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Friday, September 07, 2012  

Between God and Rand

An interesting treatment of the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder--Rose Wilder Lane--and her sometimes friendly, sometimes vexed relationship with fellow libertarian writer Ayn Rand at the New Yorker site yields this nugget of wisdom:

Lane and Rand exchanged collegial letters for a while in the late nineteen-forties and early nineteen-fifties. But when Lane invoked the Biblical imperative to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and protested that “without some form of mutual coöperation, it is literally impossible for one person on this planet to survive,” Rand “tore apart [her] logic” and denounced it as collectivist heresy. That sort of impulse, she concluded (to help your neighbor save his burning house, for example) led inexorably “to the New Deal.”

Rand’s ruthless supremacism, however—her stark division of humankind into “makers and takers”—leads inexorably to a society like the one that staged “The Hunger Games.” And it’s to Lane’s credit that, for all her zealotry, she couldn’t quite transcend the instinct to give succor.

In this instructive instance, I think Rand was actually right. Modern-day mainstream libertarians tend to elide the continuities between what they insist a government can do effectively (police) and what they insist it can't (Social Security), as if the first were sort of straightforward and easy and the latter were just hopelessly impossible. But as Matt Yglesias is fond of pointing out with respect to places like the Mexican border country, even those "minimal" functions of the night-watchman state are really hard to get right, and if you can do them right, there's no obvious reason you can't do other things right, too.

Even more problematic, however, is the essentializing of "government" as a phenomenon that is entirely distinct from everything else--business, local non-profits, churches, whatever. What Rand seems to have gotten right in this colloquium is that government is just another structure of cooperation. Once you acknowledge the interdependence of human beings and the need for cooperation, you can't avoid the eventual conclusion that a state of some kind will be pretty darned useful. Necessary, even, for some things (you can't have a national military without a state and a taxing power, obviously) and not at all suitable for others (helping your buddy move), but inescapable once you've decided that you need to do some things together at a scale larger than a small settlement. If the New Deal is categorically immoral--leaving aside whether it was prudent or well-implemented--then so is the norm that neighbors and communities are obligated to provide mutual aid. (The corporation is another large structure of cooperation, but that's a topic for another day). 

Now this would be remembered, if at all, as the ranting of an eccentric writer if that writer hadn't ended up having quite a lot of influence over the thought (granting the term) of some pretty powerful people in America. The latest of these, of course, is Paul Ryan, who introduced his famous policy proposals dressed up in Randian rhetorical garb. Until, that is, Rand's vigorous atheism became a problem for Ryan's would-be admirers on the Christian Right. 

This prompted two moves on the part of Ryan and his friends at outlets like National Review. First, Ryan reframed his proposals in the language of Catholic social ethics, putting forward terms like "subsidiarity" and "preferential option for the poor" that had been wholly absent from his first two and a half years of advocacy for dramatically reduced safety-net spending. Then he distanced himself from the "urban legend" that he was a big fan of the Russian expatriate. 

“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.
I'm not quite sure what epistemology has to do with anything, exactly; perhaps Ryan is saying that the ordinary truths of rational investigation that most of us deal with become, by passing through a black box of divine aid, capital-T Truths for all times and places. But be that as it may, it's a rather serious mistake to look at Ayn Rand's philosophy and conclude that what's missing from it is God. God is, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer, not a "working hypothesis" that you tack on to a worldview in order to fix this or that problem. God certainly can't be appended to a Randian worldview in order to elevate human interactions a notch from contracts or fix one's epistemology. As Aquinas held, "God is love" is actually the only non-figurative statement one can make about God. Before anything else, God is the possibility of altruism, of suffering for the sake of the neighbor, stranger, enemy, or the morally unworthy, of extending onself beyond safety or rational self-interest. God is the ground of all cooperation that does not obviously or easily redound to the benefit of one of the parties involved. If you don't believe in those things, you're an atheist whether you whistle for God to handle your epistemology or you just muddle along like everyone else. 

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:54 PM
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