Of Guardrails and Gyroscopes

by Peter Saint-Andre (2003)

"Without God, everything is permitted." -- Dostoevsky

"During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man." -- Hobbes

Let us imagine a levitating vehicle that travels parallel to many other such vehicles, each on a separate road or track. Each vehicle possesses two mechanisms that prevent it from crashing into its neighbors: one internal mechanism (a gyroscope that keeps it level and therefore moving straight ahead) and one external mechanism (a set of guardrails that keep it from jumping the track should the gyroscope fail). Only the combination of guardrails and gyroscopes ensures that the vehicles remain parallel to each other, thus maintaining the safety and integrity of each vehicle.

Moral and political theorists in the Western intellectual tradition have traditionally posited a similar arrangement in human society, captured in the quotes from Dostoevsky and Hobbes above. The gyroscope is taken to be faith in God or adherence to Judeo-Christian ethics; the guardrails are taken to be the ever-present threats of government force. Absent faith and force, everything is permitted and human society reverts to the state of nature, wherein human life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Or so claims the dominant view of societal relations.

There is, then, an analogy between god and government, faith and force, religion and law. At the least, these institutions are held to serve analogous functions in human life and society. Thus it behooves us to explore the analogy and to investigate whether guardrails and gyroscopes are indeed necessary features of human society, at least in their traditional forms. This investigation becomes even more urgent in the context of a worldview that puts a premium on human freedom and human flourishing. One such worldview is that formulated by Ayn Rand, who in fact argued that faith and force are "the destroyers of the modern world"; and in what follows I use a mostly Randian perspective as the basis for my exploration.

I began to think seriously about this analogy while reflecting on the religiosity of Howard Roark, the protagonist of Rand's novel The Fountainhead. At one point in the novel, Roark is tricked into building a "temple to the human spirit" because, despite his atheism, he is portrayed as being quite religious in his own way. Yet his is a spirituality without god or faith or church -- a completely secularized system of values that recognizes no authority higher than the individual. So the question occurred to me: if you can conceive of a purely secular religion without faith or god, why can you not conceive of a purely voluntary society without force or government?

Rand embraced the possibility of a secular religion, but shunned the possibility of a completely voluntary society. She seemingly had little difficulty moving beyond the minimal theism of American revolutionaries such as Jefferson, but she held that minimal statism was absolutely necessary to ensure social harmony and human progress. Although she even argued that government in a fully free society would be voluntarily financed, she thought that a monopoly on the creation and enforcement of law was unavoidable.

In part, Rand's caution is related to a difference between religion and law: the former is primarily personal, whereas the latter is primarily social. One can adopt a system of values for oneself without directly affecting others, whereas one cannot adopt one's own system of laws. (While there is truth in this observation, it does not necessarily follow that "mono-statism" is inevitable in the social sphere.) Rand was comfortable with the lack of a final authority in religion or ethics because she came to think that ethics can be objectively grounded in human nature, not divine revelation. But she thought that a final authority is necessary in law or society, evidently because she was not quite so confident about the possibility of objective law without the state.

The reasons for this divergence reveal some underlying assumptions on Rand's part. While her novels are populated by plenty of unethical and downright evil characters, she was basically optimistic about the positive potential of the individual -- or, to be precise, about certain kinds of individuals: those who are highly intelligent, who are ethically and personally exceptional, who stand out from among the general mass of society. It is for such individuals that Rand wrote -- and she did not care much for the rest. Thus a "religion of man" was perfectly appropriate for her ideal audience, and the result was in large measure an ethics of peak experiences and for peak experiencers (the "aristocrats of the spirit").

Rand's political views are just as focused on those at the top of what she called the "pyramid of ability". But here the inherently social nature of law led Rand to formulate a political theory whose overriding aim is to safeguard the freedom and achievements of her ideal man -- not primarily everyman. So while Rand's ethical thought contains paeans to human potential, Rand's political thought contains stern warnings about the dangers of mob rule and a Hobbesian war of all against all. The result: she thought that only a Leviathan -- albeit one strictly limited by constitutional constraints -- could ensure social order and generate a legal system that is anything but arbitrary and subjective.

The contrast with someone like Walt Whitman is instructive. Whitman was a true American democrat, who firmly believed in the potential and actuality of the average individual. Rand seems to have inherited a more aristocratic attitude from her early years in Europe (or from the works of Friedrich Nietzsche), leading her to be suspicious of the average individual. Thus Rand concluded that while some exceptional people can live without faith-based gyroscopes, force-based guardrails are indispensable.

Notice that Rand does not say one can live without what I am calling a gyroscope (what is often referred to as a moral compass); she simply argues that it is possible to develop a naturalistic ethics that depends not on faith in a god but instead is built upon knowledge of human nature and the requirements of human flourishing. Thus ethical principles are not created ex nihilo by god but emerge naturally from human interactions and experience.

When it comes to legal principles, however, Rand argued that only government can make laws. Ignoring the centuries of evolution in the common law, not to mention the fact that in the tradition of merchant law a contract simply is a law made by and agreed to by two parties, Rand reserved lawmaking to a wise, all-knowing entity that is all-powerful, at least in its sphere of influence. This entity receives its supposed power from a mystical process of "consent", which has never been observed in reality. And although some few heretics have stopped believing in this entity altogether, the vast majority of people firmly believe that this entity, which they call government, is the root cause of nearly all good in the world. Unfortunately, the "problem of evil" keeps rearing its ugly head, for despite the unbounded powers of governments, there is no end to war, poverty, oppression, and exploitation.

Could it be that the heretics are right? Could it be that there simply is no public power, no commonweal, no government that comes into being through common consent, but a group of people with their own interests and agendas who happen to have claimed a monopoly on the creation and enforcement of law? Could it be, echoing Nietzsche, that government is dead?

Perhaps, but I think not; it is too early for that. An unbeliever with regard to government today is in a position similar to that of an unbeliever with regard to god one thousand years ago. Indeed, as the gyroscopic power of religious faith has waned, faith in government has waxed ever stronger -- the twentieth century was if anything the Age of the State. Although human beings have pulled back from the brink of totalitarianism, that does not guarantee the imminent arrival of a renaissance or enlightenment with regard to government force. All that governmental nonbelievers can do for now is to honestly formulate and forthrightly communicate the alternative of a fully voluntary society.

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Randian Reflections