For several years now, I’ve been engaged in a critique of the foreign policy writings of various Objectivists, who, I believe, have abandoned Ayn Rand’s radical insights on the nature of U.S. politics. For those who are not Ayn Rand fans or who don’t care one iota what Objectivists have to say on U.S. foreign policy, this week’s five-part series (which begins today) might not provide the requisite excitement. But for those readers who are classical liberals and libertarians, and who see, on a daily basis, the erosion of the noninterventionist tradition of liberalism, this series will have some merit. Suffice it to say: In fighting for Rand’s radical legacy, I’m fighting simultaneously for that noninterventionist tradition that stands opposed to the welfare-warfare state, while seeking to comprehend the inextricable relationship between the “welfare” and the “warfare” part of that equation.
In my essay, “Understanding the Global Crisis: Reclaiming Rand’s Radical Legacy,” I argued that too many Objectivist writers in the post-9/11 era were suffering from historical amnesia. It’s as if they have forgotten most of what Rand said on the issue of foreign policy; one will be hard pressed to find any quotes from Rand’s various foreign policy essays and lectures in any of the books, journals, and online periodicals to which Objectivists have contributed.
It’s not fair, of course, to suggest that a lack of references to Rand is a sign of abandonment. Clearly, these writers have been influenced by Rand’s broad ethical and political precepts, especially those concerning egoism and individual rights. But there is a disturbing pattern among Objectivist writers to ignore Rand’s actual foreign policy pronouncements, which continue to have relevance for the modern world. When such writers are writing explicitly on the subject of foreign policy, that ignorance has far-reaching implications for the quality and persuasiveness of their arguments.
This pattern is on display yet again in the newest book by Objectivist writer Peter Schwartz, The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest: A Moral Ideal for America (Ayn Rand Institute Press, 2004)—which has exactly one quote from Rand, and this quote does not derive from any of her work on foreign policy. In his preface to the Schwartz monograph, Ayn Rand Institute Executive Director Yaron Brook tells us that this work is part of a series on “The Moral Foundations of Public Policy.” For Brook, “[f]oreign policy is neither a starting point nor a self-contained field. It is, rather, the product of certain ideas in political and moral philosophy. ... It has failed because of the bankrupt moral philosophy our political leaders have chosen to accept: the philosophy of altruism and self-sacrifice” (5). Schwartz’s work goes a long way toward explaining these ideas, and it succeeds in highlighting some very important issues. (Some of this work derives from a series of articles that Schwartz published back in March and April 1986, “Foreign Policy and the Morality of Self-Interest,” in The Intellectual Activist.) Objectivist Harry Binswanger has gone so far as to say that Schwartz has provided us with “the foreign policy Bible for America and any other free society.”
Ultimately, however, the book fails to recapture Rand’s radical framework of analysis, which, from a political standpoint, seeks to understand and overturn U.S. government policies at home and abroad.
Of course, Rand’s radicalism is not primarily political; it is a methodological radicalism, a radical way of thinking upon which political and social change is built. Karl Marx once said: “To be radical is to grasp things by the root” (“The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”). Though Rand repudiated Marx’s communism and its collectivist premises, she championed the notion of the “radical in the proper sense of the word”; as she explained: “‘radical’ means ‘fundamental.’” For Rand, “the fighters for capitalism have to be, not bankrupt ‘conservatives,’ but new radicals, new intellectuals and, above all, new, dedicated moralists” (“Conservatism: An Obituary”).
But the power of Rand’s methodological radicalism went beyond a search for roots. In seeking to understand the system of contemporary statism, Rand shows how various factors often mutually supported one another in sustaining the irrationality and injustice of that system. It was only by clarifying the various relationships at work that we could begin to alter them fundamentally.
Schwartz’s Core Argument
Peter Schwartz certainly hopes to clarify the moral premises at work in U.S. foreign policy. Schwartz states “that self-interest can be successfully defended only if it is embraced as a consistent, moral principle—a principle in keeping with America’s founding values” (12). He continues: “Just as in ethics it is maintaining his own life that should be the individual’s ultimate purpose, in politics it is maintaining its own citizens’ liberty that should be the government’s ultimate purpose” (14). For Schwartz, “[i]n both domestic and foreign policy, the proper role of government is to protect the citizen’s basic political interest: freedom” (19). As such, Schwartz disavows “nationalism [as] a collectivist idea” (19). He rejects “diplomacy” as “the opposite of justice,” because it presumes that “we must maintain cordial relations” with dictatorships and treat all regimes with respect, regardless of their moral legitimacy (20). He renounces appeasement, and the “pragmatist” policy of buying off “allies” with economic aid. In Schwartz’s view, a practical foreign policy identifies liberty as the “central value,” and develops the “basic means” to defend it.
For those who want the “bottom line,” here it is: Schwartz may have correctly defined some key principles here, but his discussion is marred by a rationalistic streak. Such principles make the most sense only in a context where the government is strictly limited; today’s government, however, is not focused on protecting individual rights, but on doling out privileges to those who are most adept at using the political process.
Schwartz is so caught up in his pan-and-scan black-and-white picture of foreign policy that his model fails to comprehend the full widescreen technicolor portrait, which his philosophic mentor grasped with relative ease.
I will begin to explore these topics in greater detail tomorrow, in part two of this five-part series.
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