. Objectivism, despite meaningless, airy formulae to the contrary, objectively intends a polity of subjects, who are to be granted privileges, not a polity of citizens, who will enforce a claim to rights.

1 comment to Objectivism Misfires

  • Jason Mueller-Neuhaus

    “It is inconceivable to Objectivism that a proper government, once established, would ever need to be overthrown.”

    Man’s consciousness is fallible. He can err for all kinds of reasons. And, he has free will, and so can always choose not to think, but rather to follow his feelings. No matter how a government is established – no matter how perfectly it embodies good principles – it is forever subject to the possibility of corruption. I think this is consistent with Miss Rand’s ideas. Consider also how the US Constitution has been essentially eviscerated by the ‘creative interpretations’ of the Supreme Court.

    “This stands in stark and unflattering contrast to the reality-oriented statecraft of the Founders, who recognized that a disarmed citizenry has, in the end, no means to enforce its rights.”

    Consider the perspective of an individual in a society, and the circumstances under which he would choose to participate in the overthrow of its government.

    The individual, if rational, will have joined that society if he believed that it better served his pursuit of values. As such, he must have concluded that it was generally effective in protecting his individual rights. In such circumstances, it is in the best interests of that rational individual for the government to be able to suppress any violent attempt to supplant that government from without, e.g. a foreign invasion, or within, e.g. an insurrection. It is, of course, more difficult for a government to suppress an insurrection if the rebels are well-armed. Thus, it is logical for a government to disarm those who might participate in the insurrection. Hence, gun control laws which prohibit private ownership of the weapons of war.

    Let us now consider what happens if the government becomes corrupt, and our friend, the rational individual, decides that the government is no longer generally effective in protecting his individual rights, and moreover has become the chief violator of his rights. In such circumstances, why should he obey gun control laws? And, if sufficient numbers of individuals were motivated to overthrow the government, how could the government possibly prevent utterly the obtainment of the necessary tools of insurrection by those individuals? (Consider the enormous resources expended by the US federal government on “the war on drugs”, and the relative ease by which individuals may nevertheless obtain practically any drug they want.)

    Consider that the two scenarios would not occur as through the flick of a switch. There would have been a period of time over which it became more and more apparent to rational individuals that the government was becoming a threat and that insurrection might become necessary. During this entire period, more and more individuals would become inclined to disobey the law and to collect the tools of insurrection.

    I think there is a distinction to be drawn, here, between what people should do, and that the laws should be. That a rational individual should obey the law is not an absolute. To so hold would be to advocate fascism, I think. And, that a rational should refuse any limit upon his freedom is not an absolute either. To so hold would be to advocate anarchism, I think. The proper question is, rather, whether the law or limit furthers his individual pursuit of his ultimate value, i.e. his life. In some circumstances, this pursuit of values will be furthered by gun control laws, in others it will not.

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