The Irrelevancy of Conservatism
It must be an uncontrollable compulsion in conservatives that in almost any discussion of the role of government, they cannot help taking a swipe at novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, denying that she was much of a novelist or even a philosopher, and devoting at least a few derogatory words to her and her novels, if not launching into a nearly frenzied tirade characterized by ad hominem charges against her and sneers at her work. Three of her most notorious American detractors were Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Granville Hicks, the latter a Marxist-cum-“humanist” editor, novelist and book critic. Since their scurrilous reviews were published decades ago, Rand-bashing has become a kind of fraternity initiation ritual for Right and Left alike.
Speculation on the root causes of the compulsion can range from envy for the sales of her books, which far outstrip the sales of anything ever written by any conservative, to moral opposition to her philosophy of selfishness and individualism, which they abhor, to a fear that she is and has been right about everything she ever wrote and spoke about, a fear and hatred hidden behind a mask of occasional dispassionate criticism.
Of her novels, Atlas Shrugged has drawn the largest dose of their venom, and that dosage has grown larger ever since the outset of the financial debacle last fall. Newspapers and other periodicals have noted, with a degree of objectivity and respect never granted to the novel in the past by the Left or Right, the parallels between the events in the novel and events in reality, which have helped to spur sales of the novel. No novel ever written by a member of the Right or Left has proven to be so prophetic in its essentials and even in some of its concretes.
Yaron Brook, president and executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, however, cautioned in an interview that Atlas Shrugged should not be seen exclusively as a prophetic playbook of how to cause economic disasters:
Many of these commentators seem to view Atlas Shrugged as a novel that’s primarily about politics and economics. The main issue…and which we feel is extremely important to address…is that the origins of the crisis in Atlas Shrugged and the origins of today’s crisis are much deeper than that. They result from the prevailing morality of the culture, of which political systems are an extension. In Atlas Shrugged the political system is crumbling because of the morality of altruism, and that is also the root source of our current crisis. So Rand is relevant, and she’s relevant on a level far more fundamental than politics and economics.Historically, on a moral and political level, the Left has objected to her philosophy because it claimed the individual owes his existence to society or the state and so should not be free to act against it, while the Right claimed that the individual owes his existence to God and society, so his mind should not be free to question either. Over the last few decades, Left and Right have been converging to the same points of agreement: that the individual owes his existence to the state or society (God’s role being optional) and should not be free at all.
Rand herself marked the malaise of conservatism in 1962 in her essay, “Conservatism: An Obituary.” Identifying why conservatism was finished as a distinct political ideology and political force, she wrote:
If the ‘conservatives’ do not stand for capitalism, they stand for and are nothing; they have no goal, no direction, no political principles, no social ideals, no intellectual values, no leadership to offer anyone. Yet capitalism is what the ‘conservatives’ dare not advocate or defend. They are paralyzed by the profound conflict between capitalism and the moral code which dominates our culture: altruism.*The compulsion can be explained. They must attack Rand because her philosophy contradicts and refutes their core premises and assumptions. Atlas Shrugged demonstrates and dramatizes the moral and practical consequences of those premises and assumptions. It is not merely a matter of details. As Rand once put it, it is a matter of philosophical nuclear warfare. Conservatives cannot hide their recognition that Rand’s is not merely a rival philosophy; it is their chief, mortal enemy. In the meantime, the “atheistic” Left is their principal ally, today aggressively applying the collectivist and altruist principles which it shares with the Right.
A critic does not, as a rule, devote thousands of words and his best verbal pyrotechnics to dismissing a novel which he asserts in the beginning of a review should not be taken seriously. Granville Hicks (1901-1982) and Whittaker Chambers (1901-1961), however, did take Atlas Shrugged seriously when it appeared in 1957, not because they placed any personal importance on it, but because they feared with quivering, incensed certainty that it would be taken seriously and earn, over time, an esteemed place in the culture (which it has achieved). Their reviews of the novel were essentially flippant and snarling pleas to the reading public to ignore the novel. They protested too much the novel’s supposed insignificance.
Hicks, once an associate editor for the publisher that debuted Rand’s first novel, We the Living, but who fought against it, resigned from the Communist Party in 1939 over the Nazi-Soviet Warsaw “non-aggression” Pact.** Chambers, who was a courier between the Soviets and several Communists working in various federal bureaucracies, left the Party in 1937 or 1938 over the Soviet purge trials, and also because he did not want to risk being summoned to Moscow only to be “purged” from existence for having supposedly “ratted” on fellow American Communist agents in the U.S. He went into hiding, joined the staff of Time Magazine, and eventually became a conservative.
But a putative renunciation of communism (or of any other collectivist ideology) does not necessarily trigger an automatic recognition of the efficacy of reason and a concomitant endorsement of egoism, individual rights, and capitalism. Nor does it guarantee the acquisition of a better set of literary standards or values. Both Hicks and Chambers are cases in point. After “repudiating” communism, they remained hard-core collectivists to their dying days – Chambers would today probably be a “big-government” neoconservative – hostile to and consistently deprecatory of any degree of political and economic liberty, in fiction or in fact.
As for Buckley (1925-2008), I will simply repeat here some remarks from my March, 2008 obituary notice on the occasion of his death in February that year, “The Philosophic Postmortem of William F. Buckley, Jr.” He uttered and wrote numerous vicious comments about Rand over the years, but showcased conservative-convert Whittaker Chambers’ review of Atlas Shrugged in the National Review, Chambers acting as his proxy critic. On his role in serving as a moral guide for the morally bankrupt Republican Party, I noted:
Buckley saved their necks and provided them with a ‘system’ of ideas they could feel at home with. He persuaded a spent and ideologically rudderless conservative movement to base its political philosophy on religion, altruism, and self-sacrifice as an alternative to the ‘atheistic’ liberal welfare state of society, altruism and self-sacrifice. Individual rights were nothing to him if not ‘God-given.’ He was as much an enemy of freedom – and of freedom of speech – as any holy-roller Democrat. Fundamentally, there is no difference between the policies advocated by ‘atheistic’ or secular collectivists and ‘religious’ ones. Buckley never seriously challenged the ‘status quo’ of controls, deficit spending, or the regulation of business and industry. He was one of the original advocates of volunteerism or mandatory public service.Sound familiar? Are these not points on which Republicans and Obamacrats agree? As for Buckley’s style and tone, I observed:
Learned, glibly articulate with a penchant for obscure words and noted for a complex, obfuscating verbosity nearly as convoluted as Immanuel Kant’s, master of sardonic humor, often self-deprecatory, Buckley was the Ellsworth Toohey of the Right.There is little irony in the fact that Atlas Shrugged was reviewed in two publications ostensibly on opposite ends of the political spectrum, the left-liberal The New York Times and the religious-right National Review. Both publications were then, and still are, united in their opposition to laissez-faire capitalism, individual rights, and man the individual with no duty or obligation to “serve society.” Although their political affiliations are hardly irrelevant, they are not the subject here. In the long run, it is the evaluations by Chambers, Hicks and Buckley of Atlas Shrugged that have been proven to be not only wrong, but themselves insignificant and futile.
As proof of how Left and Right are merging into a single, mongrelized enemy of capitalism and individual rights, Family Security Matters (FSM), a conservative Internet site, on April 23 ran a long article on the financial crisis by William R. Hawkins, who is billed as “a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues.” In his article, “Conservatism After the Tea Parties,“ Hawkins decries the Tea Parties of April 15 and expresses anger that they have been largely governed by the political thought of “libertarians” such as Rand. The problem, he claims, is not “big government,” but “big government” that has not behaved responsibly. And the protesters should not have sported signs and placards that cited Ayn Rand. Rather, he claims, these protesters should look to arch-conservative Russell Kirk and economist Milton Friedman for moral and economic guidance.
About the April 15 Tea Parties, Hawkins writes:
More precise thought needs to be given to what the protests are about if effective reform is to result. The cry cannot simply be to oppose ‘government’ per se. In a major financial crisis like the current one, when comparisons to the Great Depression are not unwarranted, it is the responsibility of the Federal authorities to take action to stabilize the economy and lay the groundwork for recovery.Is this not what the Obama administration is attempting to do now? And why should it be the responsibility of the Federal authorities to have any role in the crisis? Is it not the government’s regulation of private sector banking and financial actions that was and continues to be the cause of the crisis? And is not “reform” of the economy along socialist/fascist lines what is on the administration’s agenda? Hawkins does not address these issues, except to endorse government action. By way of an authoritative sanction of government interventionist policies, he cites Milton Friedman, in his words, “the guru of modern capitalist ideology and foe of socialism.”
Milton Friedman…laid out this responsibility in his monumental A Monetary History of the United States. He makes the now standard interpretation of what made the ‘great contraction’ so severe. During the years 1930-33, a wave of bank failures reduced the money supply by a third. Federal authorities did not take action on the scale needed to counteract the impact of the financial collapse on the real economy. No advocate of Big Government, Friedman could nevertheless declare this earlier dilatory attitude ‘confused and misguided.’Significantly, Hawkins states that Federal Reserve Board chairman, Bernard Bernanke, “is a student of Friedman, and his decision to buy $1.2 trillion of government bonds and mortgage-related securities last month makes more sense than trying to rebuild a financial system crippled with $2.7 trillion in toxic assets (according to the IMF) with tax money.” Echoing the assurances of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and others in the administration, Hawkins agrees with their conclusions:
These losses are too large to replace with fiscal measures, and the public is rightfully worried that to try would burden future taxpayers (and their children) with too much debt.How much debt is “too much”? Should there be any debt? Is there a feasible, non-coercive method to finance legitimate government functions -- that is, the courts, the military, and police -- that would not entail debt and economic interventionist policies and a wealth-redistributing welfare state? And will not the debt being rung up by the Obama administration be a burden for several generations of taxpayers, and not just future taxpayers and their children, provided the economy and country do not first collapse into anarchy and dictatorship because of that debt? Hawkins does not essay any suggestions on these issues. He sticks to the conservative line, and refuses to venture outside the boundaries of traditional conservative thought into the Uncharted Forest of reason.
More importantly, however, the article reveals that conservatives are afraid that men are realizing that Ayn Rand is fundamentally relevant to today’s political, moral and economic crises, and that they have grown irrelevant. The “transcendent order” of Russell Kirk (1918-1994), cited by Hawkins as a source of moral and political wisdom, was based “variously on tradition, divine revelation, or natural law,” but has made way for the “transcendent order” of the brute collectivism of the state, to which Americans are more and more expected to defer.
What should really agitate the public is not the principle of government intervention to prevent an economic collapse, but how the politicians have seized the opportunity to spend huge sums on non-emergency, special interest programs.Where was Hawkins on April 15? The Tea Parties featured protests on a variety of issues, including Congress’s pork barrel projects, in addition to government intervention. And should anyone worried about the consequences of government interventionist policies discard the principle, and settle for just emoting against special interest programs?
Hawkins criticizes the $787 billion stimulus package, the Obama administration for exploiting the crisis to rush through social programs, the Republicans and Democrats for being corrupt, and “the very Wall Street entities whose blunders plunged the country into economic disaster.”
These are the proper targets for outrage, not some formless chanting against ‘government’ per se. Such chanting is the nonsense of anarchists (known in polite circles as libertarians), not the wisdom of conservatives.And what is the wisdom of conservatives? It is the “dean of conservative thinking” Russell Kirk’s, which the reader may sample here, beginning with:
….Conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type ofcharacter, a way of looking at the civil social order.So it is an anti-ideology, or a set of “sentiments” and non-ideas, or a “state of mind” which is supposed to animate anyone to try to dam the advancing, liberty-destroying lava of statism. Hawkins offers his conservative credentials in this outburst:
The most alarming sign that the anarchists are trying to take over the Tea Party movement is the sudden revival of the amoral and anti-social screeds of the late and unlamented Ayn Rand. Her name has been bantered around far too often on talk radio and by Fox News commentators.Hawkins should wonder why her name is so frequently “bantered around,” and not Buckley’s or Russell Kirk’s. Perhaps it is because men are searching for answers and ideas, Rand has had them for decades, and answers and ideas are not to be found in conservatism. He should also learn that Rand was neither an anarchist nor a libertarian.
As if to underscore the religious, anti-reason color of conservatism, Hawkins manages to introduce Original Sin as an ingredient of the financial crisis:
True conservatives know the character of Mankind is ’fallen’ and that there is a dark side to human nature to which bankers and fund managers are just as vulnerable as anyone else. Freedom without responsibility, and rights without duties, leads to license and wrong-doing.To which Presidents Bush, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and Senator John McCain would say, “Amen.” Hawkins then descends into pure fantasy. He falls back on and endorses the assertions of Constitutional scholar Walter Berns.
He warned that our modern problem is the retreat of government, not its growth. We have already instituted too much of a libertarian state, one ‘that does not get involved in censorship, in moral education….’This is Hawkins’ most bizarre statement. If a “libertarian” state is one of limited government whose powers are defined and delimited by the Constitution, how can he explain, as examples, court-upheld speech codes, restrictions on tobacco and pharmaceutical advertising, subsidies to banks and automakers, and the indoctrination of children in public schools in the guise of “moral education”? Where, exactly, is the government retreating, and not growing? What sector of the Twilight Zone has Hawkins emerged from?
Hawkins ends his article with more advice for the Tea Party movement:
Hopefully, those attracted to the Tea Parties will follow the path of Kirk and not of Rand.Far be it from Hawkins to risk soiling his fingers by opening a copy of Atlas Shrugged to check on the spelling of names and the roles of the characters. So he misquotes another writer (of an April 20th Forbes article on the resurgence of interest in Rand) by describing Henry Rearden, the steel manufacturer and inventor of Rearden Metal, as Rand’s “most famous fictional character Hank Riordan.” Had he paid closer attention to the news coverage of the Tea Parties, he might have observed several protesters’ signs that read, “Who is John Galt?” and none that read, “Who is Hank Riordan?” He might have himself asked, “Who is John Galt?” but the connection between the name and the novel eluded him, because apparently he has never read that “amoral and anti-social screed.”
Conservatives were once noted, if not for their God-fearing rationalizations of why men should or should not be free, then for their fastidiousness concerning the facts and ideas they were attacking or twisting out of recognition. Now, in their desperate rush to de-emphasize the influence of Ayn Rand and her ideas, they are just growing sloppy. They are hurling spit balls at a photo of Rand pinned to a dartboard, but hitting only the wall around it.
I have dwelt on this writer and his assertions because Family Security Matters often re-posts my commentaries that appear on Rule of Reason, Capitalism Magazine and other compatible blog sites. FSM has done this without my knowledge, and certainly to my surprise, and I never know if FSM or any other website has done it unless someone informs me of it. It goes without saying, especially in lieu of Hawkins’ article, that I do not endorse the politics of FSM.
Finally, I have gone to this length to rebut Hawkins because I have not encountered any better arguments by conservatives elsewhere; their common denominator is a congenital hostility to reason, Ayn Rand, and freedom. So this should serve as a blanket answer to any one or all of them.
*In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Signet softcover, 1967, pp. 193-201.
**See Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2004. Rand’s determination and confidence in the value of the novel allowed her to break through the “Red ceiling” of the New York publishing world in 1936. Richard Ralston’s essay on the novel’s publishing history is informative and illuminating.
Crossposted at The Dougout