Rand to Goldwater

2004-11-25

On June 4, 1960, Ayn Rand wrote a letter to Senator Barry Goldwater, which is long enough to qualify as one of her more extended treatments of practical politics (earlier this month I noted some of Rand's public reflections on Goldwater's candidacy). The letter is fascinating in several respects. For one, it illuminates the conservative leanings of so many Randanistas. Commenting on Goldwater's book The Conscience of a Conservative, Rand equates conservatism with capitalism (Rand's preferred term for a fully free society) and liberalism with collectivism. Perhaps she was simply flattering Goldwater here, but it seems clear that Rand always hoped for a politically consistent conservatism (i.e., a truly free-market rather than corporatist or second-hand collectivist movement on the political right), even if those hopes were dashed throughout her lifetime (despite their individualist and libertarian rhetoric, she was bitterly disappointed by candidates such as Willkie in 1936, Goldwater in 1964, and Reagan in 1980). Why did she keep getting her hopes up? Her behavior doesn't seem very rational in this regard.

Notice that I say a politically consistent conservatism, not a philosophically consistent conservatism. Both in her essay "How to Judge a Political Candidate" (March, 1964) and in her letter to Goldwater, Rand separates the political realm from that of philosophy and religion. In fact, she takes Goldwater to task for mixing religion and politics in the first chapter of his book:

According to the Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state, religion is a private matter; it should not be brought into public issues or into the province of government, and it should not be made a part of political movements. Consider the implications of the attempt to tie Conservatism to religion: if such an attempt succeeded, it would make religion an integral part of our political system, in direct contradiction to the Constitution.

(What would Rand think of the current political scene, in which a supposedly compassionate conservative institutes a Presidential office of faith-based initiatives? Egads!)

Rand argues that Goldwater's proposal to "unite all Conservatives in a common cause" is "the most crucially important goal in politics", but that "it cannot be accomplished without ... a set of rational principles, which all those who join can accept with full understanding and conviction." Although Rand calls this a "philosophical base", she must mean a base of specifically political philosophy, not anything much deeper (e.g., she did not mean a philosophical base consisting of her own philosophy of Objectivism, since presumably not all advocates of a free society could accept her philosophy with full understanding and conviction). As she wrote in "How to Judge a Political Candidate":

One cannot expect, nor is it necessary, to agree with a candidate's total philosophy -- only with his political philosophy (and only in terms of essentials). It is not a Philosopher-King that we are electing, but an executive for a specific, delimited job.... we have to judge him as we judge any work, theory or product of mixed premises: by his dominant trend.... A vote for a candidate does not constitute an endorsement of his entire position, not even of his entire political position, only of his basic political principles....

Given Rand's early and clear statements on the relationship between underlying philosophical or religious theories and specifically political movements, it's puzzling why latter-day Objectivists have been so critical of the modern libertarian movement for its alleged lack of a consistent philosophical base (by which they do not mean the lack of a consistent set of basic political principles, but the lack of a deeper base in ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology). That's an issue I'll have to address when I write my planned essay on a practical Objectivist politics.


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