First published in Full Context 9:8 (April 1997).
At the core of classical liberal and libertarian thinking is the idea that one must not be forced to forfeit any of one's rights in order to live in society. While the authoritarian and egalitarian traditions are all too willing to sacrifice individual rights for the good of society, thinkers such as Ayn Rand have opposed even taxation as an unnecessary evil and an immoral violation of the individual's freedom.
However, is even Ayn Rand fully consistent in upholding the sanctity of the individual in relation to society? In Rand's essay "For the New Intellectual", one finds the following paragraph (Rand 1961, 57):
If men of good will wish to come together for the purpose of upholding reason and establishing a rational society, they should begin by following the example of the cowboys in Western movies when the sheriff tells them at the door to a conference room: 'Gentlemen, leave your guns outside.'
While earlier in the essay Rand had emphasized that "men have the right and the moral obligation of self-defense" (1961, 56) and Rand's phrasing could be taken as a metaphor for renouncing the initiation of force, a literal reading of the idea that "those of good will" should "leave their guns outside" suggests that the mere capacity for using physical force (even in self-defense) threatens "a rational society". Is this view a necessary implication of Ayn Rand's theory of government and, if so, is it correct?
Rand argues that "government holds a monopoly on the legal use of physical force" (1963d, 109) and even seems to believe that government must keep its citizens "legally disarmed" (1963b, 98; 1963a, 82). These statements imply that any private (i.e., non-governmental) use of force is illegal and that government cannot tolerate and must forbid not only the initiation of force but even the mere capacity for force. (Rand was a careful and precise writer; if she employs the phrase "use of physical force" instead of "initiation of force" then I think we need to take her at her word.)
Lest one think I am exaggerating, consider what Harry Binswanger has written on the subject of private force, in a periodical that received the sanction of Ayn Rand: "Private force is force not authorized by the government, not validated by its procedural safeguards, and not subject to its supervision. The government has to regard such private force as a threat -- i.e., as a potential violation of individual rights. In barring such private force, the government is retaliating against that threat" (Binswanger 1981, 11). Aside from the logical absurdity involved in speaking of retaliating against a future potential (not an initiated actuality), I submit that Binswanger's argument fully justifies the abolition of private security firms, volunteer militias, individual weapons ownership, and any other mere capacity for force on the part of private citizens.
How did the Objectivist politics end up in the position of barring the means of physical self-defense (and, by extension, the defense of others)? The cause can be found in Objectivism's consent theory of government. Citing the Declaration of Independence, Rand argues as follows (Rand 1963d, 110).
The source of the government's authority is 'the consent of the governed.' This means that the government is not the ruler, but the servant or agent of the citizens; it means that the government as such has no rights except the rights delegated to it by the citizens for a specific purpose.
There is only one basic principle to which an individual must consent if he wishes to live in a free, civilized society: the principle of renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government his right of physical self-defense.
As mentioned, Rand held that "men have the right and the moral obligation of self-defense" (1961, 56). However, she also held that they must "renounc[e] the use of physical force" (1963d, 110) as the price of their admission to "free, civilized society". The apparent tension between these two tenets evaporates when one realizes that according to Rand all individuals must delegate the right of physical self-defense to government. Therefore, in Rand's "free, civilized society", only government possesses "the right of physical self-defense" (which it exercises on behalf of individuals). Thus the converse of Rand's claim that "if a society provided no organized protection against force, it would compel every citizen to go about armed" (1963d, 108) seems to be that if a society does provide organized protection against force, it must compel every citizen to go about "legally disarmed" (1963b, 98; 1963a, 82) and defenseless -- because any private capacity for force is an unnecessary evil, a "threat" to government, and a "potential violation of individual rights".
This view is stunning, breathtaking -- and false.
There are several difficulties with the idea that the source of government's authority is the fact that the citizens have consented to "renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government [their] right of physical self-defense" (1963d, 110).
First, government has no rights; it has powers, which in the American tradition of constitutional government are specifically enumerated and therefore strictly limited. Rand recognizes this when she says that "the nature of the proper governmental services must be constitutionally defined and delimited, leaving the government no power to enlarge the scope of its services at its own arbitrary discretion" (1964a, 118), but she is not consistent on this issue and often claims that governments possess not powers but rights.
Second, there is no good reason for an individualist to renounce the use of physical force in all circumstances (although renouncing the initiation of force or the post-hoc use of force in retaliation is a different matter). Specifically, an individualist would never relinquish his right of physical self-defense, since that would be tantamount to pacifism in the face of initiations of force both by other individuals and by (representatives of the) government. In the context of the initiation of force by individuals, it's important to note that government police forces cannot be everywhere at once and are therefore not always in a position to "protect men from criminals" (1963d, 112) by interrupting the initiation of force. Even given the deterrent effect of the potential intervention of police forces, the fact is that the police are often reduced to the role of taking notes after the damage is done. Furthermore, as Rand points out and as history shows, "potentially, government is the most dangerous threat to man's rights" (1963b, 98), since the centralized criminality of an authoritarian or totalitarian government can wreak far greater havoc than the scattered activities of individual criminals or even the relatively organized predations of criminal groups such as drug gangs or the Mafia. These facts make it necessary for individuals to possess the right and capacity to use force in self-defense.
Third, we can apply something like Lysander Spooner's argument against the American government's constitutional authority to Rand's consent theory of government: even if once upon a time someone somewhere recognized the authority of government by explicitly consenting to "renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government his right of physical self-defense", that person's consent could in no way substitute for my consent.
It is odd that Ayn Rand would have based the authority of government on "the consent of the governed" as presented in the Declaration of Independence (1963d, 110). Why did she not argue, as an individualist, that consent must be individual, not collective? And why did she not argue, as a moral objectivist, that the authority of government derives from the extent to which it serves its objective function of protecting individual rights, not on the extent to which individuals under its dominion have relinquished one of their rights, let alone one so basic as the right of self-defense? These questions have not been addressed in Objectivist political philosophy.
Some of the grounds for an improvement on Rand's consent theory of government can be found in her own writings. In her essay "Collectivized Rights" (1963c), Rand devotes several paragraphs to the relationship between individual rights and group "rights". She notes that "the 'rights' of any group are derived from the rights of its members through their voluntary, individual choice and contractual agreement" and that "the right of one man to act for or represent another or others is derived from the rights of those he represents and is delegated to him by their voluntary choice, for a specific, delimited purpose" (1963c, 102). This is a clear statement that the delegation of rights or powers must be individual, voluntary, and specific for it to be morally valid. Thus there can be no such thing as collective consent or a contract that is literally social. All consent and all contractual agreements must be individual, including the contract between the individual and the government as agent of the individual in regard to the retaliatory use of force.
So far so good -- we have saved Rand's individualism in this context. What of Rand's moral objectivism? Here Rand makes no explicit statement, although it is easy enough to apply the objective theory of value to the institution of government. Such an application would imply that a government possesses moral value or authority to the extent that it exercises only those minimum powers related to the objective definition and use of force in protection or retaliation against the initiation of force by individuals or other governments. It would also imply that a government forfeits its moral authority to the extent that it assumes powers beyond the absolute minimum -- specifically, to the extent that it initiates force or requires non-coercive individuals to relinquish any of their rights (including their property rights and their right of physical self-defense).
A fully consistent Objectivist theory of government remains to be developed. However, it is clear that such a theory would not hold that the price of admission to "free, civilized society" is "renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government [one's] right of physical self-defense" (1963d, 110). Rather, it would hold the exact opposite: that society cannot be free and civilized if the individuals within it are compelled to "leave their guns outside" and relinquish their fundamental right to self-defense.
Binswanger, Harry. Question and Answer Department: Anarchism. The Objectivist Forum 2(4), August 1981.
Rand, Ayn. 1961. For the New Intellectual. New York: Random House.
. 1963a. Collectivized Ethics. The Objectivist Newsletter 2(1), January 1963. Reprinted in Rand 1964b.
. 1963b. Man's Rights. The Objectivist Newsletter 2(4), April 1963. Reprinted in Rand 1964b.
. 1963c. Collectivized Rights. The Objectivist Newsletter 2(6), June 1963. Reprinted in Rand 1964b.
. 1963d. The Nature of Government. The Objectivist Newsletter 2(12), December 1963. Reprinted in Rand 1964b.
. 1964a. Government Financing in a Free Society. The Objectivist Newsletter 3(2), February 1964. Reprinted in Rand 1964b.
. 1964b. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Random House.
Spooner, Lysander. 1867, 1870. No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority.
I would like to thank Elisa George, Rick Minto, Jim Robbins, and Chris Sciabarra for their comments, and Thomas Gramstad for his comments and for locating the title quote.
Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Randian Reflections