Ayn Rand Didn’t Understand Capitalism. Or Altruism. Or Christianity. Or Reality.

Joe Carter

There once was a time when I was enamored by the philosophy of Ayn Rand. An émigré from the Soviet Union, the influential novelist and founder of the philosophy Objectivism had an enthusiasm for market capitalism and a hatred of communism that I found entrancing. I discovered her two major philosophical novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, in my early years in college as I was beginning to wake from my enchantment with liberalism. I was instantly hooked.

Rand’s ideas were intriguing, yet she harbored sentiments that made it difficult for a young Christian to accept. She was an atheist who despised altruism and preached the “virtue of selfishness.” She believed that rational self-interest was the greatest good and sang egoism’s praises.

In retrospect, it appears obvious that any attempt to reconcile these ideas with my orthodox evangelicalism was destined to fail. Still, I thought there might be something to her philosophy and was particularly intrigued by her defense of capitalism. My understanding of our capitalist economic system was rather immature, though, and I failed to recognize that Rand had an almost complete misunderstanding of capitalism. She confused self-interest with selfishness.

Many people, of course, share this profound misunderstanding. For some peculiar reason they act as if Adam Smith’s invisible hand has the Midas touch that can alchemically transform the vice of avarice into the great goods of capitalism. Like most proponents of capitalism, Rand never explains how this magical process occurs. Instead she just accepts this sleight of hand as a matter of brute fact.

It is true, of course, that self-interest is the engine that drives capitalism. But self-interest is not the same as selfishness, at least not in the way that Rand would use the term. In her novel The Fountainhead, Rand’s protagonists are portrayed as the epitome of the capitalist intellectual hero. In fact, they rarely act like actual capitalists, choosing instead to behave like spoiled, egotistical artistes.

Consider, for example, the novel’s main character, an architect named Howard Roark. In one particularly illuminating passage, Roark is told that his job as an architect, the primary purpose of his work, is to serve his clients. Roark responds by affirming, “I don’t intend to build in order to serve or help anyone. I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.”

While such egotistical bluster may make for an interesting fictional character, Roark’s attitude can hardly be considered a solid foundation for capitalism. As the libertarian economist Mark Skousen observes in a critique of Rand:

The goal of all rational entrepreneurship must be to satisfy the needs of consumers, not to ignore them! Discovering and fulfilling the needs of customers is the essence of market capitalism. Imagine how far a TV manufacturer would get if he decides to build TVs that only tune into his five favorite channels, the consumer be damned. It wouldn’t be long before he would be on the road to bankruptcy.

This leads us to one of the primary misunderstandings held by many of Rand’s admirers. Although she is widely praised for her defense of capitalism (she was famous for wearing a gold brooch in the shape of a dollar sign), she viewed it as subservient to a greater ideal:

I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows. This—the supremacy of reason—was, is and will be the primary concern of my work, and the essence of Objectivism. (“The Objectivist”, September 1971)

On this point Rand was quite mistaken. Reason, applied consistently, doesn’t lead us down a straight path to egoism, much less to capitalism. Examined closely, we would find that her entire Objectivist philosophy is founded on this simple question-begging premise. Rand claimed that it was a self-evident truth. But this requires us to believe that no one who ever came to a different conclusion was following reason where it leads. She might have no problem accepting such a conclusion—she was never one to tolerate dissent—but we don’t have sufficient justification for doing so.

This veneration of egoism also led her to consider altruism to be evil. As she explains in The Virtue of Selfishness:

Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value–and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes.

At first glance it appears that she has built a strawman by redefining “altruism” in a way that is not commonly used. But she does have justification for her claim, for her idea of altruism is based on the ethical system of Auguste Comte and English positivists. Comte’s system, which considered that only actions that benefited others could be considered moral, was both ethical and religious. As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains Comte’s thought:

Not only is the happiness to be found in living for others the supreme end of conduct, but a disinterested devotion to Humanity as a whole is the highest form of religious service. His ethical theory may be epitomized in the following propositions.

–The dominion of feeling over thought is the normative principle of human conduct, for it is the affective impulses that govern the individual and the race.

–Man is under the influence of two affective impulses, the personal or egoistic, and the social or altruistic.

–A just balance between these two is not possible, one or other must preponderate.

–The first condition of individual and social well-being is the subordination of self-love to the benevolent impulses.

–The first principle of morality, therefore, is the regulative supremacy of social sympathy over the self-regarding instincts.

To bring about the reign of altruism Comte invented a religion which substituted for God an abstraction called Humanity.

If Howard Roark was the incarnation of Rand’s egoistic ideal, then her character Ellsworth M. Toohey was the exemplar of Comte’s religion of Humanity. Toohey, the antagonist in The Fountainhead, embodied all that Rand would consider most base and unworthy in a person. His altruistic behavior and self-sacrifice is portrayed as loathsome. The reader is meant to despise him as weak and unmanly and, thanks to Rand’s powers as a novelist, we have no trouble seeing him in this way. By rejecting Toohey, we reject altruism.

Those who fail to notice the way Rand defines altruism often mistake her critique as an argument against Christian morality. This isn’t surprising when we consider that Rand herself seems to make the same error. But the Christian view of altruism is not predicated on an obligation to love others more than we love ourselves. While there may be instances where such self-sacrificial love is appropriate, it is not an absolute duty. What we are commanded to do is love others just as we love ourselves. We are to love other humans in the same way, taking into account their interests and needs. We are not to treat them, as Comte would have us, in a disinterested manner.

Rand’s views ultimately congeal into a fatally flawed philosophy. Even when stripped of its atheistic elements, Objectivism’s focus on radical individualism cuts it off from reality and causes it to wither under scrutiny. And as much as we might admire Rand’s deep-rooted hatred of collectivism, her philosophy is still just another utopian dream, a transvalued Marxism.

Ultimately, Rand’s egoism is irreconcilable with both Christianity and capitalism. In fact, since the system fails to have any true explanatory value, it’s difficult to find any reason to adopt Objectivism at all. Fortunately, we don’t have to buy into Rand’s philosophical errors in order to appreciate her fiction. We just have to keep in mind that instead of reading a “novel of ideas”, we are reading a work of fantasy.

From Acton PowerBlog. Image: AP Photo/US Postal Service, via Acton.

About Acton Institute

The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty is named after the great English historian, Lord John Acton (1834-1902). Inspired by his work on the relation between liberty and morality, the Acton Institute seeks to articulate a vision of society that is both free and virtuous, the end of which is human flourishing. To that end, the Institute engages in research, publishing, documentary film production, engagement with the media, and organizes seminars aimed at educating religious leaders, business executives, entrepreneurs, university professors, and academic researchers. Acton promotes sound economic thinking and an awareness of the moral underpinnings necessary for a free society.


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