Notes on Randian Government

2003-01-28

More boring political philosophy.

Last night I re-read all of Ayn Rand's theoretical writings on political philosophy, of which there are surprisingly few: I count only her essays "The Nature of Government" (TNOG) and "Man's Rights" (MR), both written in 1963, though I also read "Government Financing in a Free Society" (GF) for good measure. There is more I could read (and will), but these capture the essentials.

I plan to write a longish essay on Rand's political philosophy, entitled "Anarchy, State, and Objectivism". Indeed, this post can be considered as notes toward that essay. I'm not going to engage in scholarly analysis here, only sketch out some points that I think are especially interesting or deserve further investigation (and much of what I note here has probably been mentioned in other treatments of Rand's political philosophy -- I'll need to read thoroughly in the literature). But that's the nature of journal entries -- they're rather informal. :)

Overall Rand's political philosophy is that human beings have certain individual rights, and that government is instituted among men to protect those rights and only to protect those rights. This is the classic "night watchman's state" (what Robert Nozick calls a minimal state) -- essentially the government adumbrated in the U.S. Constitution. Now most folks nowadays would consider such a state to provide too little government, since modern states have strayed well beyond the strict limits of constitutional boundaries. But for my purposes here I shall instead look at some anti-statist arguments against Rand's theory, continuing my recent interest in what Randy Barnett calls a polycentric legal order.

In MR (para 4), Rand makes the admirable point (at least from the perspective of methodological individualism) that "there is no such entity as 'society,' since society is only a number of individual men". Yet in TNOG (para 6), she blithes argues that "a society that robs an individual of the product of his effort, or enslaves him, or attempts to limit the freedom of his mind, or compels him to act against his own rational judgment ... is not, strictly speaking, a society, but a mob held together by institutionalized gang rule." Here I immediately wonder: what is this "society" that is robbing and enslaving the individual? There is no such thing as society, so it must be that, under certain conditions, individuals or groups of individuals are able to rob and enslave other individuals by using (or threatening to use) force against them. So Rand's argument that "if a society provided no organized protection against force, it would compel every citizen to go about armed, to turn his home into a fortress, to shoot any strangers approaching his door..." is null and void, since it commits the fallacy of reification. How can a society compel individuals to do anything? What is this amorphous society that protects individuals against force? As Rand liked to say, "blank out". All we can say is that in any collection of individuals, some of those individuals MAY protect other individuals against force (as, for instance, parents may protect their children, or a bodyguard may protect his employer, or individuals may form an association for the purpose of mutual defense, or one may contract with a security firm, or one may depend on a monopoly government). But "society" does not do this.

Another point: note how Rand's argument above assumes irrationality on the part of individuals. If "society" doesn't provide some kind of organized protection for me, I must assume that everyone else has bad intentions or is manifestly irrational. This is the societal equivalent of Dostoevsky's dictum that "without god, everything is permitted" -- for Rand, "without government, everything is permitted" (and even likely). This assumption of irrationality appears throughout Rand's thinking on government, and betrays a Hobbesian premise at the root of her politics. It is quite unbecoming, and inconsistent with her stated (benevolent) views on human nature.

Next, Rand sets up a false alternative of individual (and irrational) action vs. government (and objective) action. It's government or nothing. Only government can possibly enforce law -- either we have an enforced monopoly on dispute resolution, or we have chaos. She utterly neglects the role of institutions other than governments in resolving disputes -- councils of elders, arbitrators, mediators, insurance companies, and the like. She claims that "if physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an instititution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules". Notice that an institution is required -- that is, only one. And that institution must be an enforced monopoly: a government.

This argument ignores several facts. First, even the United States does not have one government -- it has (including county, city, state, and national governments) thousands of governments. And there are multiple nations in the world. Yet even nations would or should be suspect in Rand's theory -- we should need one government for the world to ensure that disputes can be resolved. Yet I doubt that Rand would argue for world government!

Rand also ignores what have come to be known as public choice arguments. She assumes, utterly without foundation in experience, that government is objective whereas individuals, groups of individuals, or non-monopoly institutions are arbitrary, subjective, and biased. She thinks it is possible to construct a government purely of laws. Yet who will be running this government? Individuals. And those government employees will have the same drives and motivations as other human beings. They will certainly not be angels. What is to stop government employees from abusing their power? Rand says that the doctrine of individual rights is the main protection and limitation on government power. But that is a thin reed indeed.

Interestingly, Rand talks about law as being created in legislation (i.e., she is quite the opposite of a natural law theorist), but she never talks about legislatures: how they shall be elected, their powers, what kinds of laws they can make, their role within a constitutional government. Yet legislators too will not be angels, and one can be certain that (barring fundamental changes in human nature) they will be just as interested in power as legislators always are. What is to stop Randian legislators from increasing their powers, meddling in the affairs of individuals, making bad laws, and the like? Blank out. Rand argues that a constitution with no loopholes would end up "leaving the government with no power to enlarge the scope of its services at its own arbitrary discretion" (indeed she says at one point that the U.S. Constitution contains "a loophole", i.e., only one!). Yet this is wishful thinking given historical experience.

In her essay on "voluntary taxation" (an oxymoron along the lines of "voluntary conscription"), Rand proposes an opt-in "tax" or payment on contracts as a potential method for funding government. If two individuals or businesses sign a contract, they would pay some defined percentage of the value of the contract to the government in order to have it recognized by government courts. Presumably Rand thinks this percentage will be reasonably low, although she does say the government could increase it in emergencies (which governments have a habit of manufacturing) and especially in times of war (cf. Randolph Bourne's aphorism that "war is the health of the state"). Now let us say that this monopoly government decides that it needs to raise the percentage to 10% -- after all, these contract fees are being used to subsidize other operations of government according to Rand. Yet this pricing makes alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, such as arbitration, more appealing, so fewer and fewer contracts are registered with the government. So the fee is raised again to 20%, then 25%, then -- well, you get the picture. Suddenly, this contract fee is starting to look an awful lot like extortion -- especially since monopoly government has officially outlawed other dispute resolution institutions such as private mercantile courts. Despite the risks inherent in not paying the contract fee (such contracts are officially unprotected) and leaving one's contract in the hands of the black or grey market, many people would do so if the fees were high enough (and some people always would). So this government monopoly would create a black market in arbitration and dispute resolution services. And this from an advocate of the free market.

The kicker, as I touched on in my essay Gentlemen, Leave Your Guns Outside, is that Rand says government "holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims", since individuals MUST delegate their right to self-defense to the government under Rand's system. Although she says that the police will protect men from criminals, this is laughable because the police cannot be everywhere. It is simply impossible for government police to prevent criminal acts, which is why the right to self-defense simply cannot be delegated to government. Although Rand says that "the retaliatory use of physical force [is] a moral imperative" [against those who initiate force], she argues that this right must be delegated in order to bootstrap civilization -- it is a precondition for peaceful coexistence. A Randian argument for gun control -- who would've thunk it?

Rand argues that the source of government's authority is the consent of the governed. She even says that "any undertaking that involves more than one man, requires the voluntary consent of every participant". And she tries, via voluntary financing, to make individual consent a requirement for recognition of governmental authority. But her attempt falls short because her government is a monopoly that must prevent any competitors from arising in the areas in which it holds a monopoly: dispute resolution, prevention of force, defense, and the like. If I withhold consent by seeking to have a contract enforced in a non-government court (perhaps because the price is too high or I suspect government enforcement to be biased), then I am literally outside the law (since all law for Rand is made by government) and government is ruling at that point without my consent. Indeed, I don't see how such consent could be measured other than via payment of Rand's contract fees or perhaps voting for legislators. Yet even those actions may be undertaken more in pursuit of self-preservation than in order to grant consent.

A final worrisome point: Rand argues that the law code must be objective, but she strongly implies that all law is made by government. If law is truly objective, presumably it can be discovered by reason based on experience and can be applied outside the context of a monopoly government. There is no reason to think that because a law is made by a constitutionally limited government, therefore it is objectively valid. Indeed, the very opposite is likely true. The principles of common law -- protection of life and property, restitution for harm, and sanctity of contract -- are common for a reason, because they are objectively valid and arise even in mutual associations (can you say Galt's Gulch?) that do not involve monopoly government.

I have not of late re-read more recent treatments of political philosophy within the Randian tradition, but I should hope they take into account works such as Bruce Benson's Enterprise of Law and Randy Barnett's The Structure of Liberty, which provide serious explorations of non-monopoly legal systems. Somehow I doubt it, given the lack of scholarly engagement evidenced by Rand's followers. I can almost forgive Rand for her oversights and her cursory dismissal of non-monopoly theories, but more modern research indicates to me that monopolies may not be necessary in order to have objective law and true justice. I see the question of monopoly vs. non-monopoly as a scientific problem, not a philosophical one, so this is an area for research, not dogma. We shall see whether Randians are more interested in reality than ideology in this area...


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