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.