This article was written on January 30, 2012, long before Paul Ryan was named or even considered as Romney’s running mate. The issue here is the utter inconsistency of beliefs, not politics. My response to Rand is not only derived from her novels, but to her philosophical writings such as “The Virtue of Selfishness” (1964) which more clearly articulate the ideas that drive her novels.
When I was studying philosophy in the 1970s, Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism was not taken very seriously. The more generous commentators referred to objectivism as an “incomplete” philosophy, which was a polite way of saying that it was full of holes. Her novels, especially Atlas Shrugged, were regarded as atheist manifestos, but had fallen out of favor.
Fast forward thirty-five years, and Ayn Rand has experienced a disturbing resurgence. I recall stopping in at the local branch of our regional bank a few years ago, and noticing that the branch manager had one book – and only one book – prominently displayed in her office, Atlas Shrugged. It was so odd, I very nearly asked her about it; I wish now that I had done so. What I didn’t know at the time was that the chairman and CEO of the bank, John Allison, was an ardent fan of Rand’s work and was funneling the bank’s nonprofit foundation money into creating Rand study programs on the campuses of major universities.
Among very right-wing politicos and libertarians, Rand’s ideas have gained great currency – in fact, she had never gone out of style in that group, and her anti-government ideas are deeply larded into the DNA of certain politicians in Washington. But then came the day when I started to hear conservative Christians quote from Rand’s work, even promoting book-club style readings of Atlas Shrugged.
For me, this was like hearing Pat Robertson start off a 700 Club broadcast with an inspirational quote from Karl Marx’ Das Kapital.
For me, this was like hearing Pat Robertson start off a 700 Club broadcast with an inspirational quote from Karl Marx’ Das Kapital or hearing a rabbi begin a discussion by saying “You know, all the Holocaust stuff aside, that Hitler had some pretty good ideas?” It’s a bizarre, surreal nightmare, as if we have fallen into a rabbit hole and are in a parallel universe – the one of Alice and the White Queen, who could believe six impossible things before breakfast! Can it be that these believers do not really understand Rand’s work and how profoundly opposed it is to every word of Christ in the red letters of the Bible they claim to believe? Or is it that they are able to juggle utterly contradictory points of view as long as one of them is emotionally satisfying or economically convenient? Perhaps they don’t adequately grasp the radical call of Christ, and are too easily enticed by a very worldly and anti-Christian philosophy because it dresses up greed and selfishness in pretty designer clothes.
Ayn Rand’s most famed novel is revered by many in America today as a great defense of “true capitalism.” Rand’s philosophy is spun out in dramatic form in the story of John Galt, inventor and capitalist, who leads a strike of the great minds against government regulation and the welfare state. Convenient red meat for those upset with our government today, but it comes at a very high price and terrible moral sacrifice.
Rand’s work is based utterly and completely on the rejection of all religion, of God, and of the fundamental values not only of Christianity but most of Western society. This is not my version, this is according to Rand herself. She despised every aspect of Christian morality, said so frequently and loudly to anyone who would listen. The only “moral value” in Rand’s misanthropic view is that of personal self-interest. Concepts such as kindness, self-sacrifice, regard for the good of others are all anathema to her. Any imposition of rules or regulations on the liberty of the individual are morally wrong in her view. Wipe out all the Commandments, particularly those held up by Jesus as the “first and greatest.” Erase all of Jesus’ parables, all of His blunt teachings about “the least of these.”
But wait, this goes against the fundamental values of Eastern society and philosophy, too! It contradicts values of primitive village and tribal culture and nearly every religion and major moral philosophy of history, in short the ethic of every social culture of folks who have had to live together in society. The “ethic of reciprocity,” considering the welfare of others and sometimes sacrificing self-interest in the interest of the greater good, is expressed in nearly every culture and faith:
“This is the sum of Dharma [duty]: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you”. Mahabharata, 5:1517
“…a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?” Samyutta NIkaya v. 353
“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Udana-Varga 5:18
“Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you” Analects 15:23
“Tse-kung asked, ‘Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?’ Confucius replied, ‘It is the word ‘shu’ — reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'” Doctrine of the Mean 13.3
“Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.” Mencius VII.A.4
“This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” Mahabharata 5:1517
“None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Number 13 of Imam “Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths.”
Of course, probably the best-known articulation for Western Christians is the “Golden Rule,” expressed by Jesus in Matthew 7:12 “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (NIV). But even here, Jesus is quoting from much older Hebrew tradition: Leviticus 19:18 prescribes that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, and Rabbi Hillel famously proclaimed “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary.” (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
Rand’s philosophy, which is a mishmash of Nietzsche’s Übermensch (Superman) fantasies and fanatical anti-Communism, is built out of exactly the same ingredients that fueled the dark fantasies of Adolph Hitler. They are dressed up in American clothes and better decorated than Hitler, but for Christians to adopt even minor elements of objectivism requires fantastic mental gymnastics. Or simply the shallowness to not understand how contradictory these ideas are!
Let me be clear: fundamental components of Rand’s philosophy would require absolutely no state, local, or national regulation or restriction on abortion, sale of drugs, marriage of anybody to anybody, and so on. Yet most of the conservative Christians whom I have heard touting Rand’s books and thought are the same people who want major invasive government restrictions on these and other social issues. It’s not actually possible to have it both ways! Thoughtlessly borrowing convenient ideas from ardent atheists just doesn’t seem to be reasonable for those who claim to follow Christ.
Okay, now I’m skating on the edge of a classic logical fallacy, the ad hominem argument: “Rand was an atheist, therefore everything she said is wrong.” While this may seem to make sense to many Christians, it is a fallacious logical argument. Rand, like Marx, could be an atheist and yet say individual things that are true. Wagner (another fan of the Übermensch and inspiration for fascism) was a terrible person, but he was a musical genius – I’m listening to Götterdämmerung as I write, and can enjoy that operatic exuberance without moral compromise. Aristotle had horrible ideas about women and treated them abysmally, but he was pretty good with logic.
So we can’t make that sweeping generalization. But a close study of Rand’s philosophy reveals that her popular assertions rest on a complex framework of assumptions that really are fundamentally antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. Rather than working for the Kingdom of God in service to others and self-sacrifice, Rand holds up personal self-interest as the only guiding moral principal. Rather than having concern for the “least of these,” we are to look out for number one first and foremost, our own personal happiness being the only true “moral value.” The “least of these” get what they deserve, and should be happy with crumbs from the tables of the great ones.
Rand’s dangerously seductive theory is that if everyone behaves selfishly without regulation of any sort by the evil government, it will all sort of work out. The “creators” (the Übermensch, or Superpeople) will have great lives and accomplish lots, while the rest of society will benefit from the outflow of their genius, and the “moochers” and “looters” will get what they deserve. The problem is that this is a chimera, a devilishly clever temptation that never works out in reality. Rand weaves an image of society that is perilously tempting for many people, but one which is fundamentally a lie. Her novels are filled with sexuality, self-righteous indignation, and self-serving references. She lies through the simplest possible dramatic method, she leaves out the inconvenient things that would jar a reader out of the spell. Her characters have no inconveniences like children who have problems at school or have fevers or need their nappies changed, no spouses whose goals or needs must be accommodated, no aging parents who must be cared for. They never have to deal with niggling details like illness or pain, minor realities that happen to dominate most normal people’s lives at some point.
Watch Mike Wallace’s 1959 interview with Ayn Rand
Every time I see the old interviews with Rand, or read her work, I’m reminded of a greeting card that came out many years ago: “Happy Zero Population Growth Day! Love, Mom.” Rand is apparently oblivious of the sacrifices her own parents had to make to merely allow for her existence. She is intentionally blind to the fact that personal self-sacrifice is an integral component of what allows human society to exist and continue.
Rand’s fantasy world completely leaves out the fundamental interdependence of human society, and the fact that even the greatest creative geniuses cannot exist without the farmers who grow their food, the plumbers who fix their toilets, the humble garbagemen who tote away their offal. And she utterly misses in her own tragic spiritual darkness the joy that really moral and emotionally healthy humans have in relationship with one another, in sharing one another’s joys and pains, in supporting one another in time of need.
The paleontologist Margaret Mead was once asked what the earliest sign of human culture and society was that she had discovered in her research. She thought for a moment and the responded “The first broken and healed femur.” For an early hunter-gatherer to have suffered a broken thigh and survived so that it healed meant that someone else had stayed to help, someone else had decided not to leave the injured human behind, someone else had sacrificed their own safety and self-interest and stayed to care for the injured one. This is how human civilization works.
Even her fellow atheists saw through the pretensions of Rand’s philosophy. The late Gore Vidal, self-proclaimed “born again atheist,” said of objectivism:
Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society….To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.— Gore Vidal, 1961
Don’t get it yet? Consider this: the late self-promoter Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, revered Rand’s philosophy and in fact admitted that much of the Satanic Bible was just a repackaging of Rand. “I give people Ayn Rand, with trappings,” he said to Kim Klein of the Washington Post in 1970. And here we are, forty years later, awash in conservative Christians holding book club readings of the Church of Satan’s favorite writer. See why I feel a little disoriented?
At the risk of slipping too close to the ad hominem argument again, Rand’s own life does not seem to be a good argument for objectivism, for it is hard to say that she found the “happiness” she claimed was her primary moral goal. Is it snarky to mention that her volatile mood swings, addiction to amphetamines, a string of broken relationships don’t seem to shout that her rational self-interest really worked to produce happiness? Is it a cheap shot to point out that when her lifelong smoking caught up with her, she depended on Medicare to pay for her lung cancer surgery, despite her proclaimed opposition to any sort of government care for the individual? Or maybe the government is supposed to take care of the self-identified “special people” and it’s only the “moochers” who need to be left to die.
Rand’s fans include such folks as long-time Fed Chairman and proponent Alan Greenspan and “Abolish the Fed” libertarian Ron Paul. Wait, I’m confused. Well, so are these guys. Greenspan was forced to admit in 2008 that his Randian assumptions about corporate self-interest were wrong, and played a role in the incredible continuing financial mess we are wallowing in. Ron Paul has not admitted any such self-correction, of course. Another big fan is Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, whose budget plan is shot through with Rand’s ideas; though in the last couple of years he has worked to distance himself from her philosophy as a result of criticisms from the Roman Catholic Church.
Look, when in the sweep of human history and thought, one person steps up with a philosophy that is 180 degrees out of phase with most of moral thought, ideas that flatly contradict the fundamental concepts that allow civilization to exist, concepts that can in fact be called the “wisdom of the ages,” doesn’t that person’s philosophy merit some special critical scrutiny? A little suspicion? Shouldn’t there be a pretty stiff standard for such a claim, just as there should be for a claim that the sun will rise in the West tomorrow? In the same manner, shouldn’t we be suspicious when any one individual (or any race) declares themselves to be “extra-special?” Rand was fond of such self-congratulatory statements.
Over the years working in a creative industry, I’ve worked with quite a few self-proclaimed geniuses, and have found most of them to be pretty deluded and disappointing. In most cases, they see perfect answers so clearly only because they actually don’t understand the complexity of the problems, or because they are utterly lacking in empathy or understanding of any viewpoint other than their own.
It doesn’t take a genius to pick apart Rand’s philosophy. It’s full of major holes and is patently a product of her personal history and emotional brokenness. The fundamental tenets from which it arises are flawed: Communism did not fail because of its demands for noble self-sacrifice, it failed because those at the top were greedy and demanded self-sacrifice of those at the bottom – frankly, the same flaw that is causing capitalism to crack right now. The same greed and selfishness that proponents of Rand’s philosophy believe will “save” our crippled economy. Fat chance.
It is interesting that two of the most powerful anti-totalitarian government books, Atlas Shrugged and George Orwell’s 1984, were written by atheists. Orwell actually has far more emotional depth than Rand; but in fact both of them were wrong in their forecasts of Big Brother, for much of what they feared government would do is actually being done by multinational corporations. Facebook knows much more about you than the government does!
I can’t speak for Buddhists or atheists or agnostics, but I can speak to Christians: those of us who claim to follow Christ need to start from the teachings of Jesus – and the core tradition of generations of believers that have been passed to us – not from the artfully woven delusions of a grim atheist novelist. When borrowing bits of philosophy from here and there, we need to hold them up beside the fundamental and very plain teachings of Jesus for discernment before swallowing them hook, line, and sinker. Not doing so is meeting the devil in the desert and going off on a date with him. Or her, as the case may be.
Time Magazine, Is Human Nature Fundamentally Selfish or Altruistic?
The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Ridiculous Rise of Ayn Rand