Blogs > Liberty and Power > Debating Foreign Policy with "Objectivists"

May 10, 2004 8:54 am

Debating Foreign Policy with "Objectivists"

As readers of L&P know, I acknowledge a great intellectual debt to thinkers such as Ayn Rand, F. A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and others. For the longest time, I identified on a personal level with Rand's"Objectivism," with its celebration of reason, purpose, and self-esteem, and of the heroic human potential, and with its emphasis on the integration of mind and body, reason and emotion, morality and prudence, theory and practice. Those ideas still inform my personal and professional life. But because of my great differences with some of the current advocates of"Objectivism," so many of whom have advocated the war in Iraq, I do not wish to be called an"Objectivist." (See, especially, Arthur Silber's superb post on The Fatal Contradiction—and the Detestable Disgrace that is"Objectivism" Today.) If this is what"Objectivism" consists of, these advocates can have it with my blessing.

But as I have argued here and here, and in all the discussions here, here, and here, these advocates have no right to the radical legacy that Ayn Rand left behind, especially with regard to her analysis of the welfare-warfare state, and of the organic relationship between domestic and foreign policy.

That legacy has been the subject of an ongoing debate on the SOLO HQ list. Today, I made a few comments there, which I'd like to share with my HNN audience. Here are excerpts from this most recent post:

Iraq lacks Western culture and a flourishing middle class and it is fractured by ethnic, cultural and tribal conflict. The British were never successful in Iraq (then, Mesopotmia), and, for similar reasons, the US will probably meet the same fate. In fact, the political culture in current-day Iraq has been so devastated by years of dictatorship that the masses are infused with an"entitlement" mentality, which is being nourished now by the dominant welfare state politics of the United States. ... Even though politics can influence culture, institutions do not change by simple writ; there has to be a predominating cultural change that drives and sustains the political one. This is what I've learned from Ayn Rand. Indeed, Rand argued that too many libertarians tried to play at politics without recognizing the necessity for a cultural foundation for freedom. Some Objectivists who accept Rand's argument with regard to the United States and the need to change American culture, suddenly go loopy when I try to apply that same argument to the situation in Iraq, where the culture is that much more hostile to individual responsibility, procedural democracy, and free institutions.

Some"Objectivists" have taken Rand's maxim that a free country has a right (though not an obligation) to liberate a dictatorship as some kind of rationalistic abstraction, from which to derive the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Rand, however, said the following:

It is not a free nation's duty to liberate other nations at the price of self-sacrifice, but a free nation has the right to do it, when and if it so chooses. This right, however, is conditional. Just as the suppression of crimes does not give a policeman the right to engage in criminal activities, so the invasion and destruction of a dictatorship does not give the invader the right to establish another variant of a slave society in the conquered country. ... Since there is no fully free country today, since the so-called"Free World" consists of various"mixed economies," it might be asked whether every country on earth is morally open to invasion by every other. The answer is: No.

Rand never argued that a relatively free US should liberate other countries. She was adamantly opposed to any invasion of the Soviet Union, the country of her birth, which she loathed, and was equally opposed to US entry into World War I and World War II, Korea and Vietnam. She believed that the nature and purpose of government was the protection of individual rights, and that the police, the military, and the law courts were essential functions: to protect individuals from domestic criminals, and foreign invaders, and to adjudicate disputes.

Once one adopts any criterion of humanitarian"liberation" as the goal of foreign policy, there is nothing to distinguish between the"liberation" of Iraq, or the Sudan, or Rwanda, or Bosnia. Using such a criterion simply gives license to the US to become the humanitarian"liberator" of the rest of the world, with all the consequent effects that such a role would have on citizens' lives, liberties, and properties. Rand herself cites the superb work of historian Arthur Ekrich in her essay,"The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Our Age":

If you have accepted the Marxist doctrine that capitalism leads to wars, read Professor Ekirch's account of how Woodrow Wilson, the"liberal" reformer, pushed the United States into World War I."He seemed to feel that the United States had a mission to spread its institutions—which he conceived as liberal and democratic—to the more benighted areas of the world." It was not the"selfish capitalists," or the"tycoons of big business,'' or the"greedy munitions-makers" who helped Wilson to whip up a reluctant, peace-loving nation into the hysteria of a military crusade—it was the altruistic"liberals" of the magazine The New Republic edited by ... Herbert Croly. What sort of arguments did they use? Here is a sample from Croly:"The American nation needs the tonic of a serious moral adventure."
If you still wonder about the singular recklessness with which alleged humanitarians treat such issues as force, violence, expropriation, enslavement, bloodshed—perhaps the following passage from Professor Ekirch's book will give you some clue to their motives:"Stuart Chase rushed into print late in 1932 with a popular work on economics entitled A New Deal. 'Why,' Chase asked with real envy at the close of the book, 'should Russia have all the fun of remaking a world ?'"

Commenting on this passage in my SOLO HQ post, I wrote:

Is it any coincidence that the neoconservative progeny of Woodrow Wilson and Leon Trotsky should be advocating the same"humanitarian" wars"to make the world safe for democracy"? Leave those arguments to the neocons; they are most definitely not an implication of Rand's radical legacy.

For recent writings on this subject, and others, check my Not a Blog.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 5/11/2004

Matthew, you make a very good point. I would like to fight that battle to reclaim "Objectivism." But as I have pointed out in other posts, we will always end up in a long and counterproductive battle over this question: "Who is an Objectivist?" It's the same battle that Marxists fought for generations, as orthodox types and revisionists argued over who was the "true" Marxist.

In the end, all that matters is that Spanish proverb that Rand and Nathaniel Branden quoted many times: "Take what you want, and pay for it." That is: take what you want from Rand's legacy. Take responsibility for the ways in which you apply the lessons of that legacy. And that will do more to preserve and extend the legacy than all these "Objectivist" debates about "who is a true Objectivist?"---which quickly devolve into the equivalent of how many angels dance on the head of a pin.

The label, in the end, is unimportant; what is important is the substance.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 5/11/2004

I'm reminded of Pete Boettke's comment that markets are like weeds---they grow spontaneously, despite the best efforts of politicians to regulate them.

The central issue, however, is the kind of institutions within which such markets grow. While economic liberalization will proceed as the state loosens its grip, even in former communist countries like China, the character of that liberalization will also be affected by the kinds of institutions that shape it. This will spell the difference between mafiosi "capitalists" and genuine producers. In other words, there is a complex interrelationship between the political and the economic here, and I think it will still take generations for that dynamic to be worked out.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/10/2004

I wonder, though this is a digression of a massive scale, how the theory of Iraq being too deeply ingrained with an entitlement mentality to reform squares with examples of successful economic liberalization in formerly thoroughly totalitarian communist states? China is the example that leaps to mind....

Matthew Humphreys - 5/10/2004


While I am in agreement with your interpretation of Rand's radical legacy and your criticisms of Objectivists who support this incursion into Iraq, I don't really understand why you no longer wish to be described as an Objectivist. Surely those of us who fully understand Rand's radicalism should be reclaiming the label *from* the warmongers rather than relinquishing it to them?