Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 51

Ayn Rand contra Conservatism 5. Rand, in her essay “Conservatism: an Obituary,” contends that “there are three interrelated arguments used by today’s “conservatives” to justify capitalism, which can best be designated as: the argument from faith—the argument from tradition—the argument from depravity.”

In my last post, I examined Rand’s attack on the argument from tradition. Now we’ll take a look at her attack on the argument from depravity:

This leads us to the third—and the worst—argument, used by some “conservatives”: the attempt to defend capitalism on the ground of man’s depravity.

This argument runs as follows: since men are weak, fallible, non-omniscient and innately depraved, no man may be entrusted with the responsibility of being a dictator and of ruling everybody else; therefore, a free society is the proper way of life for imperfect creatures. Please grasp fully the implications of this argument: since men are depraved, they are not good enough for a dictatorship; freedom is all that they deserve; if they were perfect, they would be worthy of a totalitarian state.

Dictatorship—this theory asserts—believe it or not, is the result of faith in man and in man’s goodness; if people believed that man is depraved by nature, they would not entrust a dictator with power. This means that a belief in human depravity protects human freedom—that it is wrong to enslave the depraved, but would be right to enslave the virtuous. And more: dictatorships—this theory declares—and all the other disasters of the modern world are man’s punishment for the sin of relying on his intellect and of attempting to improve his life on earth by seeking to devise a perfect political system and to establish a rational society. This means that humility, passivity, lethargic resignation and a belief in Original Sin are the bulwarks of capitalism. One could not go farther than this in historical, political, and psychological ignorance or subversion. This is truly the voice of the Dark Ages rising again—in the midst of our industrial civilization.

The cynical, man-hating advocates of this theory sneer at all ideals, scoff at all human aspirations and deride all attempts to improve men’s existence. “You can’t change human nature,” is their stock answer to the socialists. Thus they concede that socialism is the ideal, but human nature is unworthy of it; after which, they invite men to crusade for capitalism—a crusade one would have to start by spitting in one’s own face. Who will fight and die to defend his status as a miserable sinner? If, as a result of such theories, people become contemptuous of “conservatism,” do not wonder and do not ascribe it to the cleverness of the socialists.

This passage constitutes one of the most embarrassing assemblage of words one is likely to find in all of Rand’s writings. It distorts and mauls the conservative arguments beyond recognition. It demonstrates that when it came to representing ideas and views she disagreed with, Rand suffered from a severe case of narcissism. She was extremely sensitive to any perceived distortions of her own views, but showed no such sensitivity towards others.

In the passage quotes above, Rand actually conflates two different conservative arguments: (1) the argument behind the U.S. constitution explicated by James Madison in the Federalist Papers; and (2) the argument against an enlightened dictator.

1. Madison’s argument. Let us begin by dismissing Rand’s first serious distortion. Rand claims that conservatives regard human beings as “innately depraved.” While there may be a handful of eccentrics who hold that belief, that is not the belief of most conservatives. Consider the following from James Madison:

As there is a degree of depravity in man [“degree” of depravity! Please consider this distinction!] which requires a degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. [Human beings are not all bad, they are not completely depraved, they have both good and bad in them!] Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. [That is to say, free institutions depend on the better qualities of human nature—which goes against Rand’s caricature of the conservative argument!] Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another. [Federalist 55]

Madison admitted the mixed character of human nature. While free institutions must rely on the good qualities in men, they also must reckon with the bad qualities, since both exist! Hence the theory behind “checks and balances.”

In Federalist #10, Madison begins by noting that man are by nature given to faction:

The latent causes of faction are ... sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

This view of human nature, held by nearly all of the Founding Fathers, is incompatible with Rand’s view. Yet it is the view behind the theory of checks and balances in the Constitution—which, in this sense, is not a document that is philosophically compatible with Objectivism. In Federalist #51, Madison lays out this theory of checks and balances:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other -- that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.

Rand tended to think favorably of the Founding Fathers; but they held what, for all intents and purposes, is the conservative view of human nature which she so violently opposes. In this conservative view, human beings are not (despite Rand's mendacious distortions) entirely depraved or wicked, but merely “imperfect,” limited, flawed. Conservatives like Burke, Hamilton, Madison (in his Federalist Papers phase), Adam Smith, Hume, Mosca based their views of human nature not on wishful thinking or philosophical speculation, but on a careful study of history. As Hamilton puts it in the Federalist #75: “The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue which would make it wise in a nation to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind [to one man].”

2. Argument against an enlightened dictator. I’ll examine Rand’s confusions concerning this argument in my next post.


Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

Couldn't find a good spot for this, but am I the only one who visits the Noodlefood blog once a week for unintentional comedy?

Michael Prescott said...

Off-topic, but I've been reading Anne C. Heller's bio of Rand and am amazed at Rand's consistent habit of misjudging people. Perhaps the most obvious example involves her parents, Anna and Zinovy. To the end of her life Rand idolized Zinovy as a heroic individualist and despised Anna as a social metaphysician.

Yet if we look at the facts presented by Heller, it's clear that Zinovy exercised consistently bad judgment and was a weak, helpless man. In the Crimea he had the opportunity to emigrate with his family to Europe and escape the Bolsheviks, but he refused, insisting that Lenin's revolution would fall of its own weight in a few months. Naturally he was proved wrong. In the hard years that followed, food rations were issued only to those with a job, and all jobs were obtained through the Communist Party. Zinovy refused to work for the Party and apparently was content to let his family starve. Rand saw this as a heroic act, and it seems to have inspired the "strike" idea behind Atlas Shrugged.

Meanwhile the despised and unheroic Anna seems to have been much more in touch with the reality of the situation. In the Crimea she begged her stupidly stubborn husband to join their friends in emigrating. After his refual cost the family everything, it was Anna who set out to find a job, discarding her socialite past in order to put food on the table. She literally kept the family alive while her useless hubby sat around the apartment in a funk.

Yet Rand, supposedly so committed to "facing reality," saw her mother as unrealistic and irrational, and saw her father as strong and independent.

The more I read of Rand, the more I think that reality existed for her only as a novelistic (and moralistic) fantasy of her own imaginative projections.

Anonymous said...

Well Michael that is objectivism for ya! I've no doubt, in the situation you outline re: her parents, an objectivist would have no qualms about shoving the food down thier cake-hole and yet at the same time they would call her mother behind her back.

Like the bloke that borrows $40 from you and drinks it away down the bar and tells everyone and anyone within shouting distance what a dog you are.


Michael Prescott said...

Here's a throwaway sentence from p. 128 of Heller's book that took me by surprise:

"Mimi may already have known of her aunt's [i.e., Rand's] decision to have an abortion earlier in the 1930s, since Mimi's father, A.M. Papurt, had loaned [Frank] O'Connor the money to pay for it."

Maybe this is common knowledge, but I don't recall ever reading that Rand had an abortion. However, I always suspected as much, because of the peculiar vehemence of her pro-choice arguments, which are unusually sloppy even for her. I had the sense that the issue was personal.

Heller ties this episode to the scarcity of children in Rand's fiction. She also notes that Frank wanted to have children; but in this, as in everything, he deferred to his strong-willed wife.

Heller does a good job of presenting Rand's psychology, basically classifying her as a narcissist who lacked empathy, did not see others as fully real, and habitually rewrote reality to suit her emotional needs. (Borderline personality disorder might be a slightly more accurate diagnosis than narcissism, but the two are closely related.)

It seems to me that Rand's entire moral philosophy can be seen as a rationalization of her narcissistic and borderline tendencies, with her idealization of the social outcast merely a way to put her own psychological shortcomings in a heroic light. Alan Blumenthal has made a similar point.

Uncomfortable and unskilled with emotions, Rand created an intellectual system that downplayed emotion in favor of "reason." Unable to relate to other people, Rand created an "ideal man" who needs nobody. Unable to grant consideration to others' needs and wants, Rand celebrated selfishness as a virtue and made her own ego into a god.

It's an unflattering portrait - perhaps more so than Heller intended.

Anonymous said...

"It seems to me that Rand's entire moral philosophy can be seen as a rationalization of her narcissistic and borderline tendencies..."

I can't be only one here that sees similarities between Objectivism and certain 'religion' founded by a hack sci-fi writer. Though his early fiction at least has the virtue of being good fun in a pulp-trash fiction way.

Steven Johnston

Unknown said...


Great points. Part of the problem may not of have been Rand's fault when it comes to her differing evaluation of her parents, however, though I guess how she related to her parents might have been in part affected by the idealistic leanings she inherited from her father.

In her defence, she might have never had a serious chance to understand how things like working to support oneself or making compromises to get ahead in society are made by adults. Idealistic parents often don't relate very well to their children when it comes to practical issues. They discuss politics and ideology, but never get into the difficulties of raising a family, earning a keep etc. Rand would get encouraged to do well at school, so she would get the impression that this was important, but she probably never got a well-rounded view of what it took to raise a family or even support oneself. Unfortunately, the gaps never got filled out and in part, it is unlikely that she would have achieved what she did had she raised a family. But she also never appreciated what was required to do so, which was one of the failings. Whether it is a failing that could be remedied by education, I'm not sure, but I think for some people, it might be.

Part of the reason I empathize with this is that I'm developing a worldview as an adult that I wish I had been shown as a child. I think it might have been in part because I never fully brought into a religious worldview that might have provided some of these things so I couldn't fully empathize with the Christians/Muslims that surrounded me. But I think in a roundabout way, I've found my way back to it.


Michael Prescott said...

Another interesting passage from Heller's book, this one of particular relevance to ARCHN. Heller reports that Isabel Paterson, in a letter to Rand, criticized her basic approach to reasoning.

"Paterson thought that Rand's use of logic sometimes resembled the arid arguments put forward by the philosophers Rand most disliked. When such philosophers 'had strung some words together, in the form of a syllogism or other logical construction, they thought that [the formulation] had to be so - without asking if the facts which constitute the premises are so,' Paterson wrote. Take, for example, the logic of, 'All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal. That is a good syllogism,' she wrote, 'but its truth depends on the premises being true - that men are mortal, that Socrates is a man. Logic is an instrument for dealing with whatever you can get into its measure.' The older woman thought that God and man were both to some degree immeasurable. She argued that Rand trusted deductive reasoning too much and overlooked matters that reason might identify as being worthy of investigation but that were illogical, or inexplicable, at least for now." (pp, 172-3)

In other words, Rand was guilty of what Greg Nyquist calls "verbalism," and insufficiently committed to empiricism. She also overlooked aspects of human nature that are "illogical, or inexplicable, at least for now." All of which could be a summary of ARCHN's thesis.

A few other interesting tidbits from the book:

Rand reportedly saw a UFO while living in California.

Shortly after Frank O'Connor's death, Rand tried to throw out a portrait that Frank had painted of her. The portrait was rescued from the trash and is reproduced in Heller's book. It is a remarkably revealing image, and not at all flattering in its psychological implications, which is probably why Rand wanted to get rid of it.

After Frank developed dementia, Rand seems to have been in the habit of hiding him away from guests. When screenwriter Stirling Sillipant showed up at her door unexpectedly, she flew into a panic and tried to rush Frank into a back room, literally screaming in distress.

She was described by many people as slovenly and unkempt, and someone once urged Barbara Branden to suggest that Rand should bathe more often!

She and Frank made no effort to discipline their un-neutered cats, which urinated freely on the carpet and shredded the furniture. Rand reportedly said she was against spaying pets because animals cannot help being what they are.

Rand's mother, whom she dismissed as a shallow second-hander, supported her emigration to the US and used her connections to make it possible. Rand's father, whom she idolized, made no effort to help her and wanted her to stay in Russia.

Rand told at least one acquaintance that she had escaped from Russia by illegally crossing the border (like Kira in "We The Living"). This was completely untrue. Her other recollections of her early years should perhaps be viewed with a degree of skepticism, given her willingness to confabulate on such an important point. In particular, her claims to have attained philosophical insights at the age of two or three are open to question. (See Heller's endnotes on p. 420 for specific questions raised about these claims.)

Anonymous said...

Re-inventing her past. Another shocking similarity to Hubbard. What is it with these gurus that not content with trying to re-write the future they also feel compelled to re-mix thier past. She air-brushed NB out of Objectivism and told out right lies about her past. Uncle Joe would have proud of her.


Michael Prescott said...

Still OT (sorry, Greg and Dan) ...

Some may be interested in this peculiar new development in the Atlas Shrugged movie. Apparently "entrepreneur John Aglialoro, who bought the rights to the book back in 1992 for one million dollars," plans to begin filming Atlas on June 11.

To be precise, he will be shooting the first of four films based on Atlas!

Who are the stars? There are none. "He still has no cast," we're told.

Who's helming the project? "Novice director Stephen Polk."

Who wrote it? Aglialoro himself, aided by "writer Brian O'Tool." If this is the Brian O'Toole (with an "e") listed at, then he has three movies to his credit, two of which are ten-minute shorts. The third is feature-length, but as best I can tell, it was shown only at festivals.

More: "Though Aglialoro claims he's working to court Charlize Theron or Maggie Gyllenhaal for the role of [Dagny] Taggart, neither is yet confirmed."

With less than three weeks till the commencement of photography, it may be a little late for Theron, Gullenhaal, or any other actress with any name recognition. Not to mention that they probably don't want to sign on to a project that sounds, to put it mildly, a little shaky.

But: "Undeterred, Polk says they plan to push ahead with production even if they can't attract A-list talent."

How about B-list or even C-list talent?

"... the parallels between Aglialoro's uncompromising gusto in undertaking this project independently and the individualist ethos of Rand's work make this quixotic endeavor particularly intriguing."

However, "the rush to begin production could just be a ploy to keep an option on the material from expiring."

Let's hope so. Otherwise we may be looking at the next Titanic. Not the movie, the actual ship. Man the lifeboats!

Main source:

For other sources, search Google News for "Atlas Shrugged" + "movie."

Neil Parille said...


Rand's attitude toward Frank is perhaps the saddest aspect of Heller's bio. He was obviously a pleasant person, albeit no genius and certainly not like one of the heroes in her book. One can only imagine how he felt being praised by her as a great hero while she kicks him out of their apartment so she can do the horizontal hokey-pokey with NB.

Heller seems give creedence to the possibility that the love triangle was a turn-on, but I doubt it.

I think the silence on the ARI crowd with respect to the new bios is proof that the Branden view of Rand is correct.

-Neil Parille

Daniel Barnes said...

Michael P,

Aglialoro is the Cybex fitness guy, right?

Here's the ARCHNblog's brief description of the project from back in 2008. It seems like now, as well as writing it, he's going to have to be playing most of the parts too. Never mind, at least it's going to be "in colour"...;-)

It's the gift that keeps on giving.

Michael Prescott said...

I'd forgotten about the boast that the movie would be made in color.

Yes, Aglialoro is the exercise equipment magnate.

The more I read about this thing, the more I hope they're rolling film only as a ploy to avoid losing the option. If they seriously intend to undertake a project of this scale with a neophyte producer, neophyte writer, neophyte director, and (presumably) amateur cast, they are headed for disaster.

Making even one Atlas movie would be a herculean task. Making four (!) would be almost impossible even with the most experienced production team.

Maybe these guys should've started with Anthem and seen how that went before they tackled something this ambitious.

Anonymous said...

I've not timed it, but I reckon Gal'ts speech must run to 3 hours alone. Would any self-respecting actor utter the line "I swear by the love of my life..." Would any modern audience sit through this? This film will never get made, the looters that run Hollywood will see to that.

Steven Johnston

Anonymous said...

You might not know this but a cheap "Fantastic Four" film was made in 1994 by the company that held the film rights to those comic book characters. The film was never meant to be seen, but it has made it to the bootleg market and the film company (I think it was Constantin Film) lost the rights. With any luck Aglialoro might give the film-going public a grade Z schlock would possibly sink Atlas Shrugged as a viable film project. If anyone here has read Jeff Walker's book, you may remember that Pleikoff worked with one of the Godfather screenwriters in the mid-1970s to adapt Atlas Shrugged. Pleikoff fought any abbreviation or restructuring of dialogue by the writer because he was under strict orders from Rand to keep that much of the source material the same. Suffice it to say, the project collapsed due to Rand's intrangisence. Had they succeded the film could have been a great propaganda tool for the 1980 Reagan campaign, though if it had been a bomb we could have it to laugh at like the bizarro 1940s version of The Fountainhead.

- Strelnikov

Michael Prescott said...

Yes, the "Fantastic Four" movie may be a good parallel to what's going on here. I have to assume Aglialoro isn't really serious about making four "Atlas" movies back to back with no cast and no experienced production people at the helm. It's probably a ploy to retain the option.

Filming was scheduled to start today (June 11), BTW.

Regarding the checkered history of the AS movie, the chronology is a little different from what you reported. Around 1974 Rand announced that Al Ruddy, one of the producers of "The Godfather," would make the movie, but the project quickly fell apart when Rand demanded the right to approve the final cut.

In the mid-1980s, after Rand's death, Peikoff attempted to develop a movie project with screenwriter John Hill ("Quigley Down Under"). Hill reported that Peikoff resisted even the smallest changes in the dialogue, and that the writing proceeded at a frustrating pace. Peikoff apparently was dissatisfied with the final script, as he never contacted Hill after the screenplay was turned in.

Other attempts to film "Atlas" include a TV miniseries in the '70s written by Stirling Silliphant, another proposed miniseries that was to be written by Rand herself (the script was unfinished at the time of her death), and the Lion's Gate feature film that attracted the interest of Angelina Jolie. The latter project was to be produced by the Baldwin Entertainment Group, which previously gave us the mega-bombs "Sahara" and "A Sound of Thunder," so the producers' track record is not exactly stellar.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the mixup, but I haven't re-read Jeff Walker's book in a while....I didn't know about the Siliphant version. I've noticed that all the Rand adaptions have something odd going on with them: "We the Living" was made in the final days of Fascist Italy and had pro-fascist propaganda mixed in to an already anti-communist story; "The Fountainhead" has a lot of odd architectural work from Roark and potboiler dialogue. The only way the Rand films could get odder is if North Korea made a disco musical version of "Anthem" starring a kidnapped Brad Pitt.

Besides making a "option film", Aglialoro might just be stalling for time, hoping that some middle-grade actors might want to join the production that he's already begun. It's a bizarre way to make a movie, but then he should have never purchased the rights to Atlas in the first place if he wasn't dead set on making a film immediatly or selling the rights to somebody else.

- Strelnikov