Ayn Rand vs. America

The celebration of the individual is seeing a resurgence in U.S. politics. But is freedom to earn one's living the same as the freedom to emasculate government?

Townsend Aug 22p.JPG

Protester at Chicago Tax Day Tea Party protest / Wiki Media Commons

Ayn Rand has a large and growing influence on American politics. Speaking at an event in her honor, Congressman Paul Ryan said, "The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand."

A few weeks ago, Maureen Fiedler, the producer of the weekly radio show, Interfaith Voices, asked me to participate in a debate with Onkar Ghate, a senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. I eagerly accepted. I wanted to hear how a follower of Rand would defend proposals to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps while exempting the wealthy from paying their fair share.     

In one sense there was agreement. Maureen, a Sister of Loretto, argued that Republican budget proposals turned their back on Christ's admonition to care for "the least among us," the hungry, the sick, the homeless. Ghate did not dispute that. Rand, he said, was an atheist who did not believe in government efforts to help those in need.

Ghate countered Sister Maureen's religious position with a moral argument. He maintained that redistribution of wealth was unfair to the rich and weakened the ambition of the rest. I wasn't surprised by this position, since I'd heard it repeatedly during the fight on welfare reform.

What I did find startling was Ghate's insistence that just as there should be a separation of church and state, so there should be a separation of economics and state. That notion really got me thinking. 

I've always understood that one's loyalty to God should take precedence over one's patriotic duty. Churches are exempt from taxation, and conscientious objectors aren't required to serve in war. Our high regard for the First Amendment shows the preeminence of faith in the American consciousness. 

But to place economics on the same level as religious freedom seemed to me almost blasphemous. Are we really to believe that the freedom to make money should stand on the same level of religious liberty? Are the words of Milton Friedman equal to the Sermon on the Mount?  I don't think so. But maybe in the eyes of Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan, they are.

Ayn Rand's biography goes a long way toward explaining her animus to government. Her first-hand experience of communism showed her how the state can crush people, kill dissent, and exile lovers of freedom to the gulag. Horrified by what government power could do, she was determined to shrink it to the point of impotence.

America was the perfect place for Rand's single-minded celebration of the individual. After all, this was the nation that inspired intrepid emigrants to leave behind country, family, and friends with little more than the shirt on their back to make a new life. Here they wouldn't be judged by what they were before or who their parents were but by what they could made of themselves.

America was a beacon of freedom from its earliest days. But the freedom to earn one's living is not the same as the freedom to emasculate government. It's a mistake to enshrine individual liberty without acknowledging the role that a good government plays in preserving and promoting it. Look at places like Haiti, Somalia, and the Congo to see what happens when governments aren't around much.

When government is marginalized, it's not just individual freedom that suffers; the economy suffers too. A vibrant capitalism requires a legal system: contracts must be honored, fraud punished. Markets have to work, and for that we need a strong infrastructure of roads, rail, energy, and water and sewage systems.

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Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the author of Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Mixed God With Politics and Lost Their Way. From 1995 to 2003, she was Maryland's first woman lieutenant governor.

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