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?
Broaden this last question and it becomes: do societies-as-such tend to decay toward injustice? Historically, there have been three answers to this question, a No and two Yeses. Let us consider the Yes that came first: Yes, societies-as-such tend to decay toward injustice, and there is ultimately nothing man can do to avoid the collapse.
Hell on Earth: The Vale of Tears
Societies-as-such tend to decay toward injustice.
A just society is a good thing, but it is an impossibility, at least in the long run, because it will always be confounded by human imperfection: so believe those political thinkers who follow St. Augustine. In his City of God, Augustine performed an autopsy on the still-warm corpse of Imperial Rome. To make a very long story short, he found the cause of death to be sin. Augustine knew the state could never achieve lasting justice, because it had always been, was then, and necessarily always would be built and sustained by the efforts and for the purposes of unjust, sinful men. Justice would be achieved, not in the temporal City of Man, the polis, but in the eternal City of God. The best, the very exceptional best, that men could do through statecraft was to temper the effects of sin. To think otherwise was pure hubris. Augustine is the root of all political thought that argues for limited government based on the sinfulness of man, and man’s consequential, congenital unfitness for power. By no coincidence at all, Augustine is beloved of conservatives.
(There has always been an Augustinian thread in the tapestry of American politics, and it is now held on a spindle by tiny minority of religious conservatives. These conservatives are sincere in their regard for liberty. Augustine’s “An unjust law is no law at all,” might be their motto. Their common goal is to restore the America to its former stature in justice, but, restorations aside, they see the state as a permanent enemy. Sometimes conservatives of this stripe forget their own theology and slip into an unthinking optimism, at which point they become almost indistinguishable from the third group of political thinkers we will consider.)
Augustinianism is based, ultimately, on a particular view of man qua political animal, namely that man is a bad political animal. The Augustinian view of the practicability of limited government is that a limited government might be established, through great effort, but it cannot be maintained. Collapse is inevitable and an ever-present looming threat that must be planned for. The containment structures of the U.S. Constitution, on this view, are necessary and yet necessarily inadequate. One day, the Augustinians hope, the Christian eschaton will see man freed from his endless cycle of fratricidal struggle.
Augustinianism is very definitely not the Objectivist philosophy of statecraft, but at least it is a philosophy of statecraft. In having an explicit philosophy on this point, Augustinians are more sophisticated political thinkers than Objectivists. The measure of a philosophy is not its sophistication, however, but its truth. Augustinianism is based on a false view of man. Perhaps Objectivism will prove more compatible with utopian statecraft, which is based on a very different view.
Heaven On Earth: Utopia
Societies-as-such do not tend to decay toward injustice.
Utopia is a lovely word, a self-contained oxymoron. It is often taken to mean “paradise,” but its etymological meaning is: “no-place.” Thomas Moore started thinking about Utopia in the pre-dawn of the Enlightenment, and the contemplation of a more-or-less unattainable paradise has been a staple of the Enlightenment legacy ever since.
The paradigmatic utopian political philosophy is socialism. In my opinion, the roots of utopian socialism all pass through Francis Bacon. In him one can find the common ground of Stalinism, Nazism, Maoism, American progressivism, West-European socialism, and the welfare state — as well classical American republicanism. Bacon is one of the great heroes of philosophy, a true Prometheus, and surely he never intended to help bring about anything like Stalinism, but the road to utopia, like other roads, is paved with good intentions.
Faced with the monumental task of selling the method of experimental science to the society of Christian (Platonist) Europe, Bacon needed a gimmick. Christians, he reasoned, were all in favor of charity for the poor and meek. Conventional wisdom then had it that the poor and the meek would find true peace, comfort, and joy only in heaven. Considering this, Bacon came up with a plan that was part spoonful of sugar, part Trojan horse. Bacon decided to use the Christian doctrine of charity as a carrier for the virus of rational inquiry, the sly dog.
[T]he greatest error [with respect to how knowledge has been used] is the mistaking or misplacing of the last or farthest end of knowledge: for men have entered into a desire of learning and knowledge, sometimes upon a natural curiosity and inquisitive appetite; sometimes to entertain their minds with variety and delight; sometimes for ornament and reputation; and sometimes to enable them to victory of wit and contradiction; and most times for lucre and profession; and seldom sincerely to give a true account of their gift of reason, to the benefit and use of men: as if there were sought in knowledge a couch whereupon to rest a searching and restless spirit; or a tarrasse, for a wandering and variable mind to walk up and down with a fair prospect; or a tower of state, for a proud mind to raise itself upon; or a fort or commanding ground, for strife and contention; or a shop, for profit or sale; and not a rich storehouse, for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate. [From Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (1605), Book I. Emphasis mine.]
“The glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate” — this “and” was Bacon’s cunning repackaging of the purpose of knowledge. The repackaging worked. It eventually led to the industrial revolution, and a concomitant very great relief of man’s estate. But after the revolution, things fell apart, the falcon could not hear the falconer.
Raised as it had been on Christianity, the West was not satisfied with mere relief, it wanted suffering abolished utterly. While science and technology had succeeded, they had perhaps succeeded too well: they had begun to make the Christian paradise look attainable on earth. Why wait for an afterworldly heaven if man could immanentize the eschaton and, literally, bring heaven to earth? Science began to be transformed into scientism, a religion in its own right, a secularized, technocratic Platonism.
Every Platonism has its priestly caste. Every Platonism needs a select few whose insight into the True Nature of Reality gives them natural authority over other men. The Vanguard, the Men of Science, the Fuehrer and his inner circle, the experts, the engineers, the brain trusters — someone has to lead the way to paradise, keep the sheep on the straight and narrow, and, yes, break the necessary eggs to make that glorious omelet of men.
For utopians, no amount of horror or suffering is too great a price — for others to pay — for admission to their paradise-on-earth. Though the road to paradise may be strewn with corpses, once utopia is achieved, there is no more suffering. History ends. The society of the future lasts and lasts and lasts forever, because the hell has been beaten out of man, and he will not make trouble for himself anymore.
It is essential to understand that not every utopianism is as plainly bloodthirsty as Stalinism or Nazism. Few recognize, for example, that several contemporary American politicians are every inch the utopian that Vladimir Lenin was, but it is so. Utopians have learned to tone down their rhetoric, to shout and pound the podium less, and to smile and shake hands more. Many utopians are not even aware of their own philosophy, and try to keep it that way. Fortunately, there is a very simple litmus test for utopianism.
Augustinians believe than man is a fallen, sinful creature, and thus ought not to be trusted with power over his fellows, though it is unavoidable that certain men will get their hands on this power anyway. Utopians believe that at least the best men can be trusted with power, indeed must be trusted with god-like power, since it is only the power of a god that can reform the whole earth into a paradise. To detect a utopian, therefore, is a simple matter of uncovering his beliefs about state power in society.
The belief that a limited government can be sustained, that the power of compulsion, the raw force that government men have at their disposal will not attract the most corrupt or corruptible individuals to office — this is, on its face, a utopian belief. It was obvious that the Objectivist philosophy of government is not Augustinian, but is it utopian? The answer here is not as clear.
There is one more view of man and state, one more philosophy of statecraft that might better fit with Objectivism: the Founding Fathers’ own.
Hades on Earth: Eternal Vigilance
Societies-as-such tend to decay toward injustice, but …
In Greek myth, a certain overly wily king Sisyphus was condemned to spend eternity in Hades at an awful labor. He had to roll a great boulder to the crest of a hill, but whenever he managed, by great effort, to reach the crest, the boulder would roll down again. So Sisyphus would begin the struggle again, reach the crest, and again the boulder would roll down. The Greeks were a purposeful people, so one can understand this would have been a particularly eerie and apt vision of the underworld for them, horripilating the olive oil right off their arms.
The Founding Fathers’ vision of government power in society was Sisyphean, except the hill was longer and more gently inclined. The Founders believed that man was good, but that men could not remain good for too long when holding the reins of power. This strikes me as an exceedingly wise and admirably grounded philosophy. It was this philosophy that led to the Constitution’s system of “checks and balances,” to some key principles in the Bill of Rights, and to statements like these:
The aim of every political Constitution, is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust. ~ James Madison, Federalist No. 57. Emphasis mine.
I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government. ~ Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. Emphasis mine.
God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all and always well-informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. … And what country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon, and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. ~ Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 1787. Emphases mine. (The rebellion Jefferson had in mind both here and in the letter to Madison was Shays’ Rebellion.)
Another American later put the matter succinctly:
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty—power is ever stealing from the many to the few …. The hand entrusted with power becomes … the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot: only by unintermitted Agitation can a people be kept sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity. ~ Wendell Phillips, 1852. Emphasis mine.
(It is very important to notice that as Jefferson was praising Shays’ Rebellion, he was simultaneously dismissing the rebels’ cause. He deemed the rebels to be ignorantly acting on the basis of a misconception. Jefferson’s point is not merely that the people ought to rebel whenever they are oppressed, not merely that they should rebel whenever there is a whiff of oppression, but that they should rebel regularly, whether they are oppressed or not — raise a little hell, tar and feather a few officials — just to keep officials uneasy in their seats of power.)
For Sisypheans, eternal vigilance, rebellion, and violent revolution are key concepts. Their view of history is cyclical: justice, peace, prosperity, decadence, corruption, injustice, revolution, justice, peace, and so on, forever. They believe in the goodness of man but avoid utopianism in two ways: First, they deny that government is a revolutionary force, a force that can be used to transform the world for the better. Rather, the right of revolution belongs to the people and it is a right exercised against government power, not through it. Second, they do not believe that history is progressing toward an earthly paradise. A Sisyphean can believe in progress, but not in Progress, the idea that history will culminate in an unchanging utopia. Vigilance is eternal, peace and justice pass on.
If we accept that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” for the purpose of securing individual rights, then Augustinianism, utopianism, and Sisypheanism, properly understood, are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive ideological frameworks for statecraft. Since Objectivism is obviously not Augustinian, it seems it must be either utopian or Sisyphean. Which is it?
Studying Objectivist philosophy one sees false dichotomies broken again and again. Intrinsicism and subjectivism are rejected, Objectivism is upheld. Rationalism and empiricism are rejected, reason is upheld. Materialism and mysticism are rejected, existence-as-identity is upheld. Are utopianism and Sisypheanism rejected? If so, what is upheld?
Ayn Rand never says. One might infer from what she does say that Objectivism supports some Sisyphean form of statecraft. (Objectivists frequently describe their goal here as putting the politics of the Founding Fathers on a proper philosophical foundation, especially with respect to ethics and epistemology.) But why is any inference necessary? Some might argue that even the fundamental principles of statecraft belong to philosophy of law, and not to politics proper. This is wrong. A philosophy of statecraft is fundamental to politics, since without one it is impossible to assess the practicability of any imagined system of government. We must infer the philosophy of statecraft that is compatible with Objectivism, then, not because Ayn Rand omitted an optional addendum to her politics, but because her politics is incomplete.
So why did Ayn Rand leave her politics unfinished? The fundamental philosophical reasons pertain to method. In her politics, Ayn Rand substitutes deductive reasoning in places where inductive reasoning is methodologically required.
The Objectivist politics is very substantially rooted in induction. It should have been entirely rooted therein. The implicit, Sisyphean philosophy of statecraft that sublimates up from its hard surfaces is left implicit because the nature of man-in-the-state is never considered as something logically distinct from human nature as such. Now, of course, government officials are not different from other men metaphysically. Man is man. The distinction is epistemological, but it is real, and vitally important in the context of statecraft, as Madison, the Sage of Monticello, and the Founding Fathers generally recognized.
Because politics is incomplete without statecraft, and because statecraft requires an inductive consideration of man-in-the-state, Objectivism completes its politics, to the extent that it does, by stretching the same reasoning that supports its ethics across the gaps. But the drumhead is too tightly drawn. One can only beat out “Stars and Stripes Forever” on this apparatus for so long before it bursts.
Objectivism argues, in essence, that the statecraft of the Federalists will suffice for the future, not because there is any objective evidence that this is so, but just because we need it to. Why will limited government work? Why won’t state power overrun its constitutional limits and drown civil society in blood? Because man is a rational animal and requires liberty in order to sustain his life through the application of reason to the problem of survival.
This is obviously a non sequitur. It is an incredible juxtaposition of premise and conclusion. It is so incredible, in fact, that I suspect hardly any Objectivist could credit it — put this way. Yet once this non sequitur’s manifold structure is explicated, it will become plain that Objectivists do not merely credit it, they depend on it. It will become plain that the implicit Objectivist philosophy of statecraft is not cut from the same parchment as the Founding Fathers’ at all. It will become plain that Objectivism is utopian.