Closing the Book on the Open Letter

This is the third entry in my Antistatism Series. Before I can make my own case for antistatism, I must pause to redress a famously misaddressed letter on a related subject.

In 1969 Roy Childs began an Open Letter to Ayn Rand with these words:

The purpose of this letter is to convert you to free market anarchism. As far as I can determine, no one has ever pointed out to you in detail the errors in your political philosophy. … Why am I making such an attempt to convert you to a point of view which you have, repeatedly, publicly condemned as a floating abstraction? Because you are wrong. I suggest that your political philosophy cannot be maintained without contradiction, that, in fact, you are advocating the maintenance of an institution — the state — which is a moral evil. To a person of self-esteem, these are reasons enough.

In part, Childs’ Letter, “Objectivism and the State,” was a response to Rand’s article “The Nature of Government,” in which she had called anarchy a “naive floating abstraction.” Childs went on in his Letter to complement Rand’s dismissal:

[L]imited government is a floating abstraction which has never been concretized by anyone … a limited government must either initiate force or cease being a government … the very concept of limited government is an unsuccessful attempt to integrate two mutually contradictory elements: statism and voluntarism. [Emphasis in original.]

Even those admirers of Ayn Rand’s who are wholly unfamiliar with Childs will be unsurprised to learn that his Letter failed utterly to persuade the philosopher it addressed. Could Childs have done better, then? What arguments would have been more persuasive? Why did Childs fail, fundamentally?

Any Objectivist might have ready answers to these questions: “Childs could have done better by having been less abrasive and condescending, and if he had not strained so sophomorically for a scintillating display of intellectual bravura. Ultimately, however, no arguments would have been more persuasive, since Ayn Rand would not have been persuaded to adopt an error no matter how sophisticated the sophistries used to market it. Childs failed, fundamentally, because he was wrong.”

A careful reading of Childs’ Letter makes it hard to disagree with the Objectivist on formal grounds. The rhetoric of the Letter is awfully tin-eared. Childs’ language is alternately slavish and pompous in its imitation of Ayn Rand; it never achieves an independent voice. Childs asks Rand to “walk forward into the sunlight” of anarchy, but himself comes off as a benighted votary. One imagines Ayn Rand dismissing the Open Letter for a soapbox harangue from a callow youth still reeling from John Galt’s radio address.

The Objectivist is right that Childs ought to have chosen his words more carefully, but is he right that Childs could have hoped, at best, to have failed more gracefully? Not if any variety of radical antistatism is a better political philosophy than Rand’s own. Ayn Rand dismissed anarchy as a naive floating abstraction, Childs returned the charge, but how do we determine whose abstraction really floats free?

Ayn Rand’s politics rests on a massive foundation of observation and inductive reasoning, but if one were to put a deductive gloss on it, it might read: the nature of man determines his good, and the good society is that which complements the nature of man. The good society, in other words, lets man be man, lets him live according to his own nature as a rational animal whose survival depends on his productivity, whose productivity depends on his liberty, and whose liberty depends on the principle of individual rights being held inviolate in a social context.

The fundamental problem with Roy Childs’ argument in the Open Letter is that it is a parasitic upon Rand’s politics; it begins in the middle and deduces anarchy from a given: Rand’s own validation of individual rights.

It is not, then, just the tone of the Open Letter that is wrong, but the very structure of its argument. If one largely agrees with Childs’ conclusions, as I do, the lesson to be drawn from the Letter is not that anarchism is wrong, or that Ayn Rand was justified in dismissing it, but rather that, if there is to be a sound argument for anarchism or radical antistatism, it must stand on an independent foundation, on reality, not on an appeal to the hidden implications of the Objectivist ethics.

Unlike Childs, I will ground my arguments for antistatism in an appeal to reality, not to the consciences of Objectivists.

One thought on “Closing the Book on the Open Letter”

  1. “The fundamental problem with Roy Childs’ argument in the Open Letter is that it is a parasitic upon Rand’s politics; it begins in the middle and deduces anarchy from a given: Rand’s own validation of individual rights.”

    I’m not getting how this is a “problem” with Child’s argument. It seems to BE his argument! He’s saying Rand got us up to a point and make an error by failing to pursue the logic of her position to its correct conclusion. I suggest you re-read what Child’s wrote and address yourself to the substance of his critique. It’s hard…it was for me. But I found out that it’s hard because I was resisting it…irrationally.

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