Ayn Rand’s First Appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, 1967
Published on Jul 23, 2012 by LibertarianismDotOrg
Ayn Rand was born in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia, but defected from the U.S.S.R. in 1926 and came to the the U.S., where her writings formed the intellectual basis for the philosophy she called Objectivism. She was the author of The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957).
Rand appears as a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in this interview from 1967. She introduces her philosophy and talks with Carson about various topics including the draft, the war in Vietnam, children, theology, and the nature of rights.
Article ID: JAF1324
By: Jay W. Richards
In response to the critics of capitalism, many conservative Christians turn to philosopher Ayn Rand for ammunition. Rand was a staunch defender of capitalism, but also an anti-Christian atheist who argued that capitalism was based on greed. Greed, for Rand, is good. But if Rand is right, then Christians can’t be capitalists, because greed is a sin. Fortunately, Rand was wrong. She missed the subtleties of capitalism. First, we should distinguish self-interest from selfishness. Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, famously wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” True enough; but that alone isn’t a problem. Every time you wash your hands or look both ways before you cross the street, you’re pursuing your self-interest—but neither activity is selfish. Second, Smith never argued that the more selfish we are, the better a market works. His point, rather, is that in a free market, each of us can pursue ends within our narrow sphere of competence and concern—our “self-interest”—and yet an order will emerge that vastly exceeds anyone’s deliberations. Finally, Smith argued that capitalism channels greed, which is a good thing. The point is that even if the butcher is selfish, he can’t make you buy his meat. He has to offer you meat at a price you’ll willingly buy. So capitalism doesn’t need greed. What it does need is rule of law, freedom, and human creativity and initiative. And we can point that out without any help from Ayn Rand.
FALLING INTO CAPITALISM
So, contrary to Rand, capitalism doesn’t need greed. At the same time, it can channel greed, which is all to the good. We should want a social order that channels proper self-interest as well as selfishness into socially desirable outcomes. Any system that requires everyone always to act selflessly is doomed to failure because it’s utopian. That’s the problem with socialism: it doesn’t fit the human condition. It alienates people from their rightful self-interest and channels selfishness into socially destructive behavior such as stealing, hoarding, and getting the government to steal for you.
In contrast, capitalism is fit for real, fallen, limited human beings. “In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity,” Adam Smith wrote, business people “are led by an invisible hand…and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.”17 Notice he says “in spite of.” His point isn’t that the butcher should be selfish, or even that his selfishness is particularly helpful. His point is rather that even if the butcher is selfish, even if the butcher would love nothing more than to sell you a spoiled chunk of grisly beef in exchange for your worldly goods and leave you homeless, the butcher can’t make you buy his meat in a free economy. He has to offer you meat you’ll freely buy. The cruel, greedy butcher, in other words, has to look for ways to set up win-win scenarios. Even to satisfy his greed, he has to meet your desires. The market makes this happen. That’s making the best of a bad situation, and of a bad butcher.
DOES CAPITALISM MAKE PEOPLE GREEDY?
Even if capitalism doesn’t need greed, doesn’t it feed greed? Many religious scholars don’t even distinguish capitalism and greed.18 Capitalism is just greed elevated to economics, or so they think. And if you happen to catch Donald Trump on The Apprentice, you might suspect they’re on to something.
To be sure, Rand and other champions of capitalism appeal to greed, even glory in it. There’s no evidence, however, that citizens of capitalist countries in general, or Americans in particular, are more greedy than average. In fact, the evidence suggests just the opposite.19
Of course Americans should be more generous, more loving, more thankful, more thoughtful, and less sinful. If you look, you can find greed all across the fruited plains and in every human heart. That’s because we’re fallen human beings, not because we’re Americans or capitalists. Every culture and walk of life has heaping helpings of greedy people. There are greedy doctors, greedy social workers, greedy teachers, politicians, park rangers, and youth pastors. That’s why greed can explain why capitalism works no better than it can explain the universal thirst for, say, well-synchronized traffic lights: greed is universal. Capitalism is not.
17 Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part Four, chap. 1.
18 See, for instance, the edited collection by Paul Knitter and Chandra Musaffar, Subverting Greed: Religious Perspectives on the Global Economy (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002).
19 For statistical evidence, see International Comparisons of Charitable Giving (Kent, UK: Charities Aid Foundation, November, 2006), http://www.cafonline.org/research. See also Arthur C. Brookes, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
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