This essay was originally published in January – February 1973 in The Ayn Rand Letter and later anthologized in Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982).
The most appropriate title for this discussion would be “I told you so.” But since that would be in somewhat dubious taste, I shall leave this [issue of the Ayn Rand Letter] untitled.
In Atlas Shrugged, and in many subsequent articles, I said that the advocates of Mysticism are motivated not by a quest for truth, but by hatred for man’s mind; that the advocates of Altruism are motivated not by compassion for suffering, but by hatred for man’s life; that the advocates of Collectivism are motivated not by a desire for men’s happiness, but by hatred for man; that their three doctrines come from the same root and blend into a single passion: hatred of the good for being the good; and that the focus of that hatred, the target of its passionate fury, is the man of ability.
Those who thought that I was exaggerating have seen event after event confirm my diagnosis. Reality has been providing me with references and footnotes, including explicit admissions by the advocates of those doctrines. The admissions are becoming progressively louder and clearer.
The major ideological campaigns of the mystic-altruist-collectivist axis are usually preceded by trial balloons that test the public reaction to an attack on certain fundamental principles. Today, a new kind of Intellectuals ballon is beginning to bubble in the popular press — testing the climate for a large-scale attack intended to obliterate the concept of justice.
The new balloons acquire the mark of a campaign by carrying, like little identification tags, the code words: “A New Justice.” This does not mean that the campaign is consciously directed by some mysterious powers. It is a conspiracy, not of men, but of basic premises — and the power directing it is logic: if, at the desperate stage of a losing battle, some men point to a road logically necessitated by their basic premises, those who share the premises will rush to follow.
Since my capacity for intellectual slumming is limited, I do not know who originated this campaign at this particular time (its philosophical roots are ancient). The first instance that came to my attention was a brief news item over a year ago. Dr. Jan Tinbergen from the Netherlands, who had received a Nobel Prize in Economic Science, spoke at an international conference in New York City and suggested “that there be a tax on personal capabilities. ‘A modest first step might be a special tax on persons with high academic scores,’ he said.” We reprinted this item in the “Horror File” of The Objectivist (June 1971). The reaction of my friends, when they read it, was an incredulously indignant amusement, with remarks such as: “He’s crazy!”
But it is not amusing any longer when a news item in The New York Times (January 2, 1973) announces that Pope Paul VI “issued a call today for a ‘new justice.’ True justice recognizes that all men are in substance equal, the Pontiff said. . . . ‘The littler, the poorer, the more suffering, the more defenseless, even the lower a man has fallen, the more he deserves to be assisted, raised up, cared for, and honored. We learn this from the Gospel.’”
Observe the package-deal: to be “little,” “poor,” “suffering,” “defenseless” is not necessarily to be immoral (it depends on the cause of these conditions). But “even the lower a man has fallen” implies, in this context, not misfortune but immorality. Are we asked to absorb the notion that the lower a man’s vices, the more concern he deserves — and the more honor? Another package deal: to be “assisted,” “raised up,” “cared for” obviously does not apply to those who are great, rich, happy or strong; they do not need it. But — “to be honored”? They are the men who would have to do the assisting, the raising up, the caring for — but they do not deserve to be honored? They deserve less honor than the man who is saved by their virtues and values?
In Atlas Shrugged, exposing the meaning of altruism, John Galt says: “What passkey admits you to the moral elite? The passkey is lack of value. Whatever the value involved, it is your lack of it that gives you a claim upon those who don’t lack it. . . . To demand rewards for your virtue is selfish and immoral; it is your lack of virtue that transforms your demand into a moral right.”
What is an abstract ethical suggestion in the Pope’s message, becomes specific and political in a brief piece that appeared in the Times on January 20, 1973 — “The New Inequality” by Peregrine Worsthorne, a columnist for The Sunday Telegraph of London. In addition to altruism, which is its base, this piece was made possible by two premises: 1. the refusal to recognize the difference between mind and force (i.e., between economic and political power); and 2. the refusal to recognize the difference between existence and consciousness (i.e., between the metaphysical and the man-made). Those who ignore or evade the crucial importance of these distinctions, will find Mr. Peregrine Worsthorne ready to welcome them at the end of their road.
There was a time, Mr. Worsthorne begins, when “gross hereditary inequalities of wealth, status and power were universally accepted as a divinely ordained fact of life.” He is speaking of feudalism and of the British caste system. But modern man, he says, “finds this awfully difficult to understand. To him it seems absolutely axiomatic that each individual ought to be allowed to make his grade according to merit, regardless of the accident of birth. All positions of power, wealth and status should be open to talent. To the extent that this ideal is achieved a society is deemed to be just.”
If you think that this is a proclamation of individualism, think twice. Modern liberals, Mr. Worsthorne continues, “have tended to believe it to be fair enough that the man of merit should be on top and the man without merit should be underneath.” On top — of what? Underneath — what? Mr. Worsthorne doesn’t say. Judging by the rest of the piece, his answer would be: on top of anything — political power, self-made wealth, scientific achievement, artistic genius, the status of earned respect or of a government-granted title of nobility — anything anyone may ever want or envy.
The current social “malaise,” he explains, is caused by “the increasing evidence that this assumption [about a just society] should be challenged. The ideal of a meritocracy no longer commands such universal assent.”
“Meritocracy” is an old anti-concept and one of the most contemptible package-deals. By means of nothing more than its last five letters, that word obliterates the difference between mind and force: it equates the men of ability with political rulers, and the power of their creative achievements with political power. There is no difference, the word suggests, between freedom and tyranny: an “aristocracy” is tyranny by a politically established elite, a “democracy” is tyranny by the majority — and when a government protects individual rights, the result is tyranny by talent or “merit” (and since “to merit” means “to deserve,” a free society is ruled by the tyranny of justice).
Mr. Worsthorne makes the most of it. His further package-dealing becomes easier and cruder. “It used to be considered manifestly unjust that a child should be given an enormous head-start in life simply because he was the son of an earl, or a member of the landed gentry. But what about a child today born of affluent, educated parents whose family life gets him off to a head-start in the educational ladder? Is he not the beneficiary of a form of hereditary privilege no less unjust than that enjoyed by the aristocracy?”
What about Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, Commodore Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, Sr. or, in politics, Abraham Lincoln, and their “enormous head-start in life”? On the other hand, what about the Park Avenue hippies or the drug-eaten children of college-bred intellectuals and multimillionaires?
Mr. Worsthorne, it seems, had counted on “universal public education” to level things down, but it has disappointed him. “Family life,” he declares, “is more important than school life in determining brain power. . . . Educational qualifications are today what armorial quarterings were in feudal times. Yet access to them is almost as unfairly determined by accidents of birth as was access to the nobility.” This, he says, defeats “any genuine faith in equality of opportunity” — and “accounts for the current populist clamor to do away with educational distinctions such as exams and diplomas, since they are seen as the latest form of privilege which, in a sense, they are.”
This means that if a young student (named, say, Thomas Hendricks), after days and nights of conscientious study, proves that he knows the subject of medicine, and passes an exam, he is given an arbitrary privilege, an unfair advantage over a young student (named Lee Hunsacker) who spent his time in a drugged daze, listening to rock music. And if Hendricks gets a diploma and a job in a hospital, while Hunsacker does not, Hunsacker will scream that he could not help it and that he never had a chance. Volitional effort? There is no such thing. Brain power? It’s determined by family life — and he couldn’t help it if Mom and Pop did not condition him to be willing to study. He is entitled to a job in a hospital, and a just society would guarantee it to him. The fate of the patients? He’s as good as any other fellow — “all men are in substance equal” — and the only difference between him and the privileged bastards is a diploma granted as unfairly as armorial quarterings! Equal opportunity? Don’t make him laugh!
Socialists, Mr. Worsthorne remarks, have used “the ideal of equality of opportunity” as “a way of moving in the right, that is to say the Left, direction.” They regarded it as “the thin end of the egalitarian wedge.”
Then, suddenly, Mr. Worsthorne starts dispensing advice to the Right — which the Left has always insisted on doing (and with good reason: any “rightist” who accepts it, deserves it). His advice, as usual, involves a threat and counts on fear. “But there is a problem here for the Right quite as much as for the Left. It seems to me certain that there will be a growing awareness in the coming decades of the unfairness of existing society, of the new forms of arbitrary allocation of power, status and privilege. Resentment will build up against the new meritocracy just as it built up against the old aristocracy and plutocracy.”
The Right, he claims, must “devise new ways of disarming this resentment, without so curbing the high-flyers, so penalizing excellence, or so imposing uniformity as to destroy the spirit of a free and dynamic society.” Observe that he permits himself to grasp and cynically to admit that such an issue as the penalizing of excellence is involved, but he regards it as the Right’s concern, not his own — and he does not object to penalizing virtue for being virtue, provided the penalties do not go to extremes. This — in an article written as an appeal for justice.
Mr. Worsthorne has a solution to offer to the Right — and here comes the full flowering of altruism’s essence and purpose, spreading out its petals like a hideous jungle plant, the kind that traps insects and eats them. The purpose is not to burn sacrificial victims, but to have them leap into the furnaces of their own free will: “What will be required of the new meritocracy is a formidably revived and re-animated spirit of noblesse oblige, rooted in the recognition that they are immensely privileged and must, as a class, behave accordingly, being prepared to pay a far higher social price, in terms of taxation, in terms of service, for the privilege of exercising their talents.”
Who granted them “the privilege of exercising their talents”? Those who have no talent. To whom must they “pay a higher social price”? To those who have no social value to offer. Who will impose taxation on their productive work? Those who have produced nothing. Whom do they have to serve? Those who would be unable to survive without them.
“Did you want to know who is John Galt? I am the first man of ability who refused to regard it as guilt. I am the first man who would not do penance for my virtues or let them be used as the tools of my destruction. I am the first man who would not suffer martyrdom at the hands of those who wished me to perish for the privilege of keeping them alive.” (Atlas Shrugged.)
“This [the ‘social price’] is not an easy idea for a meritocracy to accept,” Mr. Worsthorne concludes. “They like to think that they deserve their privileges, having won them by their own efforts. But this is an illusion, or at any rate a half truth. The other half of the truth is that they are terribly lucky and if their luck is not to run out they must be prepared to pay much more for their good fortune than they had hoped or even feared.”
I submit that any man who ascribes success to “luck” has never achieved anything and has no inkling of the relentless effort which achievement requires. I submit that a successful man who ascribes his own (legitimate) success in part to luck, is either a modest, concrete-bound represser who does not understand the issue — or an appeaser who tries to mollify the resentment of envious mediocrities. (For the nature of such resentment, see my article “The Age of Envy” in [Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution].)
Envy is a widespread sentiment in Europe, not in America. Most Americans admire success: they know what it takes. They believe that one must pay for one’s sins, not for one’s virtues — and the monstrous notion of paying ransoms for good fortune would not occur to them, nor would they take it seriously.
Resentment against “meritocracy”? Our last Presidential election [the landslide against McGovern] was a spectacular demonstration of America’s loyalty to achievement (on any level) — and of resentment against those egalitarian intellectuals who are trying to smuggle this country into a new caste system proposed by their British mentors: a mediocracy.
Politically, statism breeds a swarm of “little Caesars,” who are motivated by power-lust. Culturally, statism breeds still lower a species: a swarm of “little Neros,” who sing odes to depravity while the lives of their forced audiences go up in smoke.
I have said repeatedly that American intellectuals, with rare exceptions, are the slavish dependents and followers of Europe’s intellectual trends. The notion of a cultural aristocracy established and financed by the government is so grotesque in this country that one wonders how an article such as Mr. Peregrine Worsthorne’s got published here. Can you see any group or class in America posturing about in the “spirit of noblesse oblige”? Can you see Americans bowing to, say, Sir Burrhus Frederic (Skinner) or Dame Jane (Fonda), thanking them for their charitable contributions? Yet this is the goal of Britain’s little Neros — and of their American followers. I refer you to “To Dream the Non-Commercial Dream” in [The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought] for a discussion of why such “aristocrats” would have a vested interest in altruism and why they would be eager to pay a social price “for the privilege of exercising their talents.”
If, by “meritocracy,” Mr. Worsthorne means a government-picked elite (for instance, the B.B.C.), then it is true that such an elite owes its privileges to luck (and pull) more than to merit. If he means the men of ability who demonstrate their merit in the free marketplace (of ideas or of material goods), then his notions are worse than false. Package-dealing is essential to the selling of such notions. Mr. Worsthorne’s technique consists in making no distinction between these two kinds of “merit” — which means: in seeing no difference between Homer and Nero.
An article such as Mr. Worsthorne’s (and its various equivalents) would not appear in a newspaper, without some heavy academic-philosophical base. Newspapers are not published by or for theoretical innovators. Journalists do not venture to propagate an outrageous theory unless they know that they can refer to some “reputable” source able, they hope, to explain the inexplicable and defend the indefensible. An enormous amount of unconscionable nonsense comes out of the academic world each year; most of it is stillborn. But when echoes of a specific work begin to spurt in the popular press, they acquire significance as an advance warning — as an indication of the fact that some group(s) has a practical interest in shooting these particular bubbles into the country’s cultural arteries.
In the case of the new egalitarianism, an academic source does exist. It may not be the first book of that kind, but it is the one noticeably touted at present. It is A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, professor of philosophy at Harvard University.
The New York Times Book Review (December 3, 1972) lists it among “Five Significant Books of 1972” and explains: “Although it was published in 1971, it was not widely reviewed until 1972, because critics needed time to get a grip on its complexities. In fact, it may not be properly understood until it has been studied for years. . . .” The Book Review itself did not review it until July 16, 1972, at which time it published a front-page review written by Marshall Cohen, professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. The fact that the timing of that review coincided with the period of George McGovern’s campaign may or may not be purely coincidental.
Let me say that I have not read and do not intend to read that book. But since one cannot judge a book by its reviews, please regard the following discussion as the review of a review. Mr. Cohen’s remarks deserve attention in their own right.
According to the review, Rawls “is not an equalitarian, for he allows that inequalities of wealth, power and authority may be just. He argues, however, that these inequalities are just only when they can reasonably be expected to work out to the advantage of those who are worst off. The expenses incurred [by whom?] in training a doctor, like the rewards that encourage better performance from an entrepreneur, are permissible only if eliminating them, or reducing them further, would leave the worst off worse off still. If, however, permitting such inequalities contributes to improving the health or raising the material standards of those who are least advantaged, the inequalities are justified. But they are justified only to that extent — never as rewards for ‘merit,’ never as the just deserts of those who are born with greater natural advantages or into more favorable social circumstances.”
I assume that this is an accurate summary of Mr. Rawls’s thesis. The Book Review’s plug of December 3 offers corroboration: “The talented or socially advantaged person hasn’t earned anything: ‘Those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are,’ he [Rawls] writes, ‘may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out.’”
(“. . . it is the parasites who are the moral justification for the existence of the producers, but the existence of the parasites is an end in itself. . . .” John Galt, analyzing altruism, in Atlas Shrugged.)
Certain evils are protected by their own magnitude: there are people who, reading that quotation from Rawls, would not believe that it means what it says, but it does. It is not against social institutions that Mr. Rawls (and Mr. Cohen) rebels, but against the existence of human talent — not against political privileges, but against reality — not against governmental favors, but against nature (against “those who have been favored by nature,” as if such a term as “favor” were applicable here) — not against social injustice, but against metaphysical “injustice,” against the fact that some men are born with better brains and make better use of them than others are and do.
The new “theory of justice” demands that men counteract the “injustice” of nature by instituting the most obscenely unthinkable injustice among men: deprive “those favored by nature” (i.e., the talented, the intelligent, the creative) of the right to the rewards they produce (i.e., the right to life) — and grant to the incompetent, the stupid, the slothful a right to the effortless enjoyment of the rewards they could not produce, could not imagine, and would not know what to do with.
Mr. Cohen would object to my formulation. “It is important to understand,” he writes, “that according to Rawls it is neither just nor unjust that men are born with differing natural abilities into differing social positions. These are simply natural facts. [True, but if so, what is the purpose of the next sentence?] To be sure, no one deserves his greater natural capacity or merits a more favorable starting point in society. The natural and social ‘lottery’ is arbitrary from a moral point of view. But it does not follow, as the equalitarian supposes, that we should eliminate these differences. There is another way to deal with them. As we have seen, they can be put to work for the benefit of all and, in particular, for the benefit of those who are worst off.” If a natural fact is neither just nor unjust, by what mental leap does it become a moral problem and an issue of justice? Why should those “favored by nature” be made to atone for what is not an injustice and is not of their making?
Mr. Cohen does not explain. He continues: “What justice requires, then, is that natural chance and social fortune be treated as a collective resource and put to work for the common good. Justice does not require equality, but it does require that men share one another’s fate.” This is the conclusion that required reading a 607-page book and taking a year “to get a grip on its complexities.” That this is regarded as a new theory, raises the question of where Mr. Rawls’s readers and admirers have been for the last two thousand years. There is more than this to the book, but let us pause at this point for a moment.
Observe that Mr. Cohen’s (and the egalitarians’) view of man is literally the view of a children’s fairy tale — the notion that man, before birth, is some sort of indeterminate thing, an entity without identity, something like a shapeless chunk of human clay, and that fairy godmothers proceed to grant or deny him various attributes (“favors”): intelligence, talent, beauty, rich parents, etc. These attributes are handed out “arbitrarily” (this word is preposterously inapplicable to the processes of nature), it is a “lottery” among pre-embryonic non-entities, and — the supposedly adult mentalities conclude — since a winner could not possibly have “deserved” his “good fortune,” a man does not deserve or earn anything after birth, as a human being, because he acts by means of “undeserved,” “unmerited,” “unearned” attributes. Implication: to earn something means to choose and earn your personal attributes before you exist.
Stuff of that kind has a certain value: it is a psychological confession projecting the enormity of that envy and hatred for the man of ability which are the root of all altruistic theories. By preaching the basest variant of the old altruist tripe, Mr. Rawls’s book reveals altruism’s ultimate meaning — which may be regarded as an ethical innovation. But A Theory of Justice is not primarily a book on ethics: it is a treatise on politics. And, believe it or not, it might be taken by some people as a way to save capitalism — since Mr. Rawls allegedly offers a “new” moral justification for the existence of social inequalities. It is fascinating to observe against whom Mr. Rawls’s polemic is directed: against the utilitarians.
Virtually all the defenders of capitalism, from the nineteenth century to the present, accept the ethics of utilitarianism (with its slogan “The greatest happiness of the greatest number”) as their moral base and justification — evading the appalling contradiction between capitalism and the altruist-collectivist nature of the utilitarian ethics. Mr. Cohen points out that utilitarianism is incompatible with justice, because it endorses the sacrifice of minorities to the interests of the majority. (I said this in 1946 — see my old pamphlet Textbook of Americanism.) If the alleged defenders of capitalism insist on clinging to altruism, Mr. Rawls is the retribution they have long since deserved: with far greater consistency than theirs, he substitutes a new standard of ethics for their old, utilitarian one: “The greatest happiness for the least deserving.”
His main purpose, however, is to revive, as a moral-political base, the theory of social contract, which utilitarianism had replaced. In the opinion of John Rawls, writes Mr. Cohen, “the social contract theory of Rousseau and Kant” (wouldn’t you know it?) provides an alternative to utilitarianism.
Mr. Cohen proceeds to offer a summary of the way Mr. Rawls would proceed to establish a “social contract.” Men would be placed in what he calls the “original position” — which is not a state of nature, but “a hypothetical situation that can be entered into at any time.” Justice would be ensured “by requiring that the principles which are to govern society be chosen behind a ‘veil of ignorance.’ This veil prevents those who occupy the ‘original position’ from knowing their own natural abilities or their own positions in the social order. What they do not know they cannot turn to their own advantage; this ignorance guarantees that their choice will be fair. And since everyone in the ‘original position’ is assumed to be rational [?!], everyone will be convinced by the same arguments [??!!]. In the social contract tradition the choice of political principles is unanimous.” No, Mr. Cohen does not explain or define what that “original position” is — probably, with good reason. As he goes on, he seems to hint that that “hypothetical situation” is the state of the pre-embryonic human clay.
“Rawls argues that given the uncertainties that characterize the ‘original position’ (men do not know whether they are well- or ill-endowed, rich or poor) and given the fateful nature of the choice to be made (these are the principles by which they will live) rational men would choose according to the ‘maximin’ rule of game theory. This rule defines a conservative strategy — in making a choice among alternatives, we should choose that alternative whose worst possible outcome is superior to the worst possible outcome of the others.” And thus, men would “rationally” choose to accept Mr. Rawls’s ethical-political principles.
Regardless of any Rube Goldberg complexities erected to arrive at that conclusion, I submit that it is impossible for men to make any choice on the basis of ignorance, i.e., using ignorance as a criterion: if men do not know their own identities, they will not be able to grasp such things as “principles to live by,” “alternatives” or what is a good, bad or worst “possible outcome.” Since in order to be “fair” they must not know what is to their own advantage, how would they be able to know which is the least advantageous (the “worst possible”) outcome?
As to the “maximin” rule of choice, I can annul Mr. Rawls’s social contract, which requires unanimity, by saying that in long-range issues I choose that alternative whose best possible outcome is superior to the best possible outcome of the others. “You seek escape from pain. We seek the achievement of happiness. You exist for the sake of avoiding punishment. We exist for the sake of earning rewards. Threats will not make us function; fear is not our incentive. It is not death that we wish to avoid, but life that we wish to live.” (Atlas Shrugged.)
Mr. Cohen is not in full agreement with Mr. Rawls. He seems to think that Mr. Rawls is not egalitarian enough: “. . . one would like to be clearer about the sorts of inequalities that are in fact justified in order to ‘encourage’ better performance. And is it in fact legitimate for Rawls to exclude considerations of what he calls envy from the calculations that are made in the ‘original position’? It is arguable that including them would lead to the choice of more equalitarian principles.” Does this mean that pre-embryos without attributes are able to experience envy of other pre-embryos without attributes? Does this mean that a just society must grind its best members down to the level of its worst, in order to pander to envy?
I am inclined to guess that the answer is affirmative, because Mr. Cohen continues as follows: “However that may be I, for one, am inclined to argue that once an adequate social minimum has been reached, justice requires the elimination of many economic and social inequalities, even if their elimination inhibits a further raising of the minimum.” Is this motivated by the desire to uplift the weak or to degrade the strong — to help the incompetent or to destroy the able? Is this the voice of love or of hatred — of compassion or of envy?
What value would be gained by such a cerebrocidal atrocity? “I ought to forgo some economic benefits,” says Mr. Cohen, “if doing so will reduce the evils of social distance, strengthen communal ties, and enhance the possibilities for a fuller participation in the common life.” Whose life? In common with whom? On whose standard of value: the folks’ next door? — the corner louts’? — the hippies’? — the drug addicts’?
“Dagny . . . I had seen . . . what it was that I had to fight for . . . I had to save you . . . not to let you stumble the years of your life away, struggling on through a poisoned fog . . . struggling to find, at the end of your road, not the towers of a city, but a fat, soggy, mindless cripple performing his enjoyment of life by means of swallowing the gin your life had gone to pay for!” (Atlas Shrugged.)
Mr. Cohen mentions that Mr. Rawls rejects “the perfectionistic doctrines of Aristotle.” (Wouldn’t you know that?) Mr. Rawls, by the way, is an American, educated in American universities, but he completed his education in Great Britain, at Oxford, on a Fulbright Fellowship.
What is the cause of today’s egalitarian trend? For over two hundred years, Europe’s predominantly altruist-collectivist intellectuals had claimed to be the voice of the people — the champions of the downtrodden, disinherited masses and of unlimited majority rule. “Majority” was the omnipotent word of the intellectuals’ theology. “Majority will” and “majority welfare” were their moral base and political goal which — they claimed — permitted, vindicated and justified anything. With varying degrees of consistency, this belief was shared by most of Europe’s social thinkers, from Marx to Bentham to John Stuart Mill (whose On Liberty is the most pernicious piece of collectivism ever adopted by suicidal defenders of liberty).
In mid-twentieth century, the intellectuals were traumatized by seeing their axiomatic bedrock disintegrate into thin ice. The concept of “majority will” collapsed when they saw that the majority was not with them and did not share their “ideals.” The concept of “majority welfare” collapsed when they discovered — through the experiences of communist Russia, Nazi Germany, welfare-state England, and sundry lesser socialist regimes — that only their hated adversary, the free, selfish, individualistic system of capitalism, is able to benefit the majority of the people (in fact, all of the people).
Some intellectuals began to stumble toward the Right — a bankrupt Right, which had nothing to offer. Some gave up, turning to drugs and astrology. The vanguard — stripped of cover, of respect, of credibility, and of safely popular bromides — began to reveal their hidden motives in the open glare of verbalized theory.
The cult of the “majority” has come to an end among the altruist-collectivists. They are not declaring any longer: “Why shouldn’t a minuscule elite of geniuses and millionaires be sacrificed to the broad masses of mankind?” — they are declaring that the broad masses of mankind should be sacrificed to a minuscule elite, not of gods, kings or heroes, but of congenital incompetents. They are not declaring that greedy capitalists are exploiting and stifling men of talent — they are declaring that men of talent should not be permitted to function. They are not declaring that capitalism is impeding technological progress — they are declaring that technological progress should be retarded or abolished. They are not deriding the promise of “pie in the sky” — they are demanding that pie on earth be forbidden. They are not promising to raise men’s standard of living — they are proclaiming that it should be lowered. They are not seeking to redistribute wealth — they are seeking to wipe it out. What, then, remains of their former creed? Only one constant: sacrifice — which they are now preaching openly in the form they had always endorsed secretly: sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice.
“It is not your wealth that they’re after. Theirs is a conspiracy against the mind, which means: against life and man.” (Atlas Shrugged.)
Anyone who proposes to reduce mankind to the level of its lowest specimens, cannot claim benevolence as his motive. Anyone who proposes to deprive men of aspiration, ambition or hope, and sentence them to stagnation for life, cannot claim compassion as his motive. Anyone who proposes to forbid men’s progress beyond the limit accessible to a cripple, cannot claim love for men as his motive. Anyone who proposes to forbid to a genius any achievement which is not of value to a moron, cannot claim any motive but envy and hatred.
Observe that it has never been possible to preach an evil notion on the basis of reason, of facts, of this earth. The advocates of man-destroying theories have always had to step outside reality, to seek a mystic base or sanction. Just as religionists had to invoke the myth of Adam’s sin in order to propagate the notion of man’s prenatal guilt — just as Kant had to rely on a noumenal world in order to destroy the world that exists — just as Hegel had to call on the Absolute Idea, and Marx had to call on Hegel — so today, on the grubby scale of our shrinking culture, those who want to deprive man of his right to life, are proclaiming the rights of the fetus, and those who want to deny all rights to the man of ability, are demanding that he atone for what he did not earn before he was a fetus and for nature’s prenatal unfairness to the Mongolian idiot next door.
Observe also that an honest theoretician does not try to present his ideas in the guise of their opposites. But Kant’s philosophy is presented as “pure reason” — altruism is presented as a doctrine of “love” — communism is presented as “liberation” — and egalitarianism is presented as “justice.”
“Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature . . . that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly . . . that to place any other concern higher than justice is to devaluate your moral currency and defraud the good in favor of the evil . . . and that the bottom of the pit at the end of that road, the act of moral bankruptcy, is to punish men for their virtues and reward them for their vices. . . .” (Atlas Shrugged.)
Mr. Rawls’s book is entitled A Theory of Justice, and yet, curiously enough, Mr. Cohen never mentions Mr. Rawls’s definition of “justice” — which, I suspect, may not be Mr. Cohen’s fault.
In Atlas Shrugged, in the sequence dealing with the tunnel catastrophe, I list the train passengers who were philosophically responsible for it, in hierarchical order, from the less guilty to the guiltiest. The last one on that list is a humanitarian who had said: “The men of ability? I do not care what or if they are made to suffer. They must be penalized in order to support the incompetent. Frankly, I do not care whether this is just or not. I take pride in not caring to grant any justice to the able, where mercy to the needy is concerned.” Today, a “scientific” volume of 607 pages is devoted to claiming that this constitutes justice.
In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, I wrote: “The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice.” If capitalism and its moral-metaphysical base, man’s rational nature, are to be destroyed, then it is the concept of justice that has to be destroyed. Apparently, the egalitarians understand this; the utilitarian defenders of capitalism do not.
Is A Theory of Justice likely to be widely read? No. Is it likely to be influential? Yes — precisely for that reason.
If you wonder how so grotesquely irrational a philosophy as Kant’s came to dominate Western culture, you are now witnessing an attempt to repeat that process. Mr. Rawls is a disciple of Kant — philosophically and psycho-epistemologically. Kant originated the technique required to sell irrational notions to the men of a skeptical, cynical age who have formally rejected mysticism without grasping the rudiments of rationality. The technique is as follows: if you want to propagate an outrageously evil idea (based on traditionally accepted doctrines), your conclusion must be brazenly clear, but your proof unintelligible. Your proof must be so tangled a mess that it will paralyze a reader’s critical faculty — a mess of evasions, equivocations, obfuscations, circumlocutions, non sequiturs, endless sentences leading nowhere, irrelevant side issues, clauses, sub-clauses and sub-sub-clauses, a meticulously lengthy proving of the obvious, and big chunks of the arbitrary thrown in as self-evident, erudite references to sciences, to pseudo-sciences, to the never-to-be-sciences, to the untraceable and the unprovable — all of it resting on a zero: the absence of definitions. I offer in evidence the Critique of Pure Reason.
Mr. Cohen gives some indications that such is the style of Mr. Rawls’s book. E.g.: “ . . . the boldness and simplicity of Rawls’s formulations depend on a considered, but questionable, looseness in his understanding of some fundamental political concepts.” (Emphasis added.) “Considered” means “deliberate.”
Like any overt school of mysticism, a movement seeking to achieve a vicious goal has to invoke the higher mysteries of an incomprehensible authority. An unread and unreadable book serves this purpose. It does not count on men’s intelligence, but on their weaknesses, pretensions and fears. It is not a tool of enlightenment, but of intellectual intimidation. It is not aimed at the reader’s understanding, but at his inferiority complex.
An intelligent man will reject such a book with contemptuous indignation, refusing to waste his time on untangling what he perceives to be gibberish — which is part of the book’s technique: the man able to refute its arguments, will not (unless he has the endurance of an elephant and the patience of a martyr). A young man of average intelligence — particularly a student of philosophy or of political science — under a barrage of authoritative pronouncements acclaiming the book as “scholarly,” “significant,” “profound,” will take the blame for his failure to understand. More often than not, he will assume that the book’s theory has been scientifically proved and that he alone is unable to grasp it; anxious, above all, to hide his inability, he will profess agreement, and the less his understanding, the louder his agreement — while the rest of the class are going through the same mental process. Most of them will accept the book’s doctrine, reluctantly and uneasily, and lose their intellectual integrity, condemning themselves to a chronic fog of approximation, uncertainty, self-doubt. Some will give up the intellect (particularly philosophy) and turn belligerently into “pragmatic,” anti-intellectual Babbitts. A few will see through the game and scramble eagerly for the driver’s seat on the bandwagon, grasping the possibilities of a road to the mentally unearned.
Within a few years of the book’s publication, commentators will begin to fill libraries with works analyzing, “clarifying” and interpreting its mysteries. Their notions will spread all over the academic map, ranging from the appeasers, who will try to soften the book’s meaning — to the glamorizers, who will ascribe to it nothing worse than their own pet inanities — to the compromisers, who will try to reconcile its theory with its exact opposite — to the avant-garde, who will spell out and demand the acceptance of its logical consequences. The contradictory, antithetical nature of such interpretations will be ascribed to the book’s profundity — particularly by those who function on the motto: “If I don’t understand it, it’s deep.” The students will believe that the professors know the proof of the book’s theory, the professors will believe that the commentators know it, the commentators will believe that the author knows it — and the author will be alone to know that no proof exists and that none was offered.
Within a generation, the number of commentaries will have grown to such proportions that the original book will be accepted as a subject of philosophical specialization, requiring a lifetime of study — and any refutation of the book’s theory will be ignored or rejected, if unaccompanied by a full discussion of the theories of all the commentators, a task which no one will be able to undertake.
This is the process by which Kant and Hegel acquired their dominance. Many professors of philosophy today have no idea of what Kant actually said. And no one has ever read Hegel (even though many have looked at every word on his every page).
This process has already begun in regard to Mr. Rawls’s book, in the form of such manifestations as Mr. Peregrine Worsthorne’s “The New Inequality.” But the process is being forced by P.R. techniques; it is being pushed artificially and in the wrong direction: toward the popular press and the man in the street, who, in this country, is the least likely prospect for the role of sucker. Furthermore, Mr. Rawls is not in Kant’s league: he is a politically oriented lightweight, who has scrambled together the worst of the old philosophic traditions, adding nothing new. His two outstanding points of similarity to Kant are: the method — and the motive.
The danger lies in the cultural similarity of Kant’s time and ours. An age ruled by skepticism and cynicism can be swayed by anyone, even Mr. Rawls. There is no intellectual opposition to anything today — as there was none to Kant. Kant’s opponents were men who shared all his fundamental premises (particularly altruism and mysticism), and merely engaged in nit-picking, thus hastening his victory. Today, the utilitarians, the religionists, and sundry other “conservatives” share all of Mr. Rawls’s fundamental premises (particularly altruism). If his book does not make them see the nature of altruism and its logical consequences, if it does not make them realize that altruism is the destroyer of man (and of reason, justice, morality, civilization), then nothing will. When and if they get Mr. Rawls’s world, they will have deserved it. So will the “practical” men whose lard-encrusted souls feel that ideas are innocuous playthings to be left to impractical intellectuals, and that any idea can be circumvented by making a deal with the government.
But it is only by default — by intellectual default — that theories such as Kant’s or Rawls’s can win. An intransigent, rational opposition could have stopped Kant in his time. Rawls is easier to defeat — particularly in this country, which is the living monument to a diametrically opposite philosophy (he would have had a better chance in Europe). If there is any spirit of rebellion on American campuses (and elsewhere), here is an evil to rebel against, to rebel intellectually, righteously, intransigently: any hint, touch, smell, or trial balloon of A Theory of Justice and of the egalitarian movement.
If rational men do not rebel, the egalitarians will succeed. Succeed in establishing a world of shoddy equality and brotherly stagnation? No — but this is not their purpose. Just as Kant’s purpose was to corrupt and paralyze man’s mind, so the egalitarians’ purpose is to shackle and paralyze the men of ability (even at the price of destroying the world).
If you wish to know the actual motive behind the egalitarians’ theories — behind all their maudlin slogans, mawkish pleas, and ponderous volumes of verbal rat-traps — if you wish to grasp the enormity of the smallness of spirit for the sake of which they seek to immolate mankind, it can be presented in a few lines:
“‘When a man thinks he’s good — that’s when he’s rotten. Pride is the worst of all sins, no matter what he’s done.’
“‘But if a man knows that what he’s done is good?’
“‘Then he ought to apologize for it.’
“‘To those who haven’t done it.’” (Atlas Shrugged.)