Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

01/03/2011 (9:50 pm)

A Light Critique of Ayn Rand

A friend posted this portion of Mike Wallace’s 1959 interview with Russian-American philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, in which she discusses how her philosophy, Objectivism, should be applied in American society. A lively discussion ensued, so I’m going to post my thoughts here.

In my experience, American conservatives who are non-religious are likely to be Objectivists in some sense; Rand has plenty of fans on the right. Objectivism is a bit scary; it claims that man should pursue self-interest instead of altruism, that to serve one’s fellow-man is immoral, and that love is earned by developing personal virtue. Rand’s fans on the right mostly like her application of this to politics and economics, where she claims that the only legitimate political systems are those that grant unbridled individual liberty and permit laissez-faire capitalism.

Rand is brilliant, and defends her thesis ably. Enjoy, and then come back for some discussion.

As far as economics goes, Ms. Rand is right on the money. I would have wanted her to say only a couple of things differently:

(1) She should have emphasized that Mike Wallace’s version of the robber barons was a myth. She did actually say that, but it got buried in the detail. The real robber barons were those who used government regulation to obtain a competitive advantage.

(2) She should have corrected Wallace’s notion that the welfare state was an implementation of the principle that “We are our brother’s keepers.” It is not; it is an implementation of an anti-ethic masquerading as a Christian ethic, which says that an enlightened elite should trump the choices of the many in order to achieve what the elite claims is a Christian ideal. It would be a Christian ethic if individuals encouraged each other to care for their brothers. It is a statist tyranny that asserts the right of an elite to force others to implement their notion of a just state. This has nothing to do with Christianity.

Ms. Rand does not understand the vast difference between legitimate self-interest and selfishness. Modern progressives tend to make the same error, failing to differentiate between ordinary profit motive and greed. Rand’s version of conservatism is thus just as dangerous as the progressivism it opposes, and if it takes hold, would turn our nation into a nation of callous, self-centered fools.

Rand is correct about this: everybody operates out of self-interest. It’s why we feed and dress ourselves. The absence of self-interest is a pathology; people who lack this ordinary sense of self-interest don’t take care of themselves, become promiscuous, smoke, engage in high-risk activities without proper precautions, or become self-destructive in other ways.

“Selfishness” is ordinary self-interest pursued to the exclusion of necessary moral limits. Selfishness occurs when we allow our self-interest to trump other important moral imperatives, like concern for others or loyalty to family, among other things.

Those moral imperatives come from God, and are innate; Objectivism, however, claims that no God exists and that religion is illegitimate. This is where Objectivism and Christianity part company. Objectivism attempts to produce virtue without God, and makes a hash of it.

The same difference exists between self-interest and greed as exists between self-interest and selfishness. Greed is when we allow our desire for profit to trump our commitment to other, necessary moral rules, like the proscription on stealing or the imperative of telling the truth.

Modern liberals & progressives (who have, in this matter, swallowed the lies of Marxists) err by imagining that all profit motive is greed. Rand similarly errs by imagining that all self-interest is selfishness. Both of them err by making no distinction between the principled pursuit of self-improvement, and the unprincipled pursuit of it.

(I suspect that both fail to note this distinction because they’re both unprincipled themselves. Virtue is like knowledge; the virtuous can see both virtue and vice, while the vicious can see neither. But I can’t prove this.)

The interesting consequence of understanding the distinction between principled self-interest and greed or selfishness is that one realizes that our free society can only work among a highly principled populace. If, in general, we lack moral principle as a people, then our liberty becomes an occasion for selfishness and greed, and everything falls apart. Ultimately, the prosperity of free America did not arise only from its freedom, but from the combination of freedom and morality. Freedom without morality does not produce prosperity, it produces chaos. We actually saw something like this occur in post-Soviet Russia during the 1990s — although despite the chaos, what took place there was more prosperous than the Worker’s Paradise it replaced.

If you’d like to hear the portion of the interview in which Ms. Rand describes her philosophy for Wallace, you can find it here.

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January 6, 2011 @ 1:44 pm #

When I was younger, late teens early twenties, I read Ayn Rand. The truth was out there and I had found it. It was only later that I started seeing the real holes in her Objectivism philosophy.

“Both of them err by making no distinction between the principled pursuit of self-improvement, and the unprincipled pursuit of it.”

Without God the end will always justify the means. Progressives have always understood this and acted accordingly, where as Ayn Rand tried to get around it. In her book Atlas Shrugged one of her main characters noted that men are more than a collection of chemicals, however she was never able to say why. One can make a very good argument as to why people in a community should act in a principled manner, but it’s much harder to argue why any individual in that group should act in a manner inconsistent with their own self interest. Group survival depends on the individuals within the group acting for the good of the group; however an individuals survival depends on them acting strictly in their own self interest. In other words it can be argued that group behavior needs to be based on principled moral actions, however when you drill down to the individual, without God, it no longer makes sense for a person to put themselves at risk for the good of the group.

“It is a statist tyranny that asserts the right of an elite to force others to implement their notion of a just state. This has nothing to do with Christianity.”

Phil, I have a question; how far are you willing to go with the above statement? Is there ever a time when the state should step in, in the name of all of us, and help an individual. What if some homeless person is dying on the sidewalk, should a policeman just hang a sign around their neck saying something like, “some religious person may want to help, otherwise please watch your step”. I’m questioning your assertion that it’s always tyranny when the state enforces some standard of decency. As individuals we may have no incentive to help, but as a group, for the general welfare of all, we may decide otherwise.

January 22, 2011 @ 7:53 pm #

I remember being lectured by a follower of Ayn Rand in my college philosophy class. With a number of younger Christians asking questions the Lecturer elaborated to the point of stating the origins of the Universe was due to +time +chance and not by a personal creator God. My first question to him was along the lines of what significance did he have different to the concrete block that held a taped piece of paper with his name?

He didn’t seem to like that question. He liked it even less when I asked him if he had no personal creator What did he mean when he told his wife that he loved her? That I asked anything was to his disliking since I had given my “testimony” to his wife a few weeks earlier in a class we shared.
After this second question pretty much all I remember was the “cussing” that was put on me in class.

That didn’t change the fact that he could not live within the “system” he said he believed…I didn’t much get into the virtue of selfishness…

Regarding the statist requiring good works…Is this not reflected in the “good Samaritan Laws?”


January 25, 2011 @ 11:55 am #

>>Is there ever a time when the state should step in, in the name of all of us, and help an individual.>>

Truly a question to ponder. If “the state” is expressing the will of the people, it seems entirely appropriate for the people to say that the state should do this or do that, and designate funds so that it’s done and afflicted people don’t fall through the cracks due to indifference or simply lack of notice by the people.

The problem is twofold – the obvious one that if you give the state an inch, the state will take a mile. The second is that by designating the state as your agent, you the Christian are abrogating your responsibility to your fellow men.

But we have lives, and we tend to live them in circumscribed areas – physically and socially. If a disadvantaged person is outside our area, how can we be aware that there is a need? Is a US citizen on the hook to assist the person in Africa?

Good thoughts. How do we do what we ought without giving away the store? (meaning giving all power to a totalitarian state)

January 27, 2011 @ 8:53 am #

The weakness in Dale’s analysis comes with the assertion that it would be possible for the government to have compassion where the citizenry has none. The defense of government intervention always rests on the assertion that somebody who happens to be in the government is more moral, more compassionate, more intelligent than anybody outside of government.

Readers here will recognize this as the essential fallacy of progressivism; a progressive begins being a progressive when that individual begins to think, as an existential matter, “I am smarter than you.” In a word, progressivism is the philosophy of personal arrogance.

The government has a proper function in keeping the peace, which makes it appropriate for the government to pass laws saying that certain behaviors are forbidden. At no time does this translate into laws saying that certain behaviors are REQUIRED.

In Dale’s scenario, the proper response would be for the policeman to clear to sidewalk, which is his duty with regard to keeping the peace. Sometimes this includes giving Mr. Homeless a night in jail, which brings him inside and provides a meal and a bed — along with appropriate penalties for loitering or whatever. In a slightly different scenario, the policeman would require the homeless man to leave the area, but would recommend where he could go to find a place to stay for the night — there’s nothing wrong with the police coordinating efforts with private shelters. And even if there’s no formal coordination, the policeman, as a human being acting on his own initiative, could tell the homeless man where he might find shelter, even while he’s telling him to move along. What you will NOT see in real life, though, is the government having compassion for the homeless man where the citizenry has none. That’s the left’s fantasy universe. In reality, the government is a reflection of the culture that produces it, or sometimes a bureaucratic version of it.

January 27, 2011 @ 11:51 am #

There was a man begging at the end of the freeway off-ramp yesterday. Unlike many who have taken that position, he looked like he actually might need help. Unfortunately for him, I no longer trust my judgment of appearances, and there _are_ places in the city to get help.

I’m always tempted, however, to direct such people to the “Manpower” office (temporary physical labor company) about three blocks away.

Maybe I should carry some of their cards…

There’s also a woman who stations herself daily at one of the local shopping centers. _Every_ day. With her shopping cart, and a chair upon which she sits with her “Homeless – anything will help” sign. If time were not an issue, I’d sit around and wait till she leaves, and follow her … wherever.

And then there was the young man who took up the freeway ramp station for several weeks last year. With his two dogs. Dogs were in reasonably good condition.

My point is (and I’m not sure I have one)… that I want to help the needy, but not the lazy frauds – and often I can’t tell the difference. If the government has a function, it would be to separate the wheat from the chaff.

January 27, 2011 @ 1:32 pm #

Phil, I think you’re carrying the idea of government nonintervention too far. In my opinion the government should be a reflection of the compassion the average citizen has for his fellow man. And, for the most part that compassion comes from our Christian heritage. The average citizen cannot always be there at the right time and place.

“ The defense of government intervention always rests on the assertion that somebody who happens to be in the government is more moral, more compassionate, more intelligent than anybody outside of government.”

My defense for government intervention rests on the assumption that the government can often be there first and with more of the right recourses.

January 27, 2011 @ 1:40 pm #

Perhaps, Dale. On the other hand, before the government took over charity, there were massive and highly active private organizations doing charitable works in all the major cities in the US, many of them church-related. Government charity has displaced most of them. Now that President Obama has eliminated the tax deductions for charity, the chances are that government will displace the rest, with only the most committed church-based charities hanging on.

Catholic Charities is more often there first and with the right resources than any government agency, in my experience. Plus, they’re usually familiar with who are the players and who are the one who have real needs. There’s an entire class of folks who cycle through the various charity groups with a sad story, obtaining whatever they can obtain for free, and then cycling back for another round; the established charities know who they are.

Interestingly, there’s no line between “real need” and “lazy fraud” much of the time. They’re often the same person; a lot of times meeting real need is a matter of attempting to address the character flaws that produced the poverty in the first place. A lot of the habitual poor do take advantage of the system. The only way you can tell who’s who is by living and working among them, where you get to know the players.

January 28, 2011 @ 7:20 pm #

Suek –

Have you considered befriending any of them…maybe input from a real friend, of which many don’t have any, would be the best way to pick them up.

Leaving charity to government – necessary sometimes, but REALLY impersonal. Leaving charity to charitable organizations – still gets us off the hook from being personal. Not that CO’s are bad…and I agree with Phil on the Catholic Charities front, as well as Lutheran Community Services…but friendship is hard to beat. And very, very scary, admittedly.

January 29, 2011 @ 12:21 pm #


In answer to your question, no. For a couple of reasons – first, the off-ramp of a freeway is not a good safe place to introduce oneself. Exposure is limited to those occasions when the traffic light is red. Secondly, there _are_ those who befriend the “cart” lady (a modern version of the bag lady, I guess. She uses a grocery cart for her stuff) – but she’s still there so somehow that doesn’t seem to make a difference. Admittedly, I don’t know how those conversations go. I don’t go to the grocery store daily, by the way, but I pass the entry to the parking lot where she stations herself under a tree.
Thirdly, in both cases, they are in the city where I go to work, which is about a half hour drive from where I live. My exposure is brief. If they were in my home area, I think I might be more likely to investigate…

January 29, 2011 @ 2:48 pm #

I like what I hear from Ayn Rand about there being a line drawn between individual freedoms and limited government. But Phil is spot on in making a further distinction between “self-interest” and “selfishness”. That is well put.

I would also add these two points of hope, from a Christian perspective:

1) Regarding limited government, I take note of the Bible’s affirmation that our universe is run not by an impersonal Force, not by a bureaucracy, nor by a completely indifferent evolutionary process, but it is created and run by a God that is so personal that he’s three Persons in One. And if anything, we complain that he’s not a Dictator or at least a heavy handed President. He gives us too much freedom. Or so we hear said.

2) Regarding our individual freedoms, I take note of the Bible’s revelation that we long ago “voted ourselves into slavery to sin” while in the Garden of Eden. And all of us have been stuck there corporately and individually ever since. But then God freely put Himself into our situation in order to get us out of it. I point to Jesus Christ, God Incarnate: i.e. God being human. (The way “human” should be.)

Jesus inaugurated and is the head of the greatest organization/government/kingdom this world has ever seen. But the more it has tried to become a big government the less it has looked like Jesus. While the more it has reflected Jesus the more inspiringly human it has been. And no wonder. This is what Jesus said to his future leaders in a key quote in the Gospel of Mark:

Jesus called [his apostles] together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:41-45

Jesus’ kingdom isn’t of this world any more than a seed is mere dirt. But it is very much IN the world. And the world will never be the same.

January 29, 2011 @ 7:49 pm #

Suek –

When the stories are told of people who were those “cart ladies” and “bag” people, but overcame that life, it is almost universally because of a caring, personal hand that reached over to them. Those stories VERY RARELY attribute the victory to very much else.

It may very well be, like me, that you are not really built to be that helping hand, and that’s okay. But I think it would be a better society if all of us would consider when the God of compassion might be calling us out of our comfort zones.

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