Individual Rights 4: Paper Rights. “Politics,” Otto Von Bismarck tells us, “is the art of the possible.” Since most people who frame theories of politics have no political power and therefore no effective political will, their political speculations remain unchecked by reality. They are merely idle fancies that exist only on paper.
The individual rights advocated by Rand are precisely of the paper variety. They never can nor never will be instituted in reality, because there are too many rooted sentiments and vested interests that stand against them. In a “free” country where people are allowed to develop their own political opinions without fear persecution from the state, wide divergences of political ideology inevitably arise. A democratic nation is an unworkable committee, governed by competing elites of divergent views. The only way to get anything done is through compromise. Hence, no ideological faction can ever expect to get carte blanche: even when they control the legislature and the executive they still won't get everything they want, because the “loyal” opposition can use consititutional protections and the power of vested interests to create a myriad obstacles to any measures involving sweeping change.
What, if anything, can be accomplished towards increasing the “rights” of the individual in the sense of limiting the power of the state to regulate and tax its citizens? There is very little that the average individual can do, since he constitutes, politically speaking, merely one vote among tens of millions. As part of a much larger organization (of, say, a major political party), he may have some effect, particularly if that organization is well led (leadership is absolutely indispensable to get anything done politically). But here’s precisely the rub. An organization, to wield any sort of political influence, must be large. Yet this requires having a “big tent,” i.e., accepting as many people as possible. There is, however, a perplexing trade-off involved in developing a political party that can wield influence and exert a political will: the greater the party, the more compromises that have to be made on ideological grounds to keep it together. The more people you try to appeal to, the more you have to dilute and widen your ideology. But the more you dilute and widen your ideology, the greater chance of your party falling into faction and breaking apart. So there is always a tension between the size of an organization and its cohesiveness. If an organization is ideologically pure, it’s too small to exert a credible influence. If it is too large, it tends to break apart. A political party capable of taking power must find that elusive compromise position between ideological purity and size.
Orthodox Objectivism is one of the most purest ideologies on the current scene. Yet this very purity condemns Objectivism to obscurity and political impotence. The current Objectivist leader, Leonard Peikoff, has rigorously distanced himself from all potential political allies. Indeed, he seems to despise the potential allies far more than he does his ideological enemies. David Kelley’s brand of Objectivism is, politically, nearly identical to Peikoff’s version: yet Peikoff has told Kelley’s followers to get lost (“if you agree with the Branden or Kelley viewpoint or anything resembling it—please drop out of our movement: drop Ayn Rand, leave Objectivism alone,” he wrote). Libertarians, Peikoff insisted on his radio show in nineties, “are worse than communists.” And as for the Republican Party—an organization which, despite its many faults, constitutes the most effective political force aligned against Obamacare—deserves to be either “destroyed” or “severely punished” for the enormous crime of allying itself with evangelical Christians. So those Objectivists who follow Peikoff remain, for the most part, excluded from the political process.
Because of this ideological purity, Objectivists have no effective political will and therefore no sense of responsibility. They can advocate any measure, make any claim, without ever worrying about empirical refutation. Empirical testing, when possible, is always the best way to check the truth of any idea, political or otherwise. When such testing is not possible, the human fancy can reach any conclusion it pleases, without fear of contradiction or embarrassment. This is one reason why fringe political groups with no power often believe the strangest things: they never have to worry about reality refuting their whacky ideas, because those ideas will never be tested.
There is, however, one other crucial side to this. Strangely enough, however irrational an individual’s speculative beliefs may be, normally, they tend to be at least “reality-orientated” when it comes to the business of life. There are Christian fundamentalists, for example, who claim to believe in some rather odd theological speculations that overstep important realities by a wide margin. Yet these odd beliefs do not interfere in their business activities, which often display a high degree of shrewdness and even rationality. The eccentric philosophy professor—to take another instance—who claims that reality doesn’t exist or that knowledge is impossible, nonetheless, when away from the university lecture hall, completely ignores these absurd claims when he’s paying bills, pursuing hobbies, and running his personal household.
The beliefs of theologians and academic philosophers are often mere “paper” beliefs. They are either not meant to be followed or impossible to follow. One interesting characteristic of paper beliefs is that, on one of those rare occasions when an advocate of these beliefs gets a chance to put them in practice, they often “betray” those beliefs. Being placed in a position of responsibility, where one must bear the full burden of failure, often sobers people up. Which leads to the question: would Objectivists be sobered up if they were suddenly thrust into a position of responsibility? Would they really nuke Iran if they had the power to do so? If it became clear that their laissez-faire, no-welfare policies would lead to the death by starvation of 10,000 people, would they really stick to their guns and allow the deaths to occur, even though it would discredit them in the eyes of many and turn people against their ideology? What sort of paper is their beliefs really made from?