Why I can’t buy into Ayn Rand (Part 2)

Yesterday I began a discussion of the recent uptick in interest in Ayn Rand’s economic ideas among conservatives.  With half of my friends reading Rand’s novels and discussing how awesome her ideas of individualism are and how well that fits into their libertarian or highly-conservative political views, I felt like it was time for me to do a little more thinking on the topic.

Honestly, I’m rather bothered by the numbers of Christians who are racing to embrace Rand’s economics while supposedly bypassing her philosophy.  I don’t think we can really separate the two.
Let me tackle just a few of her ideas that I find unbiblical….. or at least “sketchy”:
Ardent Individualism
America was built on individualistic pioneers who said “Piss off!” to the British (or Irish or Germans or French or whatever) and came to these shores to build a new life for themselves and — especially — to be left alone.  The Puritans touted a work ethic to make oneself holy; the Scots-Irish fled into the Appalachian hills to find solitude; the wagon trains took hearty adventurers and those hungry for ownership into the West where land was nearly free.
No wonder Ayn Rand found America a balm after she watched communism and socialism eat up her family’s wealth in Russia.  Her Objectivism, steeped in Enlightenment rationalism and ideals, fits here perfectly alongside our Declaration of Independence, social-contract theory of government, and Deistic perspective on man’s “natural” rights.
I’m proud of my American heritage ….  of my Italian grandfather who came through Ellis Island as a boy in the early 1900s to suffer in poverty until he scraped enough to get by …. of my childhood in the Pennsylvania mountains surrounded by people whose ancestors came to the hills in the 1780s and still shot anyone who tried to worm their way into those closed communities.  Well, I’m not “proud of” the mountain people; they were weird. lol  But my point isn’t to be un-American.
However, Americanism =/= biblical morality.  We Americans think the individual is king.
Biblically speaking, that’s just crap.
The Church, the family, the government — these institutions founded by God in the early days of the human race are entirely build on community.  I’m nothing in isolation.  As a Christian, my place in the Body is what helps give my life direction.  As an image-bearer, my humanity is unpacked and expanded only when I am in community with other image-bearers.  A solitary human being is a sad soul. Don’t believe me? Read Into the Wild (or watch the film).
Americans lose so much because we throw our old people into homes to die alone; we move billions of miles away from anyone who matters to us; we live in disconnected little boxes in subdivisions where nobody knows their neighbors anymore.  I remember hearing some Germans describe how sad they were that no one in their Greenville neighborhood would make friends with them.  All we could say was, “Well, that’s America. Everybody drives home from work, straight into the garage, shuts the door, and cuts off the world.”
Make It On Your Own
Self-success is the natural corollary of individualism.  If I’m selfishly looking out for myself above all (as Rand suggests), then I’m going to be able to put all of my resources into making myself successful. Self-development becomes THE goal.
People who latch on to individualism as a core economic principle want to use it for some pretty nasty ends when it comes to economic theory: They beat down those who do not succeed by blaming them for that failure (“If you’d worked harder, you would have made it!”). They condemn those who are poor for being moral failures (“Poverty is the result of indigence, laziness, or maybe bad luck….but mostly laziness.”)
And they violently oppose anyone who tries to make a claim on their economic success.  Some will be generous, but few are willing to have generosity thrust upon them.
Looking at Christ’s intensification of the Law in the Gospels and Paul’s expansion of that theme in his Epistles, generosity should be a hallmark of Christian living. Where God demanded 10% of the Israelite’s harvests in order to support the Old Testament temple system, He now seems to expect that we use all of our wealth and talents for Kingdom living!  Shocking.
Because we are blinded by American values rather than biblical ones, we compartmentalize “ministry” into a little box that fits into Sunday morning (when we work a nursery room) and Thursday afternoons (when we take food to a local charity).  The rest of our lives are “ours”; as long as God gets His tithe check on Sundays we’re home free.
The dust-up about Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech reveals the bitter truth about our hearts.  If I truly see my wealth and my job and my paycheck and even my ability to earn money in this capitalistic system as gifts from God to be used entirely for making this planet a better place to live in, why would I so violently spit out curses when someone suggests that I didn’t do this on my own?
This is what King David prayed to the Lord after the people opened their hearts (and proverbial wallets) to bring offerings for use in the building of the Temple:

But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. I Chron 27:14

The whole passage is powerful. NOTHING I own is mine. I can’t give away a single thing (or pay taxes on it, or invest it, or waste it on hamburgers) that God hasn’t already given to me first.
The idea that I build my own wealth by the sweat of my brow is true to the extent that this sin-cursed world yields profit only by the sweat of my brow. But that’s not the whole story.
Any attitude toward my personal wealth which resembles a toddler hoarding candy and throwing a tantrum on the floor “It’s mine! I don’t have to share!” is an ugly and debased view of economics.  Sharing, charity, and economic aid for those who are in need must be components of any biblical economic system — which directly contradicts Ayn Rand’s worship of the self as highest good.
No-Rules Capitalism is a Good Thing!
I keep saying “no-rules-capitalism” because I can’t spell liaissaiz-faire. lol
Anyway….
We are greedy people at heart.  I can feel the selfishness rising up in my throat anytime someone starts cutting cake and I start watching the size of the slices.
Unbridled capitalism in the 1800s and poorly-regulated in the 1900s gave us environmental disasters, needless destruction of usable land or beautiful places, extinct species, chemical and other byproducts polluting water and air, oppressive labor conditions, no sympathy for people injured at work, virtual enslavement of women and children in Northern factories, actual enslavement of blacks to work Southern plantations followed by a horrific sharecropping system of similar effect, violent clashes between poor and underpaid workers and rich bosses/company owners.  Those abuses were correctly only through anti-trust laws, government agencies like the FDA and EPA, unions, and consumer watchdog groups.  Some of those reactions have now outlived their own usefulness and become problematic too, but the point remains.
I grew up near Pittsburgh; I saw the photos of the smoky city with its black atmosphere in the 60s. I’ve had my lungs burned by breathing polluted air around Moscow, Russia. My dad remembered the union strikes at the Pittsburgh steel mills in the 30s and 50s when workers couldn’t stand the wage differences between the guys doing the work and the managers at the top. He lost his job when he went blind in one eye in 1981 and overnight my family was plunged into economic hardship that never really let up. My parents were born into abject poverty during the Depression and they died only a little better off.
People with power (whether economic, political, military) do not just “give up” that power. It must be taken from them — usually through legislation or policy changes.  Obamacare isn’t just “socialized medicine”; it’s an attempt to staunch the bleeding of billions of dollars of unpaid medical care dumped into insurance premium hikes because people can’t afford to buy insurance.
Right now a tiny fraction of people control the overwhelming portion of wealth and investments. I’m not a fan of wealth redistribution. But historically speaking, things don’t turn out well once the scales get too imbalanced.  Rich people have no incentive to make the poor better off, as this article suggests:
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Rand suggests that humans live to please themselves, work to stuff themselves, and become prosperous for their own enjoyment.
Christ said, “If any man would follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  That doesn’t mean I am not allowed to own anything.  But it sure does mean that loving God with my money and loving others with my wealth is the hallmark of a biblical economic system.
…and I’m not hearing that in Ayn Rand.
Combine her selfish economics with basic social Darwinism and you get the same attitude that many have toward the poor, needy, or immigrant:  “It’s your own damn fault. Sucks to be you.”

Why I can’t buy into Ayn Rand (Part 1)

Is it just me, or is everyone I know reading Ayn Rand and nodding soberly, picking up pearls of wisdom to weave into a conservative economics of wealth production?

I first heard of Rand many years ago when I ran across her commencement speech “Who Needs Philosophy?”  which is actually a really good piece. She expounds a solid reason for studying philosophy as part of any course of study because philosophical thinking matters.  Cool.  I dig that.
Otherwise, my brushes with Ayn Rand consisted of staring at the huge copies of Atlas Shrugged on people’s bookshelves or in the bookstore and wondering if those thousand pages were worth my time.  I’ve decided they aren’t.
So I trotted off to learn something about her philosophical system, Objectivism. If you need a refresher, here is a boiled-down version from Wikipedia‘s article on Ayn Rand:
  • Objectivism’s central tenets are that reality exists independent of consciousness,
  • that human beings have direct contact with reality through sense perception,
  • that one can attain objective knowledge from perception through the process ofconcept formation and inductive logic,
  • that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness (orrational self-interest),
  • that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights embodied in laissez-faire capitalism,
  • and that the role of art in human life is to transform humans’ metaphysical ideas by selective reproduction of reality into a physical form—a work of art—that one can comprehend and to which one can respond emotionally.
Rand herself denies that you can take her economics apart from her philosophy:
 I am confident enough to think that if you accept the importance of philosophy and the task of examining it critically, it is my philosophy that you will come to accept. Formally, I call it Objectivism, but informally I call it a philosophy for living on earth. You will find an explicit presentation of it in my books, particularly in Atlas Shrugged. (from the latter half of “Philosophy: Who Needs It?”)
I have a meaningful memory of politics since the time of Reagan. It seems that Rand’s cheerleading for individualism and no-restrictions-capitalism has colored Republican politics more and more over the past three decades. (Maybe it was a strong theme in the 60s and 70s too; I don’t know.)
*****
I don’t usually watch the Colbert Report, but a friend of mine commented that Wednesday’s show was very good so I caught it on Hulu.  Colbert dug into the topic of Rand’s influence on the Republican party. Yes, I know Colbert is a comedian not a political analyst (though I think his analyses are often very perceptive) and obviously he is partisan.
But still — take a look (links to video since I can’t embed from Colbert’s site):
After beating on Paul Ryan for a bit, Colbert turned to a Stanford University professor who’s recently written a book about Rand’s influence on the neo-conservative movement. Again, watch:
The Colbert Report
*****
Tomorrow:  I’d like to dig into why Rand’s ideas bug me so much.

the great John Spong

Bishop John Spong is famous in Christianity for championing the rhetoric of liberal Christianity. Since the 70s, maybe earlier, he’s been writing and preaching and debating mostly conservative evangelicals on topics like biblical inspiration and inerrancy, the nature of the atonement, social issues, and issues related to Jesus and the Gospels.

When I was at BJU, Spong was the posterboy for everything wrong with liberalism — unbelief, skepticism, a love of science over doctrines of faith.
So when David W told us Spong was coming to town for a theology lecture, we hopped on that straightway.  I like to hear people speak for themselves, not rely on what someone told me they said. And my own theological positions have moderated over the years (though not so far as to move me out of the solidly conservative camp when it comes to my personal belief in core doctrines; more of a moderation in my attitudes toward people who don’t see things as I do).
He’s 81. Very spry.  Nice guy. Clearly highly intelligent. A clear speaker, well-read, familiar with lots of different writers.
Disdains conservative theology, “orthodoxy,” and literal belief in the Bible, inspiration, historical existence of biblical events, miracles.
Has lived through WW2, the Civil Rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, and now gay rights.  Wants to end unjust war, poverty, hunger, discrimination.
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Overall? I’d say his lectures were uninspired and uninspiring, while the Q&A sessions were highly interesting and engaging.
His ideas are ridiculously Modernist in their approach to truth and knowledge. While disdaining conservative believers for their dogmatic and closed-minded positions, he presented a traditional liberalism apart from any discussion of what assumptions undergird his conclusions. Like he’d learned this stuff in seminary in the 1950s and arrived at his conclusions then, and doesn’t really see the need to discuss that whole process now.
I mean, JEDP critical interpretations and the Jesus Seminar perspective on the Gospels? Really?
Biblical interpretation and theological studies are WAY past the 1850s by now, Bishop Spong. You should catch up.
I love his social applications of “doctrine.”  I think he had a lot of great things to say about how the Church should be acting in this world.  That mostly came out in the Q&A.
His second lecture was a classic liberal discussion of why he cannot accept the concept of an Atonement (in the traditional sense of appeasing an angry God), and therefore we must recognize that Jesus (who is not God-human in the Nicean sense of that doctrine) died on the cross to show us what selfless living looks like….not because a holy God was angry or that sin needed to be redeemed in blood.
…I can’t follow him into that.  I think it’s profoundly stupid to think an above-average human (if that’s all Christ was) would change humanity one whit by getting Himself killed. Seriously. And that doesn’t even begin to touch C. S. Lewis’s clear-headed argument in Mere Christianity: Jesus claimed to be God so much that either He’s a horrible liar, straight-up crazy, or actually God.  You can’t pussy-foot around the claims of Christ.
An informative experience. I’m glad I went.

Bono – On Christianity and Art

man, I love Bono….

“There’s a fear of duality [in Christian art]….There’s this part of us that says ….I want this music to do something positive in a very negative world but on the other hand you want to be honest and own up to your earthly desires and the confusion that everybody has.”
“‘Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’ …. A lot of [Christians] are happy with ‘pie in the sky when we die’ but I don’t think that’s our purpose.  Our purpose is to bring heaven to earth in the micro as well as the macro, and in every detail in our lives we should be trying to bring heaven to earth. Have the peace that passes understanding in ourselves, but do not be at peace with this world….because the world is not a happy place for most people who are living in it, and the world is more malleable than we think. We can wrestle it from fools.”
Here. Watch for yourself