Saturday, August 29, 2009

I Am Not John Galt

My foray into the writings of Ms. Rand was really a matter of coincidence. Two nearly simultaneous events stirred me in her direction. First, I tend to regularly check CNBC, as a way of keeping abreast of the churnings and whirlings of global capitalism. Earlier this month, I came across an article praising Rand, whose philosophy defined the economic outlook of the Reagan White House. With leftists in the White House, she's more relevant than ever, crowed the article, which was written to pitch a book written by one of Objectivism's disciples.

Second, I read a short blog response to Atlas Shrugged written by a conservative with whom I've often gently jousted in past, one that showed him enthusiastic about many aspects of her ideology of self-actualization. In the face of that sympathy, though, he expressed some discomfort with certain aspects of her worldview. Like most conservatives, he's a Christian, and that makes embracing some of her views...difficult.

The reason for this dissonance can be found throughout her book, but nowhere more strongly than in the radio speech of John Galt, the great noble and mighty man of mystery who acts as the mostly unseen influence over the world of Atlas Shrugged. The radio address comes as he seizes control of the airwaves, bumping the weak and bureaucratic president so that he can deliver his monologue, to which the nation pays rapt attention.

And oh, what a monologue. It runs for fifty-three full pages of the book. As someone who preaches regularly from written texts, I did a quick calculation. That's a four and a half hour sermon, with no music, breaks or pauses. Even by Baptist standards, that's starting to get a little long. Even Rush Limbaugh runs out of steam before he can complete a rant of that magnitude. The idea that everyone would sit and listen to this shows that Ms. Rand may have lacked a grasp of 1) how humans process information and 2) the capacity of the human bladder.

This is Ayn Rand's Sermon on the Mount, the pinnacle of her philosophy, and the conceptual lynchpin of Atlas Shrugged. And what it is, unfortunately for conservatives who want to embrace her, is completely antithetical to Christianity. By this, I don't mean it opposes the institutional church. I don't mean that it raises concerns about the way in which Christians have used power to oppress others. It sets itself in explicit and ferocious opposition to the heart of Christian faith.
As Galt/Rand does the monologue thing, most of his invective is against the moral and ethical code that he views as having enslaved and destroyed humanity. That dark and oppressive morality is, as he puts it, " serve God's purpose or your neighbor's welfare." For the entirety of this defining speech, Galt/Rand assails the "mystics" who would give themselves over to God, and those "moralists" who would give themselves over to neighbor. The enemy of human actualization is, for Rand, the Great Commandment.

This is, to put it mildly, a non-trivial issue. As someone who'd known the oppression of Soviet Russia, Rand hated communism, and her seething hatred of the state made her philosophy seem appealing to American conservatives. But as much as she hated commies, she hated Jesus most of all. Her whole philosophy is carefully constructed in intentional, fundamental and irreconcilable opposition to the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

You cannot be Christian and believe what Rand believes. I do not say this by way of assailing her, because she and I would agree.

And with that agreement, I think my conversation with Ms. Rand has come to a conclusion. Always nice to end with agreement.


  1. Perhaps it is a sign of brain damage, but I walked away from Atlas Shrugged with a bit of a syncretic worldview. Essentially, I support two systems.

    The first, the world system, could work like Rand's (though I personally prefer a stateless society more akin to Austro-Libertarian ideals). The world system exists solely to establish and enforce property rights; thus any peaceful exchange between adults would be permissible. The oxymoronic "victimless crime" would not exist under this system, since things like drug use and prostitution would be legal.

    The second, the Christian system, imparts moral (not legal) judgment on the world system, and offers the Gospel as salvation. It both recognizes and communicates the spiritual dangers of engaging in ungodly behavior, and offers the personal peace that cannot be found in hedonism.

    The Christian system, as I envision it, acts on the belief that everything (peaceful) is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.

    The symbiotic beauty of this arrangement is that neither group enforces its values on the other via a powerful and invasive state apparatus. Taking the state out of the equation removes a large stumbling block for believers and non-believers alike. The believer will cease to interpret morality in terms of legality, and the non-believer will no longer resent the Christian who would have codified their 'prudish' morals into law. Thus, justice and love are united like the two faces of a coin.

    Now, I'm sure you'll find gaping holes in my 'whirled view' and I welcome the criticism. I don't expect this system is flawless, but it's where I am right now mentally.

  2. newworldview: I appreciate that vision, and it works well with both my anarchic leanings and my Hegelian tendency to find truth in dialectic. Which, in this case, would be: Thesis = Jesus. Antithesis = Objectivism. Synthesis = Shiny Happy Christian-Libertarian Utopia.

    Unfortunately, I think that the dissonance between the two governing ethics here is just too great. Can they co-exist? Maybe. But the moral and spiritual core of Christianity is in deep tension with both market and state. It's also in tension with the idea that either the self or the collective is the ultimate ground of moral action.

    It's a fuddler, but I think Augustine did a fine job o' solving it in his "Market of God."

  3. Is 'market' a lesser-known translation of 'civitate' or are you referring to another work?

  4. Let me start by saying that I pretty much agree with Rand's ethical philosophy and in a perfect world, governments would exist only to protect individual rights.

    But this isn't a perfect world. Now, I'm not about to write some excuse for moderately controlled capitalism here. I simply see that pure capitalism will never exist because most people don't want it to exist. And rather than spend my life hoping for a John Galt to tear the whole thing down, I'm going to try hard and succeed in this world, with all its arbitrary rules and blurry lines between what's private and what's public. While I will always advocate fewer economic controls, I recognize that "survival of the fittest", where "fittest" means "best adapted to your environment", is a deeper and more permanent truth than Rand's "survival of the most productive".

    There will always be parasites, and there will always be hoards of tiny men who seek to drag anything taller than themselves down into the muck. The truly strong are those individuals who are able to stand tall above the rabble.