Objectivist Government: A Critique


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Ayn Rand points to a few reasons why even a faultlessly moral society will still need a government structure: Honest disagreements between moral individuals will need a third-party arbiter and objective rules; pacifist societies will be at the mercy of the first bully to cross their path; and so forth. The underlying argument is that only a government structure could fulfill these needs. But even more crucial is that the objectivist goal is to develop a rule of necessity that must be true in all cases and applicable to all human societies. There must be a principle based upon human nature and morality that tells us that the right to self-defense should always be monopolized. It is my understanding that: A) objectivism provides no such principle and that B) defining “government” as a monopoly on force is troubling position.

The reasoning to answer challenge (A) is as follows: 1) A desirable society can only exist by recognizing civil rights. 2) Rights can only be violated through use of physical force. 3) Therefore, getting rid of the use of physical force between individuals is required in order to have a desirable civil society (that must deal in reason). 4) In conclusion, “The use of physical force—even its retaliatory use—cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens,” and there must be a government to monopolize it.

I happen to believe that, as it stands, the conclusion is a solid practical position for today’s society. For instance, I do not believe the current United States would benefit in the short-term from a sudden shift to anarchy. However, the problem here is that (4) does not follow from the premises. It makes sense that if we want a society that respects civil rights, we should try to rid ourselves of the use of force in every-day exchanges. But it does not follow necessarily that a government structure will always be the best means to accomplish this.

I do believe that a group of pacifists would likely be vulnerable to a bully, and a post-apocalyptic anarchy or something similar would likely develop into a brutal free-for-all scenario. But Rand apparently believes that people need the threat of retaliatory force to be civil in more than just these cases. It is never enough to count on a society that will rationally and freely police itself.

When looking at the logical ramifications, there are some worrying conflicts here. If individuals—in general— are morally wise enough to put society under the “objective control” of a collectivized police force and justice system, then why wouldn’t they be wise enough to act justly without such institutions? On the other hand, if individuals generally lack the self-control to be without a police force and justice system, what will make the individuals in charge any better than the average immoral citizen?

The situation appears to be a paradox of sorts, but it is not necessarily true that a faultlessly moral society will have no use for governmental institutions. It is also not necessarily true that a society generally lacking morality will always have at the same instance, ineffective or morally questionable institutions to the degree which they are lacking. However, I find it difficult to predict otherwise in either case after taking history into account.

Let us examine this further. Take any area in which there is very little crime. You will notice a high correlation between low crime and institutional competence. One might expect it to be that the effective institutions cause the low level of crime. I would probably have to agree, but I would add that there is also a deeper causal relation that travels in the other direction. It is that the low level of crime, i.e., the relatively moral society, causes there to be effective institutions. If the two are truly interdependent, as I am led to believe, then it is no wonder that they are correlated.

Yet, I am also led to believe that one is more primary than the other. In a city full of thieves and killers, a strong institution can only do so much before it throws everyone in jail and empties the city of people to police (though one could hardly call what I describe a society in the first place). A weak institution could do little but be corrupt to some degree in order to survive. An effective institution requires a generally moral people. I think Mises and Bastiat would agree, individuals are ontologically prior to the groups they create. It should follow that the morality of the groups are dependent upon the morality of the individuals that fill them.

Given that this is true, an effective solution may be, as Rand proposes, to codify a set of objective laws with a government to enforce them. Some anarchists would argue that the solution is to remove all central control because power is what corrupts. History shows us that both sides have a point. Nearly all governments grow into monstrosities over time, even those born with something close to objective laws. But true anarchy can lead to utter chaos, suggesting that there should be some degree of order.

Neither proposal fixes the problem that individuals may choose not to follow the objective laws. What are governments after all? They are still just people. A stable society with effective institutions depends in the long-term upon the rational and moral individuals that comprise it. In turn, the development of these individuals depends upon the proper ideas and memes that will foster moral and rational behavior. If this is true, the correct type of government is simply not the most crucial requirement to create the kind of idealistic society we all want to see (though it would affect it for the better). Not only would a rational standardization of the Law be necessary for long-term stability, but also our systems of morality and logic and so forth.

At this point, people really would be coming to all the same conclusions about the most important things. If most everyone knew what the Law was, agreed to it, and were rational enough to follow it, there would be no need to enforce hardly anything by means of a police force or justice system. There would be no question as to when a criminal were breaking the Law, and any given citizen could carry out the sentence.

This may sound incredibly idealistic. It absolutely is. But I see no problem traveling here if Rand’s idea is to have a specific type of government limited to a justice system, police force, and military, funded entirely without taxes. There are examples of many unique semi-anarcho systems: small American towns and settlements in the old West, medieval Iceland, various Native American settlements, ancient Mediterranean “colonies,”  and so on.

This brings us to the definition of “government” and challenge (B). If Rand’s definition fits all of these examples, then she may be correct because there will be no cases of successful societies without government. But I don’t believe her definition fits any of these examples, nor any of the examples today. Her definition is as such: A government is an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area,” and, “A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective controli.e., under objectively defined laws.”

We might typically think that government has a monopoly on force. But governments almost never have a monopoly on force or even the enforcing of certain rules. It is usually only an attempt at a monopoly. A true monopoly has an exclusive control or possession of something. The potential for application of force exists in every individual, and it is applied every day by individuals of and not of various groups. Thus, the creation of governmental institutions is no more than the formation of an organized gang, a gang that we hope to hold to certain benevolent standards.

When it comes to government, there is little difference in kind between the giant institutions of today’s globalist West, and a posse of citizens gathered in the old American West to fight bandits. They are both groups of people gathered to exert (what should be) retaliatory force. The difference is that large institutions more often have a written set of rules. Even so, it is written in the United States Declaration that the people have a right to overthrow an unjust government because it recognizes that all individuals are capable of being arbiters of force. It should not be the burden of the state to tell everyone what is just; this is ultimately the burden of the individuals that allow the state to exist.

The part of Rand’s work that is very important is the need in society for an objective set of laws. Where she goes astray, I think, is when she suggests that the only way for this to happen is for force to be monopolized. First, I don’t think force can ever be truly monopolized (given current technology). Exceedingly decentralized societies have existed and thrived in the past. If these kinds of societies include systems that would meet Rand’s criteria for being called “government,” then the problem may be a failure to address specific structural details in “The Nature of Government” or a disagreement on the definition of “monopoly.” Second, the effectiveness and competence of any given governmental system is somewhat dependent upon the society that it governs. If one could suddenly conjure a set of objective rules for government out of thin air and garner the will to implement it, I would be elated. But this is barely less idealistic than my desire to see a fully rational and moral society that has no need for government. There doesn’t seem to be enough justification to disregard one end as too idealistic without disregarding the other.

Nevertheless, there is a need for a government in many different societies, but the type of government should fit the circumstances of the society. Many individuals rely on the United States government today, and were it to cease abruptly, it would probably be catastrophic. But this isn’t to say that this reliance is a good thing in the first place. More on this in the future…

3 thoughts on “Objectivist Government: A Critique

  1. Pingback: Examining Objectivist Government « Strategery for Philosophization

  2. Michael,

    I’ve long thought that Rand and Peikoff erred in using the word “monopoly” in the context of retaliatory force. Both contemplate that individuals will defend themselves if confronted with physical threats, and that police can’t be everywhere at once. Nowhere do they argue that the only legitimate use of retaliatory force is that which the state exercises. But the word “monopoly” connotes precisely that.

    What, then, do they insist upon? That the state be able to exercise force such that it has no effective competitors. In order for a truly free market for barter and exchange to be established, the rights to life, liberty and property must be secured. This can only be done through a) clear, settled rules b) impartially administered by functioning courts c) whose verdicts are rigorously enforced. For Rand and Peikoff, this will be impossible unless there is an entity who cannot be effectively overpowered. That’s where the state comes in. It can do no more or less than individuals can in the defense of their own lives, but it must be able to “win” any fight against those who would threaten the lives of their fellow citizens.

    Do we in fact need the state to formulate, administer and enforce these rules? You question whether a group of individuals who are rational enough to delegate their rights to self-defense to the state and enable it to make rules to ensure the preservation of rights aren’t in fact rational enough to adhere to those rules and respect rights without the state. I think of Ulysses’ command to his fellow sailors that he be tied to the mast when his ship passed the Sirens– it is one thing to know what one ought to do, it is another thing to do it in the face of temptation to do otherwise.

    To my mind, he ultimate problem with anarchism as a way to manage forceis that liberty requires more than pursuit of the goal of eliminating the initiation of force. Over half of the value of achieving that goal lies in the resulting justifiable expectation of freedom from force in one’s everyday life. And the same is true for the means by which that goal is pursued. In an anarchy, the use of force cannot be publicly objectified. The principles, laws, procedures and execution are inherently open ended. No expectation of any particular state of liberty could ever be justified. Acts of justifiable defense would be impossible to distinguish from initiated force, and so, in effect, they would be equally arbitrary.


    • Evan,

      Thanks for taking the time to think about this and comment.

      My question is whether or not a society that is rational enough to create a highly objective system of government that Ayn Rand suggests, can police themselves without something called “government.”

      I think right now, I would prefer minarchy to anarchy. But my other question is whether or not minarchy must be an end in itself. I could probably argue by Rand’s epistemological standards, that the type of objective minarchy that she suggests is impossible because every attempt has resulted in unchecked growth. I characterize it as idealistic because it would be so by her standards. Insofar as this is true, I reject the idea of completely throwing out anarchism as a possibility. However, I might be willing to classify minarchy as something to strive for before anarchy.

      Another point that I was trying to make is that the state’s power is largely artificial. Even with a law that is partially objective, it is ultimately made up of people making judgement calls. In anarchy, it would be the same: people making judgment calls. In history, there are cases of competing defense contractors that didn’t engage in the scary strife that people would expect. Why not have a privately run sheriff’s office and court for our town? But now I would have to ask, does that constitute a “government” according to Ayn Rand, or a freely contracted system?

      This is why I am still somewhat agnostic on the issue. I have trouble throwing out the notion that some really interesting forms of anarchy are possible.

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