Jan 18, 2012

Ayn Rand on Selecting a Presidential Candidate?

In Vol. 3, No. 3 (March, 1964) of The Objectivist Newsletter, Ayn Rand published "Check Your Premises," an essay that offers "a few basic considerations, as guidelines in deciding what one can properly expect of a political candidate, particularly of a presidential candidate" (p. 9, col. 1). What were those guidelines?

(Caution: My notes below are not comprehensive. The following quotations are passages that I have selected because I think they make points applicable to all times, including our own. Occasionally I have summarized intermediate steps in her presentation. Reader, beware. Read the article for yourself; you can purchase the TON collection at the Ayn Rand estore or, printed, on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Objectivist-Newsletter-1962-1965-Ayn-Rand/dp/1561141496/.)

A FOCUS ON POLITICAL PRINCIPLES. "One cannot expect, nor is it necessary, to agree with a candidate's total philosophy -- only with his political philosophy (and only in terms of essentials). It is not a Philosopher-King that we are electing, but an executive for a specific, delimited job. It is only a political consistency that we can demand of him; if he advocates the right political principles for the wrong metaphysical reasons, the contradiction is his problem, not ours" (TON, March, 1964, p. 9, col. 1).

(Does the statement above mean that Ayn Rand was advocating either (1) not investigating or (2) ignoring the results of an investigation of a candidate's more fundamental principles, that is, his metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics? I think she was advocating neither. Why?

1. Six months earlier, in "A Suggestion," October, 1963, TON, p. 40, col. 2, Ayn Rand -- who always emphasized (a) the causal nature of fundamental ideas and (b) the necessity of non-contradictory integration -- said, "If [the candidate] ... should ... tie his candidacy to some doctrine of a mystical nature -- we will, of course, be free not to vote for him." That means, I think, one cannot evaluate what a candidate says about his principles in isolation from his ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical roots.

2. Two years earlier, in the first question in the Intellectual Ammunition Department of the March, 1962, TON, Barbara Branden, then writing under the editorship and approval of Ayn Rand, said: "A rational advocate of capitalism should repudiate any individual or group that links capitalism to the supernatural. He commits treason to his own cause if and when he cooperates with the mystical 'conservatives', if and when he sanctions them as creditable spokesmen for the cause of freedom." The immediate context was different, but I think the guideline applies to voting as well as to campaigning for a candidate.

These two earlier quotations show, I think, that Ayn Rand was not advocating an evaluation of a candidate's statements of political principle in isolation from the remainder of his philosophy.)

PRINCIPLES VS. PARTICULAR POSITIONS. "If [the candidate] has mixed premises," Ayn Rand writes, "we have to judge him ... by his dominant trend. ... A vote for a candidate does not constitute an endorsement of his entire position, not even of his entire political position, only of his basic political principles." (TON, March, 1964, p. 9, col. 1).

A particular position -- such as advocating withdrawal from the United Nations -- is not a principle. It is, Ayn Rand says, a "concrete." A candidate's "view on whether a nation should or should not protect its sovereignty is a principle, which covers many issues besides the U. N." (TON, March, 1964, p. 9, col. 1).

"If a candidate evades, equivocates and hides his stand under a junk-heap of random concretes, we must add up those concretes and judge him accordingly. If his stand is mixed, we must evaluate it by asking: Will he protect freedom or destroy the last of it? Will he accelerate, delay or stop the march toward statism?" (TON, March, 1964, p. 9, col. 2)

A VOTER'S RANGE OF CHOICES. "[O]ften, particularly in recent times, a voter chooses merely the lesser of two evils" (TON, March, 1964, p.10, col. 2).

"There are many forms of protest open to us, if [an unacceptable candidate is actually nominated]: we can vote for a write-in candidate of our own choice -- or vote a straight Republican ticket, leaving the presidential and vice-presidential spaces blank -- or vote a mixed ticket -- or vote for any Democrat who is not fully committed to statism -- or not vote at all. But we cannot vote for the proposition [held by some self-styled Republican "mainstream" candidates] that we, as advocates of capitalism, are lunatics -- or for the candidate who so regards us" (TON, March, 1964, p. 12, col. 1).

A CHOICE OF INCOMMENSURATE EVILS? Sometimes both major candidates are philosophically unqualified, but one represents a short-term, grave danger, a danger so great that even subsequent free elections are threatened by his becoming president. Ayn Rand wrote about one such situation, the electoral conflict between Richard Nixon and George McGovern:

"I am not an admirer of President Nixon ... but I urge every able-minded voter ... to vote for Nixon -- as a matter of national emergency. This is no longer an issue of choosing the lesser of two commensurate evils. The choice is between a flawed candidate representing Western Civilization -- and the perfect candidate of its primordial enemies. If there were some campaign organization called 'Anti-Nixonites for Nixon', it would name my position. The worst thing said about Nixon is that he cannot be trusted, which is true; he cannot be trusted to save this country. But one thing is certain: McGovern can be trusted to destroy it." (Quoted to me by Robert LeChevalier, as coming from "Preview," an article which appeared through three issues, Nos. 22, 23, and 24, of Vol. 1 of The Ayn Rand Letter; the quoted passage, RL says, comes from No. 22. I no longer own a copy of TARL.)

The problem here is deciding whether a particular election involves a choice of two incommensurate evils -- that is, inconsistent destruction caused by one candidate's pragmatic folly versus consistent destruction caused by the other candidate's principled, ideological design.

GENERAL PERSPECTIVE ON ELECTIONS. "An election campaign is not the cause, but the effect and the product of a culture's intellectual trends. It is, perhaps, too early to fight for capitalism on the level of practical politics, in a culture devoid of any intellectual base for capitalism" (TON, March, 1964, p. 12, col. 1).

The full article contains many other insights applicable to today. It also provides detailed examples that illustrate the guidelines Ayn Rand offers.

SUMMARY. As an answer to the historical question -- What were Ayn Rand's guidelines for voting? -- I say she generally recommended focusing on the fundamental political principles of each candidate, while being alert to the candidate's deeper philosophy if the candidate himself tied his politics to mysticism.

MY ELABORATION. If, as I think, a John Locke sort of candidate were to say, "I have faith in God; he created man; he gave man the faculty of reason for living in this world; and reason leads us to the need for a free society," then such a candidate would be acceptable because his supernaturalism and mysticism are detachable, so to speak, in public political discussions. We have common ground with the idea that man is a rational animal.

On the other hand, if a candidate says, "I have faith that God created man; man is corrupt; and his faculty of understanding is too limited to justify having power over others -- except that we must ban sinful behavior, at least at the local level, and wage a perpetual war of sacrifice against our foreign religious enemies," then the candidate is not acceptable.

Today another main type of candidate is the Pragmatist. (In the 1964 article, Ayn Rand discusses political pragmatism in detail.) By definition, we cannot discover his essential principles because he has no principles and therefore his job performance is unpredictable. In my view, the Pragmatist is dangerous because he can be attacked for imputed principles that he does not actually hold. Today a Republican pragmatist becomes "Mr. Capitalism" to his Democratic collectivist opponents.

With Ayn Rand's guidelines, making a choice is easier.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

1 comment:

Rob Tarr said...

Thanks Burgess, this is very helpful!
-Rob Tarr