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.

This may be a gaping lacuna in the Objectivist politics. 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. So is limited government practicable? This question must be answered. A politics of limited government without an answer to this question is not a politics at all, but a mere overture.

Though no explicit argument for the general practicability of limited government is presented anywhere in Objectivism, a friendly reading of Ayn Rand’s politics will discover an implicit argument. The implicit argument consists, essentially, of a gesture, a finger pointing at the newly minted North American nation of 1788, sweeping across the decades toward the present, and then trailing off into a question mark, perhaps in 1933, perhaps earlier. “Here was a limited government,” the gesture means to indicate, a government of laws and not of men, a government that worked.

Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand’s intellectual heir, has said that a picture is not an argument. I agree. In this context, a gesture is no better than a picture. Let us very briefly consider one of the myriad reasons why.

In the matter at hand, Objectivists would have us assume that because one limited government existed, others can be formed and maintained. This is something like assuming that, because one laboratory claims to have produced table-top cold fusion, cold fusion can now be reproduced. But science requires not mere hypothetical repeatability in experiments, but actual repetition. A new experimental result is not accepted by science until it can be repeated by any scientist, in any lab, anywhere, and until it has been repeated by many scientists in many labs in many places. Under Objectivism, we must remember, politics is a science.

Obviously, new or experimental forms of government are not repeatable in the way that laboratory experiments are, and just as obviously, to Objectivists at least, this is not and cannot be an argument against the scientific validity of political philosophy. Nevertheless, merely considering a unique historical phenomenon does not provide sufficient reason to believe that a similar phenomenon can be brought about. Something more is needed, something more than pointing at the not-self-evident results of an unrepeatable experiment. That something more — is an argument.

Did the U.S. Government ever really work? When did it fail? Has it failed yet? How do we judge its point of failure? If another government is established one day, how will it be sustained? Will the revolution in values and culture that Objectivism hopes to ferment provide a sufficient check against the natural tendency of governments to decline into tyranny? Is there such a thing as a natural tendency for governments to decline into tyranny? The argument for the long-term practicability of a future limited government must address all of these questions and more besides.

Interestingly, some of the Founding Fathers put a great deal of thought into these kinds of questions, and in this respect at least, their political philosophy was farther reaching than Ayn Rand’s. In the next post in this series, I shall examine the Founding Fathers’ thinking on the long-term practicability of limited government, contrast it with two other competing philosophies, and try to place Objectivism’s own politics within this context.

*. I am in the midst of a full review of the Objectivist politics and ethics. I fully expect to revise this series at some point in order to better integrate the arguments and to make account of anything important I have (re)discovered in my review. If any reader is aware of an argument within Objectivism that addresses the practicability of limited government, I would be grateful to hear of it.

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