A Democracy of Superiors?

2007-12-30

I'm slowly reading through the Journals of Ayn Rand as background for a project I'm working on, and yesterday I found the following entry from May 16, 1934 (pp. 73-74), which ties in to my last post about individualism and the state:

The new conception of the State that I want to defend is the State as a means, not an end; a means for the convenience of the higher type of man. The State as the only organization. Within it -- all have to remain individuals. The State, not as a slave of the great numbers, but precisely the contrary, as the individual's defense against great numbers. To free man from the tyranny of numbers.

The fault of liberal democracies: giving full rights to quantity (majorities), they forget the rights of quality, which are much higher rights. Prove that differences of quality not only do exist inexorably, but also should exist. The next step -- democracy of superiors only. This is not possible without a very high and powerful sense of honor. This, in turn, is not possible without a set of values from which this honor is to be derived. The new set of values: supreme egoism.

[Note: What Rand means by "supreme egoism" is not fully worked out, though it has something to do with the "higher ideas and values" of the "superior person".]

In these days of democracy-worship and universal suffrage as a religion, it is heretical to suggest that the "rights of quality" are more important than the "rights to quantity", that superior people are the only demos deserving to hold power, that some people are superior to others, and that some ideas and values are higher than others. Such suggestions reek of aristocracy, inherited privilege, undeserved power, class conflict, the landed families lording it over their serfs and chattel, and the bad old times of European feudalism.

Yet etymologically the word aristocracy means "power to the best", and the Greek word aristos is the superlative form of arete meaning "excellence" or "virtue". Is it possible to formulate a vision of aristocracy that is closer to the modern idea of meritocracy than to old-time feudalism?

I have my doubts. For one, Rand's suggestion is that her ideal state would exist for the convenience of "the higher type of man". To me this implies that she would like the State to make life easier for the superior person, to reduce the difficulties of life for the kind of person she thought was ideal: the lone genius, the creative individual, the engineer-entrepreneur, etc. However, I don't think she would advocate an activist state providing subsidies for the "creative class" (a la Richard Florida), since she thought that all creative individuals need in order to succeed is to be left alone and not harrassed or held back by "the masses". Thus Rand's ideal state was the minimal state, in particular a state in which majorities could not trample the rights of minorities. But for Rand the justification of such a state is that it would protect the rights not just of any minority (religious, ethnic, racial, or otherwise), but the ultra-productive minority of super-creative individuals.

Unfortunately, Rand seems to have thought that very few people are in that productive minority. In opposition to the American tradition of someone like Walt Whitman (who saw the common worker as by nature productive and creative), Rand was usually rather elitist about the distribution of talents in a free society. So who, I wonder, would run the Randian state? She says it would be a "democracy of superiors only". Would the vote be limited to her productive elite? Would it be a representative democracy in which the productive elite would elect legislators who would represent the interests of that productive elite? Who would serve in such a legislature? The productive elite themselves? Why would they do such a thing, given that there would be much more fulfilling avenues for creative production outside of government?

Another alternative is that productive individuals would govern themselves in smaller communities of interest. Consider the fact that much of modern-day commercial law emerged from the Law Merchant of the later Middle Ages, in which traders themselves made the law and formed courts of justice for mercantile disputes. In such a setting, law might emerge through a kind of meritocracy, in which experts within a given domain are consulted for the wisdom of their insights. One could argue that similar things happen today in, say, technology communities and standards development organizations (although as we know the decisions in such situations are not necessarily any less political for being voluntary).

And what if Rand's productive elite lacked the higher ethics of honor that would be necessary for such a system to work? Further, what exactly would such an ethics look like? Would it perhaps involve such "a very high and powerful sense of honor" -- such a degree of personal restraint, responsibility, obligation, and (dare I say) even duty -- as to put it at odds with Rand's loose talk about "the virtue of selfishness"?

I grant that the foregoing quote is merely vague and suggestive, but even so I find its content to be mostly fanciful. Rand seems to believe that it would be wonderful for "the masses" to get out of the way of the creative minority of productive supermen, but that notion is so far removed from the messy reality of social relations on so many levels that it does not help us construct even the working hypothesis for an Objectivist political theory.

In his book The Ideas of Ayn Rand, Ron Merrill commented that Objectivism lacks a coherent political philosophy. Sure, Rand advocated a minimal state, but she left the justifications for a completely free society and the mechanisms for maintaining it as an exercise for the reader. As far as I can see, Objectivists still have a lot of work to do before they can be considered serious contributors to political philosophy.

(It may be wondered why I even deign to blog about such fanciful notions; I guess we can file it under uncomfortable thoughts.)


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