Tag Archives: Ayn Rand

The Bible And Ayn Rand

A few days ago, a commenter asked me to write something about Ayn Rand. Since I have opinions about lots of things (I know, you’ve noticed!) let me begin by suggesting that a lot of her “fans” haven’t really read her books, and those who have, read them rather selectively.

We used to call it “cherry picking.” Researchers now have a more scientific term: “Confirmation bias.” We tend to accept at face value information that is consistent with what we already believe, and to disregard more “inconvenient” facts.

We all do it, although most intellectually honest folks try not to. And that brings me to my favorite story about Ayn Rand and the Bible.

Several years ago, I was working with a colleague who had a contract with the State of Indiana to do some research; I no longer recall what it was about. (My participation was minor.) He came into my office after meeting with the head of the agency for whom he was doing the research, and he was practically doubled-over laughing: the agency head was an outspoken Republican conservative (this is Indiana, after all) and a proud devotee of Ayn Rand.

It seemed he’d given copies of Atlas Shrugged and the Bible to everyone on his middle-management staff, and told them they were the most important two books they’d ever read.

Ayn Rand, of course, was a strident atheist. It is impossible to read any of her books–and I’ve read all of them–without being hit over the head (over and over and over)by her absolutely un-biblical worldview. Her philosophy is the utter antithesis of the Sermon on the Mount, in particular.

I read Rand’s books when I was in college, and I am continually amused by the self-proclaimed Christians who claim to have been profoundly influenced by her writing. Assuming they really read her books, they must read them the same way they read their bibles: very selectively.

Both critics and fans of Ayn Rand read her without context. She had escaped at a young age from a grim, totalitarian communist society in which the collective took precedence over the individual, and she was (over) reacting to that experience.

That over-reaction wasn’t unusual. Most ideologues I’ve known have had a desperate need for bright lines–this is bad, so its opposite is good. Good guys versus evil-doers. No shades of gray, no ambiguities. Their need for clarity, for an open-and-shut, prescriptive philosophy is so strong that when they recognize that a belief system they’ve embraced is flawed in some way, they will frequently shift to its opposite, and cling to that philosophy just as fervently. (Ex-communists helped launch National Review, and Ronald Reagan started out as a New Deal Democrat.)

If you have a need for clarity, Rand will supply it. (The Bible won’t, despite the protestations of the culture warriors.)  And that brings us back to cherry picking.

The Christian conservatives devoted to Ayn Rand–the folks who drove around with “I am John Galt” bumper stickers, who equate taxation with theft and call people who depend upon the social safety net “looters”– somehow manage to miss the militant atheism as they read her books.

They read their bibles through a similarly selective lens. They are quick to quote Leviticus (“If a man lay with another man”) but somehow miss the far more numerous exhortations about helping the poor, the widow and the orphan. You’ll rarely hear them quote the bit about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

I think it was Simon and Garfunkel who wrote: “a man hears what he wants to hear,
and disregards the rest.”

Next time someone cites Ayn Rand to you, ask him (it’s likely to be a “he”) if he agrees that religion is a sop for weaklings, and there is no God. If that shocks him, you’ll know that Rand isn’t responsible for his worldview–she’s just a prop.

I Don’t Know What This Is, But It Sure Isn’t Capitalism…

A number of media outlets have recently reported that Foxcomm, a company usually referred to as a “Taiwanese giant,” will open a plant in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin. As the Guardian prefaced its article,

The announcement by the Taiwanese giant Foxconn that it will build an LCD-manufacturing facility in Wisconsin worth an estimated $10bn was met with considerable fanfare.

But the state has a troubled history in matters of economic development, and the company, a supplier to Apple, Google, Amazon and other tech giants, has a lackluster record when it comes to fulfilling its promises. The news should raise red flags.

In a way, it is a transaction that barely merits publicity; for as long as I can remember, states and municipalities have been trying to entice “job creators” to their areas by offering bigger and better incentives: tax abatements, infrastructure improvements, job training “grants”–all manner of goodies funded out of our tax dollars.

The deal, backers say, will create 13,000 jobs in six years – in return for a reported $3bn in state subsidies. Only 3,000 of those jobs will come immediately. Furthermore, the Washington Post has reported that Foxconn has a track record of breaking such job-creation promises. In 2013, the company announced plans to hire 500 people and invest $30m in Pennsylvania. The plan fizzled out.

Walker and Paul Ryan aren’t the only politicians taking credit for this deal; the White House immediately weighed in, with President Trump reportedly saying, with his characteristic modesty and eloquence: “If I didn’t get elected, [Foxconn] definitely would not be spending $10bn.”

Jennifer Shilling, a Democratic Wisconsin state senator, is one of those who have criticised the deal, noting that the company “has a concerning track record of big announcements with little follow through,” and questioning the legislative appetite for a $1bn-to-$3bn corporate welfare package. Of course, Wisconsin’s legislature is controlled by Republicans who won’t need bipartisan support to pass the enormous subsidies.

The Guardian noted the patchy performance of Foxcomm elsewhere–Foxconn investments in Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Brazil failed to live up to the hype, despite written agreements–and also referred to the less-than-impressive performance of Wisconsin’s previous economic development efforts.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) is a participant in the Foxconn deal. During Walker’s brief presidential run, it was dogged by questions over failed loans. Businessman and Republican donor Ron Van Den Heuvel was indicted for fraudulently borrowing $700,000 from a local bank. Months after WEDC was created in 2011 the agency, then led by Walker, lent him more than $1.2m, without performing a background check.

Likewise, the state’s manufacturing and agriculture tax credit has been widely criticized as a simple refund for millionaires, according to the Wisconsin Budget Project (WBP) nearly “wiping out income taxes for manufacturers and agricultural producers”.

What the Guardian and other outlets failed to address was the absolute absurdity of these sorts of “job creation” efforts. The use of tax revenues to lure large, profitable corporations to one’s city or state may or may not be immoral (I vote for immoral), but the practice is hardly consistent with genuine capitalism and free enterprise, which require that entrepreneurial activities take place on a level playing field.

Criticisms of these sorts of economic development agreements tend to focus on whether the state or city has made a “good deal.” (Evidently, Wisconsin has not.) But that is almost beside the point. The local factory or other home-grown enterprise that prospers enough to hire new workers doesn’t receive these perks; meanwhile, new, sometimes competitive enterprises are being lured to their state with their tax dollars.

This is corporatism, not capitalism. Paul Ryan and Scott Walker are said to be fans of Ayn Rand, but I’ve read Atlas Shrugged. Rand was a capitalism fundamentalist, and would have been disgusted by this deal; she would have labeled the beneficiaries “looters.”

And she’d have been right about that.




The Looters Have Arrived

Wednesday, I posted about the “partnership” approach Trump proposes to take to infrastructure repair.

Paul Krugman had a recent description of that plan, which he concludes is not about public investment, but about ripping off taxpayers.

Trumpists are touting the idea of a big infrastructure build, and some Democrats are making conciliatory noises about working with the new regime on that front. But remember who you’re dealing with: if you invest anything with this guy, be it money or reputation, you are at great risk of being scammed.

So, what do we know about the Trump infrastructure plan, such as it is? Crucially, it’s not a plan to borrow $1 trillion and spend it on much-needed projects — which would be the straightforward, obvious thing to do. It is, instead, supposed to involve having private investors do the work both of raising money and building the projects — with the aid of a huge tax credit that gives them back 82 percent of the equity they put in. To compensate for the small sliver of additional equity and the interest on their borrowing, the private investors then have to somehow make profits on the assets they end up owning.

The description of this rip-off reminded me rather forcefully of the “looters” described by Ayn Rand in  Atlas Shrugged.

I have frequently been bemused by the actions of politicians and others who claim to have been influenced by Rand’s philosophy (and who all seem to see themselves as one of her protagonists. Remember those “I am John Galt” bumper stickers?) I particularly recall an Indiana agency head during the Daniels administration who made all his employees read the “two most important books”–Atlas Shrugged and–wait for it– the bible.

Rand, of course, was a very outspoken atheist who insisted that her philosophy was an explicit rejection–and antithesis– of Christianity.

Then we have Paul Ryan, another Rand fan, who is intent upon keeping Americans from becoming dependent on such “giveaways” as health care (and who was able to go to college after his father’s death thanks to Social Security).  I wonder if he will see the parallels between an infrastructure scheme that will enrich crony capitalists and Rand’s withering description of the morally indefensible “looters” who used government to enrich themselves at the expense of the truly productive  (Rand’s version of the “makers and takers” worldview).

Ayn Rand had an excuse for her extreme worldview; she was a product of  Soviet collectivism, and saw first-hand the danger that such a system posed to human diversity and individual excellence. What she failed to see was the equivalent danger posed by a society that defines success solely as the attainment of wealth, however acquired, and encourages contempt rather than compassion for the weak and powerless.

The latter society is the one that produced Donald Trump, who is already promising to be looter-in-chief.

Have You Really Read That Book?

It has a name: confirmation bias. It’s the process of sifting through authorities or evidence to find the nuggets that confirm our beliefs, and ignoring those that don’t.

As we watch the food fight that is our political discourse, I often have to resist the temptation to interrupt this or that pontificator and ask: have you really read that book you are citing?

Mostly, this impulse arises in connection with Ayn Rand. I’ve read pretty much everything she wrote, and I find it absolutely amazing when self-identified “bible-believing” Christians threaten to “go Galt” or parrot something else from Rand–and then more often than not, follow it up with a biblical quote. Rand, of course, was a committed and full-throated atheist, and she wasn’t shy about her contempt for religious folks.

Then there are the economic libertarians who quote Hayek when they oppose government social programs. Hayek was anything but consistent, but in The Road to Serfdom, he devoted several paragraphs (page 148 for those who are interested) to defense of a social safety net, arguing that “There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained” a minimum income shouldn’t be guaranteed “without endangering general freedom.”

There are plenty of other examples, but far and away the most selectively read texts are the bible and the Constitution. If you listen to Conservative and Liberal Christians quoting the bible, you would swear they are looking at completely different books.

What’s that line from Simon and Garfunkel? “Man sees what he wants to see, and disregards the rest.”

We all do that to a greater or lesser extent. But education–not to mention intellectual honesty– requires reading, not culling, with an appropriate recognition of the importance of context, and a fair consideration of points with which we disagree.

When we go “cherry-picking,” we miss the other fruit.



Holy Books

When I was in college, I read everything Ayn Rand wrote–and was immensely influenced by it.

The Cold War was still a reality, and Soviet communism was a genuine menace, ideologically and geopolitically. Rand’s books were a corrective (okay, an over-corrective) to the notion that the individual should live for the state, and her lack of balance was understandable coming as it did from someone who had escaped the Soviet Union when she was still a teenager.

Over the years, Rand’s books and philosophy took their place as one aspect of my own broader exploration of political philosophy. I still think they are a useful expression of  radical libertarianism, even though the demise of the Soviet Union and communism have made her work seem increasingly dated and shrill.

People can agree or disagree with Rand’s philosophy, but what has bemused me is the appropriation of bits and pieces of her writing in ways that I think would probably infuriate her. Case in point: the head of a state agency who told a colleague of mine that he required his employees to read two books for inspiration: Atlas Shrugged and the Bible. Ayn Rand, a committed atheist who considered religion a weakness, would have been appalled.

I also had to laugh at the rash of bumper stickers and letters to the editor a few years ago from people self-identifying with Rand’s hero, John Galt. Virtually all of them were arguing for government policies that would benefit businesses–tax breaks, subsidies, regulatory changes and the like. Most of their arguments echoed those of Rand’s villain, James Taggart–the sniveling parasite who embodied the corporate behaviors of which Rand disapproved–rather than the ideology of her (very unrealistic) protagonist.

As the current political season heats up, we are once again seeing references to Rand–Eric Cantor, the architect of the GOP budget is said to be deeply influenced by her philosophy, and left-wing bloggers mutter darkly about her evil and pervasive influence–and I can’t help seeing parallels between the way people read Rand’s books and the way they read the bible or the Koran or the Constitution–which is to say, very selectively.

Homophobes point to three or four passages in the Christian bible to justify marginalization of gays. Anti-Muslim bigots point to isolated passages of the Koran to paint all of Islam with a broad, terrorist brush. People who don’t like the implications of government’s obligation to treat citizens equally and their belief systems neutrally use isolated provisions to justify revisionist interpretations. Those on the other side of the philosophical fence respond with their own cherry-picking.

Ayn Rand, like those who wrote our Constitution and other “holy books,” was a product of a particular time and place. In her case, she was reacting against a repressive, totalitarian regime. She really can’t be faulted for failing to recognize the threat posed by a radical individualism that didn’t exist in her world, just as Karl Marx can’t be faulted for failing to recognize the dangers of the communist revolution he was promoting.

Ideally, we should all read widely–Rand and Marx, bible and Koran. But if we can’t read widely, at least we should read carefully.

I think about that every time I encounter a “bible-believing” Christian who identifies with Ayn Rand.