Ayn Rand: The Roots of War

Having read much of Ayn Rand’s nonfiction work, I have been surprised and dismayed by the use of her philosophy, Objectivism, to justify the war in Iraq. Ironically, some of the worst offenders are those in the more orthodox Objectivist camp, like the Ayn Rand Institute, whom one might expect to have the most authentic interpretation of her work.

Rand’s views on war are not by themselves the arbiter of morality for this war or any other. Speculation about how she would have viewed the current war in Iraq is akin to Christians who ask “What would Jesus do?” The fact is, neither I nor anybody else knows for sure what Rand would have said about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but she had much to say about individual rights and the legitimate role of government in protecting those rights; and her writings provide guidance regarding her Objectivist views on war.

It is absolutely clear throughout the entire spectrum of her work that Rand spared no contempt for individuals or governments that use force against others, nor did she show any affection or sympathy for those who surrender, prostitute, or “second-hand” their minds to the will of others. Objectivism is a philosophy for rational individuals who look to objective reality for answers. It is not for mindless mobs, mystics, masters or slaves. It is a philosophy that abhors the use of aggression against others as a means to an end, but instead provides a rational basis for self-defense against aggressors.

Having said that, there are those in Objectivist circles who use her name and her philosophy to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I do not see any basis for that opinion in her philosophy, her writings, or her documented opinions about past wars. That is the subject of this essay.

An often-quoted passage from her essay, “Collectivist “Rights” in The Virtue of Selfishness is at least partially to blame:

“Just the individual’s right of free action does not include the “right” to commit crimes (that is, to violate the rights of others), so the right of a nation to determine its own form of government does not include the right to establish a slave society (that is, to legalize the enslavement of some men by others). There is no such thing as ‘the right to enslave’. A nation can do it, just as a man can become a criminal–but neither can do it by right.

It does not matter, in this context, whether a nation was enslaved by force, like Soviet Russia, or by vote, like Nazi Germany. Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual). Whether a slave society was conquered or chose to be enslaved, it can claim no national rights and no recognition of such ‘rights’ by civilized countries–just as a mob of gangsters cannot demand a recognition of its “rights” and a legal equality with an industrial concern or a university, on the ground that the gansters chose by unanimous vote to engage in that particular kind of group activity.

“Dictatorship nations are outlaws. Any free nation had the right to invade Nazi Germany and, today, has the right to invade Soviet Russia, Cuba or any other slave pen. Whether a free nation chooses to do so or not is a matter of its own self-interest, not of respect for the non-existent ‘rights’ of gang rulers. It is not a free nation’s duty to liberate other nations at the price of self-sacrifice, but a free nation has the right to do it, when and if it so chooses.[1,104]

The paragraph which follows the above is extremely important, but I suspect often overlooked:

This right, however, is conditional. Just as the suppression of crimes does not give a policeman the right to engage in criminal activities, so the invasion and destruction of a dictatorship does not give the invader the right to establish another variant of a slave society in the conquered nation.[1,104]

In order to fully understand what Rand was saying, it is necessary to understand that when Rand speaks of a “free” nation, she is speaking of a society where all relationships are voluntary, where there is no taxation and where “individual rights are not subject to a public vote.” The United States which has historically been one of the freest societies on earth, fails all of these tests. It is not by any stretch of Rand’s meaning a “free” country. Therefore, it cannot possess the “right” to invade a slave nation as she described above.

Furthermore, the Law of Identity is central to the Objectivist philosophy. It says that everything is what it is. A=A. Free=Free. It does not allow contradictions like A=not A. It does not allow for slopiness such as free=”relatively free,” or free=”most free,” or free=”free on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Free=Free. Period.

In a free society, men are not forced to deal with one another. They do so only by voluntary agreement and, when a time element is involved, by contract.[1,110]

The United States does not meet Rand’s definition of a “free” society, and Objectivists who think it does are breaking the Law of Identity.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq and our continuing effort at nation building violate Rand’s condition that “the invasion and destruction of a dictatorship does not give the invader the right to establish another variant of a slave society in the conquered nation.” The system of government that the U.S. is trying to set up in Iraq will make individual rights subject to a public vote, which is a variant of slavery.

In this country no American citizen has the right to refuse to pay the taxes that support the war. We face fines, imprisonment, further seizures of our property if we refuse to comply. If we should resist those violations of our individual rights, we would soon be staring down the barrel of some law enforcment official’s gun.

It follows that if an invading nation does not have “the right to establish another variant of a slave society in the conquered nation” is cannot possibly have the right to establish a new variant of slavery or expand the use of force within its own borders to finance the invasion. But that is what the Bush administration and Congress have done by allocating billions of tax dollars and running up a huge deficit to pay for the war.

Rand revisted her comments in an interview with Playboy magazine in 1964.

PLAYBOY: What about force in foreign policy? You have said that any free nation had the right to invade Nazi Germany during World War II . . .

RAND: Certainly.

PLAYBOY: . . . And that any free nation today has the moral right — though not the duty — to invade Soviet Russia, Cuba, or any other “slave pen.” Correct?

RAND: Correct. A dictatorship — a country that violates the rights of its own citizens — is an outlaw and can claim no rights.

PLAYBOY: Would you actively advocate that the United States invade Cuba or the Soviet Union?

RAND: Not at present. I don’t think it’s necessary. I would advocate that which the Soviet Union fears above all else: economic boycott. I would advocate a blockade of Cuba and an economic boycott of Soviet Russia; and you would see both those regimes collapse without the loss of a single American life.

PLAYBOY: Would you favor U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations?

RAND: Yes. I do not sanction the grotesque pretense of an organization allegedly devoted to world peace and human rights, which includes Soviet Russia, the worst aggressor and bloodiest butcher in history, as one of its members. The notion of protecting rights, with Soviet Russia among the protectors, is an insult to the concept of rights and to the intelligence of any man who is asked to endorse or sanction such an organization. I do not believe that an individual should cooperate with criminals, and, for all the same reasons, I do not believe that free countries should cooperate with dictatorships.

What is interesing about this exchange is that while she considered the Soviet Union “the worst aggressor and bloodiest butcher in history,” she did not advocate that the U.S. should invade them, but instead favored an economic/political solution that would not cost any American lives.

Do people seriously think that Iraq was a greater violator of human rights than the Soviet Union and that Rand, the mother of Objectivism, would have supported a military invasion of the country, financed with the lives of over 600 Americans (and still counting) as well as the forced surrender of every American’s freedom and property? Do they seriously think she would have endorsed the contradictions and self-sacrifice required to free Iraq at the cost of making the U.S. less free?

From an Objectivist point of view, the only legitimate function of the U.S. government or the government of any free nation is to defend the individual rights of its own citizens. Fighting to free the Iraqis by forcing Americans to surrender their own freedoms is a grotesque violation of human rights at home.

Rand’s essay “The Roots of War” is contained in Capitalism: The Unkown Ideal. The book is a collection of essays which outline the Objectivist view that laissez-faire capitalism is the only economic/politcal system consistent with human rights. It is a treatise on the importance of separating the state from the ecomony in the same way that the state is separated from church. (In light of President Bush’s evangelical fervor, I should say, just as the state issupposed to be separated from church.)

In “The Roots of War”, Rand distinguishes between a genuinely free economy and a statist economy.

Laissez-faire capitalism is the only social system based on the recognition of individual rights and, therefore, the only system that bans force from social relationships. By the nature of its basic principles and interests, it is the only system fundamentally opposed to war.

Men who are free to produce, have no incentive to loot; they have nothing to gain from war and a great deal to lose. Ideologically, the principle of individual rights does not permit a man to seek his own livelihood at the point of a gun, inside or outside his country. Economically, wars cost money; in a free economy, where wealth is privately owned, the costs of war come out of the income of private citizens-there is no overblown public treasury to hide that fact-and a citizen cannot hope to recoup his own financial losses (such as taxes or business dislocations or property destruction) by winning the war. Thus his own economic interests are on the side of peace.

In a statist economy, where wealth is “publicly owned,” a citizen has no economic interests to protect by preserving peace-he is only a drop in the common bucket-while war gives him the (fallacious) hope of larger handouts from his masters. Ideologically, he is trained to regard, men as sacrificial animals; he is one himself; he can have no concept of why foreigners should not be sacrificed on the same public altar for the benefit of the same state.[2,38]

Rand referred to the U.S. as a mixed economy, the illegitimate child born of the troubled union of capitalism and statism, which in their pure forms are mutually exclusive. The result is that the U.S. is neither a statist slave pen nor is it genuinely capitalist and free. The ‘unknown ideal” to which Rand refers is laissez-faire capitalism and the individual liberties that it protects–the right of every individual to own his life and trade voluntarily with others for mutual benefit–not the brand of statist capitalism that defines American society, where business and government conspire in ways that violate the rights of individuals both here and abroad.

It is statism and the resulting corruption of laissez-faire capitalism that Rand viewed as the root of war.

Observe one of the ugliest characteristics of today’s world: the mixture of frantic war preparations with hysterical peace propaganda, and the fact that both come from the same source–from the same political philosophy. The bankrupt, yet still dominant, political philosophy of our age is statism.[2,35]

She goes on to draw a direct connection between statism and war:

Statism needs war; a free country does not. Statism survives by looting; a free country survives by production.[2,37]

She describes the destruction that occurs when business and goverment join hands to conquer new markets:

Capitalism wins and holds its markets by free competition, at home and abroad. A market conquered by war can be of value (temporarily) only to those advocates of a mixed economy who seek to close it to international competition, impose restrictive regulations, and thus acquire special privileges by force. The same type of businessmen who sought special advantages by government action in their own countries, sought special markets by government action abroad. At whose expense? At the expense of the overwhelming majority of businessmen who paid the taxes for such ventures, but gained nothing. Who justified such policies and sold them to the public? The statist intellectuals who manufacture such doctrines as “the public interest” or “national prestige” or “manifest destiny.”

The actual war profiteers of all mixed economies were and are of that type: men with political pull who acquire fortunes by government favor, during or after a war-fortunes which they could not have acquired on a free market.

Remember that private citizens-whether rich or poor, whether businessmen or workers-have no power to start a war. That power is the exclusive prerogative of a government. Which type of government is more likely to plunge a country into war: a government of limited powers, bound by constitutional restrictions-or an unlimited government, open to the pressure of any group with warlike interests or ideologies, a government able to command armies to march at the whim of a single chief executive? [2,39-40]

In light of the fact that the Bush administration has used the war in Iraq as an opportunity to bulldoze billions of tax dollars into the pockets of wealthy, multinational corporations, Rand’s description of “men with political pull who acquire fortunes by government favor” is very timely.

Rand isn’t alive to see Vice-President Dick Cheney and Halliburton at work to “liberate” the Iraqi people and make the world safe from terrorism; but her profound understanding of past violations of human rights resulting from the marriage of business and statism foretold what we see today.

Rand was by no means a pacificst. She knew there are circumstances when war is necessary and morally justified, as when a free nation is attacked and called upon to act in self-defense. Even in such circumstances, however, she maintained that a genuinely free nation would not impose a draft, an idea that is currently being floated by the U.S. government.

Needless to say, unilateral pacifism is merely an invitation to aggression. Just as an individual has the right of self-defense, so has a free country if attacked. But this does not give its government the right to draft men into military service-which is the most blatantly statist violation of a man’s right to his own life. There is no contradiction between the moral and the practical: a volunteer army is the most efficient army, as many military authorities have testified. A free country has never lacked volunteers when attacked by a foreign aggressor. But not many men would volunteer for such ventures as Korea or Vietnam. Without drafted armies, the foreign policies of statist or mixed economies would not be possible. [2,40]

Recently, there have been reports that the government is once again thinking about a draft.

The chief of the Selective Service System has proposed registering women for the military draft and requiring that young Americans regularly inform the government about whether they have training in niche specialties needed in the armed services.

The proposal, which the agency’s acting director Lewis Brodsky presented to senior Pentagon officials just before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, also seeks to extend the age of draft registration to 34 years old, up from 25.

If the U.S. government is giving even one thought to restarting the draft, which was ended after tens of thousands of young men lost their lives in Vietnam, we are not a genuinely free country, but a statist nation. Free nations do not violate the individual rights of their own citizens, they do not require human sacrifices on the alter of the state. Rand reiterated this position in her Playboy Interview:

As to the draft, it is improper and unconstitutional. It is a violation of fundamental rights, of a man’s right to his own life. No man has the right to send another man to fight and die for his, the sender’s, cause. A country has no right to force men into involuntary servitude. Armies should be strictly voluntary; and, as military authorities will tell you, volunteer armies are the best armies.

When the U.S. government entertains the idea that American citizens should be forced to sacrifice their lives for the state, the U.S. cannot be called a free country. Remember that A=A.

Only free countries can claim a moral “right” to invade a dictatorship like Iraq or any other “slave pen” in the world; a country that considers forcing its own citizens to risk their lives is not a free country.

Ayn Rand scholar, Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ph.D., has written of the many cultural, religious, political and economic forces at work in Iraq and the Middle East, and how they play into the world crisis. In Undertanding the Global Crisis: Reclaiming Rand’s Radical Legacy he notes the relationship between government intervention at home and abroad:

Government intervention in the economy and U.S. intervention abroad mirrored each other in one significant respect: each problem caused by statist intervention led to new interventionist attempts to resolve it. Just as World War I begat World War II, and World War II begat the Cold War, so too did the Cold War beget “hot” wars in Korea and Vietnam, in which more than 100,000 drafted Americans lost their lives. Vietnam especially had laid bare the inner contradictions of U.S. foreign policy. “There is no proper solution for the war in Vietnam,” Rand counseled at the time; “it is a war we should never have entered. We are caught in a trap: it is senseless to continue, and it is now impossible to withdraw” (”From My ‘Future File’”). Rand had opposed U.S. involvement in both Korea and Vietnam, and wondered why the U.S. had “sacrificed thousands of American lives, and billions of dollars, to protect a primitive people who never had freedom, do not seek it, and, apparently, do not want it” (”The Shanghai Gesture, Part III”). It is advice well worth keeping in mind-anytime the U.S. wages war with the expressed aim to free an oppressed people.

If Rand did not support World War I, World War II, Korea or Vietnam, what makes people think she would have supported the war in Iraq?

Rand spent her lifetime advocating for free, voluntary trade between individuals and the free nations that protect individual rights. She knew that the use of force, including restrictions on freedom imposed by the marriage of business and state, stands in direct opposition to individual rights. A nation is free to the extent that individual rights are protected, including the right to trade voluntarily without government intervention. The high moral ground to invade dictatorhips can only be claimed by genuinely free nations when attacked or threatened. The response to such an attack, in order to be a moral response, would have to be voluntary in every way. The war in Iraq does not meet those criteria.

The violation of undividual rights in the U.S.–using the forced taxation of Americans to finance the war in Iraq–negates any moral claim the U.S. has to invade another country, no matter how serious its violations of human rights may be. Once the United States has further enslaved its own citizens for any reason, it can no longer claim that it is defending liberty.

It is an absurd contradition that the fight for global freedom can be built upon the abrogation of freedom at home. A contradiction of that magnitude can only be sold to a population of individuals brainwashed into believing that self-sacrifice, the complete denial of one’s value as a human being, is the highest moral good.

The war in Iraq, like most every other war before it, is a statist war, financed with the freedom of the American taxpayers for the benefit of U.S. coporations feeding at the public trough. It is therefore anti-capitalism and anti-freedom. It is immoral.

To end war, it is necessary to end statism, not just in Iraq, but in the United States and every other corner of the globe. Opposition to statism requires opposition to the war in Iraq as well as opposition to dictators like Saddam Hussein and any other terrorist organizations.

The war against statism will ultimately be won on the battlefields of the human mind, not in the deserts of Iraq or any other place on earth. Such a battle cannot be won by statism-bred armies nourished on the disintegrating remains of individual liberty. They are a symptom of the problem, not the solution.

Statism is by its nature a war on individuals and the battle can only be fought and won by each and every individual fighting for his/her own freedom against those who would take it away.

If men want to oppose war, it is statism that they must oppose. So long as they hold the tribal nation that the individual is sacrificial fodder for the collective, that some men have the right to rule others by force, and that some (any) alleged “good” can justify it–there can be no peace within a nation and no peace between nations.[2,42]

1 Rand, Ayn, The Virtue of Selfishness, New York: Signet, 1961.
2 Rand, Ayn, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, New York: Signet, 1967