Do Conservatives Need Ayn Rand?

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.”

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 conservatives would want to emulate? Are any of Rand’s economic views unique to her? Do conservatives really need Ayn Rand 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. Free-market advocate Henry Hazlitt (1894–1993) did.  He 1951 novel The Great Idea (republished in 1966 as Time Will Run Back) is a great introduction to economic theory and practice. Rand understood that ideas alone are not enough. They need an engine to get the 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?

Objectivism, being officially atheistic and capitalistic, draws critics from the Left and the Right: “The left was infuriated by her anti-communist, pro-capitalist politics, whereas the right was disgusted with her atheism and civil libertarianism.”

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). As a Christian, I’m all for rational self-interest. But how does an atheist account for rationality given materialist assumptions about the nature of reality? Rationality is non-material.

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 evolutionism 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, they were still enough of them present that she could not think rationally without them.

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.”1 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 are doing it and what supposed good reasons people are giving for having it done. There is no forced, governmental mandated altruism in the Bible. The story of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke’s Gospel (10:25–37), who uses his own money to care for the robbery victim left for dead, 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.

You can’t be altruistic wither 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. In biblical terms, even personal altruism can be bad. This is why the apostle Paul can say, “if a person is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either” (2 Thess. 3:10). 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.” In a sense, her Objectivist ideology is worse than the Marxism she worked so hard to expose.

Libertarians have made a big deal of Rand’s The Fountainhead 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. 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.

Those involved in economic transactions believe and hope for an agreed upon set of rules (laws) that apply to all equally, especially since “we live in an imperfect universe.” Like reason and justice, how do we account for the validity of these rules? Ludwig von Mises (1883–1973), the patron saint of modern Libertarian thought but an agnostic, has problems similar to those of Rand:

There is, however, no such thing as a perennial standard of what is just and what is unjust. Nature is alien to the idea of right and wrong. “Thou shalt not kill” is certainly not part of natural law. The characteristic feature of natural conditions is that one animal is intent upon killing other animals and that many species cannot preserve their own life except by killing others. The notion of right and wrong is a human device, a utilitarian precept designed to make social cooperation under the division of labor possible. All moral rules and human laws are means for the realization of definite ends. There is no method available for the appreciation of their goodness or badness other than to scrutinize their usefulness for the attainment of the ends chosen and aimed at.2

Says who? Mises talks about “moral restraint” by humans. Few would doubt that humans and “nonhuman beings,” to follow Mises on this point, are different.3 But why? What is the basis of the difference? Where is it found? And who says?

Alan Dershowitz, also an agnostic, while not dealing specifically with economic rights, rejects “absolutes and divine endowments” as a source for rights. He proposes “an experiential approach based on nurture rather than nature. This approach builds a theory from the bottom up, not from the top down.”4 Dershowitz continually talks about “rights” and “wrongs,” but he does not account for what makes something ultimately right or wrong. He says that “there is widespread agreement that we never want to see a recurrence of” certain past atrocities, and “most reasonable people regard terrorism directed at civilians as unjust.”5 What if there is widespread agreement that these so-called atrocities are good for us and our planet? These men have the same inherent problems found in the philosophy of Ayn Rand. They can’t account for the moral worldview they so espouse.

With some variations, those who hold to a biblical economic model share many fundamental principles with advocates of an unregulated free market, or better put, free marketers share many fundamental economic principles with advocates of a biblical worldview. John W. Robbins writes, in his critique of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, “That the structure of knowledge that she erected, in which metaphysics [the nature of the world] depends on epistemology [nature and limits of knowledge], ethics on both, and politics on all three . . . eliminated the possibility of both limited government and the laws of logic. She smuggled those ideas in from Christianity, whose structure, whose systematic philosophy, she rejected.”6 Of course, she was not alone. Mises and Dershowitz do the same thing, as do many of today’s moral theorists who attempt to formulate an ethical worldview from borrowed material. Not only don’t they have any straw to make bricks, they don’t even have the clay! As R. J. Rushdoony shows, there is no way to construct a moral worldview from the operating assumptions of a naturalistic, matter-only worldview.

Thus natural man does have knowledge, but it is borrowed knowledge, stolen from the Christian-theistic pasture or range, yet natural man has no knowledge, because in terms of his principle — the ultimacy of his thinking — he can have none, and the knowledge he possesses is not truly his own. . . . The natural man has valid knowledge only as a thief possesses goods.7

Rushdoony is not saying that non-Christians don’t have knowledge of things, reason reasonably, or act justly. He contends that these supposed “self-evident truths” presuppose a starting point outside the individual. If a person is consistent with his naturalistic presuppositions, knowledge (certainty) is impossible, not just about economics but about everything. Facts do not speak for themselves. If they did, then there would be no debate over economic philosophies and practice. Like those who hold to a managed economy, proponents of an economic free market “are unaware that their theory rests on certain God-given external conditions. They simply accept these limitations of nature as ‘given,’ and they do not bother to inquire as to the source of them. Such investigations, every secular economist would tell us, are not relevant, are not scientific, cannot be demonstrated by ethically neutral, rationalistic presuppositions.”8

How does the naturalist/materialist account for the fixed nature of economic self-evident laws and results and the moral basis for the free market when, as Lester Frank Ward argues, “nature has neither feeling nor will, neither consciousness nor intelligence”9 How can cosmic purposelessness bring about cosmic purpose?

Rand is a weak reed on which to build an economic platform. She can’t account for the economic worldview she worked so hard to build.

  1. 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. []
  2. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, 3rd rev. ed. (Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books, Inc., 1966), 720. The late Yale Law Professor Arthur Leff (1935–1981), an agnostic, writes: “There arose a great number of schools of ethics — axiological, materialistic, evolutionary, intuitionist, situational, existential, and so on — but they all suffered the same fate: either they were seen to be ultimately premised on some intuition (buttressed or not by nose counts of those seemingly having the same intuitions), or they were more arbitrary than that, based solely on some ‘for the sake of the argument’ premise. I will put the current situation as sharply as possible: there is today no way of ‘proving’ that napalming babies is bad except by asserting it (in a louder and louder voice), or by defining it as so, early in one’s game, and then later slipping it through, in a whisper, as a conclusion. Now this is a fact of modern intellectual life so well and painfully known as to be one of the few which is simultaneously horrifying and banal.” (Arthur Allen Leff, “Economic Analysis of Law: Some Realism About Nominalism,” Virginia Law Review [1974], 454–455). Also see Leff’s “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal (December 1979). []
  3. Mises, Human Action, 668. []
  4. Alan Dershowitz, Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 6. []
  5. Dershowitz, Rights from Wrongs, 7. []
  6. John W. Robbins, Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System (Hobbs, New Mexico: The Trinity Foundation, 1997), 19. []
  7. Rousas J. Rushdoony, By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1958), 24. []
  8. Gary North, An Introduction to Christian Economics (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1973), vii. []
  9. Lester Frank Ward, Dynamic Sociology; or Applied Social Science, as Based Upon Statistical and the Less Complex Sciences, 2 vols. (New York: Appleton, [1883] 1907, 2:12). []