Defending Ayn Rand

atlasPoor 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?”

“I do.”

“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?

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21 comments on “Defending Ayn Rand

  1. “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.”

    Some have classified Objectivism as a cult. Statements as delusional as this one lend creedence to that argument.

  2. Man, sorry, but I can’t let ridiculousness like this go with just the statement I made above. Someone who crusads on the virtue of selfishness can never be considered even in the same universe as Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter that, in your clearly delusional opinion, Objectivism results in a well-lived life to the fullest. That says more about you than about Christianity or Objectivism. Ayn Rand would laugh at the kind of mental gymnastics you’re doing to try to square Christianity and Objectivisim.

    BTW, that woman was an unrepentant adultress atheist. For you to suggest that she’s celestial kingdom material just because you agree with her sick politics makes me pity you for how brainwashed you’ve been. I used to subscribe, somewhat, to her political philosophy, but at least I wasn’t so much in denial that I thought she was reading the BOM in the celestial kingdom. There is no more likely candidate for telestial glory than Ayn Rand.

    Also, Ayn Rand’s writing is almost universally panned by experts in literature. Your insistence that it’s clear that she’s an excellent writer is only further evidence that you’re in severe, severe denial when it comes to this woman.

  3. Bookslinger and Geoff, thanks for your compliments. By no means do people of good will need to agree on every point, and I’ll take this opportunity to again express my appreciation for the fine work you both do. I enjoy sharing online space with such minds.

    Jeremy, I’ll try not to let my comments be so violently dismissive as yours are but, as you say, some things fairly demand a response, and your comments express a couple of ideas that are seriously distressing.

    The first is your assertion that Rand cannot be saved in a high kingdom of glory because of her beliefs and actions. Other than directing you to my remarks in the original post about how understandable it is for a person who values reason to reject mainstream religion based on their own limited observations of it–not an accurate conclusion, mind you, but an understandable one–I’d remind you that people are judged by how well they live up to the light that they do have in this life; the scriptures are very clear about that. And even aside from that fact, we’re always in very perilous territory when we decide who can or can’t be saved or why. That is, in fact, an attitude that Jesus explicitly forbids.

    You also mock what you call my attempt to “square Christianity and Objectivism.” I did nothing of the sort, and if the fault is mine for communicating poorly, then I apologize. My point–hopefully best expressed with the Adam Smith quote–is that a libertarian, Objectivist society creates a far more friendly, constructive atmosphere for religion than a society that tries to enforce their interpretation of Jesus’s commandments as physically mandatory laws.

    Further, I offer it as an opinion based on my own experiences for consideration that subscribing to the tenets of a philosophy like Ayn Rand’s–or conservatism in general–will be likely to produce a more effectively Christian life in an individual than subscribing to the values of an opposing philosophy, say those of Marx, Keynes, or the phalanx of “progressives” who transformed America’s political landscape in the early 20th century, for example. The latter might be formed by a view of less successful people as permanent victims, government as the final authority in social improvement, and “equality” as the ultimate value, desirable regardless the means involved. Conversely, a conservative, libertarian, or Objectivist would have as their fundamental principles that people have a natural potential for creation and have a right to exercise that power without interference, that mankind’s highest values reside in areas accessible from within ourselves and not to be imposed by a secular body, and that the greatest virtues are those that have always produced the most comfort, education, and health for the most people, even if that came about by individuals seeking their own interest (see the Smith quote again.)

    Now, which of those worldviews is more conducive to the success of a Christian community?

    Finally, you assert that “Ayn Rand’s writing is almost universally panned by experts in literature.” So? What criteria is offered as evidence in their conclusion? I offered some salient examples in my post, but what have these “experts” ever given as evidence on their part, other than their desire to contradict Rand’s views? Why isn’t an incredibly successful, influential novel by a female author and with a female protagonist ignored by the literary establishment, if not because that novel subverts their liberal values?

    If Atlas Shrugged were written in the exact same style, with the same narrative techniques, the same characterization, the same presence of symbolism and foreshadowing…but with a liberal, pro-socialist theme…it wouldn’t just be embraced by the establishment, it would be required reading in every undergraduate indoctrination course in America.

  4. I just wanted to point out that the Jeremy dissing on Rand here is not the same as the Jeremy dissing Rand over on BCC.

  5. Huston,
    I appreciate you taking the time to write a defense of Ayn Rand’s book. You hit on many key points that I completely agree with. Keep up the good work.

  6. Responding to Jeremy, I’ve long since concluded that there are people who will always instinctively read Rand as promoting selfishness. It’s nonsense, but there seems to be something in the DNA of some who read her that way.

    First off, it’s important to point out that “agreeing with Rand” does not require one to buy off on the entire enchilada without comment. As a religious person who fully agrees with her economic and social positions, I see no real conflict between those and certain types of altruism as promoted by men such as Christ or Muhammad (both of whom are part of my own personal mixed-up upbringing).

    To wit: When it comes to the fruits of one’s labor and the taxation thereof, Rand’s view can easily be summed up as “I earned it. It’s mine.” Simple. Further, although we know that neither Galt nor Roark nor Rearden were particularly sympathetic to the needs of society, that need not be my decision. “I earned it. It’s mine.” can easily be extended to “I earned it. It’s mine. I’ll do with it what I want.” is the perfect extension of that, and if I choose to give part of that (and I do) as advised by Christ to the Salvation Army (or whomever), that is also my unassailable right. After all, it IS mine.

    Rand, to me, fails somewhat in not acknowledging that society has NEEDS (I said NEEDS, not WANTS) and if we choose to exist without concern to those needs, we choose a society with beggars-on-the-streets in numbers hugely greater than before. I find this personally unsatisfactory; others may differ.

    Now, I completely agree that altruism can be misspent (money given to any charitable organization run by a Philip Reardon will undoubtedly be skimmed off the top to promote socialist ends) and thus charity should be given only to organizations who will consume it properly, or to the person in need themselves. But, no matter. Since what I give is MINE, then what I do with it is of no concern of anyone else. It is neither the concern of the looters, who would like that charity rerouted to their political ends, and it is neither the concern of hard-core Randians, else they violate the same libertarian spirit they say they espouse.

    Final question: was Rand a good writer? Answer: Who cares? Rand’s books are an parables, not stories needing to be told. Characters, scenes, and settings are simply vehicles to get a point across. Without the story and characters, she would be writing mind-numbing philosophy like Kirkegaard or Kant, and thus locking those ideas away to a select few, and fully subject to the whims of the elitist educators on when (or if) those ideas were exposed. With AS and FOUNTAINHEAD, she insures that generations to come will also not be concerned with her relative skill at character-development and story-telling, instead learning her ideas on human achievement not filtered through media swill.

  7. The importance of Atlas Shrugged shouldn’t be understated.

    True, objectivism as a philosophy has some major problems. However, they are easy to categorize.

    Objectivism has no eternal perspective. That is shallow enough for a believer, but another problem that arises from this has to do with the reconciliation of ‘instinct’ morality and objective morality. Instinct morality is the morality that tells every human being to care about other human beings – by instinct. Objectivist morality claims that there is no plausible support for such a morality, that no philosophical argument based in reality supports this idea. They have concluded that mysticism (spirituality) and instinctual morality are unenforceable. That is, that to compel people by force through redistribution of wealth (or internally via a sense of self-sacrifice) to give to others is the only philosophically consistent morality.

    If you judge their reasoning. It is spot on. They argue that we exist to be happy, or that our only judgment of what is right is what makes us happy. That we are thinking beings whose choices affect our happiness means that we must rationally go through life, maximizing happiness. This means putting reason over the ‘natural man’. This is a morality. To compel another person through force – to steal, murder, destroy – is immoral. There is an argument that no man should be compelled to help another though.

    Of course, this lacks the eternal perspective.

    If you look at things from God’s point of view, though, you’ll find a pretty convincing objectivist. Consider that Christianity is the only religion that claims that even God must offer a price – a value for value purchasing – of mankind’s sins. Islam and judaism – Abrahamic religions that believe in sin – believe God is powerful enough to simply ‘forgive’ sin.

    So, from Ayn Rand we learn the eternal truth of value. The importance of value – to self and in one’s life and preferences – in society – and how society distributes value – is central to Rand’s musings.

    Consider also that God’s charity involves helping those that are lost to be found. Universalism claims that a man can be saved no matter what. The true doctrine of Christ requires unequivocally – despite redemption – true repentance.

    God did not sacrifice his Son in vain. He knew that he was purchasing for us something whose value we could not alone afford – and this is the essence of charity (which Rand’s philosophy lacks, naturally). Yet, having purchased sinners for God, Christ requires our faith and by it our good works, and our repentance.

    That is, God’s price is to Him a fair value for our souls. He didn’t pay the price for us to merely accept the gift of charity, but he paid it so that we might be enabled to afford the gift.

    Gosh, I feel like I’m writing the words of Paul or something. But you see, all I’ve done is examined truths I know to be eternal through the prism of Rand’s commentary about life on earth.

    And is life on earth anything but preparation for the life to come. Are we expected to act far differently in righteousness today as we are in the eternities?

    Ayn Rand must be carefully considered. Her philosophy intends to convince that belief in God is immoral. That is an evil proposition.

    But if you know that, and can forcefully reject it, her philosophy is critical. Like the blogpost says, Rand rejects superstition and mysticism – and how much of the evils of statist socialism and mobocracy do we see in the history of Christian Apostasy. What a precious commodity is the truth, and of course ancient bishops would send each others’ mobs after each other to obtain sole ownership of the public’s perception of it.

    If truth is important to you, there is much in organized religion that you would reject.

    Objectivism also misses the point – purpose – of life on earth by not having access to that eternal perspective. We have to know which desires of ours are holy, eternal, and which are temporal and natural. Objectivism doesn’t have the capacity to make the distinction.

    However, if it could make the distinction, it would be Mormonism (by the way, the Holy Ghost, the ordinances, the doctrine, these allow the distinction to be made).

    So why is it so great?

    Because Rand saw so much evil in her life and had a great mind. She decided to use it, and her reason, to come to a conclusion about what was true. Her only standard was the objective. She had only the world and mortal experience as a guide – because she did not trust any other. After much consideration, she produced pure truth. Yes, lacking an eternal perspective, but truth as pure as it can get from the mortal perspective.

    I believe that God expects us to live in the world and make judgments based on the standards of reason that exist herein. In my view, Rand’s philosophy most closely approximates the truth. Hence, as the world contains a fullness of good and evil, with the guide of church doctrine and the Holy Ghost, eternal truths will emerge.

    Sorry, I may have lifted Objectivism on a pedestal it doesn’t deserve, but I was compelled to offer a more complete analysis at this moment. I’d happily guest blog if any one wants me to clean this up a little.

    I gotta finish: Of the many criticisms of the Atlas Shrugged, many seem to miss the point. I guess it’s easy to get lost after 1200 pages.
    -First, the main characters despite being rich have all sweated in the trenches so to speak. In fact, one scene declares that an heir is only worthy to an inheritance if he could have earned it himself.
    -Second, Atlas Shrugged does NOT describe a capital strike. The strikers sell off their fortunes, give it all away, sell it, allow others to come take it. A banker sells off his holdings. A car manufacturer deserts his factory, gives it to a cousin. Even when one character destroys his mine he admits that it could probably be brought back to full capacity in three years if desired. The wealth, capital, is all still there. The strikers take away their MINDS. They refuse to use their reason for the system.
    -Third, they don’t run away from life. Most of them continue holding what would now be ‘minimum wage’ jobs 11 months out of the year and gather in Galt’s gulch one month only for a sort of solidarity reunion. It is only as chaos and violence break out that they retreat, just long enough so that no one who might send armed men after them will have any power left to do so.
    -Fourth (and last for now) Altruism is considered evil, but you must look at how it is defined. Altruism is only the notion that one MUST give to others. That is, it is a self-evident universal requirement. One on par with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (and altruism darnit!). Such a philosophy will inevitably lead to government involvement in caring for disadvantaged groups. It’s basic political economy or what have you. So the right attitude is: there is no ‘right’ to charity, and ‘altruism’ is not a requirement of society. If a society is not privately charitable, God will hold it accountable – not the state.

    So you see, the debate continues…

  8. ZSorenson, thanks for making these points. The steroetype that AS is about elitist snobs sticking it to the common man couldn’t be more of a lie, as you show with your reference to, among other things, their “undercover” menial labor. Great contribution!

  9. Squeehunter, sorry, buddy, I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve heard that game has some Objectivist overtones, but I haven’t played it.

  10. Arbourist, that cartoon misses the point completely–Rand’s capitalist leaders are NOT helpless, elite, ivory tower snobs, neither in fiction nor in real life. In the book, they DO do all of the “grungy, menial” work in their paradise at Galt’s Gulch. That work ethic is how they got to be the leaders in the first place, also in fiction and in real life.

  11. Arbourist, your reference to the slavishly left-worshipping New Republic doesn’t even assert what you say it does: that social class determines wealth better than hard work. The closest it gets is a section that tries–desperately–to factor in “luck” as a component of success, but never does it deny that hard work is a critical factor. Hasn’t everyone read The Millionaire Next Door? Most American millionaires are self-made small businessmen, not Ivy League trust fund babies. And isn’t it fairly common knowledge that Democratic politicians are richer than Republicans, and respresent the richest areas of the country?

  12. @ZSorenson:
    “… Atlas Shrugged does NOT describe a capital strike. The strikers sell off their fortunes, give it all away, sell it, allow others to come take it. A banker sells off his holdings. A car manufacturer deserts his factory, gives it to a cousin. Even when one character destroys his mine he admits that it could probably be brought back to full capacity in three years if desired. The wealth, capital, is all still there. The strikers take away their MINDS. They refuse to use their reason for the system.”

    The current conception of a capital strike involves the reluctance or refusal of owners of capital to invest: doesn’t that amount to “taking away the mind”? If anything, AS depicts a state of the most radical form of capital strike.

  13. Andor, I think you’re right, but…why is that a bad thing? One of the major points of Atlas Shrugged is to criticize our society’s implicit assumption that the minds of the productive are somehow automatically community property, that the productive capitalists are essentially slaves to the proletariat who more often than not hate them and resent them for their talent and success. The tone of your comment suggests that you might agree with such a view.

    Andor, being rich does not make someone fit for bondage any more than the lack of achievement by anyone else would fit them for it.

  14. Why does Rand-the-philosopher or Randism need defending? There is no great harm in letting them go.

    What Rand does that is valuable is to make poetry and myth out of the free market and its enemies, which is a remarkable accomplishment itself.

    Just as it would be imprudent to think that Chesterton’s worth was determined by literal acceptance of distributism, it would be a mistake, and frankly kinda pointless, to defend Rand’s thought a pie de letre.

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