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Does America Need Ayn Rand or Jesus?

Ayn Rand is everywhere and her political opponents are growing nervous.

Rand of course is a champion of individual rights, including property rights, and an advocate of laissez-faire capitalism. Walk through any Tea Party gathering and you’ll see signs such as “Who is John Galt?,” “Rand was right” and “Read Atlas Shrugged.” Paul Ryan says of her, accurately in my view, that “Ayn Rand more than anyone else did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism.” 

On this shift in the political landscape, Paul Krugman comments in “A Tale of Two Moralities” that gone are the days when policy disputes were about pragmatic differences in accomplishing the same goal. Today we see a difference in moral principle: one side considers the modern welfare state morally superior to capitalism and the other side considers capitalism morally superior to the welfare state. 

What Krugman doesn’t say, however, is that to the extent there actually is a side today that thinks capitalism is morally superior to the welfare state, it’s thanks to "Atlas Shrugged," "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal" and Rand’s other works.

But whether Krugman knows this or not, many other people do. What worries advocates of the welfare state is that they have never before faced any moral opposition.

Whatever the rhetoric of Republicans and Democrats in the past, they agreed on the basic goal: more and more government controls are necessary to rein in businessmen, “manage” the economy, and minister to those in need. 

No matter which party was in power, therefore, we got things like Sarbanes-Oxley, bailouts of GM and Citibank, a huge prescription drug “benefit” and ObamaCare. Politics was a squabble about the efficacy of any proposed controls, not a dispute about the morality or immorality of imposing controls in the first place. As Krugman observes, in years past everyone “accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state.”

But now its advocates sense that this is no longer true, that some Americans are beginning to question the moral legitimacy of the welfare state. To strangle this questioning in the crib, supporters of government controls are trying to persuade their opponents to abandon Rand.

The current tactic is to tell Tea Partiers and “conservatives” that if you take religion seriously, you can’t be a fan of the atheist Ayn Rand. The American Values Network (AVN) has produced a short video containing snippets of Rand’s rejection of religion, which they hope to e-mail to more than a million people in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, asking citizens how they can support both Jesus and Rand.

Leaving aside AVN’s distressing attempt to blur the separation of church and state by basing politics on faith, this much is true. Rand’s moral teachings are fundamentally different from Jesus’teachings. 

A rational morality, Rand argued, teaches us the crucial values that make up a successful and happy life. Above all else, it instructs us to uphold reason as an absolute in our lives, as our only source of knowledge and only judge of values, and to achieve self-esteem in our souls. True self-esteem is the knowledge that by your own choices you’ve created a rational mind “competent to think” and a personal character “worthy of happiness.”

In terms of virtues, Rand’s is a moral code that upholds rationality not emotionalism or faith; intellectual independence not authority or obedience; earned pride not humility or the belief in man’s inherent sinfulness.

In Rand’s argument, morality is not about subordination or service to others or to some “higher power”; it is not about self-sacrifice. Hers is a morality that upholds egoism and individualism: it seeks to teach you the difficult task of pursuing the values that achieve your own individual self-interest and happiness.

Only an explicit or implicit individualist and egoist, Rand held, will understand and demand the rights listed in the Declaration of Independence: his inalienable rights to his own life, his own liberty, and the pursuit of his own happiness. He will demand his political freedom and reject all government controls designed to restrict his liberty and make him sacrifice for the “public interest.” He will oppose the welfare state.

Given her positive teachings, Rand must reject what is usually taken to be the core of Jesus’ moral teachings, the Sermon on the Mount. But before you dismiss this as unthinkable, ask yourself the following question. Did Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers not reject the Sermon’s advice in creating America?

As I’ve written before: “When the British struck America’s right cheek, did Jefferson in the Declaration tell America to turn to offer them the left? Did Jefferson love his enemy—or did he go to war with him? Did Jefferson, who had a gallery of worthies in his home, portraits of men like Isaac Newton and John Locke, think that the blessed are the poor in spirit—or that the only people worthy of admiration are those who choose to make something of their spirit? Did Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers think that the meek shall inherit the earth—or that, in Locke’s words, the rational and the industrious shall? Did Jefferson give up riches—or did he seek them?”

Today we face similarly stark choices. If we are to reject the welfare state as immoral and thereby restore the American dream of individualism, don’t we need a rational morality that challenges the centuries-old creed of self-sacrifice and instead argues for the individual’s moral right to his own life and happiness?

In other words, don’t we need Ayn Rand?

Onkar Ghate is senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California.