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Oct 2, 2012

Ayn Rand and Foreign Policy

Kuznicki critiques two aspects of Ayn Rand’s foreign policy views.

Ayn Rand was a brilliant author, an influential polemicist, and a great thinker. I don’t care if the academic mainstream thinks less of me for saying so. That’s so much the worse for them.

But she wasn’t always right. Foreign policy is one of the areas where she stumbled, at least on one occasion. Her essay “The Roots of War” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal is magisterial, and I love it in particular for the following:

The trader and the warrior have been fundamental antagonists throughout history. Trade does not flourish on battlefields, factories do not produce under bombardments, profits do not grow on rubble. Capitalism is a society of traders—for which it has been denounced by every would-be gunman who regards trade as “selfish” and conquest as “noble.”

Truer or more important words have never been written about human history. I find it difficult, however, to accept the following quotation, also from her:

Anyone who wants to invade a dictatorship or semi-dictatorship is morally justified in doing so, because he is doing no worse than what that country has accepted as its social system.

I recognize no right whatsoever for dictatorships to exist. But I think that Rand erred here in two ways.

First, it is perverse to hold that people suffering under a dictatorship have “accepted” the dictator’s evil acts, such that anything we do to them in the course of a war is no better than what they are in effect doing to themselves.

Many of a dictator’s subjects doubtless are responsible.  Not just the dictator and his cronies, but also his enablers in politics, the press, the academy, the business world, and elsewhere. But others surely wish the dictator were gone. If anything, they probably wish it more strongly than we do. Lumping these people together with their domestic persecutors is indefensible. 

Note the collective noun, “that country,” and ponder its moral implications. It’s not the sort of thinking I would expect from an individualist like Ayn Rand. Indeed, coming from her, I find it prima facie evidence that this answer – first given in an interview – wasn’t the product of deep reflection.  It’s on such thin foundations that some have even built a foreign policy approach that Jennifer Louise Burns has likened, embarrassingly, to neoconservatism. All of which I ultimately find hard to reconcile with “The Roots of War.”

Many in a dictatorship would obviously prefer a free, liberal polity. Yet achieving that goal may well be impossible, and we do not ordinarily blame or punish people for failing to do the impossible, or for not achieving it on a schedule of our devising. Nor can we discount their lives to nothing; they are not sacrificial animals any more than we are. That’s the reason why acts of war must survive an exceptionally difficult moral test.

Rand’s second mistake was to neglect another relevant group of people: the citizens of the liberating country. I agree as a matter of principle that it is always legitimate to overthrow a dictator. Dictators also need to know that when we are attacked, we will destroy them, as we should, wherever they may be located geographically.

Yet for better or worse, I am also a student of history. And in the history of our country, there has not been one single armed conflict of any note in which Americans’ liberties did not contract. War has always brought restrictions on travel, immigration, trade, free expression, habeas corpus, and the judiciary as a whole. It can still mean conscription, the closest thing to slavery that we tolerate under law. Here or abroad, it can mean displacement, dispossession, internment, and torture.

These are not accidents or coincidences. They are the very stuff of war; they are what war is. As James Madison put it, “Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.”

If I could push a button and depose a dictator without any other consequences, then of course I would do it. But that is not and has never been a choice in the real world. There the question is much more complicated, and experience has shown that very often we must decline the offer, not because we are indifferent to liberty, but because we value it so much.