Anybody watching the coverage of the tea parties on April 15 may have seen pictures of Ayn Rand or references to the book “Atlas Shrugged.” Sales of Rand’s classic apocalyptic book are soaring in these days of increasing government control in the United States, and Rand is being called prophetic in some circles. As Latter-day Saints, can we square Rand’s philosophy with the Gospel?
The short answer is “no,” but readers may be surprised at some of the similarities between Rand’s world view and our own.
Rand was an ardent atheist and defender of selfishness. Her 1100-page tome “Atlas Shrugged” includes multiple soliloquies on the wonders of capitalism, “reason,” and egoism. She hates “mysticism” (ie, all religion) and any and all attempts to limit personal freedom. In short, she is probably the single most influential philosopher on modern-day libertarianism. (Go read the on-line magazine “Reason” or to the Ayn Rand Institute to learn more.)
In this author’s opinion, it is simply essential to come to terms with Ayn Rand’s philosophy given our current economic and political situation. The government’s role in the economy is expanding beyond the worst nightmares of just about everybody but Rand, who predicted this very situation 60 years ago. The entire bailout culture, involving massive government interference in the private sector on an unimaginable scale, has resulted in the unthinkable act of a sitting president firing a CEO of a private company. Intelligent observers will recognize that the “tea parties” of April 15 were not just organized by right-wing nuts but instead were an attempt by freedom loving people to stand athwart this statist onslaught and yell “stop” before it’s too late. There were probably more Ron Paul supporters in these crowds than there were Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin supporters.
But any Latter-day Saint who has sympathy for Rand must also face the fact that her philosophy is, at its most obvious, directly contradictory to the Gospel.
Rand is openly and unapologetically against religion, including Christianity. She openly and unapologetically promotes unadulterated selfishness and has nothing but contempt for people who promote giving to the underprivileged. I imagine her rolling her eyes in disgust during the Sermon on the Mount.
But what is fascinating for this religious Christian is that “Atlas Shrugged” is literally filled with Christ symbols and various other religious references. John Galt, her greatest hero, is nothing but a Christ symbol — he allows himself to be tortured by Pharisiacal statists for the greater good of humanity. The people around him love him just as Christ’s followers loved the Savior. His followers gather to a pure capitalistic Zion while the rest of the statist world falls to pieces (Isaiah, anyone?). And check out this scene. One character is discussing the what is missing from the world, and says that John Galt has the ideal characteristic:
“There’s something you’d want to hear from them. I didn’t know it either until I saw him for the first time” — he pointed to Galt — “and he said it to me, and then I knew what it was that I had missed all my life…’Well done.’ “
All Rand had to do was add the statement “good and faithful servant,” and she would be re-writing the Bible.
Rand’s philosophy has huge holes that could be filled by religion. She constantly refers to moral absolutes but apparently doesn’t ponder where those absolutes come from, because she seems to reject the idea of them being planted in us by God. Example: all of her most moral and heroic characters love honesty and integrity. Well, if Rand really believed in selfishness and “reason,” above all, these virtues would be irrelevant. The most important virtue would be their results, not the character of the people getting the results.
I always find it ironic when atheists extol “pure reason” as their guiding principles and therefore reject the idea of some kind of Creator creating this world. Reason tells us that human beings must have gotten on this world somehow, and reason increasingly tells us that the accident of evolution could not have been the only way it happened, so reason, acting alone, would accept the idea that a Creator must have been involved. Some pretty big thinkers from Newton to Einstein to Antony Flew have accepted that reason calls for some kind of Creator. So how is it “reasonable” to automatically reject all religion?
Rand misses a huge opportunity, in my opinion, to develop more acceptance for her philosophy by not promoting the basic humanity of free-market capitalism. Human experience has shown us that free-market capitalism is horribly flawed, but it is less horrible flawed than any other system ever invented by man. In the last few decades, we have witnessed an incredible worldwide revolution: for the first time in history, literally billions of people in Asia, Latin America and Africa have been brought from horrible poverty into the middle class, acquiring comforts and security unthinkable to any other generation. The prime mover of this social mobility was free-market capitalism and rejection of overwhelming government control of the economy. How can anybody claiming to love humanity not celebrate this incredible development?
If only Rand had concentrated on the basic altruism of free-market capitalism, rather than the wonders of pure selfishness, she probably would have many more followers. Still, Rand’s greatest accomplishment is to remind us of the beauty of free-market capitalism and the dangers of government involvement in the economy. She was incredibly prophetic regarding the muddled thinking of the statists who are taking control of the U.S. economy. They all seem to remind me of Timothy Geithner in one way or another. And Rand has an incredibly important point that all thinking people must ponder: as the role of government increases in our lives, how can we possible justify confiscating so much money from producers and giving it to non-producers? Latter-day Saints will consider that Jesus called for voluntary giving, not forced giving controlled by an overbearing state.
In short, there are some good things to glean from Ayn Rand’s message: you just have to sift through the muddled morality.