Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Mount Vernon Statement - Conservatism's Unilateral Moral Surrender

As the 2010 mid-term election season heats up, the battle for the soul of the Republican Party is in full swing. The apparent kick-off of this ideological battle was Mark Levin’s best-selling “Conservative Manifesto”, his book Liberty and Tyranny, which I reviewed on June 6 and June 11 of 2009.

Another manifesto has now made the scene. The Mount Vernon Statement promotes “Conservative Beliefs, Values, and Principles” as “A Statement for the 21st Century”.

It commits its signatories to “the ideas of the American Founding”. It seems to strike the right notes. But it contains irredeemably deadly flaws. The sixth paragraph reads:

“The conservatism of the Declaration asserts self-evident truths based on the laws of nature and nature’s God. It defends life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It traces authority to the consent of the governed. It recognizes man’s self-interest but also his capacity for virtue.” (Emphasis added.)

By separating self-interest from virtue, the Statement declares the moral nullification of the Declaration. The Statement declares flatly that the“capacity for virtue” cannot be found in the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, the essence of "man's self-interest". The Declaration “defends” those ideas, but virtue is to be found elsewhere – implicitly, in one’s “capacity” for selfless service and sacrifice. To whom? The answer comes later, in point five of “the framework for a consistent and meaningful policy agenda”. That final point promotes “conservatism’s firm defense of family, neighborhood, community, and faith.”

The ethics of altruism (self-sacrificial service to others) and altruism’s political manifestation, collectivism (the supremacy of the group), are firmly ensconced in The Mount Vernon Statement. Though described not as “society”, the “people”, the “master race”, the “proletariat”, but rather the “family, neighborhood [and] community”, the collectivist strain in this statement of “conservative beliefs, values, and principles” is undeniable. Collectivism, the primacy of the group, invades, dilutes and undermines the alleged purpose of the manifesto - the promotion of “the ideas of the American Founding”. A group is a collection of individuals, and so the health of the family, neighborhood, and community derives from the opposite principle. Yet that core idea of the Founding Fathers, the primacy of the individual, is given short shrift in The Mount Vernon Statement.

And notice the fourth value – faith. Why faith? Because, put simply, altruism and collectivism cannot be defended rationally … i.e., in reason. This declaration of faith isn’t even consistent with its intended purpose of promoting “the ideas of the American Founding”. Completely ignored is the fact that the Founders, who were products of The Enlightenment, were primarily champions of reason, not faith. If the case for this nation's Founding ideals rests on nothing but faith, then what does that imply about her ideological antipode, the collectivists? Rationality is on their side!

If this is the way conservatives plan to defend Americanism, the socialists don’t need enemies.

To be fair, the Statement does talk of “individual liberty” and “free enterprise” and makes other references that seem to uphold American ideals. But the reference to the “conservatism of the Constitution” is historical revisionism. There is nothing conservative about the Founding of this nation. What was being conserved? The original Constitution and its foundational philosophic statement, the Declaration of Independence, are almost violent in their radicalism. The very worst and utterly false claim anyone can make about America’s Founding Fathers is to pin on them the label of "conservatives". Conservatism is the yoke that they pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” to throw off. It was the entrenched tribalism of mankind’s history that they sought to overthrow – and did – to be replaced with its antipode, a nation of individualism.

The Founding Fathers didn’t explicitly set out to create the system we now call capitalism. That term, in fact, hadn’t even been coined yet. They set out to free the individual from omnipotent rulers, and from the exploitation of his fellow men, by guaranteeing to each the equal and unalienable rights to the pursuit of his own rational self-interest – i.e., to his own life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness, guided by his capacity for reason. There would be no rulers, as such … not the state, the community, or collective of any kind. For the first time in all of recorded history, the people - all of them, equally and as individuals – would be served by their political leaders rather than the other way around. The natural and logical consequence was our uniquely American political-economic system, which unleashed the individual to create free market capitalism, the system of individual rights, limited rights-protecting government, and the trader principle. The Founders spawned the world’s first moral nation that enshrined a system of individual selfishness, which properly understood is a noble ideal.

The Founders thus achieved the most radical and greatest political revolution in world history. It was an enormous advance in the political evolution of man. But the Founders were not philosophers. They were intellectuals who put into action the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers, foremost among them of which was John Locke. In so doing, they inadvertently planted a poison pill. The failure of the Enlightenment thinkers to firmly establish the moral underpinnings of their individualist achievement left the Founders with an unresolved contradiction. This is not to diminish the Enlightenment achievement, also an enormous advance, in the philosophical evolution, of man. So that achievement, and thus the Founders’ achievement, was left incomplete until the 20th century.

The proper moral foundation of the American system was never identified and articulated at its origination. The Founders, as is obvious in their writings, clung to the age-old ethics of altruism, a term that also had yet to be coined. The altruist doctrine holds selfless sacrifice and service to others as the essence of virtue. But altruism is inimical to freedom. I refer you to the man who coined the term, which derives from “otherism”:

The French philosopher Auguste Comte (who coined the term “altruism”) puts this clearly: Because “to live for others” is “for all of us a constant duty” and “the definitive formula of human morality,” it follows that “[a]ll honest and sensible men, of whatever party, should agree, by a common consent, to eliminate the doctrine of rights.” Altruism, explained Comte, “cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism.” On the premise of altruism, “[rights] are as absurd as they are immoral. . . . The whole notion, then, must be completely put away.” (From Craig Biddle’s Objective Standard essay, The Creed of Sacrifice vs. the Land of Liberty, Fall 2009.)

Tellingly, the Mount Vernon Statement doesn’t even mention the word “rights”, and merely presents a watered-down version of the Declaration’s core political and moral principle underlying “the ideas of the American Founding.” It claims that the Declaration of Independence merely “defends life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, rather than recognizing them as “unalienable Rights”. Perhaps the Statement’s drafters sensed what Comte declares explicitly. The Statement is as important for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. Considering the importance of the Mount Vernon Statement, as a look at some of its prominent signatories attests to, I can’t believe that the wording is an accident. The concept of rights simply cannot be reconciled with the concept of self-sacrifice – not in reason. And the Mount Vernon conservatives apparently know it, and don’t even attempt it. So they cling to faith. As philosopher Ayn Rand has observed, reason is a corollary of egoism.

So the Founders, who were committed to the egoistic Enlightenment ideas of reason and individualism, attempted to build a nation of reason and individualism on a foundation constructed of an ancient ethics that is inimical to reason and individualism. The Founding Fathers and the Enlightenment thinkers they followed failed to challenge the entrenched Judeo-Christian morality. The result was the lethal contradiction that is slowly destroying freedom and capitalism in America today. (For a much deeper study of the points made here, and an exalted and accurate tribute to the Founding Fathers, see The Nation of the Enlightenment, chapter five of Leonard Peikoff's book The Ominous Parallels, from which my analysis drew its inspiration.)

But contradictions do not and can not exist in nature. They are products of flawed human thinking, which must (and can) be corrected if the destructive effects of that contradiction are to be rectified. Reality is immutable. Today’s conservative defenders of free market capitalism, being firmly anchored in the concrete of tradition, refuse to challenge the lethal contradiction that the Founders accepted by default. Thus, though likely passionately sincere, they have been and are paving the ethical path for the collectivists.

The Conservative Right continues to attempt to build a pro-free market, pro-capitalist, pro-American case upon the ethical foundations of the Socialist Left. Not only can it not be done: It is counter-productive. Ever since the arrival of William F. Buckley’s National Review in the 1950s heralded the alliance between the conservatives and the Religious Right, America’s pro-capitalist forces have been paving the way for socialism. But capitalism, the system of rational self-interest, is utterly incompatible with the self-sacrificial code of Judeo-Christian ethics.

If the past century – and especially the past 60 years of the Christian-dominated conservative movement – has taught us anything, it is this. Despite the fact that socialism never has, doesn’t now, and never can work, it will continue to win as long as it is considered morally noble in theory. As long as capitalism is thought to be outside the scope of moral virtue, it will continue to wither as it has since America’s Founding. And along with it will go our unalienable rights. As indisputable proof, I bring you Barack Obama, whose path to power has been paved by American Conservatism. As proof of that, I present to you George W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism”, which also “recognizes man’s self-interest but also his capacity for virtue”, resulting in a huge expansion of government under his presidency.

To be sure, some on the Right are beginning to grasp the real nature of the battle. But, by and large, the American Right remains tied to a failed strategy. The cultural penetration of Objectivism, the only coherent alternative to the collectivist trend, is just in its primary stages. It will take time, perhaps decades, for Ayn Rand’s philosophy to reach the level of cultural saturation that will translate into a new pro-capitalist pro-individual rights political direction. It is time we may not have. Capitalism’s defenders, including today’s conservatives, must move quickly to abandon their steadfast adherence to tradition and acknowledge that the Founding of this nation, as great an achievement as that was, was incomplete. The dichotomy between its implicitly egoistic principles and the entrenched remnants of self-sacrificial Judeo-Christian ethics is the biggest and deadliest shortcoming.

The fight for the future of America is a moral one. The battle lines are clearly drawn, thanks to the rise of Barack Obama. It’s the dark axis of faith/altruism/collectivism/socialism versus the enlightened forces of reason/egoism/individualism/capitalism. One leads to slavery, and the other to unalienable individual rights. One leads to tyranny and the other to freedom. One destroys American ideals, and the other completes and thus saves them.

The Mount Vernon Statement is a declaration of unilateral moral disarmament. As long as self-interest is divorced from virtue, the political trend will inexorably gravitate toward full collectivism based upon “man’s … capacity for virtue”. Or, as Barack Obama so eloquently put it some time ago:“Let us be our brother’s keeper ... and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.” Our politics will always reflect what people think is right, because most people are ultimately motivated by what they think is right. So long as the basic moral assumptions so confidently espoused by Obama go unchallenged, collectivism will continue to be the course of least resistance.

Conservatives are philosophically ill-equipped to stem the collectivist/statist tide, as long as they continue to surrender the moral high ground to the Left. Worse, by declaring that our Founding documents promote altruism as virtue, the Mount Vernon conservatives have turned freedom's most potent historical weapon, “the ideas of the American Founding”, over to the enemy camp lock, stock, and barrel. Can you see Barack Obama disagreeing with the claim that "the's...capacity for virtue", which is reflected in his politics?

It’s either-or. Either each of us is morally his brothers’ keeper, or each of us has a moral right to his own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Either altruism is noble, or the Declaration of Independence is.

Judeo-Christian ethics, along with all concepts of altruistic self-sacrifice as the moral ideal, teaches that the abnegation of one’s values is the path to righteousness. Giving up, not pursuing, one’s own happiness is the goal to strive for. The beneficiary of the individual’s actions are good, if it is other than the individual who took the action … i.e., anyone who didn’t earn it. Virtue, in other words, consists of loss or pain or some form of making one’s life worse. The ethics of altruism consists of arbitrary assertions disconnected from the metaphysical facts of reality and the laws of nature, and thus it demands acceptance on faith and is therefor closed to human reason. It is impossible to reconcile this vision with capitalism.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism contains the definitive formulation of the ethics of America. If men are to be free to live, to exercise their unalienable rights in pursuit of their own happiness, it must be recognized that it is right to do so. The Objectivist ethics teaches you how to live your life to its fullest – to use your freedom to make it the best that it can be, to achieve values and thus your own happiness. Virtue, Objectivism holds, consists of personal gain or profit or any rational form of making one’s life objectively better. The Objectivist ethical system is grounded in the metaphysical facts of reality and validated by reason and logic and thus open to rational scrutiny and debate. It is impossible to reconcile this vision with collectivism.

Altruism in all of its forms is contrary to human nature. Egoism, properly understood, is fully consistent with human nature. Which ethics is consistent with American ideals? There is only one rational answer, and the practical results speak for themselves. They are written across the history of this greatest of countries.

It is Ayn Rand’s ethical concept that the Founding Fathers had in mind when those words in the Declaration of Independence were written and ratified by those 56 radicals in 1776, even as the document they signed clashed with their professed ethical beliefs. There can be no disputing this. The words say what they say. It is utterly inconceivable that Thomas Jefferson and the Founders who signed this monumentally important historical document didn’t know what they were endorsing.

No matter how hard altruism’s apologists of Left or Right try, there is no denying the power and the implicit meaning of those words in the Declaration of Independence: “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.” They have been written. No matter how hard anyone tries, they can never be erased. They define America, and America’s goodness. Now, their moral validity has been made explicit, thanks to Ayn Rand's historic ethical discoveries.

The Founding Fathers cast off the tribal, collectivist tyranny of a barbaric past to forge a nation based upon the supremacy of the individual. Ayn Rand cast off the sacrificial ethics of a barbaric past, and united the Founders’ individualism with an American morality.

Ayn Rand, America’s philosopher, has risen to say, and prove, that America is good, because it is right. She has completed the American Revolution. For her achievement in discovering and promoting America’s moral foundation, for which she has been unmercifully vilified, Ayn Rand deserves the title of America’s Last Founding Father. It’s time for the American defenders of freedom and capitalism to acknowledge this.

That is what it will take to save America.


XCowboy2 said...

You might be interested in my answer from an Objectivist viewpoint

Mike Zemack said...


Thanks for bringing attention to your excellent essay, which was published on 2/20/10. I highly recommend it to my readers, as it complements and expands on the theme of this post.

The point cannot be too strongly made: the conservatism and historical revisionism espoused by The Mount Vernon Statement is a bigger threat to America than the openly collectivist Left.