Relativism Doesn’t Lead to Authoritarianism

The Ominous Parallels

In The Ominous Parallels, Leonard Peikoff makes the argument that relativism was leading the US to Nazism. It isn’t a great argument. It is based mostly on some really pathetic readings of Kant and Hegel that show that he doesn’t understand them. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that his analysis is nonsense.

But right now, we are in a situation where the US is moving towards authoritarianism with people justifying it with relativism.

This is not leftist relativism. It is the opposite of what Peikoff (or Paul Johnson or David French or any other “serious” conservative) told us. This is right-wing relativism.

In decades past, people criticized leftist for their relativism. And by and large, leftists thought it and turned against it. It’s very hard to find anyone on the left who accepts it today.

Authoritarianism Leads to Relativism

The right did not accept relativism in a general sense, however. Instead, conservatives got more and more authoritarian over the last few decades. Then they grabbed onto relativism as a post-hoc justification for it.

So it’s not relativism itself that led to authoritarianism. It was the other way around. Authoritarianism led to relativism.

And this shows the problem with people like Leonard Peikoff who complained that leftists were going to bring about authoritarianism. They may have been right that authoritarianism is coming but they totally missed the mechanism — and even where it was coming from.

It is also interesting that a lot of supposed libertarians who are anti-authoritarian naturally turn to someone like Donald Trump when he gains power. Fundamentally, philosophy of this nature is not strong enough to protect you. It seems to work the other way around.

The Limits of Ideology

Many people want to believe that they are Masters of the Universe. They think that they should have the right to do anything they want. So they grabbed on to Ayn Rand’s philosophy. It is not, as they almost always claim, the other way around.

People do not start with first principles and then base their political views on that. Philosophy is almost always used as a way to justify what people already believe not to guide them in what they ought to believe.

And that’s even more true on the right where they so limit the information that can get to them.

The entire world would be better off if people just tried to be decent. What we are seeing in the US is that vilifying groups of people and empowering demagogues leads to authoritarianism. And the people will grab hold of any justification available.

Leonard Peikoff and other conservatives and libertarians have spent decades predicting authoritarianism from the left. They ignored the growing authoritarianism of their allies on the right. I don’t think it was a mistake. It was just a question of priorities.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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