Understanding the Impotence of the
[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
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
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
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
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
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
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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