Is Ayn Rand the Secular Saint of Selfishness? (Is the Pope Catholic?)
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun May 22, 2011 at 04:54:13 PM EST
Catholic Right activist Deal Hudson features an article on the web site of his new venture  Catholic Advocate -- which presents House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-WI) budget proposal as a model of Catholic economic thought.

But if Catholicity is the standard, Hudson has a tough sell -- since Ryan is a huge fan of Ayn Rand's philosophy of selfishness as virtue.

In a recent essay for the Roosevelt Institute, I explored Ryan's affinity for Rand's philosophy of "Objectivism."  In it, I cited Ryan's 2009 Facebook posting in which he equates Rand's morality with freedom and individualism, and effusively  praises the secular saint of selfishness.  I wrote:

He boldly declared, "And a lot of people would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel -- and metaphorically speaking."  He elaborated, "But more to the point is this: The issue that is under assault, the attack on democratic capitalism, on individualism and freedom in America is an attack on the moral foundation of America."

In that video, the Wisconsin congressman went on to proclaim:

And Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism.  And this to me is what matters the most: it is not enough to say that President Obama's taxes are too big or that the health care plan does not work, or this or that policy reason.  It is the morality of what is occurring right now; and how it offends the morality of individuals working for their own free will to produce, to achieve, to succeed that is under attack.

As I then noted of Ryan's lessons drawn from reading Rand, altruism deters excellence; and only selfishness breeds true success.

Yet Congressman Ryan's plan is truly "The Path to Prosperity" -- that is, if you already have substantial wealth.  Asking no sacrifice of upper income earners, it lowers the top federal tax rate from 35% to 25%.  But the rest of us watch Social Security go from being a secure old-age insurance plan to being a Wall Street crap shoot while Medicare gets eviscerated by replacing direct payments with an ineffective voucher program topping off at $15,000. Newt Gingrich was spot-on when he described the Ryan plan as "right-wing social engineering."

In Atlas Shrugged Rand ridicules government assistance, casting it in the worst light possible.  Any character who is not "a producer" is treated as either a "parasite" or "a moocher."  Rand portrays as villains starving European states, that in the book are being fed with aid that has been stolen from Americans through taxation.  In fact, one of the books heroes, Ragnar Danneskjöld, is something of a pirate who attacks and destroys European-bound food convoys.  He speaks of wanting to destroy the legacy of Robin Hood because, "He was the man who robbed the rich and gave to the poor."  He then describes himself as "... the man who robs the poor and gives to the rich -- or, to be exact, the man who robs the thieving poor and gives back to the productive rich."

Rand's characters thump their chests and say that they 'only want to make money' -- but they have little to say about how they treat their employees, or wages and working conditions.  Rand's protagonists also do not consider the collateral effects of their economic activities such as pollution or monopoly due to unethical business practices.   This is a major difference between Randism and anything remotely like Catholic economic thought.

But such things clearly do not trouble Quin Hillyer, a Senior Editor at the The American Spectator and author of the Catholic Advocate essay about the Catholicity of the Ryan budget plan.  Indeed, Hillyer grossly misrepresents Catholic social teaching -- especially in explaining the principle of subsidiarity (more on that below).  To accomplish this, Hillyer selectively quotes from Centesimus Annus literally meaning "one hundredth year;" referring to the anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the landmark papal encyclical on Catholic economics.

In Centesimus Annus, PJPII [Pope John Paul II] wrote that an uncontrolled Welfare State "leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending."

But Hillyer distorts John Paul II's message by omitting such important points as:

A workman's wages should be sufficient to enable him to support himself, his wife and his children.  "If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice".

Would that these words, written at a time when what has been called "unbridled capitalism" was pressing forward, should not have to be repeated today with the same severity.  Unfortunately, even today one finds instances of contracts between employers and employees which lack reference to the most elementary justice regarding the employment of children or women, working hours, the hygienic condition of the work-place and fair pay; and this is the case despite the International Declarations and Conventions on the subject and the internal laws of States.  The Pope attributed to the "public authority" the "strict duty" of providing properly for the welfare of the workers, because a failure to do so violates justice; indeed, he did not hesitate to speak of "distributive justice".

Hillyer also deviates sharply from the unambiguous meaning of the encyclical:

"When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the defenseless and the poor have a claim to special consideration.  The richer class has many ways of shielding itself, and stands less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back on, and must chiefly depend on the assistance of the State.  It is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong to the latter class, should be specially cared for and protected by the Government"

John Paul II also discusses whether capitalism should be the path taken by the Eastern European countries that threw-off Soviet domination in the 1990s.

If by "capitalism" [it] is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a "business economy," "market economy" or simply "free economy."  But if by "capitalism" [it] is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

Hudson has previously dissembled on the concept of subsidiarity -- the idea that aid should be provided by the most local of governmental agencies possible.  Thus it is no surprise to see him feature Hillyer's piece.

But Hillyer has to reach into obscurity to find a seemingly authoritative Catholic root for Ryan's plan.  He cites an 1883 Catechism pronouncement, "Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative."   However, doing this requires him to ignore Pope Leo XIII's admonition in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum:

"Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers, or it is threatened with evils which can in no other way be met, the public authority must step in to meet them.'"

As well as:

The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error. True, if a family finds itself in exceeding distress, utterly deprived of the counsel of friends, and without any prospect of extricating itself, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid, since each family is a part of the commonwealth. In like manner, if within the precincts of the household there occur grave disturbance of mutual rights, public authority should intervene to force each party to yield to the other its proper due; for this is not to deprive citizens of their rights, but justly and properly to safeguard and strengthen them.

In grounding his argument in an 1883 catechism, Hillyer ignores the entire modern history of Catholic economic thought.  For example, in 1919, the American bishops issued their program for social reconstruction that recognized the critical role government is required to play to bring about true reform for the less powerful. Therein, they called for the federal government to provide retirement insurance (an idea that would evolve into what we now call Social Security), public housing for the working class and some early ideas about municipal health care.  Beyond that, there is a necessary role for a sturdy national government in protecting institutions of the common good.

While subsidiarity calls for the most local response possible, it does not -- as Hudson and Hillyer insinuate -- rule out responses by higher levels of government when that is the most effective means possible.

In our recent essay, (The Randian Fault That Could Shake Conservatism), Frederick Clarkson and I discussed how Rand's philosophy of Objectivism -- which celebrates selfishness as a virtue; declares religious faith to be incompatible with reason; and altruism -- including self-sacrifice - to be a vice.  As we then noted, such a view is very far from the vision of most conservative Christians and suggests a deep fault line just below the normal fractiousness of the active factions of conservatism.  After all, how can any Christian justify "morality" such as this:

"According to the Christian mythology, [Christ] died on the cross not for his own sins but for the sins of the non-ideal people. In other words, a man of perfect virtue was sacrificed for men who are vicious and who are expected or supposed to accept that sacrifice.  If I were a Christian, nothing could make me more indignant than that: the notion of sacrificing the ideal to the non-ideal, or virtue to vice.  And it is in the name of that symbol that men are asked to sacrifice themselves for their inferiors. That is precisely how the symbolism is used.  That is torture."

"If I were a Christian, nothing could make me more indignant than that..." said Rand in that 1964 interview. This should give pause to anyone who claims to be a follower of both Rand and Christ -- certainly someone such as Rep. Paul Ryan.

This fault line is wider and deeper and increasingly out in the open in mainstream Catholicism.  And that Deal Hudson, Paul Ryan and their ilk have more in common with Ayn Rand than they do with even the most conservative Popes, tells us all we need to know.

Courtesy of Rogers at Kung Fu Monkey via Professor Krugman:
"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun May 22, 2011 at 05:08:57 PM EST

She collected Social Security and Medicare when she was ill with cancer at the end of her life. Ryan irks me with his attitude as his father died when he was a minor, and he was able to use his Social Security money to attend college, and he wants to deprive other people of the opportunities he had. Boehner irritates me for much the same reason, and I am sorry to say he represents a part of Southwestern Ohio, where I live. I don't live in Boehner's district, and if I did, I would not support him. Boehner and Ryan have forgotten where they came from, and want to deprive others of having the same opportunities from which they benefited. Hillyer seems to me to be in search of a Catholic justification for the religious right's support of laissez-faire economics, which is all too often a justification of a small group squeezing a much larger group economically.

by khughes1963 on Sun May 22, 2011 at 06:27:43 PM EST

That charity called Christian benefited her during her times of economic distress. But once she made her money she turned her back on any who helped her. That shows me she was selfish early on. Emulating her superhuman ideals of the psychopath who cares about none but themselves and will use the normal people's altruism against them. To them and Rand the rest of us are patsies and dupes to their infamy and manipulation. Some of the worst character traits exulted as shining virtues. An ugly, dangerous combination with financial and military/political power makes it all the more dangerous.

by Nightgaunt on Mon May 30, 2011 at 12:23:47 AM EST

The romance between neoliberal free market capitalism (a minimal state and low taxes) and social conservatism (huge state interference in private matters, except private earnings) is nothing new... why shouldn't Catholics be as hypocritical as every other strand of 'Christian' neoliberal on the planet? But Hudson has a long history of being a hypocrite... when he was publishing lectures on sexual morality it came out that he had had an extramarital sexual encounter with one of his female students back when he was a professor at Columbia U.

by TMurray on Mon Jun 06, 2011 at 08:14:02 AM EST

Sorry, it was Fordham University where Deal Hudsom acted as a teacher/philanderer.

by TMurray on Mon Jun 06, 2011 at 08:17:51 AM EST

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