To John O. Nelson [Letter 521]

Item Reference Code: 014_08x_005_001

Date(s) of creation

May 2, 1964


John O. Nelson


John Nelson, a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado, published an article, “The ‘Freedom’ of the Hippie and Yippie,” in the August 1969 issue of AR’s journal The Objectivist, which described Nelson as agreeing with “the basic principles of Objectivism in ethics and politics.” He attended at least one of the three epistemology workshops conducted by AR in 1969 and 1970.

Transcription note: there is overlapping text on the pages of this letter due to a transfer of the ink. This transcript captures only the original text for each page.

[Page 1]
May 2, 1964

Professor John O. Nelson
825 Circle Drive
Boulder, Colorado

Dear Professor Nelson:

I am sadly astonished by your letter of April 2.

No, there are no “difficulties” in the political philosophy of Objectivism.

The questions you raise in regard to the young mother’s statement in Atlas Shrugged are the result of an equivocation or a misunderstanding of the term “collective” on your part. My use of that term is made explicitly clear by the context in which it occurs. The full statement reads as follows:

“You know, of course, that there can be no collective commitments in this valley and that families or relatives are not allowed to come here, unless each person takes the striker’s oath by his own independent conviction.”

This means that no person may assume control of another person’s mind and that each person has to arrive at his convictions and decisions individually, by his own judgment.

If the husband’s decision were accepted as intellectually binding on his wife, that would constitute a collective commitment. But if the husband and wife reach the same decision independently, it is a common commitment.

The error in your argument consists of the failure to differentiate between these two concepts. The term “collective” refers to a group of men regarded as a single unit. The term “common” refers to a sum of individual units.

The dictionary definitions of these two terms are as follows: “Collective, adj.—pertaining to a group of individuals taken together”—“Common, adj.—belonging equally to, or shared alike by, two or more or all in question.”

An agreement of independent individuals on a given subject or course of action, is a common agreement. A situation in which the decision

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of some men is taken as representing the decision of all men in a given group, is a collective commitment.

Observe how this applies to your alleged paradox—to your notion that “‘There can be no collective commitments in this valley’ is itself a collective commitment.” The exact statement, describing the facts in question, is: “‘There can be no collective commitments in this valley’ is a common agreement”—i.e., an agreement shared equally and individually by all the residents of the valley, as a logical part of the philosophy each of them has accepted.

To say that a number of men “hold a common commitment to have no common commitments” would be the kind of paradox you have in mind. But this would simply mean that men agree never to agree on anything—which is nonsense.

The fact that a number of men agree on a given subject, does not constitute membership in a collective unit, does not extend beyond the specific subject of the agreement, and does not imply the right of a group to supersede the minds, convictions and judgments of its individual members.

Your confusion on these two terms leads you to write a passage which I find truly shocking:

“What is suggested is that the premise regulating ‘Galt’s Gulch’ is not, ‘There will be no collective commitments’ (a self-contradiction of sorts), but ‘There will only be collective commitments that ensure (negatively) the elimination of force in person-to-person contacts and (positively) the free play of contract and individual decision under proper law, i.e., law supporting the elimination of coercion or force in person-to-person contacts and the play of individual decision (both together).”

This is totally alien to the philosophy of Galt’s Gulch—metaphysically, epistemologically, ethically, politically (and stylistically).

You are right when you say that some such formulation would “permit rightful taxation under law, for the mutual defense and for umpirage.” So it would. It would also permit antitrust laws, the military draft, “social gains” legislation, etc., etc., etc.

The implications of such a position will not take long to come out—as is demonstrated by your letter, where it takes them two paragraphs. They come out in your postscript:

“One might further argue that a collective commitment of this sort is not only to each person’s self-interest but a necessary condition for the full realization of each person’s (thus mine) self-interest.”

The notion of justifying a “collective commitment” on the ground of a person’s own “self-interest,” whether that person agrees or not, is the standard collectivist justification of a dictatorship as acting

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for its victims’ “own good,” whether a victim accepts it as the good or not. Surely I do not have to tell you that this is the exact opposite of my philosophy.

I must mention that Galt’s Gulch is not an organized society, but a private club whose members share the same philosophy. It exemplifies the basic moral principles of social relationships among rational men, the principles on which a proper political system should be built. It does not deal with questions of political organization, with the details of a legal framework needed to establish and maintain a free society open to all, including dissenters. It does not deal with specifically political principles, only with their moral base. (I indicate that the proper political framework is to be found in the Constitution, with its contradictions removed.)

No, I do not see any “difficulties” in the issue of taxation or, more precisely, the issue of the cost of a proper government in a fully free society. I am enclosing a copy of The Objectivist Newsletter of February, 1964, in which I discuss the Objectivist position on this subject.

For the question of an individual’s relationship to a government (covering the issue of government as an agent of individual citizens, with delimited and specific powers), I refer you to my articles on “Man’s Rights,” “Collectivized ‘Rights’” and “The Nature of Government” in the April, June and December 1963 issues of The Objectivist Newsletter.



Ayn Rand



Nelson responded on May 10, 1964, with continued doubts about AR’s views on collective commitment and voluntary taxation but ended his letter: “But enough: these premises and speculations must now fly from their parental nest and support themselves on their own wings. If they are weak or crippled I imagine you will dash them to the ground, as they deserve—and then, good riddance of them.”