Thursday, April 28, 2011
What to Do with Atlas Shrugged?
Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged has been an incredibly influential book since its publication more than fifty years ago. Rand raises a vigorous argument for the economic justice of capitalism and a blistering, withering rebuke of socialism. With the first installment of the movie version coming out recently, it will be interesting to see what impact Rand's ideas make on our culture.
Most Americans, trained in a liberally biased education system, often do not know conservative arguments on key issues such as evolution/creation, deism/atheism, or socialism/capitalism. This is what bothers me. People whose education has been so constrained by one-sided arguments might get very excited as they discover Ayn Rand for the first time.
Her criticism of socialism will be empowered by a "prophet effect." I don't see how anyone can read Atlas Shrugged and not see her predictions coming true today. Price controls, elimination of competition, onerous regulations, and cronyism have the same devastating effect on the economy that we see today and that we have seen in all centralized economies. Above all Rand condemns socialism's resistance to ingenuity, invention, and improvement. Socialism does not move the culture forward but backward.
So then, what's so wrong with Rand? I will start with her reply to William F. Buckley when she first met him, "You are much too intelligent to believe in God." Rand was an atheist, and a mean one at that. There was no room in her world view for compassion or mercy. These Christian virtues are evil as far as Rand is concerned.
One of the really weird things about her book is that there are no children, no handicapped, no aged, no sick people in Rand's economy. There is no family. There are only intelligent, aggressive, hard-working people contending with lazy, dishonest, and foolish people. But the word "economy" comes from the Greek word for "household." Any argument for economic justice has to begin with a real economy. This is where Rand's ideas break down.
I would agree with much of Rand's criticism of socialism. But her solution to enthrone selfishness as king of the economy and the guiding principle of life is not any better. Pure selfishness will inevitably be just as destructive as socialism.
Jesus said, "To whom much has been given, from him much will be required" (Luke 12.48); and Paul urged "... you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, 'It is better to give than to receive'" (Acts 20.35). These words were spoken to the church and not to governments. How we apply the principle of mercy in public government is an important debate. Some would see the need for more, others less. Some would say that is the realm of the private sector only. But Rand sees no need for mercy at all.
What to do with Atlas Shrugged? Read it for a good critique of the lazy, stifling, self-destructive nature of socialism. But avoid the enthronement of selfishness and the sinful nature. There is a better approach to life and to economic justice.