Right, the headline I asked for was simply "Rand-y Republicans." That would have been plenty. My editor had other ideas.
In the meantime, Saturday's column
‘Me the People’
Conservatives follow Rand road map and threaten Constitution and Christian ethics
I was going to vote against Ron Johnson simply because he’s just another millionaire tycoon who wants my money, but he tipped his hand during the Oct, 11 “debate” with Sen. Feingold. Now I have an even better reason to vote against him: he’s a follower of Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand, author and celebrity, is showing up all over the conservative universe these days. Earlier this year Paul Ryan confirmed that she was a major component in the development of his political understanding and, everywhere you look, her theories promoting overthe-top radical individualism are popping up like magic mushrooms.
Personally, I loved Ayn Rand when I was 14. She appeals to everything a 14-year-old loves: 1) an obsession with individualism and personal liberty and 2) the attending conviction that your interests are infinitely more important than anyone else’s. If I thought I deserved my own car at 14 and my parents said “no,” well, that was a problem with my parents, not with me. They were clearly acting irrationally. That year, my freshman year in high school, I read “Anthem” and “Atlas Shrugged” and every word rang true – because I was 14.
But Rand quickly fell away into the pile of other early adolescent discards, soon to be replaced by cars and girls and more adult reading like C.S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, and JRR Tolkien. During my confirmation year in church I also had my first exposure to real philosophical thinking in the works of Kierkegaard and Martin Buber.
Rand’s books sat next to my well-thumbed, and discarded, copy of “Catcher in the Rye.” Once her “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology” was published (in 1979, the year I went off to graduate school), and I was old enough not to be impressed by her inflated and kitschy jargon, she’d proven beyond any doubt that while her work was adequate as literature, it is useless – in fact, toxic and amoral – as political or economic theory.
Professional philosophers don’t spend any time on Rand’s work because it’s simply not coherent enough to be considered worth the trouble. Even in discussions of ethical egoism – an ethical theory more appropriate to whining children than adults – we don’t waste our students’ time with more than about two minutes of the stuff: just long enough to point out it’s glaring inadequacy. Here it is: Rand splits the universe of ethics into two, irreconcilable, sides.
The first is her preferred worldview, one in which the world is thought to be better off when everyone follows only their own self-interest. The second is what she calls the “ethics of altruism” and contains everything else. Any ethics not grounded in selfinterest is consigned to the “ethics of altruism” bin.
For Rand, altruism is considered self-destructive because altruism asks individuals to act in the interests of others. For Rand this is no different than asking someone to sacrifice themselves and, since no rational person can be expected to sacrifice themselves, anyone who supports the ethics of altruism expects others to make sacrifices for them. Altruism, therefore, makes you a parasite or a freeloader. Or crazy.
Whenever you hear someone say “I shouldn’t have to pay taxes to support someone else!” you’re hearing Rand. You can see how this would be particularly attractive to free-market economics, which rests on a kind of divine command to be self-interested and the belief that “Greed is good” rather than a sin.
Speaking of which, you’ll notice that the ethics of altruism includes Christian ethics – and the divine command to look after those less fortunate than you are – or, to make this even more obvious, consider parenting. No parent can possibly believe their self-interest is more important than the interests of their child. Or consider the soldier who throws him- or herself on a grenade to save their buddies. Such an action is, as the list of Medal of Honor recipients makes clear, the most compellingly heroic and altruistic act possible. But for Rand, altruism – looking out for others – is always misguided.
See the red lights flashing?
But we don’t have to chase this pig this far. Rand’s universe is built on the sand of a false alternative. Complete and debilitating self-sacrifice isn’t the only alternative to raw self-interest. It turns out that you can look after your self-interest AND still be willing to make sacrifices for your children, your neighbors or your country.
There, that took less than two minutes.
Ron Johnson’s favorite author promotes an extremist libertarianism that is, nonetheless, popular and attractive – and for all the reasons a worldview is always attractive to 14-year-olds – because it tells them they’re the most important thing in the universe and that their concerns are the only things that matter. Under this worldview, you have responsibilities only to yourself.
I don’t want someone like that in power. Greed and selfishness do not make for good economics or good civic life. Rand’s theories and the commitment of her followers, like plastics tycoon Ron Johnson, are set to turn “We the People” into “Me the People.” That’s not a country anyone over 14 should have to live in.
Many thanks to my colleague Evan Kreider for the 2 fruitful minutes he spent (in a class I visited last week) reviewing the fallacies churning away like irritable scorpions in the sand beneath Rand's worldview.
And so it goes.