Final Arbiter: Idol Prattle

Among some Objectivists I have noted a fetishistic obsession with finality in arbitration, and I have been well-disposed to them for that, for this unlikely obsession reveals something quite … miraculous. Sublimated Christianity, it appears, was inadvertently taken up into the Objectivist corpus as Ayn Rand breathed life into it in the mid-1950s.

Well, I’m putting the point perhaps too forcefully, as I’m on my third beer tonight, and I’ve been reading Hume today, which has put me in a pugnacious mood. I didn’t intend to post tonight at all, but continue my reading on the current thinking on free will, which is impossible to understand without dancing with the fat, bekilted nightmare of Hume. Before I could get started on my late reading, however, a friend called my attention to the website for the Oregon Firearms Federation, where he had been doing research regarding concealed weapons permits in the State of Oregon.

Get this, he said:

I’ve noticed signs at the Portland Airport that say “No Firearms.” There is no exception for license holders noted. Is this legal?

Marv in Milwaukiee.

Good question Marv. The Port of Portland issued an ordinance in 1996 saying “no guns, no exceptions.” This was ordinance 377-R (Of couse, this does not apply if you are legally traveling with a firearm and it’s in your checked baggage.) This obviously was not a reaction to 9/11, sinced it was written well before that. The problem is, Oregon law very clearly PROHIBITS the Port of Portland from enacting any such ordinance. When we contacted the Chief of Police of the Port of Portland, Chief Phil Klahn, and asked him (very politely) about this contradiction, he had their lawyer, Barbara Jacobsen call us back. She left a voice message telling us that she had given our name to the Department of Homeland Security. (Insert joke about them here.) After numerous attempts to get an answer, we finally recieved a long letter from Jacobsen explaining why she believed the Port had the right to create such an ordinance. We then forwarded THAT letter to House Representative Wayne Scott. He took it to “Legislative Counsel.” These are the lawyers for the legislature. They actually write the laws the legislators request. Their response was pretty straightforward. In their opinion, the Port of Portland may NOT enact any such ordinance. Here’s a direct quote from their opinion: “You have asked whether the Port of Porland has the authority to enact regulations prohibiting a person from carrying a firearm in the terminal at the Portland International Airport. The short answer is no.” We then fowarded their opinion to both Chief Klahn and Barbara Jacobsen. The Chief had advised us to advise you (our supporters) not to carry in the terminal. After reading the opinion of Legislative Counsel, he replied once again that his officers could cite license holders and then they could “have their day in court.” Attorney Jacobsen has not responded at all. Your tax dollars at work. So, as it stands, the law says you may carry in the terminal. The Port of Portland says you can be arrested if you are obeying the law. Legislative Counsel says the Port of Portland may not enforce this ordinance, and the Port of Porland Police say they don’t care Hope this clears everything up.

We thought this was damn funny. We anarchists get to laugh at things that should make minimal-statists uneasy.

For those unfamiliar with the whole Objectivism vs. Market Anarchy political philosophical battle royal, you’re probably reading the wrong post, but in a nutshell, here’s what’s funny and what it has to do with Final Arbiters: According to Objectivism (or at least according to some who call themselves Objectivists and to my own recollection of the Objectivist doctrine on this point), one of the problems with anarchy is that, in an anarchic order, there would be no final arbiter for resolving disputes. Contrast the United States’ present dispute resolution system: you get arrested for a crime which you didn’t commit. You’re convicted. You go to jail. Your lawyers start the appeals process. Legal incantations are uttered before various magistrates, demonstrating some technical irregularity in your trial. The state thinks you should be in jail anyhow, and decides to fight it out with your lawyers in the appeals process. Finally, the appeals process terminates, and you’re either set free or not. If the technical irregularity is sexy enough, your case might make it to the Supreme Court (cue angelic singing) before the thing is over with. But, one way or another, the system makes sure it’s over with. Justice may or may not be done, but The Law and Process have done their due.

Phew! This isn’t an easy joke to explain. Well, there is a view in political philosophy that law is prior to rights, i.e. that legal systems don’t merely enforce rights, they create and define them. For adherents of such political philosophies, Law and Process, which are ultimately arbitrary, create the context in which “rights” have meaning. There is no extra- or super-legal standard by which Justice can be recognized. For folks like this, having a final arbiter in matters of law is merely a pragmatic necessity, insurance against the gumming-up of the system. The final arbiter isn’t meant to function as the Ultimate Guardian of the Rights of Men.

Objectivists don’t agree with this. By their lights, a government’s sole legitimate purpose is the protection of individual rights, such as life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Governments that protect individual rights, to the extent they do so, are Just.

Ayn Rand wrote:

A private individual may do anything except that which is legally forbidden; a government official may do nothing except that which is legally permitted. This is the means of subordinating “might” to “right.” This is the American concept of “a government of laws and not of men.”

You see, Objectivists take law to be a means to an end — Justice — and law serves this end in part by circumscribing exactly what government officials are permitted to do while they work at protecting our rights. Objectivists cannot endorse the Kafkaesque kind of misgovernment exemplified by the officials of the Port of Portland. These humorless 21st-century Keystone Kops obviously don’t care what the law says.

“Lucky they’re not the final arbiters, huh?”

Not so fast, my imaginary Objectivist interlocutor! The essential problem here is that we’re dealing, wherever the Port of Portland is concerned, with a government of men, not of laws. The laws say one thing, the men assigned to enforce them do another. Funny.

And it gets funnier. Let’s take a look and see if we can find, as we follow the ascending lines of authority and listen to the music of the jurisdictional spheres, where government of men ends and government of law begins. Aw, hell, lets just jump right up to the Supreme Court. Let’s see now … Ginsburg, Souter, Thomas, Breyer, Scalia, Stevens, Rehnquist, O’Connor, Kennedy … wait a minute! These are people! Soylent Government is People! It’s Peeeeople!

The tyrants of the Port of Portland don’t show us what’s wrong with government so much as they show us the essential nature of government. Vets don’t hem and haw about what to do with a rabid dog. When something is as good as dead and still deadly dangerous, you just put the beast down. This isn’t rocket science.

Yet even though there is no such animal as a government of laws and not of men, even though such a chimera is impossible in principle, Objectivists cling to it. And this is where the best part of the joke and the Christianity come in, together.

Objectivism requires, for its politics to work, a Final Authority. Nothing on this earth can fit the bill. In all of history the only semblance of one I can find is the God of Judaism and Christianity: the Perfectly Just Judge Whose Authority Is Absolute and Beyond Whom There Can Be No Appeal. Objectivists aren’t supposed to be interested in impossible ideals, which is one reason they reject Christianity, explicitly. Implicitly, however, there appears to be another story. All constitutions are implemented, interpreted, and enforced by men. Good men have better things to do than govern; their time is too valuable. I can’t imagine many trading their time away to public service. And many would be needed, sadly, to keep a constitution, even one written by Ayn Rand herself, from becoming a mere pretext for usurpation and tyranny. Power attracts the absolutely corruptible. And the power of government will always attract the worst men, not the best. But I’m rambling and repeating points that Plato should have hammered into everyone’s head hundreds or thousands of years ago. It’s way too late, and I have too much more to say on this. Suffice it to say that it appears that, since nothing in reality can give rise to the concept of Just government, as human nature precludes the possibility, the Objectivist belief in it must rest, not on the evidence of the senses, but on faith — which is hilarious.

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