Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

J. R. R. Tolkien vs. Ayn Rand

U. S. readers may have noticed that lately conservatives are citing the late philosophical author Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged.  If you aren’t familiar with this, you may have wondered what all the fuss is about.  Rand advocated a philosophy of selfish individualism (she wrote an essay called “The Virtue of Selfishness”) and unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism.  Rand was a mentor to the economist Milton Friedman who, in turn, inspired “Reaganomics,” although Friedman always thought that Reagan was not pure enough in his capitalism.  In her novel, Atlas Shrugged, Rand has “the creative people” i.e., rich people, decide that they are so burdened by taxation and regulation that they will protest by simply stopping their “creative” wealth creating activity. 

It’s worth noting that Rand’s novel was published in 1957, during the Eisenhower administration, when those at the top 1% of the U.S. pay scale were taxed at 90% of their upper 1% income.  Unlike John Galt, the hero of Rand’s novel, the U.S. rich people did not decide to pack it in and go play golf. Instead, the 1950s and the 1960s constituted the period of American history when we had the broadest middle class– a middle class where one income could support a family.  It was a time when social stratification was lowest and it was easiest for people who began at or near the bottom of the economic ladder could climb higher. (There was a major–GLARING–exception to this: Due to segregation, African-Americans could NOT easily move into either the middle class or upper class. I am not idealizing the 1950s and 1960s–but merely pointing out that they were not the grim economically stagnating world of Rand’s novel.)

Lately, as I said, American conservatives have been citing this novel as part of their pushback against Obama’s plan for a fairer tax system and more financial regulation. (They call this “socialism” when Obama only plans to roll back the Bush tax cuts–thereby increasing the top tax bracket, the upper 1% who make more than the bottom 50% of Americans combined, from its current 36% to 39%!  This is not only not “socialism,” it isn’t even close to the progressive taxation of the Truman and Eisenhower eras.) I find it ironic that they are reduced to citing a bad novel to justify their indefensible support of greed and individual selfishness and complete rejection of the common good in a time of national and international crisis.  I suppose Rand is slightly more respectable than channeling  Gordon Gekko, the Michael Douglass character in the 1987 movie Wall Street who, in a hostile takeover that destroys a corporation and puts people out of work, declares “Greed is good.”  I saw Michael Douglass interviewed years later about that film. He said that, as an actor, he always assumed that he was playing the villain, but that in the years since, he’d had dozens of Wall Street investors come up to him and shake his hand and say that the Gekko speech  is what motivated them to go into finance!!!

A contrasting piece of fiction is that of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in which selfless hobbits, elves, dwarves and some humans sacrifice themselves for the greater good–and in which greed and selfishness are seen as vices, not virtues.  Of course, Rand was an atheist and Tolkien was a Catholic and I used to believe that this was the root of their different outlooks on individualism versus the common good, selfishness and greed versus  heroic sacrifice, care for others, courage, and mercy and respect for the created order.  But since the rise of the Religious Right, U.S. Christians seem to have largely embraced the self-centeredness of Rand and Gordon Gekko–ignoring all that Scripture says against exploiting the poor and of the dangers of wealth. And, at least some atheists and agnostics during this same period (perhaps via general revelation or common grace), have lined up more with Tolkien and against Rand.

But maybe this can all be said with more humor.  Via Kung Fu Monkey comes this gem of a quote:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

March 21, 2009 Posted by | arts, myths | 12 Comments