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.