A friend emailed me recently to ask what I thought about Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. I sent him the following response:
As a Christian, I cannot embrace Ayn Rand's egoistic value system (the "virtue of selfishness"). However, I believe the Bible clearly teaches that self-interest is not inherently wicked. God created us to find the fulfillment of our true self-interest in casting aside our idols, finding our true joy in satisfaction in loving him, and loving others as a demonstration of how glorious our God is. On the other hand, Scripture clearly repudiates the abuse of power and the centralization of control (I Sam. 8 for example), so I do think Rand is on to something with her critique of rampant statist interventionism.
One thing about Rand that particularly concerns me is that she confounds individualism and egoism. This frustrates me as an individualist. It particularly bothers me because she should know better, and I think she loses a lot of ground with those she might otherwise convince when she does not clarify that individualism and collectivism have nothing to do with selfishness. Rather, these speak to the nature of rights - are rights inherent in the individual, or are they bestowed by virtue of one's membership in a particular group? This is a critical clarification because a collectivist view of rights leads to all kinds of dangers and indignities. But in much of her writing, Rand confounds individualism and selfishness. This is particularly annoying when trying to talk to a collectivist who already believes that altruism and collectivism cannot be separated or distinguished, and that individualism and egoism are the same thing, and must be rejected, fought, condemned, etc.
I've been reading a lot of Karl Popper lately, and he makes a very helpful distinction between these categories. We first recognize that individualism and collectivism speak to the nature of rights. We also make a distinction between altruism against egoism. Based on this, it is possible for one to adhere to one of the following four paradigms:
(A) - Collectivist egoism
(B) - Collectivist altruism
(C) - Individualist egoism
(D) - Individualist altruism
(A) Fascism and nazism would fall under this category. Rights accumulate to the collective. If you are outside our collective, you have no rights or only the rights we give you. Our collective is better than yours and we will "selfishly" guard it against all threats. Platonism also fits here -- philosopher kings have all the rights, the rest of you are slaves to their will. They will voraciously guard the collective against any outbursts of individuality.
(B) This might be called "do-gooder-ism". It's the idea that we can "love humanity" or love people as abstract groupings, rather than as individuals made in the image of God. It leads to problems such as institutional approaches to poverty and suffering that do not take account of the dignity of each person. Many collectivist altruists actually despise the needy individual, and instead want to just "help the needy" from afar. "I pay my taxes and donate to charities, I've done my part, let the government or institution take care of them." Or, "I'm a high and mighty bureaucrat who will look out for the 'interests' of the needy without actually getting to know them, or ask what they actually need, or what will really be helpful -- and I'm definitely not going to get my hands dirty."
(C) This is where I'd categorize Rand and her philosophy. She is right on "rights" but wrong on our obligation and responsibility to our fellow man. I also find many of her characters thin, shallow and repulsive, and I don't just mean the "bad guys."
(D) Of course you can guess by now that I embrace individualist altruism. If you've read any Dickens, you see some beautiful pictures of the contrasts between A, B, C and D. His villains are do-gooders, thieves, and bureaucrats. His heroes are the broken and rejected (eg. Oliver from Oliver Twist) and those who reach out with compassion to the needy and downtrodden, treating them instead as dignified individuals (eg. Mr. Brownlow from Oliver Twist). Another great Dickens example is Ebeneezer Scrooge. Scrooge's problem wasn't collectivism vs. individualism, it was altruism vs. egoism. Notice that his response to a change of heart isn't to donate to an institution or become a bureaucrat overseeing a welfare operation. His response is love to individuals.
If you want to go deeper, here are some helpful resources:
- Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton
- Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
- The Open Society and its Enemies by Karl Popper
UPDATE: This C.S. Lewis quote provides an excellent summary of the dangers of collectivist altruism.
"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."