Christian view versus Ayn Rand on altruism (Part 1)

Uploaded by on Oct 26, 2009

Ayn Rand makes the case that altruism is evil.

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I ran across a fine article that takes a look at Ayn Rand’s view of capitalism and selfishness and compares it to the Christian view found in the Bible. I have decided to start a series on this subject. The Christian comes from the article “Was Ayn Rand Right?” by Jay Richards.

Was Ayn Rand Right?

Capitalism and Greed
JAF1324
Jay W. Richards

Synopsis

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.

If you’re over forty, you probably remember the 1987 movie Wall Street. Kirk Douglas played the key role, a ruthless corporate raider named Gordon Gekko. Gekko is famous for his defense of selfishness: “Greed…is good,” he tells a young broker. “Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all its forms…has marked the upward surge of mankind.” Gekko embodies the enduring stereotype of the greedy businessman.

                Given the coverage of the current financial crisis, it’s no surprise that Twentieth Century Fox is now producing a sequel. Many people, including many Christians, believe that the crisis is the product of greedy capitalism—pure and simple. Others, including many Christians, want to defend capitalism, but end up drawing on the work of philosopher and playwright Ayn Rand, who called greed a virtue. That puts most of us between the proverbial rock and the hard place.

                As if in response, some prominent evangelicals such as Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, and Ron Sider have criticized capitalism as based on the “greed principle” (to quote Campolo).1 And it’s hard to blame them, since even many fans of capitalism, such as Rand, seem to agree. And certainly for Christians, greed is not good. Greed, selfishness, or “avarice” is one of the seven deadly sins, and the Bible has nothing good to say about it. In the Gospels, when Jesus was asked to settle an inheritance dispute, He responded: “Watch Out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15 TNIV). The Tenth Commandment says, “Do not covet,” which no doubt applies to greed as well. Jesus includes greed with murder and adultery in a long list of sins (Mark 7:21– 22). Paul tells the Ephesians that no greedy person—“that is, an idolater,” he explains—will inherit the kingdom of God (Eph. 5:5 ESV). These are just a few of the dozens of biblical passages condemning greed.

                So what do we do? Must we embrace Rand’s anti-Christian philosophy to defend capitalism? Or must we reject capitalism because it’s based on greed? I don’t think we have to do either. The truth is much more interesting, and much more encouraging.

THE BEEHIVE

                Rand wasn’t the first one to identify capitalism with greed. That honor goes to a Dutchman named Bernard Mandeville. In 1705, he wrote a poem called The Fable of the Bees. Nobody noticed it. So in 1714, he republished it with a lengthy commentary explaining that the poem was a metaphor for English society. Mandeville saw humans and bees as little more than bundles of vicious passions. The Parable reflected that belief.

                In the beehive, different bees do different tasks, but they all have the same motivation—vice. The poem describes avarice, pride, and vanity as producing great wealth for the hive. The bees, however, are discontent. They grumble at the lack of virtue around them. They gripe so incessantly that Jove eventually gives them what they ask for. Honesty and virtue now fill the hive. And everything collapses. The bees’ virtuous actions led to disaster whereas the individual acts of evil had led to social good.

                Taken literally, Mandeville’s claim is ridiculous. Good doesn’t come from evil. Virtue isn’t born from vice. Virtue doesn’t destroy society. Still, he did get one thing right: bad intentions don’t always yield bad results. Recall that the Apostle Paul once delighted that some were preaching the gospel out of envy of him. He didn’t delight in the envy, but in the preaching. So even private sinful acts may lead to a social good.

THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS?

                After Mandeville came the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, who in 1776 wrote the most famous book in the history of economics, The Wealth of Nations. Though the book is long on pages and detail, its basic purpose was simple. Smith wanted to defend what he called the natural system of liberty: rule of law, unobtrusive government, private property, specialization of labor, and free trade. To prosper, a society needed “little else,” he said, “but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”2 But so far from flattering the business class, Smith famously said that “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”3 Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

                Smith never credited the happy outcomes of trade and business to the virtues of business people. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker,” he wrote, only to be quoted by every economics textbook ever written, “that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”4 Nevertheless, through the invisible hand of the market, individuals will “promote an end which is no part of [their] intention.”5 That end often benefits society overall.

                If you don’t read Smith carefully, you might think that he’s making the same argument as Mandeville: individual greed is good for society. That’s a misreading of Smith, which was made wildly popular by Ayn Rand.

THEN COMES RAND

                Perhaps more than anyone else, Ayn Rand not only identified capitalism with greed, but defended it in those terms. She even wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness.6 For Rand, greed was the basis for a free economy. Capitalism and greed go together like fat cats and big cigars. To prevent readers from thinking she was using hyperbole, Rand went out of her way to espouse atheism and stridently denounce Christian altruism as antithetical to capitalism: “Capitalism and altruism are incompatible,” she said, “they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society.”7 In fact, she had a hard time distinguishing Christian altruism from socialism.

                Rand was born in Russia in 1905 as Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, and immigrated to the United States in 1925, just as communism was securing its stranglehold on the Soviet Union. Her hatred of the collectivism she saw in her youth was etched into her worldview, her writings, even her strange personality. After coming to the U.S., she worked as a script writer in various Hollywood studios. The release of her novel The Fountainhead in 1943 made her famous. Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, made her a sensation.

                In her novels, she developed characters that expressed her philosophy “of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”8 Her books read more like tracts for her philosophy of “objectivism” than ordinary novels. As Daniel Flynn puts it, “The themes of Rand’s four novels—We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged—are identical. As far as the philosophy of her novels goes, to read one is to read them all.”9

                But for millions of readers, her books still inspire. I discovered Rand during my senior year in college. Her books were like a blow to the chest. She mercilessly skewered every leftist cliché that I had taken for granted. I found her bracing prose and iconic heroes attractive and repellant at the same time. For a few months, she seized me. I frittered away a week of my senior year reading Atlas Shrugged rather than studying for a German final.

                The book tells about an elite group of creative entrepreneurs and inventors, “individuals of the mind,” who go on strike against a state that implements the communist principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” For Rand, these entrepreneurial heroes, like Atlas in Greek mythology, hold up the world. By pursuing their long-term self-interest, they create value for everyone. So when they shrug—that is, strike—society begins to decay.

                The hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, founds a secret community off the collectivist grid, called Galt’s Gulch. Here in this New Jerusalem, individuality and self-interest are prized above all else. One long chapter of the book, “This is John Galt Speaking,” is nothing but a speech by Galt. It’s the perfect distillation of Rand’s philosophy.

                Despite Rand’s official praise of selfishness, however, John Galt doesn’t look anything like Ebenezer Scrooge or that fat, cigar-smoking, tuxedo-clad guy in Monopoly. On the contrary, Galt is a pioneer, a brave creator of wealth who pursues his vision despite powerful obstacles, including a malevolent state bent on destroying him. In fact, although Rand despised Christian self-sacrifice, Galt is suspiciously Christ-like. He preaches a message of salvation, founds a community, challenges the status quo and official powers-that-be, who hunt him down, torture him, but ultimately fail to conquer him.

                To be sure, there are dissonant notes. His symbol is not a cross, but the dollar sign. The book ends with Galt and his lover tracing the sign of the dollar across a dry valley. But insofar as Galt’s character works, it’s because he contradicts the miserly stereotype that Rand’s philosophy leads the reader to expect. In fact, not one of Rand’s best fictional characters fits her philosophy very well.

                Rand convinced me that collectivism was a false moral pretense. She also taught me the importance of entrepreneurs in creating wealth. Rand knew, better than some economists, that you can’t have capitalism without capitalists. Rand continues to be popular with some conservatives, including some Christians. Based on my brief description of her work, that might seem unlikely. But the lack of robust moral defenses of capitalism has left a void. And for many, Rand has filled it.

                That’s a problem, of course, since her philosophy as a whole is clearly incompatible with the Christian worldview. Fortunately, we don’t need Rand’s philosophy to defend capitalism. Capitalism and Rand’s defense of it are two different things. This is clear once you realize that Rand bought into a myth more common among critics of capitalism, that the essence of capitalism is greed.

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