Why Ayn Rand is appealing–and why the appeal is dangerous

Why Ayn Rand is appealing–and why the appeal is dangerous August 16, 2012

The appeal of Ayn Rand is simple and obvious, as most heresies are. Here it is:

Philadelphia woman faces $600-a-day fine for feeding needy neighborhood kids

Any normal healthy person reading a headline like that thinks “May God swiftly destroy a state system that completely screwed up.  What the hell are they thinking *penalizing* somebody for doing a simple corporal work of mercy?” Ayn Rand gets right there in the cheering section with you, calling for the destruction of ridiculous Nanny State systems that not only keep decent people from doing the obviously right thing, but which actually punish and penalize them for doing so. Indeed, she is so loud and shrill and domineering in her catcalls against such an absurd system that many people fall back in awe as she strides out of the crowd, brimming with confidence, to challenge this Goliath and boldly tell it to go to hell. She is a natural leader and most of us prefer to defer to natural leaders.

Problem is, while she hates the overbearing state, she also hates the Philadelphia woman. Sure, she will affirm the woman’s abstract right to feed the neighborhood kids, because she affirms the right of the individual to act without the constraints of the Nanny State. But she also deeply believes that caring for these poor kids is simply one more instance of the grave evil of caritas, putting food into the mouths of useless Takers. She will do battle with Goliath because Goliath threatens her godlike autonomy. But she will also berate the privately charitable woman for perpetuating the evil system of charity. “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine” is a credo that doesn’t *just* reject the overbearing Nanny State. It rejects, as a matter of principle, all of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the entire economy of salvation, and all acts of charity as morally evil. It is, like all heresy, a piece of the gospel (in this case, personal responsibility), blown up to insane proportions and used as a weapon against the rest of the gospel.

Does this mean there is *nothing* of value in Rand?  On the contrary, I just said there is.  All heresy is a truth or set of truths ripped from the whole cloth of the Tradition.  It’s a sort of Truth Cancer.  And a healthy approach to Truth Cancer is to parse what is true from what is contrary to the Faith.  The problem is that it’s just not the case that everybody who appreciates what is true in a heresy also parses what is false.

So: You can, if you like, sign on to the hastily-cobbled-together new Party Line that Ryan enthusiastically recommending Rand is just exactly like Aquinas reading Aristotle. You can also labor to persuade yourself that any Catholic who pores over the collected works of Larry Flynt is a brilliant guide to Catholic teaching on sexuality who clearly and easily distinguishes the less savory aspects of his work from the brilliant diamonds of Catholic truth to be found there.  If you want, you can also strain to persuade yourself that a Liberation Theologian who takes Stalin as a guide to Catholic teaching on the state’s responsibility for the Common Good is similarly doing exactly what Aquinas does with Aristotle. But not all of us will buy these propositions uncritically.

Again: Here’s reality.  Aquinas understood that any insights mined from human tradition had to be subordinated to Sacred Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church.  Anybody you want to claim as a Really Truly Deeply Catholic[TM] needs to do that.  If they do not do that, then apply the “wise as serpents, innocent as doves” principle.  Don’t assume them to be enemies of the Faith (most likely they are just confused syncretists and, when politicians, always partly motivated by the question “how will this get me votes?”).  But do assume the intellectual posture “Trust, but verify”.  For many conservative Catholics, “orthodox” means “prolife”.  Period.  That’s because many conservative Catholics have adopted the de facto heresy “Opposition to abortion takes away the sins of the world”.  So if a pol says he is against abortion, that’s it.  He can be pro-torture.  He can launch pre-emptive war.  He can, as Ryan does, advocate policies that, as the bishops very clearly say, fail to meet a “basic moral test” (namely, it spits on the poor).  Doesn’t matter to the “Ryan is Aquinas, Rand is Aristotle” agitprop crowd.  We are to uncritically believe he completely lines up with Church teaching and then go to bat trying to claim that this Rand-inspired contempt for the poor is really the second coming of Aquinas reading Aristotle.  Result: Our Political Hero winds up being our real Magisterium while the actual teachers of the Church are ignored and even sneered at as “liberals”.

What we American conservative Catholics generally find very hard to do is acknowledge that there are other grave moral issues as well as abortion (for instance, the erection of a torture/security state which claims the right to indefinitely detain, torture and murder whoever it likes) or that issues which, while not quite as grave, still have huge and grave implications which must be considered (such as the looting of the economy by Caesaroligarchs and the subjection of a greater and greater portion of the populace to poverty, which is a great seedbed for abortion and the target demographic of Planned Parenthood).  Nonetheless, though it’s hard for us to grasp in our simplistic party spirit (a spirit only fostered and encouraged by our Ruling Class) this remains the concern of the bishops.

Recently, in my comboxes, people have been at sixes and sevens, attempting to imitate Ryan in his pretense that Rand was never a massive influence on him and that any perception to the contrary is an “urban legend” propagated by his evil liberal enemies.  To this end, we are now asked to swallow the newly minted meme that Rand is Aristotle and Ryan is Aquinas, her sanctified interpreter and purifier.  As I have said, I’m all for his distancing himself from her.  It demonstrates clearly that he knows she is poison.  But that he refuses to accept responsibility for spreading her poison and instead wants to blame somebody else for noticing that he has spread her poison, sets off warning bells, just as Obama’s denial, rather than repudiation, of  Jeremiah Wright’s influence set off warning bells.  And the weird attempts to argue “He not a pure Randian, but is Aquinas to her Aristotle” are bollixed up by the fact that he is most certainly not doing a bang up job of subordinating her thinking to the Church’s teaching.  Oh sure, he’s not an atheist but a pious Catholic and he’s got a good anti-abortion record for which he deserves praise.  Duly noted. But that does not nail down the sudden claim that he is Really Truly Deeply Catholic[TM] and is Aquinas to her Aristotle.  Because when it comes to the specific place in which Ryan is most deeply in debt to her–her analysis of the relationship of Makers and Takers (“Producers” vs. “Looters” in her parlance)–Ryan comes out as a completely orthodox disciple of John Galt.

Yet never fear:  he is not a *pure* Randian.  As a career politician, living off the public teat, and not a Producer or Maker of any kind, he comes out as a perfectly orthodox specimen of our Ruling Class who only picks and chooses at Rand as he only picks and chooses at Catholic teaching.  So we find him laboring to enrich the rich with your taxes via state bailouts, laboring to crush liberty with support for the Patriot Act, supporting the rise of a police/torture state by throwing his weight behind a man who eagerly supports torture, voting for pre-emptive war and expanding our already massively huge military (as powerful an expression of fealty to the state as can be given), and enriching himself immensely by magically profiting from the collapse of the economy as so very many other members of Congress magically managed to do. So no.  He is not a *pure* Randian.  He basically likes the “You aren’t the boss of me” parts of Rand, while taking a much more lax view of using the state to get riches and power when it is useful.  But he definitely makes clear that in the Manichaean Randian world of Makers and Takers, he will pretend that Caesaroligarchs are Makers and side with them over the weak and vulnerable. And in that triumph of the Powerful over the Weak, Rand’s ethos is also clearly discernible, though again, not in pure form. In contrast, when the bishops tell you that what matters to you most fails a basic moral test, Really Truly Deeply Catholic thinkers re-think, whereas addicts of party spirit blow off the bishops and labor to parse Ryan’s Thomistic brilliance in analysing the genius of Rand.

Please get this: I am *not* saying that abortion and the sanctity of human life is not the gravest issue of our time.  But I *am* saying that party spirit seems to make it extremely difficult for Catholics to evaluate candidates in light of the Tradition, instead of raiding the Tradition to prop up their candidate and then ignore the rest of the Tradition as “perfectionism”.  So we get hogwash about Ryan as Really Truly Deeply Catholic instead of the honest recognition that he is a very mixed bag, enamored of (and currently denying his debt to) a human tradition that he has, with very dubious success, attempted to syncretistically amalgamate with Catholic teaching.  Once people’s heads have cleared of party spirit and the need to gin up enthusiasm for the Sucks Less ticket with inflated claims of  Ryan’s passion for Catholic teaching, I hope we can get honest assessments instead of shrill demands for people to fall in line.  Ryan is not Aquinas and Rand is, emphatically, not Aristotle.  Aquinas would not propose something that fails basic moral tests.  But a disciple of Rand who subordinates the teaching of the Church to her erroneous human tradition would.

Therefore, I offer this swell assessment of the Romney candidacy:

“If a man finds it necessary to eat garbage, he should resist the temptation to call it a delicacy.” — Wendell Berry, “Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer””

PS: For an actual serious attempt to rake the one or two diamonds out of the immense pile of dung that is the work of Ayn Rand, I recommend Lee Penn’s very thorough work here.

PPS: For those baffled by how I draw a distinction between Ron Paul (also a zealot for Rand) and Ryan, the answer is rather simple.

First, Ron Paul does not ask me to embrace any grave intrinsic evils.  Ryan does (since, among other things his future boss uses enthusiasm for torture as an applause line, not to mention having a long history of support for abortion that only “changed” when he needed to capture the GOP base nationally. His boss also is indifferent to gay marriage, tells the Boy Scouts to admit homosexuals, and is surrounding himself with all the Bourbon advisors who got us into out our last catastrophic wars of Empire).

Second, Paul does not ask me to believe that his zeal for Rand is an “urban legend” spread by his evil enemies.  He takes forthright responsibility for his enthusiasm for this enemy of God.

Third, Paul does not ask me to believe that he is a Really Truly Deeply Catholic thinker, and I do not try to pretend to myself that he is because (surprise!) I’m not looking for the Perfect Candidate.  All I’m asking for is a candidate who does not ask me to support sins worthy of the everlasting fires of hell.  My requirements are actually quite modest.  That said, however, I regard Rand’s influence on Paul as a very bad thing too.  As I wrote months ago:

Ron Paul, to his credit, stands against both these evils [abortion and war crimes]. Like a good  revolutionary, he knows what is wrong with the current system.

I’m not so sure, however, that he knows what is right. For he is a  Libertarian, and Libertarianism is, generally speaking, a philosophy for people  with no children. He is, alas, almost right, but not quite. His sacred text is  not Scripture but the Constitution, and his magisterium is the authors of the  Federalist Papers, some libertarian economists, and the odious Ayn Rand, whom  only Paul’s personal decency keeps from exerting a more baleful influence than  she already does on his thinking.

Ron Paul is appealing because Ron Paul is an antidote to current statist and  collectivist ills of a metastasizing corporatist and national security state.  He’s quite incisive about what is wrong. The trouble, as is often the case with  revolutionaries, is that his solutions are as blind to some essential aspects of  Catholic teaching as are the things he criticizes. Just as they forget  subsidiarity, so Libertarianism tends to forget solidarity and conceive of the  individual—atomized, isolated, unbeholden to all communal ties—as the the basis  of civilization.

But, in fact, it is the family (something Ayn Rand hated) that is the basis  of civilization. So the Church emphasizes both subsidiarity and solidarity in a  balance our demented age finds nearly impossible to strike. For this reason, I  am cautious about Paul, while still honoring his many virtues—particularly in  contrast to the rest of the Parliament of Whores who constitute our Ruling  Classes.

Exactly because nobody asks me to believe that Ron Paul is Mr. Catholic, I don’t have to expend energy arguing against any cock-and-bull attempt to adapt Catholic teaching to the needs of his Randian kookery with the pretense that he is the Second Coming of St. Thomas.  But because Ryan is being hailed as the second coming of Aquinas and his Randian kookery is being defended instead of subjected to the skepticism it richly deserves I have to take a different tack.  In short, I have to be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove with both men, as we are called to be with every pol, and especially the ones who tell us what our itching ears want to hear.

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