Saturday, March 21, 2009

Roy Childs: Watching the Watchmen

Now that the Watchmen movie hype is dying down, it's time to get past the special effects and get to the questions asked of us by the movie. The primary question, of course, is, "Who Watches the Watcher?"

I've already discussed how Alan Moore's Rorschach is his response to what he identified as a "fascist" streak in Steve Ditko's characters, and Ayn Rand's Objectivism, which is the basis of Ditko's philosophy. Moore himself is an anarchist, as well as a "mystic," so its easy for fans of Rand (of which I am) to simply wave off Moore's objections. But, in the spirit of "checking premises," I'd like to play "devil's advocate" and offer up a critique of Rand's defense of government from a Libertarian standpoint.

Roy Childs was a Libertarian best known for his "Open Letter to Ayn Rand." Childs addresses Rand's objections to anarchy and defense of the government's monopoly on the use of retaliatory force. It's too long to print here, but here are the salient points in relation to the idea of Watchmen:

Rand: "The use of physical force – even its retaliatory use – cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens."

Childs: This contradicts your epistemological and ethical position. Man's mind – which means: the mind of the individual human being – is capable of knowing reality, and man is capable of coming to conclusions on the basis of his rational judgment and acting on the basis of his rational self-interest. You imply, without stating it, that if an individual decides to use retaliation, that that decision is somehow subjective and arbitrary. Rather, supposedly the individual should leave such a decision up to government which is – what? Collective and therefore objective? This is illogical. If man is not capable of making these decisions, then he isn't capable of making them, and no government made up of men is capable of making them, either. By what epistemological criterion is an individual's action classified as "arbitrary," while that of a group of individuals is somehow "objective"?

Rather, I assert that an individual must judge, and evaluate the facts of reality in accordance with logic and by the standard of his own rational self-interest. Are you here claiming that man's mind is not capable of knowing reality? That men must not judge, or act on the basis of their rational self-interest and perception of the facts of reality? To claim this is to smash the root of the Objectivist philosophy: the validity of reason, and the ability and right of man to think and judge for himself.

I am not, of course, claiming that a man must always personally use retaliation against those who initiate such against him – he has the right, though not the obligation, to delegate that right to any legitimate agency.

Rand objects to "competing defense agencies," but Childs points out that this situation already exists:
Another interesting argument against your position is this: there is now anarchy between citizens of different countries, i.e., between, say, a Canadian citizen on one side of the Canadian-American border and an American citizen on the other. There is, to be more precise, no single government which presides over both of them. If there is a need for government to settle disputes among individuals, as you state, then you should look at the logical implications of your argument: is there not then a need for a super-government to resolve disputes among governments? Of course the implications of this are obvious: theoretically, the ultimate end of this process of piling government on top of government is a government for the entire universe. And the practical end, for the moment, is at the very least world government.
The following argument is the parallel to Moore's question of "Who Watches the Watcher?":
One legitimate answer to your allegations is this: since you are, in effect, asking "what happens when the [competing defense agencies] decide to act irrationally?" allow me to ask the far more potent question: "What happens when your government acts irrationally?" – which is at least possible. And which is more likely, in addition, to occur: the violation of rights by a bureaucrat or politician who got his job by fooling people in elections, which are nothing but community-wide opinion-mongering contests (which are, presumably, a rational and objective manner of selecting the best people for a job), or the violation of rights by a hard-nosed businessman, who has had to earn his position? So your objection against competing agencies is even more effective against your own "limited government."
Childs claims that to follow Rand's logic leads to this inevitable conclusion:
Of course the implications of this are obvious: theoretically, the ultimate end of this process of piling government on top of government is a government for the entire universe. And the practical end, for the moment, is at the very least world government.
How does this relate to the concept of heroism? Well, if the idea of heroism is, by definition, related to the idea of defense, and if the concept of government is defined by defense, then, logic dictates that agents of government should be heroes. Looks great on paper, doesn't it? But I think we can point to way too many pricks in government to burst that bubble...So Childs' point relates to Watchmen this way: who holds the government accountable, when the government has the monopoly of force? As he states in his open letter, either the government opens itself, voluntarily, to a competing force, which removes the monopoly, or it has NO CHOICE but to retaliate against its own citizens should the citizens revolt, right or wrong. What about superheroes? Do they hold themselves accountable to those they protect, or do they evade the law like vigilantes? And how is a politician held accountable if they are found guilty by objective standards should the government disagree, if the government has a monopoly on force? Do the citizens, like Socrates, simply drink the poison? Do they, like the protaganist of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, accept the death sentence as the logical consequence of the revolution for which they fought? Or, what if the hero finds himself defending himself against his "defenders?"