Christian view versus Ayn Rand on altruism (Part 4)

Ayn Rand on the Purpose of Life

Uploaded by on Apr 27, 2010

Ayn Rand on the Purpose of Life


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
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.


                Think of a stereotypical miser like Ebenezer Scrooge (as opposed to the ordinary greedy person). Misers hoard their wealth. They hole up in their bedrooms, counting their gold bullion and hiding it in their mattresses. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal,” Jesus commanded His disciples, “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven….For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus is talking about the person who hoards, who trusts his possessions rather than God. “You cannot  serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:19–21, 24 NIV). The Apostle Paul said that greed is idolatry (Eph. 5:5). If religion involves our “ultimate concern,” as Paul Tillich said, then the miser is an idolater. He worships his money. That’s because you can only have one ultimate concern.

                Many of the biblical warnings seem to apply to misers, but how many misers have you met? Do you know anyone who keeps a bag of money in his mattress, where he can count it? Probably not. We see misers on TV, read about them in children’s books and in Dickens. In capitalist societies, however, misers are in very short supply. That’s because capitalism discourages miserliness, and encourages its near-opposite: enterprise.

                “The grasping or hoarding rich man is the antithesis of capitalism, not its epitome,” writes George Gilder, “more a feudal figure than a bourgeois one.”20 The miser prefers the certainty and security of his booty. Entrepreneurs, in contrast, assume risk. They cast their bread on the waters of uncertainty, hoping that the bread will return with fish. They delay whatever gratification their wealth might provide now for the hope of future gain. The miser treats his bullion as an end in itself. The entrepreneur, whatever his motives—including the desire for more money—uses money as a tool. The carpenter uses hammer and saw; the doctor, scalpel and stethoscope; the entrepreneur, cash and credit. 

                Only by the constant din of stereotype could we come to mistake the entrepreneur for the miser. In his modern classic, Wealth and Poverty, George Gilder explores a surprising feature of enterprise: supply precedes demand. After all, before you can exchange, you must first have something to exchange. I must have a good or service, a coconut or a potholder or an iPod that someone wants in order for trade to ever get started. Right off the bat, if I’m an entrepreneur, I have to think about the wants and needs of others. In a free economy, great entrepreneurs, including greedy ones, succeed by anticipating and meeting the desires of others. In that sense, Gilder argues, they are altruistic—alter in Latin means “other.” Entrepreneurial investments, he argues, are like gifts, since they are made without a predetermined return.21 Competition between entrepreneurs in a free economy thus becomes an altruistic competition, not because the entrepreneurs have warm fuzzies in their hearts, or are unconcerned with personal wealth, but because they seek to meet the desires of others better than their competitors do.22

                Not for nothing did Ayn Rand dedicate her final lecture to a tirade against Gilder. But her view of the capitalist, in the end, was skewed by the Marxist stereotype she had officially rejected. Gilder’s view captures much better the nature and subtlety of entrepreneurial capitalism.

                Far from requiring vice, entrepreneurial capitalism requires a whole host of virtues. Before entrepreneurs can invest capital, for instance, they must first accumulate it. So unlike gluttons and hedonists, entrepreneurs set aside rather than consume much of their wealth. Unlike misers and cowards, they risk rather than hoard what they have saved, providing stability for those employed by their endeavors. Unlike skeptics, they have faith in their neighbors, their partners, their society, their employees, “in the compensatory logic of the cosmos.”23 Unlike the self-absorbed, they anticipate the needs of others, even needs that no one else may have imagined. Unlike the impetuous, they make disciplined choices. Unlike the automaton, they freely discover new ways of creating and combining resources to meet the needs of others. This cluster of virtues, not the vice of greed, is the essence of what Rev. Robert Sirico calls the “entrepreneurial vocation.”24

                I’m convinced that Ayn Rand continues to be popular, in part, because she dared to make entrepreneurs the heroes of her novels. Whatever her other failings, this was a keen insight. Without entrepreneurs, very little of what we take for granted in our economy and our everyday lives would exist. Here in my office, the concrete forms of entrepreneurial imagination are everywhere: paper, scissors, pens, highlighters, ink, CDs, an empty Tupperware container that held the pork loin I ate for lunch, a flat-screen monitor, fonts, lamps, light bulbs, Post-it notes, windows, sheet rock, speakers, a laptop computer, and an optical mouse. Behind all these visible objects lay real but less visible innovations in finance, manufacturing, and transport that I scarcely comprehend. All of these things are gifts of entrepreneurs. Only the most miserly moralizer could look at this mysterious efflorescence of cooperation, competition, and creativity—of entrepreneurial capitalism—and see only the dead hand of greed.

                Does this mean that if you’re a Christian, you must embrace capitalism? No. But it does mean that Christians don’t need to adopt Ayn Rand’s anti-Christian philosophy to defend the morality of capitalism. Once we comprehend the nature of entrepreneurial capitalism, we see that it has fit within the Christian worldview all along.

Jay W. Richards is the author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem (HarperOne, 2009). He has held leadership positions at Discovery Institute and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, and is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute.

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