Shortly after Congressman Paul Ryan’s appearance at the 2011 Faith and Freedom Conference in D.C., a Bible-waving protester confronted the Chairman of the House Budget Committee and questioned him for modeling his proposed budget after “the extreme ideology of Ayn Rand rather than the basic economic justice values of the Bible.”
The protestor offered Ryan a Bible and advised him to “bone up on what it says about how we should treat the poor and vulnerable” with a specific “focus on the Gospel of Luke.” The protestor offered no particulars but I suspect that he was part of the “red-letter Christian” brigade of social activists who believe the Bible promotes a socialist form of economics. A rejection of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy does not mean that Socialism is the alternative. Ryan politely turned down the Bible. He told the protestor that he already had one.
Are conservatives making a mistake by appealing to the works of Ayn Rand, a dedicated and proselytizing atheist whose personal life is not something that anyone but the most consistent libertine would want to emulate? Are any of Rand’s economic views unique to her? Do conservatives really need her writings when they have the works of Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and many others? Maybe it’s time that Sowell and Williams write a novel with an underlying economic theme. This seems the only way for people to ingest ideas. Free-market advocate Henry Hazlitt (1894–1993), author of Economics in One Lesson and The Failure of the New Economics (1959), a detailed, chapter-by-chapter critique of John Maynard Keynes’s still highly influential General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, did it with his 1951 novel The Great Idea (republished in 1966 as Time Will Run Back). It’s a great introduction to economic theory and practice. Rand understood that ideas alone are not enough. They need an engine to get the ideological goods to market. Fiction is a great way to do it.
Rand is the author of a number of novels that illustrate an Objectivist Ideology that represent the morality of free-market capitalism and rational self-interest. Does one need to be an Objectivist to be able to account for the legitimacy of the free-market and economic self-interest? No.
Like today’s New Atheists, Rand advocated reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge and rejected all forms of faith and religion. She promoted rational egoism (an action is rational if and only if it maximizes a person’s self-interest) and rejected ethical altruism (individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve, or benefit others). In her 1964 Playboy interview, Rand stated, “Objectivism tells you that you must not accept any idea or conviction unless you can demonstrate its truth by means of reason.” But how does an atheist account for reason given materialist assumptions about the nature of reality? Reason is non-material. In addition, how does Rand know that reason is reasonable? She assumes the validity of reason. If she used anything else to prove reason’s validity, then that proof-point would be more foundational than reason. Her reason-only approach is circular.
Rand’s works have been popular for a long time. Although the 2011 production of Atlas Shrugged as a film (part 1 of 3 parts) has gotten a lot of attention, this isn’t the first time that one of her novels has seen the big screen. Her 1943 novel The Fountainhead was made into a film in 1949 and starred Gary Cooper, Raymond Massey, and Patricia Neal.
Let’s get down to some basics. A consistent atheist can’t be a capitalist since there is nothing within an atheistic worldview that mandates morality and the protection of capital. Materialism knows nothing of private property. In fact, the major tenet of atheism, which is wed to evolution and Herbert Spencer’s “the survival of the fittest” (later adopted by Charles Darwin), is might makes right and no one has the inherent right to object. It’s the necessary goal of the strongest biological entity to dominate the weaker entity, by hook or by crook. There is no one standing over evolved biological units demanding, “Thou shalt not kill. . . . Thou shalt not steal.”
Rand necessarily borrowed from the biblically defined world that she was raised in. While growing up in a Jewish home and raised by non-observant Jewish parents, she could not escape the world shaped by the underlying assumptions of biblical values. As distorted as many of these principles might have been in her native Russia, there were still enough of them present that she could not think rationally without them. Being created in the image of God, she could not escape them and live rationally or develop the concepts of morality and right and wrong. Of course, she defines these fundamental absolutes in terms of her eclectic and twisted worldview.
Without a biblical worldview there is no way to account for the limited sovereignty of the individual and the inviolate sanctity of intellectual and physical property, themes expressed in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Her atheism did not give her the needed foundation for such claims. She borrowed these foundational principles and separated them from their source. She’s like the “little girl who must climb on her father’s lap to slap his face. . . . [T]he unbeliever must use the world as it has been created by God to try to throw God off Hs throne.” ((John A. Fielding III, “The Brute Facts: An Introduction of the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til,” The Christian Statesman 146:2 (March-April 2003), 30.)) Her observational principles work in her system as long as the majority of people are not atheists.
Rand is not wrong about everything she teaches. Her problem is that she can’t account for what is good in her system. She’s right that forced altruism is wrong, no matter who is doing it and what supposed good reasons people are giving for having it done. There is no forced governmental forced altruism mandated in the Bible. The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) uses his own money to care for the robbery victim left for dead. This story cannot be used as a directive for social spending by governments. Jesus never calls on the State to act in an altruistic way, since it has nothing of its own to give. The eighth commandment applies to civil governors in the same way that it applies to self-governors. Neither is permitted to steal to help others.
You can’t be altruistic with other people’s money. Taking money from one group of people and giving it to another group of people is not altruism, even if a majority of people vote for a program that does it. It’s theft. Theft by “majority rule” is still theft.
Rand makes the mistake of ruling out all altruism, seemingly even if it’s voluntary. Even the Bible has limits on personal altruism. This is why Paul can say, “if a person is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either” (2 Thess. 3:10). Contributing to a person’s lethargy is not altruism; it’s sin. But an atheist could say, without fear of any legitimate condemnation, “it doesn’t matter whether you work or not; you’re not going to eat.” There is nothing morally objective in Objectivism that says one person or a group of persons can’t intentionally starve one person or many. Of course, an Objectivist can say something is wrong, but there is no inherent basis for the claim. In a sense, Rand’s Objectivist ideology is worse than the Marxism she worked so hard to expose.
Libertarians have made a big deal of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged that describes a world where the productive members of society are being exploited by an ever-increasing and demanding government. Having had enough, the producers, industrialists, artists, and innovators progressively disappear. Why work and risk everything if their efforts are only going to be consumed by others who do not work? The book’s protagonist, the mysterious John Galt, describes the exodus of these producers as “stopping the motor of the world.” Without the engine of intellectual freedom and the reward of personal initiative and risk-taking, the incentive to produce dies and the world at large suffers.
Long before Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas had shrugged in the early years of America, but not by “the captains of industry” but by “people with the peculiar knack of making money.” This is another flaw in Rand’s thinking — her belief that only the intellectually superior person can be an Atlas. This is nonsense. Gary North writes:
Rand did not understand entrepreneurship. She did not understand that society-transforming entrepreneurship is not about doing great, creative things. It is about doing little, unconventional things for 250 consecutive years. It is not about rugged individualism. It is about using the prevailing system to make a buck any way you can, and then stay out of jail.
Consumers are in charge. They don’t make capitalists rich because businessmen are ideologically pure or heroic defenders of property rights. Consumers hand money over to them to get what they want. Capitalists respond to incentives. The main incentive is money, not the applause of the public for a job ideologically well done.
We get what we pay for. We pay for delivery of the goods in the situation at hand. We need not fear that Atlas will shrug. We should instead fear that he will pay off some key politicians to get an edge against the ever-fickle, ever-demanding consumers: us.
We can see this taking place early in America’s founding era. Common storehouse economics prevailed in Massachusetts and Virginia. Initially, all the colonists worked hard but were required to put whatever they produced in a common storehouse. Colonists would draw out what was needed. This arrangement encouraged laziness and made the community poorer. The hardest workers did not get a larger portion of goods. Those who did little work would receive a share of goods equal to that of the most industrious. There was no incentive to be industrious if everyone, no matter how hard or how little he worked, got the same share.
In the final analysis, Rand is a weak reed on which to build an economic platform. She can’t account for the either the economic worldview she worked so hard to build or the morality necessary to make it work.