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?
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.
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.