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Ayn Rand vs. America

Good government sets us free to spend our days in fruitful endeavors, not evasive action motivated by fear and distrust. Government regulations reassure us that speeding drivers will be arrested, that the financial products we buy won't cheat us, and that it will be safer to put our money in banks than under our pillows. If we can't trust our food to be healthy, our drugs to be safe, or our planes to fly without crashing, we'll waste a lot of productive time.

During the debate, I also raised the point that the separation of economics and state implies that businesses and the people who run them are under no obligation to be patriotic.

In the 19th century, the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Fricks, and J.P. Morgans wanted America to do well because their own fortunes were tied to American prosperity. They made America a great economic power by creating jobs and technological advances right here at home. They knew that their own fortunes were bound up with the well-being of their fellow Americans.  

In Ayn Rand's America, the first obligation of CEOs is to their shareholders, not to citizens. Their business is global, not local. Why should they care if they send jobs overseas? Why should they be concerned if American kids can't do math or write a sentence? They'll just outsource the work. Why should they worry that the next generation of Americans is going to have a tough time? Their own kids will do just fine. And in the meantime, they're doing just fine themselves.

Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, sees a problem with this view. He writes, "You could say, as many do, that shipping jobs overseas is no big deal because the high-value work--and much of the profits--remain in the U.S. That may well be so. But what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work--and masses of unemployed?"

Don Peck makes a similar point in his new book, Pinched, and in an Atlantic cover story. "Arguably," he writes, "the most important economic trend in the United States over the past couple of generations has been the ever more distinct sorting of Americans into winners and losers, and the slow hollowing-out of the middle class."

Besides this economic problem, I also see a moral issue with Ayn Rand's insistence that all of us, CEOs included, should be totally free of the ties that bind. I especially disagree when it comes to CEOs. As I wrote here a few months ago, the wealthy have a special responsibility. Much will be asked of those to whom much has been given. Participating in government and civic life, serving in war, helping the less fortunate, and--yes--paying a fair share of taxes are inescapable responsibilities for all Americans, especially for those who have realized the American dream that inspires us all.

I doubt there was anything I could have said in the debate that would have induced Onkar Ghate to view the meaning of freedom in a different light. I suppose he might say the same of me. Still, I can't see how one can be free in a vacuum. Freedom takes work, by each of us, and by our government, to create the place where each of us can prosper. The freedom to sleep under a bridge is no freedom at all. We can only be free when we work together for the well-being of all Americans--including the least among us.

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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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