Objectivist Resistance to Anarchy: A Problem of Concept Formation?


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As a former Orthodox Objectivist who now recognizes anarchy's intrinsic coherence, I have particular interest in studying the ethical basis of anarchism. Roy A. Childs, Jr.'s "Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand" and "The Epistemological Basis of Anarchism: An Open Letter to Objectivists and Libertarians," and Nicholas Dykes' "Mrs. Logic and the Law: A Critique of Ayn Rand's View of Government" clearly establish that Ayn Rand's politics (limited government) conflict with her ethics (individual rights). The ethical justifications for anarchism ought to be particularly persuasive to Objectivists. It seems, however, that Objectivists disregard without examination the validity of these theoretical arguments; they are cognitively unable to consider a functional anarchist society as a logical possibility. Refusing to address the anarchist position is an ethical error, yes, but the problem's deeper root is one of epistemology, not ethics. My purpose in this essay is thus not to debate Rand 's political arguments but to show that her automatic dismissal of anarchism stems from invalid concept formation. We cannot hope to persuade Objectivists of anarchy's moral basis nor its practical merits until we first address and correct their false definition.

The Objectivist theory of concept formation is presented in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (Rand). According to Rand , the mind forms a concept by isolating the essential characteristic(s) of that class of existents from all other classes of existents. For example, distinguishing tables from all other types of furniture requires the mind to identify tables' essential features: the form of a flat, level surface serving the function of supporting smaller objects. Furniture classes are conceptualized not by identifying accessory features such as material composition or color, but by distinguishing common form and function.

Essential characteristics of concrete concepts are usually simple enough for the mind to recognize automatically. Identifying the essentials of abstract concepts, however, is more difficult and introduces the possibility of error. An invalid concept results from incorrectly identifying an abstract existent's essential characteristics. One type of invalid concept is what Rand calls the anti-concept, a set of logically unrelated units grouped together by package-dealing, or treating as related "elements which differ essentially in nature, truth-status, importance, or value" ("The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made," Philosophy: Who Needs It). Because a concept's meaning is specified in its definition, its definition must characterize the fundamental nature of its identity'the feature that differentiates it from every other concept in existence. When a concept is "defined" by grouping it with terms with which it does not share essential elements, the essentials of that concept become associated with the nonessential connotations of other terms in the package-deal. For example, as Rand demonstrates in ''Extremism, or the Art of Smearing" (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal), such disparate groups as The John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Communist party are packaged together as "extremist." But classifying these groups based on the intensity with which they pursue their goals rather than on the fundamental nature of the goals is an epistemological error. Extremism is an anti-concept resulting from conceptualization by nonessential characteristics. (Rand goes on to ascribe ulterior motives to those who use extremism as an anti-concept: Statists developed the term as a channel through which to associate supposed representatives of capitalists--The John Birch Society--with violent and detestable groups such as the Klan. The valid concept of capitalism is thus attacked and smeared by its affiliation with "extremist" groups.)

Whether or not Rand successfully proves that anti-concepts arise from nefarious motivations, the result of using anti-concepts is indeed destructive. Because the mind must deal in essentials it automatically substitutes the actual definition of a concept with the alleged or implied meaning. Extremism--intense, unwavering dedication to one's principles--is replaced with hatred and violence. Isolationism--national self-interest--is replaced with disregard and lack of concern for the rest of the world. Change--transformation over time--becomes a panacea deliverable by a presidential savior.

Anti-concept package-deals thus obliterate the legitimate meaning of a word and replace it with a contradictory definition. Eventually we become unable to comprehend the existence of the referent that the concept truly specifies. Selfishness, for example, is so alien an idea in our culture that Rand dedicated an entire book to dissolving misconceptions about its meaning and extolling its virtues (The Virtue of Selfishness). Because the actual meaning of selfish--taking rational interest in oneself--was replaced by the notion of a forceful brute destroying others for his own material gain, there is no term to describe the man who neither sacrifices himself to others nor sacrifices others to himself. The anti-concept definition of selfish is accepted as its actual meaning. The idea of a truly selfish man is not part of our culture.

Ayn Rand was an expert at detecting epistemological errors in others. I submit, however, that she committed package-dealing when forming her definition of anarchy. Her definition replaced the meaning of anarchy with an illegitimate anti-concept, thereby preventing Objectivists from considering anarchy as the appropriate politics consistent with the rest of their philosophy.

The essential characteristic of anarchy that distinguishes it from all other political theories is absence of a governmental ruler. Therefore the definition of anarchy is absence of political authority. However, Rand defines anarchy as "the chaos of gang-rule" and "rule by brute force" ("The Nature of Government," TVoS). Similarly, Leonard Peikoff defines anarchy as "lawless chaos" and "the breakdown of law and order" ("Government," Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand). Note that, metaphysically, absence of a governmental ruler does not mean absence of order per se. Yet this is precisely how Objectivists define anarchy: absence of order. This definition is not based on fundamentals. It is an anti-concept package-deal associating absence of political authority with violence, force, and irrational, whim-worshiping savages. The Objectivist definition of anarchy is false.

Because their definition of anarchy is based on nonessentials (inaccurate ones, at that), the Objectivists have no term to describe absence of a governmental ruler. Just as the common anti-concept meaning of selfish replaced its true meaning, preventing conception of the rationally self-interested man, the Objectivist anti-concept meaning of anarchy replaced its true meaning, preventing conception of a truly voluntary society. Objectivists cognitively cannot conceive of rational, self-sovereign individuals who do not recognize the authority of government over individual lives. The term to properly describe this idea has been eliminated from the Objectivist lexicon.

One's conclusions follow from one's premises. Because Objectivists define anarchy as chaos, they necessarily believe, like Rand, that anarchy entails "perpetual tribal warfare of prehistoric savages" ("The Nature of Government," TVoS). They necessarily believe, like Leonard Peikoff, that anarchy is "incompatible with survival" and that an anarchist uses "physical force against others whenever he feels like it, with no objective standards of justice, crime, or proof" ("Government," OPAR). They necessarily believe, like Harry Binswanger, that anarchy would involve "a band of strangers marching down Main Street, submachine guns at the ready" ("Q&A Department: Anarchism," The Objectivist Forum). No amount of practical argumentation against these claims can possibly convince Objectivists otherwise, because their very definition of anarchy encompasses chaos. If anarchy is defined as absence of order, then it must, by definition, entail mob rule, and must, by definition, preclude peaceable order.

Rand is correct in writing, "The truth or falsehood of all of man's conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions" ("Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology," ITOE). Because the Objectivists' definition of anarchy is false, their conclusions stemming from that definition are necessarily false. Attempting to engage in political discourse is futile until this error in concept formation is corrected. If we wish to persuade Objectivists, let us focus not on theoretical or practical arguments, but start by tackling their inaccurate definition via epistemological argument. Encourage them to reevaluate the essential nature of anarchy and to redefine anarchy by its fundamentals. Only once their definition of anarchy is accurate can they be receptive to the truth and goodness of the theory and envision the possibility of its achievement.


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Carrie Burdzinski's picture
Columns on STR: 4

Carrie Burdzinski is a biology professor at a public college in Michigan. She is also owner/operator of Aurum Naturals, a handmade beeswax candle business. As a side project, she writes and performs music for oboe. She is also an avid runner and organic food purist.