Philosophically neutralizing narcissistic economics


For many on both the political right and left, Republican vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan’s erstwhile fetishism of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy evokes a visceral cringe. On the one hand, it is heartening to see American leaders who are sufficiently intellectual to have read and understood the obtuse prose of Atlas Shrugged. On the other, it’s disheartening to see them idolatrize bald-faced hedonism, moral atomization and unapologetic defense of capitalist excess.

To his credit, Ryan has backed away from that moment when he gave copies of Rand’s books as Christmas gifts (Note: Those with an appreciation of irony will doubtless giggle at the thought of giving seminal works of atheist philosophy as Christmas presents). Even so, he has nonetheless constructed an ideological catch-22 for himself.

In an April interview with the National Review, Ryan attempted to rebrand his controversial budget plan as one rooted in his Catholic faith, rather than Objectivism. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” Ryan quipped, “Give me Thomas Aquinas.”

That’s well and good. The more charitable and less jaundiced among us might even reconcile the about face as ethical and moral evolution. After all, who among us hasn’t been disabused of faulty notions held in our youth? Therein lies the rub — as it were — to remain sufficiently open-minded and humble as to actually recant former lapses.

Just to dwell in the realm of parallels for a moment, it can be argued that Objectivist philosophy is whole-cloth antithetical to Christianity. While the list of conflicting tenets is extensive, a few examples make the point.

First, Rand’s philosophy is as Sir Walter Scott once wrote, “centered all in self.” As Stephen Prothero of Boston University states on a commentary for CNN, “While the Christian Trinity comprise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Rand’s Trinity is I, me, mine.”

In America we praise the cause of the dynamic individual. Objectivism, venerates it above all else. Just as excesses of collectivism (i.e. the failed experiment of global communism) holds its own peril, life lived solely for oneself is merely narcissistic. A morally neutralized recasting doesn’t change the content.

Along these same lines, Rand’s philosophy denigrates the poor. They are derided as “looters” and “moochers.” Randian acolytes such as Richard Ebeling, president of the Foundation for Economic Freedom, regards social altruism as tantamount to theft in support of freeloading: “So little is said about the true meaning of freedom and its actual relationship to democratic practices. ‘Freedom’ thus becomes anything that relieves a person from responsibility for the consequences of his own actions-with politicians shifting the cost of those consequences to other people’s shoulders. And a person’s ‘rights’ refer to requiring others to provide the financial means to satisfy whatever ends will make him happy — even if the government has to coerce those others to part with what they have honestly earned.”

So much for “blessed are the poor.” Randian philosophy also advocates a naïve economic order predicated on individuals with perfect knowledge and a sufficient bridle on their own appetites to recognize the “self-interest” of avoiding excess.

As Rand herself writes, “The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit.”

As the renown criminologist, Graeme Newman, aptly observes, “…order cannot exist without structured inequality. Order and authority must be maintained by punishment, otherwise there would be even more revolutions and wars than we have had throughout history.”

In this case the punishment is economic inequality. This unequal social and economic footing hobbles what might otherwise be the coalescence of the underclass into an effective challenge against capitalist excesses.

What makes this neo-conservative idolatry most farcical is the “have-it-both-ways” rationale of “free market” economics. Whether devout or godless, there’s a ready-made justification for letting the underclass “eat cake.” That Paul Ryan happened to switch horses mid-stream should give us little comfort.

• • •

Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via pate.matthew@gmail.com