Ayn Rand: Patron saint or soulless capitalist?
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (MarketWatch) -- "Atlas Shrugged" is Ayn Rand's most popular work. And Paul Ryan's favorite. In the book, the hero, a mysterious rebel leader John Galt saves America from economic collapse. But before we rise from the ashes, before the redemption, the past must be blown up.
For that, let's turn to my favorite, "The Fountainhead," where Rand offers a subtle hint to capitalism's eventual self-inflicted shot-in-the-foot.
In "The Fountainhead," Howard Roark is the ultimate individualist, an idealistic architect and archetypal free-market capitalist: Architecture was my first degree so Roark naturally became my hero. Enraged when second-rate competitors compromise the integrity of his plans for a modern building, Roark seeks revenge, takes the law into his own hands, sneaks onto the construction site in the dead of night … dynamites the building … kaboom … destroyed.
Flash forward: What a perfect metaphor for Rand's extreme ideology now spinning out of control, turning against mainstream America. You are witnessing the drama from within, as the new Ryan Budget approaches critical mass, set to explode Adam Smith's Great 1776 Cathedral of Capitalism, self-destructing on an overdose of high-octane ideology.
Yes, soon the commanding inner voice of Ayn Rand's extreme capitalism that's now imbedded deep in America's emerging conservative conscience will, as did Roark's building, blow up Adam Smith's grand design, the Cathedral of Capitalism, taking down the financial markets, triggering an economic collapse bigger than 2008 and profoundly handicapping America's political destiny as the global super-power. At least that's the liberal narrative.
If you don't like the system, destroy it, start a new one
Since "The Fountainhead" was published during WWII, Ayn Rand has been the energy driving the conservatives' collective conscience. And today she has been elevated to patron saint of conservatives and free-market capitalists everywhere. Rand is inseparable from the ideology of conservative party politics, the controlling ideology in the divisive Ryan Budget.
Today's polarized political drama has its strongest roots in Rand's classic, "Atlas Shrugged," where a capitalist elite engaged in a hotly contested cultural war for the soul of America, fighting society's "moochers, looters and parasites," any American looking for a government handout, triggering fear we're declining into a socialist welfare state. Elsewhere Rand says:
"When I say 'capitalism,' I mean a pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism, with a separation of economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as a separation of state and church." Why? Because "capitalism is the only system that can make freedom, individuality, and the pursuit of values possible in practice because capitalism demands the best of every man, his rationality, and rewards him accordingly. It leaves every man free to choose the work he likes, to specialize in it, to trade his product for the products of others, and to go as far on the road of achievement as his ability and ambition will carry him."
Unfortunately, Rand's neocapitalism has gone far off the course defined by Adam Smith, morphing into a tacit conspiracy binding conservative politicians with the egocentric excesses of Wall Street, Corporate CEOs and a small group of Super-Rich billionaires.
Does Ayn Rand really hate social programs, religion and altruism?
Last year, in a USA Today op-ed piece, "Ayn Rand and Jesus," Boston University professor of religion Stephen Prothero, author of :God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World, And Why Their Differences Matter," posed a challenge to Rand's disciples: "Idolatry of the conservative icon should lead to some soul-searching within the GOP. After all, Christian morality has no place in an 'Atlas Shrugged' world."
Prothero's list of "Rand's adoring acolytes" included U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and Ron Paul. Prothero warns that while "Ayn Rand is the GOP's new savior, no one seems to be taking notice of just how opposed their two philosophies are."
For Rand, the war is not between "God vs. Satan, but individualism vs. collectivism. While Jesus says, 'Blessed are the poor,' she sings Hosannas to the rich. The heroes of 'Atlas Shrugged' … are the captains of industry … The villains are the 'looters and moochers,' people who by hook (guilt) or by crook (government coercion) steal from the hard-won earnings of others ... the individual is her hero, and God and the dead be damned."
Quite a challenge from a professor of religion: Prothero warns that Ayn Rand turned "traditional Christian morality" on its head. And in Rand's upside-down world "altruism is immoral and selfishness is good. Moreover, there isn't a problem in the world that laissez-faire capitalism can't solve if left alone to perform its miracles." Get it? In Rand's world, capitalists are the new saviors and miracle workers.
But can you imagine Jesus preaching Rand's message? No wonder Prothero says "Rand's work reads to me like a vulgar rationalization for greed." Worse, he's shocked "at how few GOP thinkers seem to see how hostile her philosophy is to conservatism itself."
Why indeed? Because there's nothing Christian about Rand's defense of their new soulless capitalism that's not only lacking in traditional Christian compassion, but has become instead another form of egocentric narcissistic individualism.
How Adam Smith's idealism turned into bipartisan narcissism
In an Utne Reader last year, Christopher Lasch discussed his groundbreaking Culture of Narcissism originally published a generation ago at the dawn of Reaganomics. Lasch warned that the economic man had "given way to the psychological man of our times -- the final product of bourgeois individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self," where ultimately each person "demands immediate gratification" but "lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire."
Prothero reminds us that "real conservatism is also about sacrifice." Today, however, the patron saint of conservatives and capitalists "will brook no such sacrifice" for the common good. "Serve yourself, she tells us, and save yourself as well. There is no higher good than individual self-satisfaction."
Get it? In Ayn Rand's world, the individual's self-satisfaction is always more important than what's right for America as a whole. And yet, Prothero warns, "one of the reasons we are in our current economic quagmire is that none of our leaders is willing to ask us to sacrifice. Democrats call for more spending and more taxes; Republicans call for lower taxes and less spending, and what we get is the most fiscally ruinous half of each: lower taxes and more spending."
Prothero's challenge was prescient: His "aim is to force a choice. If you are going to propose a Robin Hood budget, you have to decide whether you are robbing from the poor to give to the rich, or robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Because you cannot do both."
America is "a free country. Just don't tell me you are both a card-carrying Objectivist and a Bible-believing Christian. Even Rand knew that just wasn't possible."
Rand's legacy will be rewritten by historians long after the 2012 elections
Since history is always written by the winners, it's too early to define Ayn Rand's legacy. Why? No matter who wins, the upcoming elections will settle nothing, driving an even bigger wedge between the parties for at least four more years, as we continue to deny and minimize issues far more critical to America's survival: The "big picture" issues of macro-economics, global population, energy, climate, commodities, war and feeding 10 billion people in 2050.
However, the elections will reveal some benchmarks: We know future historians will see Ayn Rand from one or the other of two extreme polarities in today's partisan political divide: Either an enlightened patron saint of a neocapitalist ideology traceable through Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan a generation earlier, to Paul Ryan and other conservative leaders today ... or as Prothero characterizes Rand, the dark star of a new soulless capitalism that replaced both the principles of Adam Smith's pure 1776 capitalism and the biblical teachings of Jesus.
Lasch warns that the narcissism emerging today as America's new collective conscience and reflected in Ayn Rand disciples is, paradoxically, also blinding today's leaders in both parties. They cannot see the fundamental paradigm shift in America's destiny.
Why? As Lasch puts it: "Impending disaster has become an everyday concern," for Americans, "so commonplace and familiar that nobody any longer gives much thought to how disaster might be averted. People busy themselves instead with survival strategies, measures designed to prolong their own lives, or programs guaranteed to ensure good health and peace of mind."
In short: Deep in America's new conservative consciousness is a growing darkness, a haunting fear that it's "too late" to survive in this world in decline. The message: Give up. Instead of focusing on and working together on our common destiny to survive as a world of interdependent cultures, focus instead narrowly on your own personal survival, not the whole.
And in that reality, the iron-fisted words of Ayn Rand seems far more reassuring than the 1776 wisdom of Adam Smith or the ideals of a simple carpenter two thousand years ago.