Objectivism and War

So the other day an Objectivist wrote this gem at their blog:

"On this Memorial Day, I would like to honor the three men of the American Civil War who understood the terrible need for total war: President Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, and General William T. Sherman. Their vigorous prosecution of the war preserved the Union, the very first nation founded on the principles of individual rights -- and, at the time, the only such nation. In so doing, they ended the most loathsome violation of rights ever known to man: chattel slavery. Without them, without the brave Union soldiers who fought under them, America would not exist today.*

So thank you, Mssrs. Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman. We are forever in your debt."

While a properly revised view of the so-called "civil war" renders this view highly absurd (since the civil war was not primarily fought over slavery so much as tariffs and secession, the war was essentially a case of the government attacking its own civilian population, Lincoln was a racist who more or less supported slavery and advocated deporting freed slaves back to Africa, Lincoln eggregiously violated the personal rights of both northerners and southerners alike in the process of executing the war, etc.) my concern is more broadly with what has unfortunately become the cliche objectivist view of warfare. Reading the commentary on this blog post by some of the objectivists is illuminating and disturbing.

Objectivists tend to blur the distinction between genuine defensive force and pre-emptive force or outright blatant initiations of force. They view outright invasions of territories as justified acts of "defense" or "retaliation". Due to this warped view of the legitimacy of force, many Objectivists not only legitimize the bulk of wars in America history, they also legitimize our current wars and call for further foreign interventions in places like Iran and Venezuela. This is absolute lunacy! Objectivists have apparently soaked up neoconservative premises with respect to foreign policy. And they have the pompous audacity to do so in the name of "reason", "objectivity", "individualism". Unfortunately, what they are really doing is diving head first into a sea of irrationalism and collectivism.

Objectivists assert that a tyrannical government loses its rights or legitimacy (which is true enough at face value, although all governments are tyrannical and illegitimate in my definition) and conclude that they may be "retaliated" against. From the standpoint of the people tyrannized over by the government, I agree that they can rightfully retaliate against their own government. The problem is that the objectivists draw insane conclusions from a seemingly true premise, as they seem to think that if a foreign government is "tyrannical", this justifies other governments not only "retaliating" against them but invading entire foreign territories and waging total war against not only the foreign governments but the civilian populations. This is an absurd justification for initiating force against innocent bystanders. It also opens up a subjective can of worms in which different governments are treated as being better or worse relative to eachother, and legitimizing otherwise illegitimate governments in the process.

Apparently objectivists have no qualms whatsoever with targeting entire civilian populations. They rationalize this by essentially saying that those within the "country" of the "bad guys" bear moral responsibility for what their government does. This is a blatantly collectivist viewpoint. Someone who just so happens to be born within the territory of a tyrannical government is not responsible for what some powerful men in an ivory tower do. Punishing people for the crimes of others is not justice, it's a monstrous injustice. Blaming and exercising force on entire populations within a territory for the actions of their governments, which they essentially have no control over, is collective guilt. Objectivists are supposed to be the ultimate opponents of collectivism, yet when it comes to foreign policy they appear to be die-hard collectivists, treating entire "nations" as bearing responsibility for the actions of a few powerful men within them. In the objectivist paradime, innocent bystanders can legitimately be murdered in the crossfire of conflicts between governments.

What is the objectivist response to libertarian criticisms of their highly disingenous pro-war views? They straw man libertarians as being pacifists. This is intellectually dishonest. Now, it is true that a libertarian can be a pacifist, but if one is intellectually honest it should be rather clear that what libertarians fundamentally oppose is not all force but the initiation of force and consequentially most libertarians are not pacifists. Most libertarians fully advocate self-defense. The problem is that what objectivists advocate is not self-defense but pre-emptive force and outright initiations of aggression. The accusation that libertarians advocate just sitting there and allowing oneself to be aggressed against by foreign entities is absurd. At least from the standpoint of the average America, they haven't been aggressed against by any foreign people. The objectivist view is totally warped, as it is the America government that is aggressing against the average people within foreign territories. It is precisely those people, the people the objectivists favor attacking, who have the moral right of self-defense.

It is interesting how objectivist premises that are correct in and of themselves at face value can be turned around to critisize objectivists, since objectivism as a political doctrine contradicts its own ethical theory in many ways. What immediately comes to mind is their criticism of altruism, which I more or less agree with myself. It is my contention that objectivists hold an altruistic view of the military. That is, they seem to buy into the nationalistic premise that soldiers (particularly ones from your own country) are virtuous and sacrifice themselves for the sake of our freedom. In this view, our freedom depends on the sacrifices of allegedly brave men in the military and in the state apparatus. In my understanding, the objectivist view of warfare and foreign policy actually contradicts rational egoism, properly understood.

Another contradiction is between the objectivist ideal of government and what they support with respect to currently existing governments. One of the more admirable traits of the objectivist political doctrine is that it is opposed to taxation. Yet the stance of objectivists on currently existing issues fully support making use of tax-funded government institutions like the military. How can people who proclaim that taxation is evil out of one side of their mouths simultaneously claim that tax-funded institutions are legitimate and advocate that they take particular policies? If objectivists were consistant, they would advocate the liberty of anti-war people to refuse to pay for their wars.

But while objectivism is supposed to be about objectivity and reason, consistancy is not a word that describes its political doctrine. The word hypocrisy describes it much better.


# mhRipley said on 31 July, 2008 02:12 PM

Agree. As much as I dig Objectivism, its political theory is the only thing I find myself disagreeing with most.

A certain man (whose name I can't remember right now) once said that ''Rand's hostility toward the State and taxation sits inconsistently with a rejection of anarchism.'' And, well, he was right. That had to be Rand's own, BIGGEST contradiction. If you read her arguments regarding anarchism, you will see that, while she was right to an extent (i.e.: religion and capitalism don't mix), she otherwise knew little or nothing about anarchism in itself.

And that's why you get things like this, from an otherwise valuable site. Don't be too surprised.

# Cedrac said on 31 July, 2008 03:28 PM

I think you have a bit of a skewed sense of objectivism, which I unfortunately see a lot of.  One thing is Rand was very explicit in the type of people she wanted called objectivists, which are people who agreed with her philosophy entirely.  She was actually quite adamant about this.  If you read Rands work's it is very obvious her stance on wars (see the Roots of War).  She was against the Vietnam and Korean war etc.  So it stands to reason she would more then likely have been against the first Iraq war and this one as well.  Second, to be objectivist one can not advocate forced taxation at all, voluntary taxation is the only moral form of taxation Again see some of rands work in The Virtue of Selfishness.  

Third, I understand the frustration when it comes to objectivists today, many of them do contradict themselves and their own beliefs in order to try and become more mainstream, but they are not objectivists.  

Also, Pre emptive strikes are only legitimite if there is a legitimate threat... in which case it wouldn't really be "pre" emptive.  Anything other than that view is not objectivist.  Again, Rand was very explicit in Non infringment.

On a side note while I do appreciate your somewhat understanding of the Civil War you are highly mistaken if you think it was a case of a government attacking its own "civilian" population.  Let me give you a small timeline of the beginning of the Civil war.

First in January 1861 immediately after Lincoln (who politically was anti slavery) was elected president South Carolina recedes followed by six more states; Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, and the threat of recession from 4 more states - Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  These 11 states by the way became the Confederate states of America.  

Next in Feb. the confederate creates its own government, and in the same month seizes federal forts, which is because the then president (buchanan) refused to surrender southern federal forts (under his control)  

March 4th of course Lincoln was Inaugurated.  He told his views once again, he would not end slavery where it already existed but he would not accept secession. he was explicit in his not wanting a war however.

The initiation of the war was in April when the SOUTH attacked Fort Sumter.  Now remember they had already seceded AND formed their own government, and now they are attacking A U.S. Federal base.  No matter where it is located.  

what would you have Lincoln do? accept the attacks and say its ok we understand?

# rodney203 said on 30 August, 2008 09:18 PM

People who criticize objectivism just don't understand it.  Perhaps they don't even want to understand it.  Many people who consider themselves to be objectivists don't even understand it.  It usually takes a very special person to "get it" and understand how the ideas all work together.

# MhRipley said on 06 November, 2008 04:15 PM

Hum, whom were you aiming this at, Rodney? If you happen to think this position is entirely mistaken, I'd suggest you try reading ''Objectivist goose-stepping'' and come tell me (or any of us around here) if we're actually being ''contradictory'', ''non-objective'' or even ''disconnected from reality'' afterwards!

Otherwise, no lecturing will be necessary...

N.B: Rand was much more of a conservative, rather than a market anarchist. Can't say I find the contradiction too surprising, anymore.

# ragnar_rahl said on 05 December, 2008 08:35 PM

Any organization capable of and willing to consistently and successfully defend from/retaliate to those who initiate force is a government, so anarchism (lack of a government) contradicts self-defense.

Further, when one realizes that rand rejected anarchism in favor of a nontaxing government, and opposed not "The state" in general but rather simply it's initiation of force, there is no contradiction there.

As for the status of civilians in totalitarian nations-- They are morally innocent, but metaphysically noninnocent. I.e., their existence lends an aid to the government in question. They cannot be held responsible for this after a successful invasion, they didn't choose it, just like you wouldn't hold someone morally responsible for what they did while sleepwalking-- but, nevertheless, in the course of the action they are still a threat and must be dealt with. It is the totalitarian nation in question, not the country invading it, which violates their rights.

Keep in mind Rand's opposition to, say, Vietnam or Korea was not a fundamental part of her philosophical system, just a guess from her estimate of the nature of the war. She was not a soldier, one can be an Objectivist and yet believe she misjudged the nature of those specific conflicts.

# Orat said on 04 February, 2009 03:09 PM

I would add an observation of a further collectivist facet of modern neo-con-influenced Objectivist foreign policy.  This was already hinted at in the main article, but I'll expound on it a bit more.  When modern Objectivists speak of a nation having a "right" to invade a nation that is less free, such as is their rationalization for the present Iraq war and their hoped-for future Iran war, they are not only collectivizing "rights", but given the present fact that our government is funded through coercion, they are asserting that this "right", possessed by the government - not the people, justifies the prosecution of a war at the expense of individuals who disagree with its undertaking.  I, for example, do not consent to the war, yet I am taxed to prosecute it.  What's more, the retaliation which may come as a consequence may very well be aimed at me.  So not only do I bear the cost of the war, but also its consequences.  Indeed, I would argue this is what happened in 9/11, which was retaliation for a series of US interventions, including the first Gulf War.

Secondly, what about this idea of a "tyranny" losing its legitimacy and therefore being open-season for "freer" countries?  How do we quantify whether a country is, as the neocon-Objectivists put it, a "rights violating" country?  I am not an anarchist, but I would assert that every government on Earth today violates the rights of individuals in some way.  Even in the freest nations there are EGREGIOUS abuses.  So I must assume that these folks don't mean that one country, such as the US, is 100% free while all of its enemies are less so.  Rather, I think they probably mean that the US is "more free" than its enemies.  But how do we actually measure that to be sure?  I mean, in China, I am told it is far easier to start a business (fewer taxes and regulations) than in the US.  I am also told that Australia has done away with discrimination law and all minimum wage law.  So at least in these areas, these two countries would appear to respect rights which the US does not.  So would it be moral for China or Australia to invade the US?

I assert that the only justification for military action is when your country is under direct, imminent and provable threat of attack (such as was the case in the Six Day War).

I am a HUGE fan of Ayn Rand and her philosophy.  But this collectivism masquerading as rational egoism is beyond the pale.  It is a recipe for disaster.