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


  1. I give Tolkien his due, but I would not sell Ay Rand short . Some Americans are attracted to her philosophy.

    Comment by Paul | March 22, 2009

  2. I KNOW some Americans are attracted to Rand’s pagan, self-centered, totally immature philosophy. It has been the philosophy of the ruling classes since Goldwater and has guided most of our political economy since Reagan. In short, Rand is one of the WORST influences in America and is screwing the place up.

    Even worse is that so many conservative Christians fail to realize how thoroughly anti-Christian her philosophy is.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 22, 2009

  3. “If you aren’t familiar with this(Atlas Shrugged), you may have wondered what all the fuss is about.”

    And some of us even having read the damn thing, still wonder what all the fuss is about.

    Comment by Snig | March 27, 2009

  4. For someone who claims to be a “former soldier converted to gospel nonviolence” I find it very odd indeed that you are a proponent of state violence in the form of taxation. I guess it is only some of the time that people are supposed to make their own choices about things.

    Comment by Jesse | June 10, 2009

  5. Also, for what it is worth. Tolkien also believed that the state should not be running people’s lives. I know that you think taking a third of someone’s income doesn’t make you feel bad (I mean, it isn’t as if your earned it or anything), but it does seem to contradict that whole nonviolence thing. What if someone refuses to pay the taxes they did not agree to pay in the first place. Again, I know that you won’t be the federal agent with the guns and the handcuffs, but you do realize that *somebody* will be, right?

    Comment by Jesse | June 10, 2009

  6. This blog is miserably full of lies. Ayn Rand was never a mentor to Friedman. Ayn Rand hated the conservatives and even predicted that the conservatives would destroy America. Do more research on her, Mister…

    Comment by Vincent | November 11, 2009

  7. Friedman repeatedly cited Rand’s influence and recommended The Virtue of Selfishness and Atlas Shrugged wherever he went, Vincent. Rand was more of a libertarian than a conservative, but she has been a hero of conservatives of all stripes–whether she wanted to be or not. Our writings live on and we are helpless to decide what others will do with them–just as Nietszche couldn’t stop Hitler from abusing his views.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 11, 2009

  8. You need to do more research. You still have time. You know very little about Ayn Rand.

    Comment by Vincent | November 12, 2009

  9. I am no Rand fan..and I am a Christian (Rand of course was am atheist and pretty self righteous about it) but I would suggest you look at Christ and see what a libertarian he actually was….

    At the risk of redudancy in this thread, he was first and foremost a pacifist and did not believe in stealing from others through threat of violence. …as any government tax does (most so with the labor tax).

    Jesus spoke of giving of oneself not taking of the other to give to another.

    Comment by Letma Peoplego | November 21, 2009

  10. I think Jesus was closer to a socialist than a libertarian.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 21, 2009

  11. Paraphrased a central tenet is’ to treat your fellow man as you would want to be treated.’

    This is anti-thetical to socialism.

    Unless you speak of a voluntary socialism…is that what you mean?

    Comment by Letma Peoplego | November 22, 2009

  12. michael?

    Comment by Letma Peoplego | November 25, 2009

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