Good News to the Poor (#9) — Ayn Rand’s Sleight of Hand

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I can hear you shouting at me now–“the abusive use of government for the sake of big business is not capitalism!” (OK so you don’t actually talk that way, but that is what you are saying.) Ayn Rand and her ilk would be appalled at such a use of government power to favor one business over another. What she fails to see is that her confidence in “capitalism” is misplaced on this point. It lacks the philosophical basis for stopping such things from happening.

Capitalism, Rand’s capitalism, as an ideology firmly rooted in the writings of Adam Smith tells us that personal “greed” can produce the best ends  for the most people (even though such ends are nothing to concern us as self-interested people). Total self-interest supposedly governs wisely and produces what is best. Chesterton deserves quoting again: “It was the mystical dogma of Bentham and Adam Smith and the rest, that some of the worst of human passions would turn out to be all for the best. It was the mysterious doctrine that selfishness would do the work of unselfishness.”

What most people fail to see is that Rand subjects self-interest to the vigilant oversight of what she calls “justice.” Of course since she has no higher authority than the self, this is little more than what she thinks is right,  and of course if we were all as smart as her we would agree with what she thinks is “just.” That is the sleight of hand that leads to capitalistic despotism.

There is no way to decide which self determines what is just and fair. Rand rejects all higher authority and then tells us we must do what is just in relation to each other.  We end up with some of the same problems we had with socialism.

Who determines what is just? Who says what is fair? I can’t steal your goods, but how do we define stealing? If I am smart enough to destroy you financially and it is in my self-interest to do so, on what basis is that financial destruction of a competitor just and  legal or illegal and wrong?

Capitalism, even in light of Rand’s idea of justice cannot answer such questions except with despotic power. In the end someone’s self-interest must govern–even if it is the interest of a group.

That is why China can embrace capitalistic business practices and remain as corrupt as ever. In efforts to address corruption in China’s capitalistic efforts, one of China’s top economists has argued that it is religion–the role of the churches specifically–that maintains order and keeps corruption and abuse at bay in the American market economy, not simply capitalism left to itself. But I digress.

In the end we see that socialism underestimates the depravity that is greed in the heart of man; capitalism overestimates the positive potential of greed in the acts of men. Still, in relation to eternity there is something far more sinister in socialism and its effects on the poor which I will address next time.

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13 thoughts on “Good News to the Poor (#9) — Ayn Rand’s Sleight of Hand

  1. Who says what is fair? I can’t steal your goods, but how do we define stealing?

    That was actually Rand’s roundabout justification for government, to define property rights and place the use of force under objective control. Her philosophy has a hierarchical structure in which politics stems from ethics, which itself stems from metaphysics. So the ultimate authority, she would argue, would be reality, which is objectively knowable, she argued.

    • I understand that. I give a quick gloss without much specific explanation on that point because I am writing this primarily for Christians who are endorsing Rand. I know I am painting with a broad brush. However, you are in some ways making my point more clear–there is a hierarchical structure for Rand, but when we get down to it the basis of “reality” is her opinion. The teachings of Jesus are in her eyes idiotic and evil. They are for me the very substance and source of reality.

      And what happens when such core understandings come into conflict? Self interest and human ego are dangerous arbiters of such differences in basic understanding of reality. Her overarching “philosphy” really is little more than the insistence upon her opinions. That is at least intellectual despotism and could play out in other times and places as actualized despotism. May I suggest an article by David Bentley Hart? His description of Objectivism is excellent (I’ll include part here):

      “And, really, what can one say about Objectivism? It isn’t so much a philosophy as what someone who has never actually encountered philosophy imagines a philosophy might look like: good hard axiomatic absolutes, a bluff attitude of intellectual superiority, lots of simple atomic premises supposedly immune to doubt, immense and inflexible conclusions, and plenty of assertions about what is “rational” or “objective” or “real.” Oh, and of course an imposing brand name ending with an “-ism.” Rand was so eerily ignorant of all the interesting problems of ontology, epistemology, or logic that she believed she could construct an irrefutable system around a collection of simple maxims like “existence is identity” and “consciousness is identification,” all gathered from the damp fenlands between vacuous tautology and catastrophic category error. She was simply unaware that there were any genuine philosophical problems that could not be summarily solved by flatly proclaiming that this is objectivity, this is rational, this is scientific, in the peremptory tones of an Obersturmführer drilling his commandoes.”

      The entire article is here: It is well worth the read. As is this one: It addresses more specifically the Christian objections to Objectivism.

      • I was hoping you could explain again why you think that Rand thought her judgements determined reality, if that is what you are saying? I don’t get that from my reading of her work. Can you point to a specific piece of evidence in her writings or elsewhere?

        I appreciate the links you provided, which I have read before, but I think those are off the topic that I had addressed.

      • I don’t think Rand held a conscious opinion that her judgements determined reality. In fact she would deny that. Simply put I think she is too shallow to see how wrong she is. My point is that the very nature of a rationalistic egoism (which is her stated belief), which is little more that a “rationalistic” metaphysical materialism, reduces reality to one’s own opinion. There is no higher standard.

        She says reality is an absolute. OK, on what basis do we recognize that absolute? Why by the use f our reason of course. As she says at one point we just need to “look strait” and stop sitting around and walk forward. Is it not clear how meaningless and pltitudenous such a statement is. Basically her view boils down to the idea that reality is what she understands it to be. A Rational person will agree with reality. To disagree with reality is irrational and weak and probably makes you an evil person. Since she is rational and agrees with reality, disagreement with her is irrational. It is not an argument unless something of a circular one. She would never lay it out that way, but that is how it seems to work in her life.

        The outcome is a sort of personal despotism. Reality is the absolute. She has used her excellent reason and seen reality. Therefore to disagree with her is to denounce reality. For instance, How is it that an intelligent man like Mr. Buckley could believe in God? The implication is that intelligent people like herself are reasonable and recognize the reality that the only God is self interest and anything else called God is non-existent. But that idea is neither self evident (which is how she seems to view so much of “reality” so called) nor rationally proven. When I say it leads to personal despotism, look at how she treated Buckley for publishing a negative boof review of Atlas Shrugged in the weekly standard.

        By way of further example, and I hope this helps, is the fact noted by so many that much of what she says is simply moral platitude with no real rationale behind it. She says it is rational, but much of what she says is not supportable by logic or experiment–it is simply her view passed off as rational fact.

        Take for instance: “If they place such things as friendship and family ties above their own productive work, yes, then they are immoral. Friendship, family life and human relationships are not primary in a man’s life. A man who places others first, above his own creative work, is an emotional parasite; whereas, if he places his work first, there is no conflict between his work and his enjoyment of human relationships.”

        There is no logical or reasonable basis for this view. It is her opinion and little more. I would argue the exact opposite. Relationship to God and fellow man is primary. Proper commitment and excellence in work is part of that relationship but must be subjected to the relationships as a whole.

      • My point is that the very nature of a rationalistic egoism (which is her stated belief), which is little more that a “rationalistic” metaphysical materialism, reduces reality to one’s own opinion.

        That’s an interesting take, since she explicitly rejected materialists, calling them the “mystics of muscle.” I take it that you also disagree with Rand’s objection to materialism.

        Could you please provide a link that explains why metaphysical materialism “reduces reality to one’s own opinion”? I’ve not heard it expressed like that before.

      • Note first that I said her rationalistic egoism is “little more than.” I did not equate them, I just happen to find them very similar when all is said and done. I know she claims to reject materialism. However her objectivism really only rises one step above the weaknesses of materialism (what is probably more acurately termed naturalism–forgive my lack of philosophical precision, I am simply blogging about the problems of Christians embracing Rand not working on my disertation). Check out C. S. Lewis the “Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism.” It is an interesting read.

        And if we are to focus on precisely what I said, it is rationalistic egoism that I am saying reduces reality to one’s own opinion which I attempted to show how in my previous response. Is there some part of that response that wasn’t clear? I could try and explain further.

        As for the comparison to materialism, I don’t care to venture far on that tangent. In the end materialism (or naturalism) has little grounds for trusting rational thought. From where comes this thing called mind? How is a bunch of grey matter able to reason? Of course the problem is not learning by experience but complex reasoning such as mathematical principles. Rand is at least correct to call materialists “mystics of muscle.” Objectivism accepts rationality, but offers little to explain it. There again, for all her hatred of “dogmatism” she is rather dogmatic. (As a side note, I have no special aversion to dogma as such, the problem is she rants at people of faith for dogmatism and then provides little besides her own dogmas.)

      • What distinguishes Rand’s philosophy is that she rejects the notion that the universe is ultimately composed of one kind of existence. That is why she is classified as a naturalist (not in the sense that Lewis used the term), as she accepts that reality is composed of both matter and consciousness, not just one or the other, making her neither a materialist nor an idealist.

        Objectivism accepts rationality, but offers little to explain it.

        You mean, reason?

        Really? More than a third of “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand” is dedicated to validating reason. You may not accept that Objectivists have actually validated reason, but it seems that anyone who wants to understand the Objectivist explanation of reason has ample opportunity.

      • So, we are way off my original point and I’d rather not go much further. Please note a few things.

        (1) I did not start out to debunk the whole of objectivism–my primary point was that it forms the basis of Rand’s Capitalism and really that Rand is in opposition to Christianity and while a relatively free market is a god tool and consistent with Chritianity ( a point I plan to make in an upcoming blog in this series) Capitalism cannot be a governing ideology for Christians any more than socialism can.

        (2) That being the case she does not need to be the hero or opinion former of Christians (it’s a free country if someone wants to be an objectivist more power to them, but don’t think you can be both),

        (3) I think objectivism is weak for the reasons I’ve mentioned here, most of which you have yet to substantively answer. There is an old rule of writing “show don’t tell,” you’ve done a good bit of telling me but no showing to speak of, nor have you really responded to my primary points or examples–we keep going further and further into minor passing statements. So what are some of those clear point validating reason. Everywhere I look I find more and more statements like:
        “Reason is man’s only means of grasping reality and of acquiring knowledge—and, therefore, the rejection of reason means that men should act regardless of and/or in contradiction to the facts of reality.” How can you possibly back that up? Do you definitively know all of reality to say there is no other means–no spiritual means of knowing that transcends reason. Its a platitude, not an argument. Or
        “The senses, concepts, logic: these are the elements of man’s rational faculty—its start, its form, its method. In essence, “follow reason” means: base knowledge on observation; form concepts according to the actual (measurable) relationships among concretes; use concepts according to the rules of logic (ultimately, the Law of Identity). Since each of these elements is based on the facts of reality, the conclusions reached by a process of reason are objective.” I’m sorry but the idea that follow reason being based on “observation” and “realationships among concretes” sounds rather materialistic whatever else she may say about it.

        (4) I’ll admit to not bing an expert on objectivism. I don’t think I’ve claimed to be one and have, almost without fail I think, referred to ideas as “Rand’s Objectivism” or “Rand’s
        Capitalism” and not tried to speak for all under those labels. NO I haven’t read everything she’s said, but a good number of interviews as well as excerpts from her works presented as key statements by her supporters. I actually aproached Rand expecting to like her because someone I respect suggested it. I was blown away with how completely anti-Christ her views were. At that point I looked into other reviews and discussions from other sources I respect and found that they saw the problems I saw (even after reading much more of her work than I have).

        Such being the case I’d be glad to read whatever you think is the most complete but concise (I have a wife and four kids, church, and two jobs) summation of Rand’s writings that “validate reason.” What objectivists have said since Rand are not part of my discussion in the blog and I really have no desire to become and expert on objectivism. What writing from Ayn Rand specifically addresses my criticism?

  2. So what are some of those clear point validating reason.

    Rand’s attempt to validate reason rests on three premises: that the senses are valid, that concepts are valid, and that logic is valid. I am not sure what, or if any, of those premises you would challenge. The best approach would be to read “Introduction of Objectivist Epistemology,” but you can also try your hand at the Stanford Encyclopedia entry about Rand.

    • I would’t challenge those premises. What I challenge is that Spiritual/religious life is somehow invalid, that those three premis are the total of reality, that faith is invalid and many other things. Also the fact that I still find her to be very dogmatic for one who speaks so derogatively of “Dogma” in religious people. Finally, reading the full stanford piece (in parts, may be a while before I have a full discussion). Do you honestly hold that (while my wording may be a bit imprecise) I was really that far off the mark in saying she promoted “little more than a rationalistic metaphysical materalism” from this statement in the stanford article: “In this sense Rand counts as a kind of empiricist; but she rejects the traditional rationalist/empiricist dichotomy.”

      Anyway, more later.

      • Do you honestly hold that (while my wording may be a bit imprecise) I was really that far off the mark in saying she promoted “little more than a rationalistic metaphysical materalism” from this statement in the stanford article: “In this sense Rand counts as a kind of empiricist; but she rejects the traditional rationalist/empiricist dichotomy.”

        So now my honesty is being questioned because you don’t understand that empiricism concerns epistemology and not metaphysics?

        One final point, reason is the only faculty of knowledge that provides for independent access to observation data (through our senses), and it is the only volitional faculty of knowledge, meaning it permits one to monitor that faculty’s relationship to facts (in order to remain objective). Because feelings, intuition, revelation, and the like are not independently linked to observation data, a person accepts or rejects a belief based on feeling, intuition or revelation because he or she feels like it. Such a person’s ultimate source of knowledge is emotion, not facts. While reason is based on perception, an emotion is an automatic response to that perception, so emotion is not volitional and therefore cannot check itself against reality.

      • Sorry to have offended you. You mistake my meaning–though I suspect it is no mistake but a continuation of what you’ve done the entire conversation which is pick out one line and try to twist my whole statement around it to create straw men you can beat up on. To say, “do you honestly hold that…” is like saying “really,” “seriously,” “are you kidding,” etc. It is a surprise at your inability or unwillingness to try to see the similarity between what I said and the link you sent me to. It is not a “questioning of your honesty.”

        Your statement about faith, feeling, intuition, and reason reveals a total ignorance of what faith and intuition are. But I suspect you have no desire to understand them. All you have offered is another platitude of what “reason is.”

        Reason is useful. Reason is a gift from God. But reason is also fragile. We are so capable of error in perception. Our minds can snap in an instant. Their is so much we simply do not know.
        Furthermore our reason is quite corruptible morally; we rationalize well.

        Faith is not equivelent to feeling nor is it opposed to reason. I often act one faith totally contrary to everything I feel. The life of faith uses reason but is not limited by it. It recognizes the gift of emotion but is not governed by it.

        The Christian faith is not simply how I feel or what is comfortable. It is based on historical events, yes even the miraculous. (There is nothing unreasonable about a belief in God nor the belief in miracles given God. There is something very arrogant to say you know there is no God, for such a statement would require godlike knowledge.) Christian history is reasonable and reliable. Furthermore I have witnessed real miracles in my own life–physical, tangible miracles–in the following of the Christian faith.

        Objectivism, as I see it, is rightly labeled egoism. The objectivist world is self centered and therefore horribly small. Since there seems to be a deadlock here in our conversation and you seem to have no interest in reading what I say or contesting the content as a whole, but rather only in nit-picking at side points and passing turns of phrase, I think I will stop here with but one last quotation–though out of context it applies well to Rand:

        “You are a sad, strange little [wo]man, and you have my pity.” Buzz Lightyear

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