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Understanding the Impotence of the Conservatives
[October 9, 2004]

By John Lewis

Some admirer's of Ayn Rand have concluded that the political values of her philosophy, Objectivism, and the values of Bush conservatives are fundamentally the same. They claim, for instance, that Objectivists and conservatives both value freedom, even though the conservatives are inconsistent in the actions they take to preserve it. In this view, Objectivists should actively support President Bush, while urging him to act more robustly to defend America.

They claim that Mr. Bush’s military aims are good; we simply need to expose the practice of sending Americans overseas to die for others. His espousal of the free market is good; we only need clarify that a half-trillion dollar deficit and an exploding budget are contradictions. Respect for American founding values is good; we simply need to oppose the religious foundations of their reverence and promote a secular agenda.

We could of course say similar things of the New Left, which claims to support freedom by opposing aggressive wars, censorship, political secrecy, religion in government, poverty, anti-abortion laws, attacks on privacy, etc. But New Left liberals do not in fact support freedom, because what they are pursuing is not a free society. The actual results of their actions—not their claimed intentions—are what matters. What they are pursuing, in fact, is a massive welfare state, increasing taxation, government control over our lives and military timidity. These are their values, and these are what must be repudiated.

So it goes for Mr. Bush. His “forward strategy of freedom” means exactly what he has done in Iraq: to order Americans to fight and die for others. His assertion that "you are either with us or with the terrorists" means begging for international allies and asking Iran to join our coalition. "Offensive war" means placing US troops in harm’s way, and then ordering them to act only with foreign permission. A "bold offense" means billions coerced from US taxpayers in welfare for foreigners. These results are not perversions of his values; they are their actual meaning.

Objectivism recognizes that the meaning of an idea is the facts it refers to in reality. A value is a fact that is understood in relation to human life. "A value," said Ayn Rand, "is that which one acts to gain and/or keep"--it is not an idea divorced from action. For example, men are free when the government protects their rights; this is what freedom means. Freedom is a value because the facts of man's nature will not allow him to live under coercion.

But this view of values contrasts utterly with the views of the neoconservative team behind Mr. Bush. They see values as ideas from a higher reality, whether religious or secular, and then applied imperfectly to this world. This is Platonism, so called after the philosopher Plato, who implanted it into western thought. “Freedom” becomes an idea from intuition, or a dictate of the almighty, that can be applied only imperfectly in the real world. This is not necessarily religious faith, but also “common sense”--stuff that all of us just know, as I was once told by a conservative atheist.

The chasm is not between their values and their actions to preserve them, but rather between their values and reality.

The neoconservative movement is the explicit inculcation of Platonism into American politics. The main figure here is Leo Strauss (1899-1973), the intellectual force behind the neoconservatives and founder of the only serious conservative academic movement. Straussians include Paul Wolfowitz, William Bennett, Allan Bloom, Irving Kristol, Richard Perle, and Abram Shulsky, Director of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans. Within ten years of Strauss’s death the neoconservatives had attained national prominence in Ronald Reagan’s administration.

The neoconservatives have become the philosophical alternative to the religious right in the Republican Party. This is precisely the danger that support for Mr. Bush represents. His re-election will strenthen their attempts to fill the void created by the nihilistic left. This will hasten the spread of ideas antithetical to a rational world-view, and close off any opportunity that exists for Objectivism to offer a rational alternative.

Followers of Strauss are united by the notion that ideas--especially political principles--are in essence pure theory, and cannot be directly applied in reality. As Strauss wrote in his book Natural Right and History, “Prudence [“practical” reasoning, how you deal with the world of men] and ‘this lower world’ cannot be seen without some knowledge of ‘the higher world’--without genuine theorie.” Theorie is the abstract idea, of which the real world in which we live is at best a shadowy reflection.

According to Strauss, ancient philosophical texts, such as Plato and Aristotle--the source of political wisdom--have esoteric and exoteric meanings. The former is a hidden dimension or code reserved for academics (or a Pentagon clique); the latter is what average people understand and act on in this world. Every theory, idea and principle includes the proviso that its use in the world cannot be perfect; it must be negotiated. To compromise a principle, in this view, is not an error; it is inherent in principles as such. Conflicts between theory and practice are in the nature of reality.

The ancient answer to Plato was Aristotle, the philosopher who explicitly denied such a higher reality; he said that there was only one world for us to understand. But this is not how Straussians choose to read him. Consider one admiring editor’s view: “Aristotle assumes that reality consists primarily of transcendent immaterial ideals and, to a lesser extent, as transitory representations of these ideals.” A Straussian would counter that Aristotle was giving you his philosophy as you can grasp it (exoteric meaning), while HE really believed something else (esoteric meaning). To this editor, Aristotle is an authority, to be used in support of a massive split between ideas and reality.

This is how the neoconservatives understand values: as ideas that must be taken authoritatively, and adapted to an imperfect reality among people who cannot really understand them. For instance, many Straussian academics privately reject belief in God (Strauss was an atheist), but promote religion in their students, because impressionable people--especially the young--need it as a basis for their values.

Contrary to one common view, such men do not attract people with the value of freedom and then substitute a religious agenda. In their world-view, freedom is a religious--or more broadly, a Platonic--agenda. What they call “freedom” is something other than individual rights, because they do not understand such values as derived from this world. Values are rather intuited as ideas (“freedom is from the almighty, not a gift from us”) that can only be applied imperfectly (“which all men will strive for, if America provides the necessary conditions”). This is the religious form in which Mr. Bush conceives the Platonic universe.

As a result of this transcendent view of ideas and principles, political compromise is not an error; it is how the world works. Compromise is the process by which principles are pursued in politics.

Following this method one can promote the principle of, say, freedom. But, to apply this perfect idea to an imperfect world, one must "compromise." One must accept, for instance, the existence of the welfare state. One must manage it, but never challenge it directly; that would be unrealistic. So they become defenders of what they once opposed. The same goes for foreign policy. I once heard at a conservative forum that the UN is destroying US sovereignty, draining US taxpayers, preventing us from defending ourselves and strengthening our enemies. But it would be “imprudent” to leave it, because “politics is not done that way.” When I pointed out the contradiction and its terrible consequences, they said I was “impractical” and “not nuanced enough.” Such men are immune to contradictions, because, to them, a contradiction is normal. It is what happens when you adapt principles to the real world.

Some people think that philosophy is irrelevant in this election; after all, there is a real emergency to be solved. But philosophy matters; it is why we have a deadly emergency. The Platonic view demands tough talk--the expression of a principle--followed by compromise, the application of the principle. This has had horrendous consequences.

For example, the Iranians released our hostages the day Ronald Reagan took office--they took his stated ideas seriously. Two years later, after attacks by Iranian puppet groups, he withdrew from Lebanon--and our enemies learned that no fear was necessary. Arms for hostages made the point undeniable. His words were the statement of the ideal; his actions were its meaning. Thus he demonstrated to America’s enemies that they had nothing to fear. Reagan’s ideal of a strong national defense is pragmatic compromise from a position of overwhelming strength.

When President Bush named Iran and North Korea as part of an “axis of evil,” he stated an idea in its “perfect” form. He then applied the idea by engaging in talks with the Koreans and asking the UN to pressure Iran. In other words, he did exactly what Mr. Kerry promises, while cloaking it in a principle. His tough but toothless talk all but guaranteed that aggressive enemies would accelerate their nuclear programs, while the US would lose the capacity to stop them. We are now less than a year away from an Iranian nuke. President Gore would have done no worse. Were he now president, the election would be a referendum on the failure of appeasement, not on the failure of self-assertion, pre-emption and offense--ideas which have, in fact, been perverted into their opposites by their alleged defenders.

I am indeed among those who, to cite one writer’s criticism, “have even concluded that the effect [of repeatedly affirming a “correct idea” while acting against it] is to destroy the meaning of the good principle.” This occurs because the concrete referents to the principle change, and the false alternative replaces the true. This is not identifying a correct idea and then failing to practice it properly. This is following a false idea as it must be followed.

Objectivists who claim to share common values with conservatives, while differing in the actions to pursue them, make a fatal compromise that buys directly into the theory / practice split that is at the heart of Platonic conservatism. This separates values from facts and considers them as transcendent ideas, leaving us to quibble about the practice. But this is wrong. There is no higher dimension. Values have referents in reality. What someone pursues--especially repeatedly, on a grand scale, over years--is their value, words notwithstanding. “Practice” and “pragmatism” come from the same root word, and lead inexorably to the same result, if Aristotle or Ayn Rand is read as Plato.


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