Blogs > Liberty and Power > Nation-Building and Psychiatry

May 11, 2004 9:51 am

Nation-Building and Psychiatry

Inspired by a recent thread on SOLO HQ, which included a tangential discussion on the purpose of criminal justice, I recalled some of Ayn Rand's comments on the subject and I'm now wondering aloud how these comments might apply to the illusory neoconservative goal of"nation-building."

In a letter to philosopher John Hospers, dated 29 April 1961, Ayn Rand wrote the following:

But you ask me what is the punishment deserved by criminal actions. This is a technical, legal issue, which has to be answered by the philosophy of law. The law has to be guided by moral principles, but their application to specific cases is a special field of study. I can only indicate in a general way what principles should be the base of legal justice in determining punishments. The law should: a. correct the consequences of the crime in regard to the victim, whenever possible (such as recovering stolen property and returning it to the owner); b. impose restraints on the criminal, such as a jail sentence, not in order to reform him, but in order to make him bear the painful consequences of his action (or their equivalent) which he inflicted on his victims; c. make the punishment proportionate to the crime in the full context of all the legally punishable crimes.

Here, Rand has endorsed ideas of restitution, retribution (or restraint), and proportionality in her general view of criminal justice. But she goes further:

What punishment is deserved by the two extremes of the scale is open to disagreement and discussion—but the principle by which a specific argument has to be guided is retribution, not reform. The issue of attempting to"reform" criminals is an entirely separate issue and a highly dubious one, even in the case of juvenile delinquents. At best, it might be a carefully limited adjunct of the penal code (and I doubt even that), not its primary, determining factor. When I say"retribution," I mean the point above, namely: the imposition of painful consequences proportionate to the injury caused by the criminal act. The purpose of the law is not to prevent a future offense, but to punish the one actually committed. If there were a proved, demonstrated, scientific, objectively certain way of preventing future crimes (which does not exist), it would not justify the idea that the law should prevent future offenses and let the present one go unpunished. It would still be necessary to punish the actual crime.

Then, in a passage that would make Thomas Szasz proud for its indictment of the nexus of state and psychiatry, Rand argues:

Therefore,"psychiatric therapy" does not belong—on principle—among the alternatives that you list. And more: it is an enormously dangerous suggestion. A. Psychiatry is far from the stage of an exact science; in our present state of knowledge, it is not even a science—it is only in that preliminary, material-gathering stage from which a science will come. B. The law, which has the power to impose its decisions by force, cannot be guided by unproved, uncertain, controversial hypotheses or guesses—and the criminal cannot be treated as a guinea pig (I am saying this in defense of the criminal's rights). C. Since the prevention of crime is a psychological issue, since it involves a man's mind (his premises, values, choices, decisions), it would be monstrously evil to place a man's mind into the power of the law, to let the law prescribe and force upon him any course of treatment involving or affecting his mind. If"the prevention of crime" were accepted as the province and purpose of the law, it would permit and necessitate the most unspeakable atrocities: not merely psychological"brainwashing," but physical mutilations as well, such as electric shock therapy, prefrontal lobotomies and anything else that neurologists might discover. No moral premise—except total altruistic collectivism—could ever justify that sort of horror.

Rand, like Isabel Paterson, fears the humanitarian who would use the guillotine to affect change:

Observe that it is I, the unforgiving egoist, who am more considerate of the criminals (of their rights) than the alleged humanitarians who advocate psychiatric treatments out of an alleged compassion for criminals. A penal code has to treat men as adult, responsible human beings; it can deal only with their actions and with such motives as can be objectively demonstrated (such as intent vs. accident); it cannot assume jurisdiction over men's minds, brains, souls, values and moral premises—it cannot assume the right to change these by forcible means.

Now, I've not worked out any theory by any stretch of the imagination, but I do wonder how Rand's comments might apply to the international sphere. Consider these thoughts pure musing on my part.

Rand once drew an analogy between a nation and an individual. In her essay,"Don't Let it Go," she argues that nations exhibit a"life style" equivalent to an individual's sense of life, and that a nation's culture is equivalent to an individual's conscious convictions. Rand writes that just as a man's course of action is determined by both tacit and articulated factors (his sense of life and his conscious convictions), so too,"a nation's political trends are the equivalent of a man's course of action and are determined by its culture."

So here is an interesting parallel: Just as the future prevention of an individual's crimes is ultimately a psychological issue, rooted in fundamental changes to a criminal's psychology (his or her premises and values), so too the future prevention of a foreign regime's crimes is ultimately a cultural issue, rooted in fundamental changes to a nation's culture. Just as a person's course of action is dependent on his sense of life and conscious convictions, so too a nation's political trends are dependent on its lifestyle and culture. That's why any fundamental change to the political trends must ultimately be rooted in cultural change. Any"rehabilitation" of a nation, like any"rehabilitation" of a criminal, cannot be imposed by writ. One can aim for"regime change," but unless one alters the culture that allowed such a regime to gain and maintain power in the first place, nothing has been changed fundamentally.

Note here: Even ruthless dictatorial regimes that do not depend upon the democratic" consent of the governed" still depend upon certain tacit cultural sanctions to maintain power. (On these points, see Etienne de La Boetie's Discourse of Voluntary Servitude.)

Note too that the above points do not prevent either (a) the punishment of criminals so that they bear the costs of their actions, or the seeking of restitution for their victims or (b) the punishment of criminal governments so that they bear the costs of their political or military actions, or the seeking of restitution for their victims (foreign and domestic). (I leave aside, for now, the anarchistic question of whether all governments are criminal, as such.)

The legal and political focus therefore is on action; it is not on a criminal's feelings, thoughts, or ideas (one of the reasons hate crimes legislation is so problematic). Seeking criminal or international justice, the focus is not on psychology or culture—even though such are the spheres wherein the fundamental power for change resides. Those spheres can and must be changed, but their alteration should not be the guiding principle of legal, political, or military policy.

Any attempt to"nation-build" without the appropriate cultural prerequisites is bound to generate the same kinds of"unspeakable atrocities" that appalled Rand in her critique of criminal"rehabilitation."

I fear that the stories coming out of Iraq are only the tip of a similarly monstrous iceberg.

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More Comments:

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 5/15/2004

Richard, thanks for your comments. As I said, this was one of those "thinking aloud" posts, not a thesis. You make a number of good points.

Yes, there is a distinction between nation and state, but I do think that Rand, Hayek, and others, see politics as very much dependent on a cultural constellation (which is reflected in the people who make up a nation, or, in the case of Iraq, ~many~ nations). Without the ability to change culture, political intervention is very limited in its effects. (Even on the left, this point has been appreciated by people like Antonio Gramsci, who argued that it was essential to change civil society first, spontaneously as it were, so that a political change is virtually superfluous.)

I also don't buy the notion that if a ~nation~ can't be rehabilitated, it must be punished. But, continuing with the distinction you raise, I do believe that a ~political~ entity can be held accountable for its actions; that's partially why we have diplomacy and war (which is, in many respects, "politics by other means").

Anyway, thanks for insightful feedback.

Richard Vermillion - 5/12/2004

Even if, for the sake of argument, one accepts the similarity between an individual and a collective, it would seem that your analogy stumbles on the distinction between the nation and state. You switch back and forth between the culture and the government whenever it suits your point. These are obviously different entities, particularly in totalitarian regimes, and must be distinguished.

One of the reasons that "nation-building", while initially unattractive, is trotted out as a solution is because we are not (any longer) comfortable with the idea of cultural retribution. But to follow Rand's logic, if the nation cannot (or should not) be rehabilitated, then it must be punished. And that is obviously different than punishing the state through regime change.

If you buy the equivalence, then tribute from the people of Iraq to the US (for the cost of the Gulf War, the inspections, the subsequent no-fly-zones, Iraqi Freedom, etc) would be the appropriate response.

To be clear, I don't buy it.