So, I made an odd discovery and a big purchase a few months ago. While on vacation in the Poconos, I was digging through a collection of books at an antique store in Tunkhannock, PA, and I found a first edition, first print of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”. It wasn’t cheap, but I think it was worth more than the store was selling it for, so I bought it. If it doesn’t sell, I can at least use it for an expensive door stop.
It’s kinda hard to miss Rand these days. Fox News has people from the Ayn Rand Institute on often criticizing just about every action made by the Obama administrator, and for good reason. The reactions of our current federal government in response to economic crisis (starting with the Bush administrator, I should note), reads like a significant portion of Atlas Shrugged, under the section of “what not to do”. It’s hard to watch the news without hearing stories of bailouts, crony-ism, “corporate welfare”, and other actions of governments and corporations not only in bed together, but filming amateur porn, and forcing us to watch it.
For those not familiar with Rand’s magnum opus, it tells of the story of a the struggle for success for American capitalists whilst overcoming a society increasingly jealous of their successes. Rand’s philosophy is based on the premise that society runs on the backs of private enterprise and entrepreneurship, and that as long as those entrepreneurs are willing to bear the load, society’s flourish. However, when the community takes advantage of these “Atlases”, at some point, it is no longer advantageous to the entrepreneur, and he will shrug off society, leaving it nothing left from which to leech.
In my opinion, Rand failed before she started writing Atlas Shrugged. Her goal was to write an all-encompassing philosophical defense and a page-turner at the same name, and her didn’t succeed in either respect. One reviewer wrote that the “characters are less flesh-and-blood humans than mouthpieces for various philosophical points” However, as a philosophical argument, her book does a fantastic job in fleshing out the various types of personalities that lead to the establishment in society of the false ideas of justice that endlessly eat away at the true freedom and liberty that society should enjoy. She could have written “There are people in society who feel entitled to the wealth of others,”, but instead she created those people, and this is where Rand succeeds.
However, my goal is not to defend her observations on the failures of society, but to critique her solution offered in Atlas Shrugged, and ethical egoism in general. My goal is to show that while Rand does correctly identify the sin of greed and especially established greed under the misnomer of “compassion”, her solution to government enforced equality is as bad as the problem.
Contrast this to what I believe is the Biblical view of ethics and personal property. When reading the Bible, it’s easy to defend diverse ideas of how wealth, poverty, property, and charity. A fiscal lasse faire capitalist, a mutualist, and a Marxist could all pull out different verses to support their positions. However, I believe that the Bible does support a single economic philosophy of personal and property “rights” (a la Rand), while still embracing charity as a moral duty. Unlike Rand, I see no reason for these ideas to conflict.
Charity and giving are clearly commanded of Christians in Scripture, and even codified in the morals law (Lev. 19:10). Even the Jubilee laws that commanded slaves be set free also commanded that the land be left fallow for an entire year “that the poor of your people may eat” (Exodus 23:11). In even a surface examination of scripture, it’s undeniable that the Bible stands in clear disagreement with Rand’s objections towards charity.
But, at the same time, the idea of property rights are also very strongly supported. From the root moral law of “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15), the scriptures condemn scripture and command restitution for property stolen (Exodus 21:1). (As an interesting aside, the Bible does recognize that one may sympathize with a person who steals, but it doesn’t take away the need for the thief to restore the stolen property, even if he were to forfeit all that he owns. (Proverbs 6:30-31)).
Many today have concluded that since charity is a moral good, and since the civil government is an agency for promoting good (Romand 13:4), therefore, the civil government should be an agency for charity. This thinking, however, passes the moral buck, and in fact, undoes all the charity works to accomplish the life of the giver. When a person is forced to give (if I can even put those words together), the moral goodness that comes from the act is stripped. Likewise, when the state coerces a person to give under duress, whether that penalty be the threat of fines, jail, or even death, the state is no longer acting as an agent of good. In addition, it can cause the victim to begin to horde whatever money is left to them by the state.
In order to promote charity as an social norm, we must first promote a society where property is protected. The ultimate moral responsibility for charity is the individual alone (although he may choose to voluntary work with collective organizations like the local church), and it should be the role of the state to promote this reality by encouraging charity, while protecting property rights. Historically, America has excelled at private charity, and I strongly believe that this follows from recognizing our wealth, promoting strong property rights, and upholding charity as a strong moral good. For the most part, I believe America still considers the poor as an opportuntiy to show love, and not as a mass of ingrateful consumes. I strongly hope that this positive attitude is not replaced by politics of greed, forcing the rich to turn to people like Ayn Rand for ideas about how to protect their wealth from the masses.
As a final thought, I think the best argument against Rand’s personal philopsophy of ethical egoism is the results her life showed as she attempted to live according to her principles, dying arrogant and alone. She has many admirers, but very very few friends. I honestly cannot imagine a true friendship based on upon the ideas of Rand’s egoism. After all, if you knew that a person was going to act exclusively in their own best interest, then any relationship with them will always last as long as it is practical for them. The idea of personal sacrifice is unknown, even immoral, and even if an egoist were to help you, you would always suspect an ulterior motive.