Know thine enemy

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Among Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Street movement, mentions of Ayn Rand and her ideas have always been floating around. A spiritual adviser to President Obama, Jim Wallis, said recently, “I distrust a movement that lifts up [an] … atheist – Ayn Rand — as their philosophical guide.” Though he is probably not a Tea Partier, I presume his position is shared by many religious conservatives within that movement. On the other hand, the Occupy Wall Street crowd’s disdain for capitalism pits them opposite the woman who penned “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.” The criticisms and attacks persist, yet Rand remains relevant. Why?

Ayn Rand was the author of two timeless fictional novels but her non-fiction work was equally prolific. She minted a new philosophy, objectivism, from the ideas she developed. Within that framework, the political-economic condition she advocated is laissez-faire capitalism.

In a nutshell, the current political-economic system holds many captive by its complexity. Capitalism simplifies everything. Rather than attempting to govern the complexity with supercomputers and super-committees, the load is distributed to billions of individuals worldwide interacting freely with each other. It is uncontrollably efficient. Billions of decisions are calculated per second without the impositions of central planning. Individuals think for themselves, gain through productivity, lose by their mistakes. The essence of capitalism is personal responsibility, or more broadly, justice. Injustice is why people are camping in Manhattan to condemn the wealthy and marching on our capitol to oppose legislation. People sense injustice. Rand defines what justice is and explains how to achieve it.

Her skill at explaining economic justice has attracted conservatives among the Tea Party movement. Predictably, since she only relies on reason to validate her ideas, the religious are threatened by her anti-faith position. This leads them to pick and choose which of her ideas suit their needs. This is her connection to Libertarians and the Tea Party crowd.

The Occupy Wall Street crowd are antagonistic. But why? Her logic didn’t start offensively with, “How can I become rich?” or even, “What is the greatest good for the greatest number?” She started with, “How do I protect the individual?” From there she recognized capitalism as the only moral social system since it means protecting voluntary exchange among free individuals. Ironically, this is missed by the Occupy Wall Street crowd, who affix evil concepts to the word capitalism. They need to understand what it means before they vilify it. It would not allow a billionaire to be destroyed by a mob. It would not allow a broke-ass to be evicted for a development. Rich or poor, minority or majority — the individual is the standard.

This is a mixed economy. Nobody can point to capitalism and say, “Look, here it is and it works,” or, “Look, here it is and it is evil.” It does not and has never existed in its pure form. Accepting that fact, Rand rose to the challenge illuminating capitalism time after time in public appearances and lectures. As unsettling as that was to many, she continued in the hopes that her ideas would lead eventually to individual liberty. Looking now at our contemporary protesters, want of individual protections are what they all have in common. That is why Rand’s ideas are alive and well.

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