Poor Ayn Rand. She’s taken her licks lately in the Bloggernacle, getting excoriated at By Common Consent. Some have stepped up to defend her honor, conservative gentlemen they are, but there are still some important points to be made that I don’t think anybody has explained yet.
Rand is criticized for three main things: that her philosophy promotes greed and selfishness, that she was militantly anti-religion, and that her writing is poor. I’ll address each:
1. On the title page of my personal copy of Atlas Shrugged, I copied this famous quote from Book IV, chapter 2 of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations:
Every individual…generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it…he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention….By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more efficiently than when he really intends to promote it.
Meaning, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism may seem selfish and greedy…but it results in a better world for all, a world more just, more prosperous, and more fair than any other system. How do I know this? Because that’s the way America was until recently. For its first 150 years, America was fundamentally a libertarian, live-and-let-live, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, capitalist utopia. (Rand even makes this point in the novel when Galt reminds Dagny that we use our nation’s initials as the symbol not for anything liberals might cherish, but for our money…U+S=$.) It wasn’t until fairly modern times that we even began stripping away the individual’s liberty with regulations that redistribute wealth. Thanks, FDR. (Remember in school when your teachers explained to you what laissez-faire meant? Do we even still use that term anymore?)
At any rate, that “greedy, cut-throat” young America created the wealth and power we enjoy (and fritter away) today. Our poor have been more secure than the average citizen of many other countries because of conservative industrialists. And as America has become more liberal and less free, we have also become a nation of less self-reliance, less freedom as our ancestors understood it…and even less religion. No, it’s not a coincidence. It might sound paradoxical, but that’s the way it is.
And besides, to call Objectivism “greedy” and “selfish” is to badly misunderstand what exactlyRand valued. She wasn’t promoting gain for its own sake; she hated elitism as much as blind altruism. Consider these two quotes from Atlas Shrugged:
“You want to make as big a profit as possible, don’t you?”
“Then why do you want to struggle for years, squeezing out your gains in the form of pennies per ton–rather than accept a fortune for Rearden Metal? Why?”
“Because it’s mine. Do you understand the word?” (172)
“Dagny, we who’ve been called ‘materialists’ by the killers of the human spirit, we’re the only ones who know how little value or meaning there is in material objects as such, because we;re the ones who create their value and meaning. We can afford to give them up, for a short while, in order to redeem something much more precious. We are the soul, of which railraods, copper mines, steel mills and oil wells are the body–and they are living entities that beat day and night, like our hearts, in the sacred function of supporting human life, but only so long as they remain our body, only so long as they remain the expression, the reward and the property of achievement. Without us, they are corpses and their sole product is poison, not wealth or food, the poison of disintegration that turns men into hordes of scavengers.” (571, emphasis added)
Rand’s holy grail was the quality product of human sweat. She never would have condoned making a penny at the expense of another human being. Conservatives don’t accept that material resources are a closed system–that there’s only so much wealth that must be “divided equally”–we believe that unfettered human ingenuity creates more resources. One man making more in no way takes anything away from another man. Conservatives want freedom so that everyone can prosper according to his best efforts–a world in which everyone is allowed to become rich, rather than a world where everyone is forced to accept a government’s definition of “fair.”
And that’s ultimately where Christian criticism of Rand falls short. Her philosophy respects the dignity inherent in every heart, instead of condescending to the lowest impulses that we’ve been trained to expect by would-be liberal nanny states. Rand may not have agreed with consecration, but those who would steal another man’s bread to feed other men, for whatever reason, have no moral ground to judge those who would train, encourage, and allow those other men the respect and the freedom to earn their own bread. Interpret the scriptures how you will, but it’s undeniable that the Church’s welfare program works along these principles.
For my own part, clearly a Rand fan, living up to her expectations makes me better at being an example of thrift and industry, better at “lift[ing] up the hands which hang down” (D&C 81:5) rather than just encouraging dependence with a handout, better at seeing the positive potential in everyone I meet instead of focusing on the weaknesses that others might magnify with good intentions gone awry…basically, a better Christian.
Ironic, but true.
2. Ayn Rand hated religion, to which we should say…so what? What exactly was she rejecting? Rand explicitly despised superstition and mysticism. If she was wrong in seeing that in all religion, we can hardly blame her for the error. After all, we believe that the rest of the religious world is lacking the things we have in the Restoration. Since Rand did not study and pray about the Book of Mormon, how can we hold her to any objective standard for accepting or rejecting God? If the blessings we have through the Restoration are that critical, doesn’t it stand to reason that without them we might as well also turn our backs on what’s left?
And let’s not short change that heritage–reason. When Rand elevates reason to a place of supreme importance, we shouldn’t bristle, we should be comfortable. Do we need to review how our 19th century forebears prized reason? How both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young taught that the intellect must always be actively engaged in faith? In the Book of Mormon , Alma notes that a sign of growing faith is that one’s “mind doth begin to expand” (Alma 32:34), and the Savior counsels people to “go ye unto your homes, and ponder upon the things which I have said…and prepare your minds” (3 Nephi 17:3) for the rest of the teaching. If Rand never knew that dimension of true religion, she is to be pitied, not condemned.
Personally, I like to picture her now in the celestial kingdom with her copy of the Book of Mormon. If you’re inclined to scoff at that, that’s your prerogative, but I’m content to be the one giving the benefit of the doubt.
3. Quality is not totally subjective. Rand’s work is, by a general standard and not by screening it through the ideological biases that denigrate it in the eyes of too many, exceedingly excellent. The sheer scope and ambition of Atlas Shrugged is stunning. If she’d gone the route of another Russian and had written about Napoleon instead of Congress, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The depth of Dagny’s characterization is, perhaps, the greatest in world literature.
Rand’s writing deserves respect: “A gray cotton, which was neither quite fog nor clouds, hung in sloppy wads between sky and mountains, making the sky look like an old mattress spilling its stuffing down the sides of the peaks” (478). That may not be Nobel worthy, but it’s far above average. Rand’s writing consistently strives to be as precise and as superlative as possible, achieving a clinical eloquence unrivaled elsewhere.
And how can anyone dismiss the ever increasing relevance, the eerily prophetic nature of the text? Rand’s vision of libertarian America unraveling into touchy-feely, mushy headed socialism is impressive to the point of being awe-inspiring. Consider this description of a progressive activist:
Emma Chambers, better known as Kip’s Ma, was an old sociologist who had hung about Washington for years, as other women of her age and type hang about barrooms. For some reason which nobody could define, the death of her son in the tunnel catastrophe had given her in Washington an aura of martyrdom. (858)
Holy cow! Half a century ahead of time, Ayn Rand foresaw Cindy Sheehan!
But back to the writing, it’s sad that those would likely trumpet the virtues of diversity will turn up their noses when it arrives. Alongside an endless parade of relativism and simpering “nuance” on the bookshelves, we have this assertive tour-de-force that dares to lucidly portray the universe in a boldly original and compellingly practical vision. Kind of reminds you of the Book of Mormon, doesn’t it?
In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. (965)
Rand’s prose is not the painfully introverted meandering of the mainstream; it’s the writing style of an army marching through the front gates of hell and facing down every enemy.
And loving it. Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Atlas Shrugged is its omnipresent happiness:
“Why did he want to waste his mind on practical appliances?” “Perhaps because he liked living on this earth.” (331)
“this capacity of hers to feel the joy of being…” (352)
“it’s a sin to sit down and let your life go by without making a try for it.” (606)
“the sense that life held things worth reaching…” (719)
“she had wanted the outward beauty of existence to match its inner splendor.” (869)
“We seek the achievement of happiness.” (937)
Atlas Shrugged represents, as does Ayn Rand herself, living life to the fullest in the best ways possible, and doing so without fear or regret. What can any Christian have against that?