Ayn Rand contra Conservatism 6. Rand, in her essay '“Conservatism: an Obituary” attacks what she calls the “argument from depravity.” Part of her attack involves a curious distortion of the so-called conservative argument, where she draws out a presumed implication of the argument which no conservative would ever endorse. “Please grasp fully the implications of this argument,” abjures Rand: “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.
Now no conservative has ever said anything of the kind, and it is hard to imagine that any ever would. Nor does the conservative argument imply such a thing. There is a conservative (and classical liberal) argument that goes something as follows: that whatever annoyances or defects that can sometimes be associated with representative institutions and a government by checks and balances, these annoyances are a small price to pay for the dangers associated with dictatorship and tyranny. Conservatives accept Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. From this tenuous strand, Rand attempts to weave her claim that conservatives believe, or at least imply, that people are not good enough for dictatorship.
If conservatism really implied such an absurdity, you would expect more critics of conservatism to have made the charge. But Rand is the only one to have ever made it. She backs it with no quotes from any conservative and, as far as I know, never made the charge again, nor did she ever make it a venue where she could have been challenged by an articulate conservative.
What makes Rand’s distortion particularly appalling is that for years she was involved conservative movement, talking with and exchanging correspondence with conservative intellectuals such as Isabel Patterson, Channing Pollock, and Ruth Alexander. She was in a position to know better. Hence, it is difficult not to suspect an element of dishonesty, or at least evasion, in Rand’s accusations. If Rand had been passionately committed to honesty and fair practice, she would not have distorted the conservative argument as egregiously as she did here. This is yet another example of Rand making a great deal of virtuous noise about not engaging in behavior X, and yet wallowing in behavior X all the same. Despite all her histrionic denuciations of dishonesty and evasion, here we find her evading and spewing mendacity with the best of them.