Jan 23 2012

Thoughts on Ayn Rand and the Virtue of Selfishness

Category: Philosophy | PoliticsJeff @ 17:47

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."


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Dec 21 2011

What Budget Problem?

Category: Economics | Politics | SnarkJeff @ 17:25

* US Tax Revenue:		$  2,170,000,000,000
* Federal Budget:		$  3,820,000,000,000
* New Debt:			$  1,650,000,000,000
* National Debt:		$ 14,271,000,000,000
* Recent Budget cuts:		$     38,500,000,000
* Entitlement Liabilities:	$106,400,000,000,000


* Annual Family Income:		$             21,700
* Money Spent:			$             38,200
* New Credit Card Debt:		$             16,500
* Credit Card Prev. Balance:	$            142,710
* Family Budget Cuts:		$              3,850
* Home and Auto Loans:		$          1,064,000

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Dec 16 2011

Indefinite Detention

Category: PoliticsJeff @ 07:42


From what I can gather in my research, with the signing of this bill, due process and the bill of rights are ended.  The US media won't report on it, you have to go offshore to hear the truth.  Indefinite detention of American Citizens without probable cause, formal charges, or trial by jury will be the law of the land. 


God help us.



Dec 13 2011

Non-Intervention does not equal Isolationism

Category: Economics | PoliticsJeff @ 12:00

A good explanation at Wikipedia:



Nov 7 2011

What is the ideal size/scope of the state?

Category: Agile Everywhere | Economics | PoliticsJeff @ 22:43

  1. The Total State
  2. As much state as possible
  3. Significantly more than current levels
  4. Current levels trending upward
  5. Exactly at current levels, remaining static
  6. Current levels, trending downward
  7. Significantly less than current levels
  8. As little state as possible
  9. No State

How would you answer this question?



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Aug 16 2011

Ron Paul Who?

Category: PoliticsJeff @ 15:11

The Mainstream Media seems hell bent on pretending Ron Paul doesn't exist.  Jon Stewart of all people takes them to task in a hilarious segment.  The Washington Examiner provides an insightful perspective as well.  Who is Ron Paul and why is he treated like the 13th floor of a hotel?

Ron Paul is consistently anti-war, but the left can't stomach his unceasing defense of the free market.  He is consistently pro-business, but the right can't abide his lack of jingoistic saber rattling.  He is pro-life, but many pro-lifers are also (terribly inconsistently) pro-war, so they can't fathom supporting Ron Paul and his philosophy of non-intervention.

Does Ron Paul have some "kooky" views? I leave that to you to decide.  But the sound bites you hear in the media will not inform you as to what his actual positions are.  They want you to think he's "pro-heroin" but you have to go deeper than this to get at his actual views regarding the so-called "war on drugs." They want you to believe he'd be "soft on terror" because he doesn't support endless bombing of any country in the Middle East, or anywhere else we claim to have a "vital interest." Let's get real. What do labels like "kooky," "outside the mainstream" or "extreme" even mean? They are simply tactical tools for marginalizing someone you disagree with or want to squelch.  Even if you vehemently oppose Ron Paul, you should oppose his actual views and positions, not a cheap caricature. We owe this respect to anyone with whom we disagree (yes, Barack Obama included).

Whichever of Ron Paul's positions you may agree or disagree with, it occurs to me that no President in history has successfully implemented all of his philosophy, rhetoric or positions into actual law or policy.  What this means is that we should evaluate candidates in light of what priorities they might actually accomplish once in office. Would Ron Paul succeed in bringing home all the troops immediately? Of course not, a draw down would take time and must be done strategically. But at least his approach could make progress towards the United States standing down as the world's police. Would he succeed in ending the Fed? Probably not, but his push for transparency and accountability would be refreshing and effective in reigning in this powerful and opaque institution.

Here's why I smell a rat in the media's lack of attention to Ron Paul - the media usually loves to bring attention to "kooks." Journalists thrive on breaking stories that appear out of the ordinary, that highlight the novel and unique. I can't know the motives behind such behavior, but since it runs against the grain of their usual M.O. it makes me suspicious of what is going on.

Hey Mainstream Media - there's a great story here and you're missing it.  It's the story of a twelve term congressman who has bucked the trend and stood his ground for decades.  It's the story of a man who has stuck to his principles even when they haven't been popular. It's about a man who refuses to play sound-bite politics, even when his opponents caricature his positions and gain political points. It's the story of a man with a strong and passionate base of supporters. It's a story you can't contain, can't hide, can't squelch and that you ignore at your peril. The more people realize that you aren't giving them news, but filtered-spoon-fed-opinion, the more people will bypass you--and eventually ignore you.


Jun 22 2011

What I'm Reading - Summer 2011 Edition

Category: Agile Everywhere | PoliticsJeff @ 17:29

The Law [Frédéric Bastiat] - Concise and succint, Bastiat blasts the tendency of government to act as if it determines Law. Instead, he argues that Law exists as prior to and supreme over government. Bastiat famously said "The State is the great fiction through which everyone endeavours to live at the expense of everyone else."

Freakonomics [Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner] - I regularly listen to the Freakonomics podcast, so it's about time I actually read the book (I've got Superfreakonomics on the shelf too).

Adapt: Why success Always Starts with Failure [Tim Harford] - I'm about 3/4 of the way through Harford's application of evolutionary theory to human decision making. He spins compelling, real-life stories that powerfully demonstrate the importance of variation, selection and survivability. 

Liberalism [Ludwig von Mises] - Contemporary "liberalism" typically promotes social freedom, while limiting (or even squelching) economic freedom. Historically, the term "liberal" referred to the promotion of freedom in both economic and social spheres and was based on the theory of individual rights. Mises makes the case for this latter form of "classical liberalism."

Democracy in America [Alexis de Tocqueville] - Tocqueville speaks for himself - "I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America."

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Jun 16 2011

Toward a Reasonable Drug Policy

Category: Agile Everywhere | PoliticsJeff @ 00:18


Q. who said "illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords [and] leads to the corruption of law enforcement officials"?

A. Milton Friedman (http://www.fff.org/freedom/0490e.asp)

Read more:





May 14 2011

What’s So Important About a Declaration of War?

Category: PoliticsJeff @ 08:46

An interesting look at what a true declaration of war means, and why it's important.

"To wage war without a declaration of war is akin to a lynching: there has been no finding of guilt before force has been employed in response."


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May 10 2011

Is Torture Ever Justified?

Category: PoliticsJeff @ 16:33

"Libertarianism declares that no moral or practical consideration outweighs the right of a peaceful individual to use his own body and property. When rights are breached, the accused is entitled to due process before remedies can be justly imposed, and those remedies must be proportional to the violation."

Read more:


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