Conservatism: An Obituary

by Ayn Rand

Ch. 19 of Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Based on a lecture given at Princeton
Univ. Dec. 7, 1960. Published by Nathaniel Branden Institute, New York, 1962.

Both the "conservatives" and the "liberals" stress a fact with which everybody seems to agree: that the world is facing a deadly conflict and that we must fight to save civilization.

But what is the nature of that conflict? Both groups answer: it is a conflict between communism and ... and what?— blank out. It is a conflict between two ways of life, they answer, the communist way and ... what? - blank out. It is a conflict between two ideologies, they answer. What is our ideology? Blank out.

The truth which both groups refuse to face and to admit is that, politically, the world conflict of today is the last stage of the struggle between capitalism and statism.

We stand for freedom, say both groups - and proceed to declare what kind of controls, regulations, coercions, taxes, and "sacrifices" they would impose, what arbitrary powers they would demand, what "social gains" they would hand out to various groups, without specifying from what other groups these "gains" would be expropriated. Neither of them cares to admit that government control of a country's economy - any kind or degree of such control, by any group, for any purpose whatsoever - rests on the basic principle of statism, the principle that man's life belongs to the state. A mixed economy is merely a semi-socialized economy - which means: a semi-enslaved society - which means: a country torn by irreconcilable contradictions, in the process of gradual disintegration.

Freedom, in a political context, means freedom from government coercion. It does not mean freedom from the landlord, or freedom from the employer, or freedom from the laws of nature which do not provide men with automatic prosperity. It means freedom from the coercive power of the state - and nothing else.


The world conflict of today is the conflict of the individual against the state, the same conflict that has been fought throughout mankind's history. The names change, but the essence - and the results - remain the same, whether it is the individual against feudalism, or against absolute monarchy, or against communism or fascism or Nazism or socialism or the welfare state.

If one upholds freedom, one must uphold man's individual rights; if one upholds man's individual rights, one must uphold his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to the pursuit of his own happiness - which means: one must uphold a political system that guarantees and protects these rights - which means: the politico-economic system of capitalism.

Individual rights, freedom, justice, progress were the philosophical values, the theoretical goals, and the practical results of capitalism. No other system can create them or maintain them; no other system ever has or will. For proof, consider the nature and function of basic principles; for evidence, consult history - and the present state of the different countries of Europe.

The issue is not slavery for a "good" cause versus slavery for a "bad" cause; the issue is not dictatorship by a "good" gang versus dictatorship by a "bad" gang. The issue is freedom versus dictatorship. It is only after men have chosen slavery and dictatorship that they can begin the usual gang warfare of socialized countries - today, it is called pressure-group warfare - over whose gang will rule, who will enslave whom, whose property will be plundered for whose benefit, who will be sacrificed to whose "noble" purpose. All such arguments come later and are, in fact, of no consequence: the results will always be the same. The first choice - and the only one that matters - is: freedom or dictatorship, capitalism or statism.

That is the choice which today's political leaders are determined to evade. The "liberals" are trying to put statism over by stealth - statism of a semi-socialist, semi-fascist kind - without letting the country realize what road they are taking to what ultimate goal. And while such a policy is reprehensible, there is something more reprehensible still: the policy of the "conservatives," who are trying to defend freedom by stealth.

If the "liberals" are afraid to identify their program by its proper name, if they advocate every specific step, measure, policy, and principle of statism, but squirm and twist themselves into semantic pretzels with such euphemisms as the "Welfare State," the "New Deal," the "New Frontier," they still preserve a semblance of logic, if not of morality: it is the logic of a con man who cannot afford to let his victims discover his purpose. Besides, the majority of those who are loosely identified by the term "liberals" are afraid to let themselves discover that what they advocate is statism. They do not want to accept the full meaning of their goal; they want to keep all the advantages and effects of capitalism, while destroying the cause, and they want to establish statism without its necessary effects. They do not want to know or to admit that they are the champions of dictatorship and slavery. So they evade the issue, for fear of discovering that their goal is evil.

Immoral as this might be, what is one to think of men who evade the issue for fear of discovering that their goal is good? What is the moral stature of those who are afraid to proclaim that they are the champions of freedom? What is the integrity of those who outdo their enemies in smearing, misrepresenting, spitting at, and apologizing for their own ideal? What is the rationality of those who expect to trick people into freedom, cheat them into justice, fool them into progress, con them into preserving their rights, and, while indoctrinating them with statism, put one over on them and let them wake up in a perfect capitalist society some morning?

These are the "conservatives" - or most of their intellectual spokesmen.

One need not wonder why they are losing elections or why this country is stumbling anxiously, reluctantly toward statism. One need not wonder why any cause represented or upheld in such a manner, is doomed. One need not wonder why any group with such a policy does, in fact, declare its own bankruptcy, forfeiting any claim to moral, intellectual, or political leadership.

The meaning of the "liberals'" program is pretty clear by now. But what are the "conservative?'? What is it that they are seeking to "conserve"?

It is generally understood that those who support the "conservatives," expect them to uphold the system which has been camouflaged by the loose term of "the American way of life." The moral treason of the "conservative" leaders lies in the fact that they are hiding behind that camouflage: they do not have the courage to admit that the American way of life was capitalism, that that was the politico-economic system born and established in the United States, the system which, in one brief century, achieved a level of freedom, of progress, of prosperity, of human happiness, unmatched in all the other systems and centuries combined - and that that is the system which they are now allowing to perish by silent default.

If the "conservatives" do not stand for capitalism, they stand for and are nothing; they have no goal, no direction, no political principles, no social ideals, no intellectual values, no leadership to offer anyone.

Yet capitalism is what the "conservatives" dare not advocate or defend. They are paralyzed by the profound conflict between capitalism and the moral code which dominates our culture: the morality of altruism. Altruism holds that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value. Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society. The conflict between capitalism and altruism has been undercutting America from her start and, today, has reached its climax.

The American political system was based on a different moral principle: on the principle of man's inalienable right to his own life - which means: on the principle that man has the right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself, and that men must deal with one another as traders, by voluntary choice to mutual benefit.

But this moral principle was merely implied in the American political system: it was not stated explicitly, it was not identified, it was not formulated into a full, philosophical code of ethics. This was the unfulfilled task which remained as a deadly flaw in our culture and which is destroying America today. Capitalism is perishing for lack of a moral base and of a full philosophical defense.

The social system based on and consonant with the altruist morality - with the code of self-sacrifice - is socialism, in all or any of its variants: fascism, Nazism, communism. All of them treat man as a sacrificial animal to be immolated for the benefit of the group, the tribe, the society, the state. Soviet Russia is the ultimate result, the final product, the full, consistent embodiment of the altruist morality in practice; it represents the only way that that morality can ever be practiced.

Not daring to challenge the morality of altruism, the "conservatives" have been struggling to evade the issue of morality or to bypass it. This has cost them their confidence, their courage, and their cause. Observe the guilty evasiveness, the apologetic timidity, the peculiarly non-intellectual, non-philosophical attitude projected by most "conservatives" in their speeches and in their writings. No man, and no movement, can succeed without moral certainty - without a full, rational conviction of the moral rightness of one's cause.

Just as the "conservatives" feel guilty, uncertain, morally disarmed in fighting the "liberals," so the "liberals" feel guilty, uncertain, morally disarmed in fighting the communists. When men share the same basic premise, it is the most consistent ones who win. So long as men accept the altruist morality, they will not be able to stop the advance of communism. The altruist morality is Soviet Russia's best and only weapon.

The hypocrisy of America's position in international affairs, the evasiveness, the self-effacing timidity, the apologies for her wealth, her power, her success, for all the greatest virtues of her system, the avoidance of any mention of "capitalism," as if it were the skeleton in her closet - have done more for the prestige of Soviet Russia and for the growing spread of communism through the world than the Russians' own cheap, bombastic propaganda could ever accomplish. An attitude of moral guilt is not becoming to the leader of a world crusade and will not rouse men to follow us.

And what do we ask men to fight for? They would join a crusade for freedom versus slavery, which means: for capitalism versus communism. But who will care to fight in a crusade for socialism versus communism? Who will want to fight and die to defend a system under which he will have to do voluntarily - or rather, by public vote - what a dictator would accomplish faster and much more thoroughly: the sacrifice of everyone to everyone? Who will want to crusade against murder - for the privilege of committing suicide?

In recent years, the "conservatives" have gradually come to a dim realization of the weakness in their position, of the philosophical flaw that had to be corrected. But the means by which they are attempting to correct it are worse than the original weakness; the means are discrediting and destroying the last remnants of their claim to intellectual leadership.

There are three interrelated arguments used by today's "conservatives" to justify capitalism, which can best be designated as: the argument from faith, the argument from tradition, and the argument from depravity.

Such are capitalism's alleged defenders - and such are the arguments by which they propose to save it.

It is obvious that with this sort of theoretical equipment and with an unbroken record of defeats, concessions, compromises, and betrayals in practice, today's "conservatives" are futile, impotent and, culturally, dead. They have nothing to offer and can achieve nothing. They can only help to destroy intellectual standards, to disintegrate thought, to discredit capitalism, and to accelerate this country's uncon-tested collapse into despair and dictatorship.

But to those of you who do wish to contest it - particularly those of you who are young and are not ready to surrender - I want to give a warning: nothing is as dead as the stillborn. Nothing is as futile as a movement without goals, or a crusade without ideals, or a battle without ammunition. A bad argument is worse than ineffectual: it lends credence to the arguments of your opponents. A half-battle is worse than none: it does not end in mere defeat - it helps and hastens the victory of your enemies.

At a time when the world is torn by a profound ideological conflict, do not join those who have no ideology - no ideas, no philosophy - to offer you. Do not go into battle armed with nothing but stale slogans, pious platitudes, and meaningless generalities. Do not join any so-called "conservative" group, organization, or person that advocates any variant of the arguments from "faith," from "tradition," or from "depravity." Any home-grown sophist in any village debate can refute those arguments and can drive you into evasions in about five minutes. What would happen to you, with such ammunition, on the philosophical battlefield of the world? But you would never reach that battlefield: you would not be heard on it, since you would have nothing to say.

It is not by means of evasions that one saves civilization. It is not by means of empty slogans that one saves a world perishing for lack of intellectual leadership. It is not by means of ignoring its causes that one cures a deadly disease.

So long as the "conservatives" ignore the issue of what destroyed capitalism, and merely plead with men to "go back," they cannot escape the question of: back to what? And none of their evasions can camouflage the fact that the implicit answer is: back to an earlier stage of the cancer which is devouring us today and which has almost reached its terminal stage. That cancer is the morality of altruism.

So long as the "conservatives" evade the issue of altruism, all of their pleas and arguments amount, in essence, to this: Why can't we just go back to the nineteenth century when capitalism and altruism seemed somehow to co-exist? Why do we have to go to extremes and think of surgery, when the early stages of the cancer were painless?

The answer is that the facts of reality - which includes history and philosophy - are not to be evaded. Capitalism was destroyed by the morality of altruism. Capitalism is based on individual rights - not on the sacrifice of the individual to the "public good" of the collective. Capitalism and altruism are incompatible. It's one or the other. It's too late for compromises, for platitudes, and for aspirin tablets. There is no way to save capitalism - or freedom, or civilization, or America—except by intellectual surgery, that is: by destroying the source of the destruction, by rejecting the morality of altruism.

If you want to fight for capitalism, there is only one type of argument that you should adopt, the only one that can ever win in a moral issue: the argument from self-esteem. This means: the argument from man's right to exist - from man's inalienable individual right to his own life.

I quote from my book For the New Intellectual:

The world crisis of today is a moral crisis - and nothing less than a moral revolution can resolve it: a moral revolution to sanction and complete the political achievement of the American Revolution.. . . The New Intellectual must fight for capitalism, not as a "practical" issue, not as an economic issue, but, with the most righteous pride, as a moral issue. That is what capitalism deserves, and nothing less will save it.

Capitalism is not the system of the past; it is the system of the future - if mankind is to have a future. Those who wish to fight for it, must discard the title of "conservatives." "Conservatism" has always been a misleading name, inappropriate to America. Today, there is nothing left to "conserve": the established political philosophy, the intellectual orthodoxy, and the status quo are collectivism. Those who reject all the basic premises of collectivism are radicals in the proper sense of the word: "radical" means "fundamental." Today, the fighters for capitalism have to be, not bankrupt "conservatives," but new radicals, new intellectuals and, above all, new, dedicated moralists.


Library of Liberty

Ayn Rand