Why I am Not a Randian
Although now long dead, Ayn Rand (1905 –1982) lives on through her best-selling novels and her philosophy of Objectivism. The Russian born writer and thinker spent most of her life in the US where she produced her two most famous works of fiction.
The Fountainhead appeared in 1943, while Atlas Shrugged came out in 1957. Both were major vehicles to promote her thinking. She was an atheist and a radical libertarian, who hated all forms of collectivism and championed ‘the virtue of selfishness’. Indeed, she produced a work of non-fiction in 1964 by that title.
She was as influential as she was controversial, and those on the right are deeply divided concerning her views. Anarchists, radical libertarians and many secularists adore her and her work, while social and religious conservatives are quite alarmed by her.
Indeed, while I support many of her concerns about statism, big government, and collectivism, other major features of her worldview I find quite appalling. So too have many other conservatives. In fact, Rand herself was quite happy to repudiate any suggestion that she was a conservative.
Many have written critically of her views. A book-length treatment appeared back in 1974 offering a careful Christian assessment of her philosophy, theology, ethics and politics (John Robbins, Answer to Ayn Rand). He offers a detailed critique of the philosophy of Objectivism, and finds it seriously wanting.
Others have noted various negative aspects of her work. Back in 2004 Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker wrote an important volume entitled Architects of the Culture of Death. In it they discuss 23 key players, including Darwin, Nietzsche, Sanger, Marx, Sartre, Galton, Kinsey, and Singer.
Rand also gets an entire chapter. The authors point out that her philosophy is entirely focused on the individual, and that altruism in any form is viewed as the major enemy of individualism. They point out how her extremist creed is really untenable and unliveable.
And it is unlovable as well: “Rand, of course, is a dedicated enemy of Christianity. But her particular brand of selfishness, which presupposes that everyone in society is a Nietzschean Superman, makes her an enemy of love. Her writing represents an unrelenting high-mindedness that is far too Olympian for any mere mortal to live by.”
Australian writer John Ballantyne has just penned a piece examining three radical libertarians: Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Walter Block. He says this: “Atheists Rand and Rothbard had no concept of the sacredness of human life and were resolutely in favour of abortion-on-demand. Rand despised conservative American President Ronald Reagan for his opposition to abortion. She declared: ‘An embryo has no rights’.”
He goes on to say, “radical libertarians – or anarcho-capitalists as they are proud to call themselves – are as much agents of social decomposition and enemies of Judaeo-Christian civilisation as are atheistic Marxists and French postmodernists.”
Benjamin Wiker has again written a chapter on Rand, this time in his new volume, 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read. In it he also examines four others, plus “one imposter”: Atlas Shrugged. Says Wiker: “Too often conservatives make the mistake of thinking that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This is a dangerous principle.
“Sometimes the enemy of our enemy is also our enemy. Stalin, for instance, was our ally in the war against Hitler, but he was certainly not our friend. For this reason, we need to be very clear about where Rand went wrong, and this will include some important illumination from her private life.”
Indeed, her personal life was a mess, and hardly an example to be held up for anyone. As Ballantyne writes, “Ayn Rand lived in an open marriage. Both she and her husband were repeatedly unfaithful to each other. During her marriage, Rand conducted an affair with one of her intellectual disciples, Nathaniel Branden, a famous psychotherapist best known today for promoting the psychology of self-esteem.”
He continues, “Rand’s ideology, although seeming to extol human freedom, in fact advocated misanthropy, greed and narcissism. Some of her writings remind one of that terrible scene in Shakespeare when Lady Macbeth summons the powers of darkness to divest her of any conscience and compassion.”
But back to Wiker and his new book. He lists three main features of Rand’s thought which of necessity led her to break away from the conservative movement. The first was her rugged, gung-ho atheism. The second was her ‘ethical’ system based totally on selfishness. The third was her distorted view of capitalism.
“Her defense of the free market was based on the idea of a few heroic Nietzschean figures satisfying their creative and pecuniary impulses; it was not based on the conservative understanding of the free market as primarily about freedom for families and communities to provide for themselves in their own way, unhindered by government interference.”
He summarises her philosophy this way: “Rand presents false dichotomies, either-or choices between two extremes: either collectivism or individualism, either living entirely for the state or living entirely for oneself, either complete self-sacrifice to the point of annihilation or complete selfishness to the point of narcissism. She flees the first extreme and embraces the second.”
Wiker notes how absolutely radical her individualism is, and how “it runs dead against the obvious fact of human existence (pointed out by Aristotle) that human beings are social by nature, and moral and economic life begins in a family.”
He concludes his chapter with these words of wisdom: “It should be clear that conservatism is not narcissism; it is not worship of selfishness; and Objectivism, as Rand would tell you herself, is certainly not conservatism at all.”
I am a Christian first, then a conservative. It should be apparent to those who have followed my writings that I am not a radical libertarian, nor an anarchist, nor a believer in the gospel of self. While many conservatives have embraced Rand and her beliefs, I for one cannot and will not.
21 Replies to “Why I am Not a Randian”
Also worth mentioning: Whittaker Chambers’s famous National Review demolition job (“Big Sister Is Watching You”, NR, 28 December 1957) on Ayn Rand.
Chambers makes, in this small masterpiece, two points I have never seen any other commentator on Rand discuss adequately. First, Chambers spells out Rand’s ideological as well as temperamental debt to Marx, a debt which she frantically attempted to conceal from her readers. Secondly, he stresses Rand’s detestation of childhood, a detestation all the greater because no intelligent child has ever taken Rand’s posturings seriously. (Her followers, far from being children, are usually half-educated and vaguely Nietzschean adolescents.) To quote Chambers’s own words:
“You speculate that, in life, children probably irk the author and may make her uneasy. How could it be otherwise when she admiringly names a banker character (by what seems to me a humorless master-stroke): Midas Mulligan? You may fool some adults; you can’t fool little boys and girls with such stuff – not for long.”
Chambers’s article belongs in the same exalted league as Sir Peter Medawar’s once-celebrated evisceration of Teilhard de Chardin.
R J Stove
Yes it is a great piece. De Marco and Wiker quoted from it in their book: “Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.”
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
After reading your article, Bill, I had a look this evening at the Menzies House version of John Ballantyne’s essay (having already encountered the piece in its News Weekly manifestation). Seldom if ever have I seen a bunch of combox pubescents so obviously off their meds. (From the tireless flow of their four-letter words, I would surmise that they were all male and had an average age of about 15.) This would seem to be the default mode of Randians in general. When New Criterion editor Roger Kimball published a rather mild little criticism of Rand on the Pyjamas Media website, the comboxes there went similarly berserk, though the Stateside level of spelling skill appeared somewhat higher than the antipodean one. I cherish one pseudonymous genius’s purse-lipped reference to “Ayn Rand and her supposed [my emphasis – RJS] failings.” With champions like that, the old bat hardly needs opponents …
R J Stove
Yes I have had a few articles published there as well, and the atheists and libertarians come out in force, slinging mud and hurling abuse – always easier than actually mounting an argument.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
I am not a Randian either, but Rand’s fiction does have a fond place in my memory. I agree that the basis for her thinking (The Virtue of Selfishness) is completely anti-Christian and laughably lacking and naïve as philosophy. However, in my early Christian years, I had unwittingly carried over a lot of humanistic and socialist thinking particularly in the economic realm; and I remember Rand’s novels were a great anti-dote to this.
I suspect many Christians are similarly influenced, and so I would still recommend they read Rand (with appropriate cautions). I suppose what we really need is a Christian version of Rand showing how living the Biblical life – worshipping God, loving one’s neighbour whilst practising hard-nosed capitalism is the way to go. Could anybody recommend such a replacement to Rand’s fiction?
You should read Rand’s “Virtue of Selfishness”. Your interpretation of Rand’s idea of self interest is quite wrong.
-My rules require a full name.
-I do mention the book in my article.
-I did read it, and was not at all impressed.
-It takes a genuine moral philosopher such as Adam Smith to provide us with a worthwhile understanding of the concept of self-interest.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Very well said Bill.
I’m doing a course in libertarian law right now via Mises.org.
The Economics Of Private Legal And Defense Services
with Robert Murphy.
I’m doing quite well. Though Murray Rothbard figures heavily he is not worshipped blindly by anyone I’ve encountered. I am looking for an alternative to the current systems of government because in many places those systems are both going broke and breaking down, passing ungodly laws and backing them up with the power of the state. We need a plan B and the options are getting limited.
Mansel, Read Gary North’s economic works he’s considered the leading Christian writer on the conservative libertarian right. He also has a web site with a lot of free books. The site has a pay per view section that I subscribe to.
On most things he is conservative but he thinks the current US financial system in crumbling and wont last past 2020.
He takes a different line on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to many conservatives. He thinks we can’t win them and should pull out. I think we will achieve a measured victory but are making it hard for our selves by trying to use old borders and by blocking evangelism among those friendly to us and by closing borders to Apostates and middle-east Christian groups. I think however that aside you will like his work. He’s also Post-milleniallist which is a regrowing tree in Australian theology.
Perhaps libertarians and Randians are another lot that Christians can engage in a co-belligerent relationship with. We can be deeply sympathetic to their embrace of the free-market and rejection of statism but also abhor their emphasis on radical personal autonomy (after all the Aristotelian-Thomistic view sees man as essentially a social animal as opposed to the atomistic views of the libertarian/anarchist).
They also embrace the “neutrality” principle that leftists like Rawls has assumed which is utterly vacuous. As Ed Feser argues in “Libertarian Neutrality So-Called”
Hi Bill. Great critique! I remember reading Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead about 15-20 years ago and feeling my Reagantie blood being stirred by reading about the nobility of the individual fighting against the socialist forces trying to drag the hero down. Probably not very clear in my thinking then, or not clear enough to separate wheat from chaff.
John Piper has written a detailed analysis of Rand’s ideas at:
Re Wesley Bruce’s comment: Glad to see someone else is paying attention to Gary North. He and others with the Christian Reconstruction movement don’t often get good press, but his writing presents a perspective on many social, economic and theological issues that should not be dismissed out of hand.
B. Wiker: “Her defense of the free market was based on the idea of a few heroic Nietzschean figures satisfying their creative and pecuniary impulses.”
I’m reading Mr. Wiker’s book now (and enjoying it.)
The above quote however is a mischaracterization of AR’s views.
She advocated a completely free market because she believed that force itself was an enemy of morality and human flourishing as it makes impossible human thought. She did not believe that morality was only for the gifted few.
Many commentators don’t read AR carefully.
Good article Bill. I haven’t read any of Ayn Rand’s works but knowing that she advocated an ethic of selfishness immediately raises alarm for me.
I am interested in the Austrian school of economics, and became so after beginning to see the flaws in socialistic and anti-capitalist type thinking. But this article has been good in reminding me to be careful about getting too overly enthusiastic and going from one extreme position to another.
Murray Rothbard is one of the giants of the Austrian school but does seem to be more radical than some of the earlier thinkers like Mises and Hayek. It does concern me how anti-state some of the adherents of the Austrian school can be. The Austrian school has been growing in popularity in the last couple of years and particularly amongst young people. This is good in a sense, since many young people are not just accepting the conventional politically correct ideas about the economy but the concern is that many of them seem to be anarchists and don’t like the idea of any government at all. I even know a few Christians who hold this view.
I agree with someone’s mention of being cobeligerents with some of the more radical libertarians. I am interested, (after a friend’s recommendation) in reading Rothbard’s ‘America’s Great Depression’ because of it’s relevance in showing how government stimulus made things worse in the depression and the same actions are being employed today by governments in response to the current crisis.
The Austrians seem to be very good in the area of sound economic scholarship and because of the acuracy of their track record in predicting economic crises deserve attention. But the philosophy of radical individualism that some libertarians hold is not consistent with a Christian worldview and must be rejected.
Personally I think it is possible to believe in political individualism in the sense of promoting individual rights politically but yet be a social communitarian. I agree with what you quoted Bill in your article that freemarkets should exist to assist families and communities not just individual self indulgence.
Gary North’s economic commentary of the Bible is interesting and worth looking at.
She is much too sentimental in her views. She thought that Victor Hugo was the greatest of poets.
I first heard of her at the Objectivism’s Google forum and could not believe how seriously they took her. Some thought she was the greatest mind since Aristoteles. I had never even heard of her.
“The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.”
It also means a dangerously übersized ego. It is easy to see why there are very few women among her followers.
A Gabriel, Madrid
Thanks for the tip. I agree with a lot of what the Reconstructionist and Theonomist authors like Rushdoony, North, Bahnsen and De Mar have to say. In fact I’d say that taking seriously and drawing application from God’s ordinances to Israel is what the western church has completely forgotten and most needs to hear right now. The aspect of this which North focuses on is, of course, that God set up Israel economically to look pretty close to what libertarians like Rand were advocating (although on a different basis and for different ends).
What I’d like to find, however, is Christian fiction which brings this vision to life; having the equivalent power of Rand to inspire Christians to actively reject the secular socialist view and instead work to remake society through Christian Reconstruction.
If I had any talent as an author I would write such books myself. But hopefully some have already been written?
The character Gordon Gekko is a classic Randian with his e Children of “Greed … is good” line. Our unlamented former PM Rudd tried to portray the free market in such Randian lines with his pathetic “The Children of Gordon Gekko” speech.
But most conservative/libertarians are not Randians, since they don’t say that greed is good, but rather one of mankind’s universal failings that must be managed. As Thomas Sowell said:
His mentor Milton Friedman taught Phil Donahue a lesson about the ubiquity of greed:
Going all the way back to Adam Smith, who featured on Friedman’s favourite tie, we also find him pointing out that self-interest is just a human reality:
Showing up the left’s hypocrisy on greed, Sowell cited:
For example, I don’t know why petrol stations are ‘greedy’ if they make 3c/litre selling petrol, but the Government is not greedy for slapping on an excise tax of 38c/litre.
Jonathan Sarfati, USA
I think the appeal of Ayn Rand was and is that she appeared so radically and unashamedly against the mainstream socialist humdrum. She presented what seemed like a kind of polar opposite for those who wanted to flee socialism to run to. At last a leader who voiced their miscontent with the inexorable demise of free market and freedom in general; someone who might shout loud enough to make a difference. People gravitate to boldness and she was a brilliant and unique thinker. But as you say, at the heart of Randian philosophy is a selfish core. It’s a mindset that refuses to be accountable to anyone but self which is really not so different really to the prevailing mindset of most people who don’t know Jesus. True liberty comes when we hand over those rights we love to demand to Jesus and He gives us the real thing in return.
It should be noted, though, that Rand did not mean by selfishness “doing whatever you want” or trampling on the rights of other people. She was neither a Nietzschian nor a moral relativist.
She just didn’t believe that sacrificing for others was the highest good. Now, by sacrifice she meant giving up a higher value for a lower value. A person who neglected their children in order to carouse with friends would not be selfish by her definition.
But a person who gave up the career he loved to please his parents would be.
I think Rand should be taken in the context of her time the 30’s 40’s and 50’s. But as a stand alone philosophy Objectivism is deficient. Her thoughts have value as they contrast against the abuses and dangers of socialism, that’s why shes back.
I think her ideas do not make a sufficient platform for living.
A new and quite good piece can be found here on Rand: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/05/the-trouble-with-ayn-rand
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
I just read the article in that blog-link that First Things blog-link that Bill provided above. How’s this for a sweeping but memorable statement of despair and detachment, by the author of the opinion piece
“Civilization is always a fragile accommodation at best, precariously poised between barbarism on one side and decadence on the other, and as a civilization dissolves it begins to oscillate between them, ever more spasmodically, until the final collapse comes.”