The following is an excerpt from an open letter written in early 1941 by Ayn Rand. It was addressed simply, To All Fifth Columnists:
First and above all: what is Totalitarianism? We all hear so much about it, but we don’t understand it. What is the most important point, the base, the whole heart of both Communism and Nazism? It is not the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” nor the nationalization of private property, nor the supremacy of the “Aryan” race, nor anti-Semitism. These things are secondary symptoms, surface details, the effects and not the cause. What is the primary cause, common to both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, and all other dictators, past, present, and future? One idea — and one only: That the State is superior to the individual. That the Collective holds all rights and the individual has none.
Ms Rand was indeed precise in her view, particularly evident when one compares her brainwork with the words of Thomas Jefferson:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Clearly Jefferson and Rand meet, intellectually, and agree on the premise embedded in the enlightenment philosophy. A philosophy that, by the way, created the most free society in history. The unique idea that it is government which is subordinate, not the individual. That it is society’s duty to not interfere with individual citizens pursuit of their own lives, and their own happiness. This unique view subsumes that it is axiomatic that private property and free market capitalism be as unrestricted as humanly possible. Clearly, Rand and Jefferson were on the same page in many ways.
Fast forward 66 years from Rand’s letter and we have the recent commentary by Dennis Prager, a radio show host in Los Angeles. I would be remiss if I did not also point out that Mr. Prager is a very bright boy. I have met Dennis personally, he is as compelling if not more so in person than on his talk show. He is a prominent Jew who has written several books, articles and journals. From his biography: “Mr. Prager was a Fellow at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, where he did graduate work at the Middle East and Russian Institutes. He has taught Russian and Jewish history at Brooklyn College; and was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Delegation to the Vienna Review Conference on the Helsinki Accords. He holds an honorary doctorate of laws from Pepperdine University.”
Prager wrote recently at Townhall.com regarding high school cheerleaders being required to cheer for girl teams. Odd as the theme was, the article really wasn’t about girls being required to cheer for girls. It was, in the end, more about the themes presented above:
Of all the myths that surround Left-Right differences, one of the greatest is that the Left values liberty more than the Right. Regarding a small handful of behaviors — abortion is the best example — this is true. But overwhelmingly, the further left one goes on the political spectrum, the greater the advocacy of more state control of people’s lives.
That is why, with the exception of Nazism — which was an acronym for National Socialism but, rightly or wrongly, because it was race- and nationalism-based and because it allowed private enterprise, Nazism has been generally considered a far-right, not far-left, doctrine — nearly all totalitarianism of the 20th century was on the Left.
By definition, the moment one crosses from center to left, one accepts more government control of people’s lives. Therefore, the further left society moves, the more there is government control over its citizens’ lives. It is astonishing that this obvious fact is not universally acknowledged and that the Left has somehow successfully portrayed itself as preoccupied with personal liberty with regard to anything except sexual behavior and abortion.
Mr. Prager almost gets it but for whatever reason he refuses to acknoledge that which he perceives and suggests as a ‘universal’ in his statement regarding Nazism when he says: “rightly or wrongly.” Dennis, it is wrongly! Wrongly by any objective standard of rational analysis. Prager ought to plainly state that it is the subserviant status of the individual to any collective authority that gives rise to the loss of liberty. The fact that this is the premise and clearly stated goals of the left is no surprise to anyone – always has been, always will be. Moreover, it is collectivism/altruism of one form or another that Prager had a great opportunity to expose. Neither Rand or Jefferson beat around the bush on this matter, both handling the notion of the hierarchy of rights with ease and directness. Prager seems to muddle through his argument pointing not to the root cause but tinkering with effects. I think I know why.
Dennis Prager is a fundamentalist of sorts. He has faith in the writings and teachings embedded in the Torah (The Old Testament). It should be noted here that there is a significant degree of altruism and collectivism to be found in all man-made religion be it Christianity, Islam or Judaism. They are, in the end, all about tyranny over the mind of man if taken seriously to their logical conclusions. For all three of these major religions it is paramount that men check their rational, independent mind at the door of the church, mosque or synagogue. One simply cannot have total faith and live as a completely rational being; the former precludes the latter.
Rand plainly understood this, so too did Jefferson. Moreover, some of Jefferson’s contemporaries such as Thomas Paine1 were far more outspoken on such matters. Paine in particular comes very close to Rand in this way. For Rand, the answer was plain – religion is fundamentally problematic because it relies not on things as they really are but rather things as men wish them to be. And since life can never match all of ones wishes, one must have faith that in a life hereafter it will all be corrected to their satisfaction. Taken to its extreme such non-thinking worship of the illusory results in religious fundamentalism of any of a variety of flavors and is very intoxicating because one has to simply stop thinking and merely surrender to ‘faith.’
Rand opposed philosophies and ethical systems based on any mysticism or the supernatural. She also rejected totally collectivism. Religion, in her view, opposes and destroys man’s life on earth by demanding self-sacrifice (subordination of the individual) in the wish/hope for an unknowable and unprovable (in reality, non-existent) life after death. In fact, death (to the exclusion of life) becomes the focal point of worship. Collectivism she rejected because it destroys man’s life by demanding self immolation (again, subordination of the individual) for the sake of a pure abstraction known as ‘society.’ “For Ayn Rand all the emotions of exaltation, worship, reverence, grandeur, and nobility which religion has arrogated to God and collectivism has arrogated to society, belong in fact to man as a rational individual.”2
Put to the test, Rand was like a hot knife through religious ice and she alienated both ends of the spectrum while selling over 12 million copies of Atlas Shrugged – clearly, something she was communicating was resonating. She felt that the premise of religions which assume man as evil at birth were worse than obscene as she stated in Atlas Shrugged:
Your code begins by damning man as evil, then demands that he practice a good which it defines as impossible for him to practice. It demands, as his first proof of virtue, that he accepts his own depravity without proof. It demands that he start, not with a standard of value, but with a standard of evil, which is himself, by means of which he is then to define the good: the good is that which he is not.
It does not matter who then becomes the profiteer on his renounced glory and tormented soul, a mystic God with some incomprehensible design or any passer-by whose rotting sores are held as some explicable claim upon him – it does not matter, the good is not for him to understand, his duty is to crawl through years of penance, atoning for the guilt of his existence to any stray collector of unintelligible debts, his only concept of a value is a zero: the good is that which is non-man.
She drives the point home later stating that the notion of original sin is a mockery of nature, morality, justice and reason:
A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral. To hold, as man’s sin, a fact not open to his choice is a mockery of morality. To hold man’s nature as his sin is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of justice. To hold him guilty in a matter where no innocence exists is a mockery of reason. To destroy morality, nature, justice and reason by means of a single concept is a feat of evil hardly to be matched. Yet that is the root of your code.
All three of these serious thinkers, Rand, Jefferson and Prager agree to one degree or another regarding the evil nature of subordinating man to government. All state in their proclamations the dangers and implicit contradictions of tyranny. Where they differ in their philosophy has to do with the supernatural and deities. Rand rejects all such notions as a basis for life on earth. Jefferson was accused of being an atheist, but he realized the value in men’s lives that faith gave them. That it provides, especially to children, a mechanism to temporarily understand their place in the universe and to give another dimension of meaning to ones life. His letter to the Baptists of Danbury was illuminating yet completely rational:
The affectionate sentiments of esteem & approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful & zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and, in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more & more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” thus building a wall of eternal separation between Church & State. Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect,
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & the Danbury Baptist [your religious] association assurances of my high respect & esteem.
Jan. 1. 1802. 3
Juxtiposing these three is illuminating insofar as the place where they all agree. And make no mistake, they all agree but the weakest arguments for the rights of man are clearly those of Prager who is the one most embued with faith in the unknowable.
And that I will leave as my final thought…
1 The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine
2 John Piper, The Ethics of Ayn Rand
3 Library of Congress copy