Objectivists frame the difference between themselves and conservatives in terms of basic premises. Since Rand believed human character stems from ideas, ideas become paramount. Conservatives take an entirely different approach. They tend to discount alleged differences in basic premises and instead focus on the practical consequences of a specific ideology. It is facts, not opinions, results, not premises, that are of most importance to the conservative. Conservatives favor a type of freedom, a form of capitalism that works in the real world, not merely one that works according to the speculative “logic” of this or that intellectual.
In Rand, we find a type of individualism, a type of freedom, that is at odds with basic facts about the human condition. Rand posits as a moral ideal defining the relations between individuals her “Trader Principle,” which contends that “The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships.” [“The Objectivist Ethics,” emphasis added]
The notion that trade can define most human relationships rests on the tacit assumption that the individual is a kind atomistic unit without any bonds or ties to the community at large which will profoundly influence his behavior. This view simply doesn’t accord with the facts of human experience. As economist Frank Knight pointed out:
...the freest individual, the unencumbered male in the prime of life, is in no real sense an ultimate unit or social datum. He is in large measure a product of the economic system, which is a fundamental part of the cultural environment that has formed his desires and needs, given him whatever marketable productive capacities he has, and which largely controls his opportunities. Social organization through free contract implies that the contracting units know what they want and are guided by their desires, that is, that they are “perfectly rational,” which would be equivalent to saying that they are accurate mechanisms of desire-satisfaction. In fact, human activity is largely impulsive, a relatively unthinking and undetermined response to stimulus and suggestion. Moreover, there is truth in the allegation that unregulated competition places a premium on deceit and corruption. [Ethics of Competition, 41-42]
Knight’s view is amplified by philosopher Richard Weaver, where the distinction between “anarchistic” individualism and “social bond” individualism is elucidated. Consider Weaver’s description of these two types of individualism:
...if we are interested in rescuing individualism in this age of conformity and actual regimentation, it is the [social bond] kind which we must seek to cultivate. Social bond individualism is civil and viable and constructive except in very abnormal situations. Anarchic individualism is revolutionary and subversive from the very start; it shows a complete despite for all that civilization or the social order has painfully created, and this out of self-righteousness or egocentric attachment to an idea…. It is charged with a lofty disdain for the human condition, not the understanding of charity. It is not Christian to accept such a view; or, if that is too narrow, it is not politically wise; or if that is too narrow, it is just not possible. Such a view ends in the extremism of nihilism. The other more tolerant and circumspect kind of individualism has enjoyed two thousand years of compatibility with institutions in the Western world and is our best hope for preserving human personality in a civil society. [The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, 102-103]
Now the “anarchistic individualism” analyzed by Weaver describes, in many respects, the sort of individualism we find championed in Objectivism. In Rand and many of her disciples we find a lofty disdain for the human condition and an egocentric attachment to an idea. But does the Randian form of individualism end in the extremism of nihilism, as Weaver suggests? There is every reason to believe it would, if it ever could become universal. Objectivists benefit from the social bonds in the society around them, many of which they regard as irrational (such as the bonds defined by common law, family “duty,” social “obligations,” etc.). But if (per impossible) Objectivism became dominant in a society, many of those bonds would be dissolved. The result would be a social order in which most people (including, perhaps, many Objectivists) would not wish to live. It would be a society dominated by intellectual bullies who would use their aggressiveness and their ability to rationalize their (unconscious and unacknowledged) need for respect and status to manipulate and stomp over their weaker brethren.
Even on small scale and within the broad context of a “normal” society, Objectivism hardly inspires hope that it can solve the many problems that arise when human beings attempt to live among each other within a social order. Objectivism attempts to solve these problems by denying that they are essential and ineradicable features of the human condition. But such denials only make these problems worse. We see this all too clearly when we turn our attention to Objectivist communities that have arisen among followers of Rand's creed.
Even under the best of circumstances, when relations between human beings are governed by the wisest precepts and customs, it is difficult for individuals to handle the inevitable disagreements and conflicts that arise between them. Within the social world of Objectivism, the belief that the “rational interests of men do not clash” renders it nearly impossible for Objectivsts to settle differences amicably. Instead, sharp differences always lead to ostracization. This is how Rand’s various disputes with her disciples inevitably concluded; and it is how such disputes end among her orthodox followers.
Within the tacit social rules that govern behavior among Objectivists, there exists no sensible or wise method through which to resolve disputes. The Objectivist ideal of solving conflicts impartially via reason is simply not workable, because disputes inevitably involve clashing sentiments and desires, neither of which are amenable to “reason.” Moreover, precisely because Objectivists tend to regard all disputes as arising out of contradictory fundamental premises, personal disputes are framed as philosophical disputes involving metaphysical, epistemological, and moral arcana. Once a personal dispute has been translated and rationalized into philosophical abstractions, there is no way it can be solved for the simple reason that the abstractions conceal the real causes of the dispute. Hence, the Peikoff-Kelley split is explained by on one side as a dispute over fact and value, and by the other as a perversion of objective moral judgment. But the real reasons are probably far more complex and far more personal than anyone would be comfortable admitting.
The dangers arising from Rand’s atomistic form individualism go well beyond the unsavory conflicts and schisms that have arisen among Objectivist luminaries. In the case of Ellen Plasil, we have a chilling example of what happens in a community where the social bonds have been weakened and perverted. Plasil was an Objectivist who was sexually manipulated and abused by her “Objectivist” therapist, Lonnie Leonard. When she exposed Leonard as a fraud, the community of Objectivists either ignored her or treated her as the culprit. No one in the Objectivist community other than boyfriend stood by her. Fortunately for Plasil, the Objectivist community is only a small sliver of society: there was a larger non-Objectivist community that she could appeal to for justice and support. But where would she have turned in a society dominated by Objectivists, where Objectivists ran the courts and administered justice? Ponder that question and you will understand why most people do not want an Objectivist society and are in fact repelled by it.
Most individuals do not want to be placed in a position where they might find themselves without any social support at all. Nor do they want to find themselves at the mercy of hordes of self-absorbed atomistic individualists who rationalize all their desires and are incapable of empathizing with others. But this is precisely what tends to happen wherever atomistic individualism prevails and the social bonds are weakened. Strong familial and community bonds fostered by Weaver’s social bond individualism provide a support system which enable individuals to seek redress against the Lonnie Leonard’s of the world. The law itself is a creature of this support system and would not exist without it. But when individuals become exclusively preoccupied with their “self-interest,” the practical results of this kind of self-absorption tend to result in the type of individual who can’t be bothered with maintaining the social bonds that strengthen justice and provide the glue that holds society together. So Ellen Plasil is left to fend for herself. Indeed, in such a society, everyone would be on their own and those who could not fend for themselves would be regarded with contempt, as Plasil is among Objectivists to this day. Who would want to live in such a world? Other than individuals like Lonnie Leonard, hardly anyone. It is not a world fit for normal human beings. As the best conservative opinion has long maintained, no social system can work which is exclusively based on voluntary interaction (i.e., the “trader principle”) guided solely by short-run utilitarian ends (i.e., “rational self-interest”). Yet this is where atomistic individualism leads in practice.