Would Ayn Rand be Welcomed at a Tea Party?

Jim Wallis, one of President Obama’s spiritual advisers made this comment about the Tea Party: “I distrust a movement that lifts up a philandering, Russian, atheist.” Mr. Wallis is referring to Ayn Rand, a favorite writer of many Libertarian thinkers. While I disagree with Mr. Wallis on many things, his description of Ayn Rand is accurate. But his claim that the Tea Party “lifts up” Rand as their philosophical hero is off base.

I suspect that a majority of Tea Partiers don’t even know who Rand is or the substance of her Objectivist philosophy. Richard Land, who debated Mr. Wallis on social justice themes, gets it right:

“The tea party is overwhelmingly socially conservative,” Land said explaining the tea party is actually made up of a great number of people of faith. “They are in the 85 percent range in terms of people that are pro-life. The libertarian wing of the tea party is very small. They are by and large previously unactivated parts of social conservatives in America — Catholic and Evangelical.”

Furthermore, Mr. Wallis is claiming that because Rand is wrong on some things – adultery and atheism — that she’s wrong on all things. Wallis tried to get away with a cheap logical trick called “poisoning the well”” “You can’t believe anything she says. She was an adulterer and an atheist.”

As anyone who has studied Rand’s economic theory knows, anything that’s good about it has been discussed by others long before her novels became popular. She gets some things right but more things wrong.

There are many more Tea Partiers who follow the writings of Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams than Ayn Rand. Maybe it’s time that Sowell and Williams write a novel with an underlying economic theme, as Rand did with Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. This seems the only way for people to ingest ideas these days. Free-market advocate Henry Hazlitt (1894–1993), author of Economics in One Lesson and The Failure of the New Economics (1959) did it with his 1951 novel The Great Idea1 Hazlitt wrote the following about his novel:

If capitalism did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it — and its discovery would be rightly regarded as one of the great triumphs of the human mind. This is the theme of Time Will Run Back. But as “capitalism” is merely a name for freedom in the economic sphere, the theme of my novel might be stated more broadly: the will to freedom can never be permanently stamped out.

Hazlitt’s economic novel was published six years before Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In fact, Atlas Shrugged does not understand capitalism as Tea Party advocates would describe it. So much of what is attributed to Rand about capitalism is not found in her writings. This is why historian and economist Dr. Gary North argues that Atlas Shrugged “is a conceptually confused novel. It was offered in the name of individual liberty, yet its description of how capitalism works is so wrongheaded that it undermines what Rand regarded as a call to economic liberty. I can think of few books that have more completely misunderstood how capitalism works. It has always baffled me that anyone who understands the nature of the capitalist system would find much in this book to praise.” North’s entire article is worth studying. You can read it here.

The biggest problem with Rand’s Objectivist philosophy is that it’s atheistic. On this point, Wallis is correct. 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 evolution 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, there 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.”2 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 is doing it and what supposed good reasons people are giving for having it done. There is no forced governmental altruism mandated in the Bible. The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) uses his own money to care for the robbery victim left for dead. This story cannot be used as a directive for social spending by governments, something that Mr. Wallis advocates. Jesus never calls on the State to act in an altruistic way, since it has nothing of its own to give. The eighth commandment applies to civil governors in the same way that it applies to self-governors. Neither is permitted to steal to help others.

You can’t be altruistic with 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. The Bible does not advocate an unregulated altruism. This is why Paul can say, “If a person is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either” (2 Thess. 3:10). Contributing to a person’s lethargy is not altruism. Giving can make people dependent and ungrateful. There are times when helping people in need is a good thing (Acts 2:44–45; 4:34–35). But even in these cases, the giving is personal, voluntary, and regulated.

But 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.” There is nothing morally objective in Objectivism that says one person or a group of persons can’t intentionally starve one person or many. Of course, an Objectivist can say something is wrong, but there is no inherent basis for the claim. In a sense, Rand’s Objectivist ideology is worse than the Marxism she worked so hard to expose.

Libertarians have made a big deal of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged 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, but not by “the captains of industry” but by “people with the peculiar knack of making money.” This is another flaw in Rand’s thinking — her belief that only the intellectually superior person can be an Atlas. This is nonsense, as Dr. North points out:

Rand did not understand entrepreneurship. She did not understand that society-transforming entrepreneurship is not about doing great, creative things. It is about doing little, unconventional things for 250 consecutive years. It is not about rugged individualism. It is about using the prevailing system to make a buck any way you can, and then stay out of jail.

Consumers are in charge. They don’t make capitalists rich because businessmen are ideologically pure or heroic defenders of property rights. Consumers hand money over to them to get what they want. Capitalists respond to incentives. The main incentive is money, not the applause of the public for a job ideologically well done.

We get what we pay for. We pay for delivery of the goods in the situation at hand. We need not fear that Atlas will shrug. We should instead fear that he will pay off some key politicians to get an edge against the ever-fickle, ever-demanding consumers: us.

We can see this taking place early in America’s founding era. 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.

In the final analysis, 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 or the morality necessary to make it work. While Tea Partiers would not object to her holding a sign, they would not let her speak for them. And I suspect that she wouldn’t want to.

  1. It was republished in 1966 as Time Will Run Back. []
  2. 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. []