With Paul Ryan’s comical devotion to Ayn Rand in the news again, perhaps it would be worthwhile to discuss Randian and Nietzsche conservatism. I bring Nietzsche in because Ayn Rand was not an original thinker: she just clumsily channeled Nietzschean ideas and put them into long, boring novels. The jumping off point for this brand of conservatism is Nietzsche’s notion of the superman and his discussion of slave and master morality. Here I argue that political conservatism does not actually follow from the underlying normative philosophies of Nietzsche and Rand.
The exact meaning of Nietzsche’s superman is hotly debated. Under the interpretation that Ayn Rand clearly picks up, a superman is someone that embodies the noble aristocratic ideal. A superman is someone that is independent, individualistic, strong, anti-social, and egoistic. That is, the superman is someone who lives for himself, wants no help or sympathy from others, and treats others as instruments to pursue his own ends. Thus, the superman has no regard for others, and solicits no regard from them: he looks out for number one and uses everything and everyone around him to satisfy his own interests.
This conception of the superman dovetails nicely with Nietzsche’s discussion of master and slave morality. For Nietzsche, master morality is the morality of the strong, noble, and powerful. It is a morality that identifies the good with strength and power, and the bad with weakness and timidity. On the other hand, slave morality is a reactionary morality that seeks to uplift the oppressed, exploited, poor, weak, and so on. It seeks to make villains of the powerful and noble by accusing them of being responsible for the oppressed’s submissive social position.
Very superficially, we can say that Nietzsche sides with the powerful as perfected humans and with master morality insofar as it recognizes the greatness of the powerful. We can also say then that Nietzsche abhors the weak both because they are defective and because they proliferate a collectivist morality that tears down the powerful and blames the powerful for the plight of the weak.
Whether Nietzsche actually subscribes to this interpretation of this text is up for debate, but it is clear that Ayn Rand interpreted Nietzsche this way and reiterated its basic thrust. Rand was famously impressed by a serial killer because she believed he embodied the egoism and independence of the Nietzschean superman:
“Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should,” she wrote, gushing that Hickman had “no regard whatsoever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel ‘other people.’”
The idea of the superman courses through Rand’s writing, and finds its ultimate home in her John Galt character. Galt has no regard for helping others, believes only in pursuing one’s own self-interest, and lets the world fall into ruins by withdrawing his creative greatness from society. A comical treatise, it nonetheless embodies the superman ideal. Along with Nietzsche (as interpreted above), Rand and her characters reject collectivism and regard lower classes as weak, ignoble, and even parasites and moochers insofar as they are beneficiaries of the creative greatness of the John Galts of the world — not to mention the redistribution they receive in modern welfare states.
It is not hard to imagine how a conservative ideology could spring out of Rand and Nietzsche. Conservatives are big fans of the rich, view them as the engine of all things good, and want to cut their taxes. At the same time, they express no particular regard for the poor, want to cut their benefits, and so on. However, I think this application of the underlying egoistic ideas in Nietzsche and Rand is a bit hasty. Nietzsche and Rand want to celebrate the powerful, but who are actually the most powerful and noble people within their view of the world? To me, it seems like poor and working people are because they have managed to steal from the “producers.”
According to this brand of conservatism, poor and working people have joined together to create a welfare state that mercilessly loots the John Galt figures of the world, taking their money while lazing about. On this view of the world — one I obviously do not endorse — who is actually the bad ass John Galt figure or Nietzschean superman? Is it the whiny rich dude who is getting shaken down for his money, or the ones doing the shaking down? Surely it would be the latter right? They have collectivized their power to dominate and steal from the rich. If we want to talk about the bad asses of the world, clearly it’s these looters, moochers, leaches, and parasites that we are interested in — not the wealthy crybabies who are apparently too weak to defend themselves.
If you endorse a basically amoral notion of power, then powerful people, by definition, cannot be oppressed and pinned down. You cannot forcibly and openly loot a powerful person: if they are unable to stop you, then they are not powerful. It seems like — under this view — the beneficiaries of the welfare state have collectively pooled their power to egoistically further their own self-interest. What is more superman and John Galt than that?