Tuesday, September 20, 2011

“Get the Government Off Our Backs!”

The separation of church and state is a long-standing and much-appreciated (by many, including me) principle in the United States. To be sure, there are some who criticize that principle, often because they don’t understand its true meaning.
Recently I learned that there are also people who advocate the separation of economics and state. Just as the principle of separation of church and state means, among other things, that the state should have no control over religious institutions and activities, the separation of economics and state means primarily that the state should have no control over economic/financial activities.
This seems to be the position of the people in our society, most clearly represented by the Tea Party, who keep exclaiming “get the government off our backs!” It is mainly the federal government they are talking about, and their specific opposition is to taxes and government controls/regulations on anything related to economic matters.
The call for separation of economics and state was a strongly-held position of Russian-American novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, who has gained a remarkable number of followers through the years. Her name has been heard often this year.
Rand is well known partly because of her two bestselling novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) and for the philosophical system she called Objectivism.
I have to admit that I have not read Rand’s novels, and I certainly have not taken the time to listen to the 63-hour (!) “audible audio edition” of her 1957 novel.
But I have read enough about them, and her philosophy, to know her key ideas. And recently June and I watched the movie “The Fountainhead” (1949), for which Rand wrote the screenplay. The next evening we watched the biographical documentary “Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words” (2011).
And then we watched the movie “The Passion of Ayn Rand”(1999), featuring Helen Mirren as Rand and based on the book by Barbara Branden, wife of the young man with whom Rand had a lengthy affair.
The Ayn Rand Center (ARC) is the public policy and outreach division of the Ayn Rand Institute. According to their website, “The Center’s mission is to advance individual rights (the rights of each person to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness) as the moral basis for a fully free, laissez-faire capitalist society.”
This idea of “a fully free, laissez-faire capitalist society” necessitates the separation of economics and the state (government). Such separation may be good (financially beneficial) for people in business and for those who have money (capital). It is not so good for people who are poor, needing help in securing the basic necessities of life.
Since Ayn Rand was an outspoken advocate of selfishness and opponent of altruism, it is disheartening to see how now there are so many, including some top politicians (Congresspersons), who openly advocate her philosophy.
For example, Representative Paul Ryan reportedly requires his staffers to read Atlas Shrugged and calls Rand “the reason I got involved in public service.”
Doesn’t that kind of thinking lead not only to the separation of economics and state but also, sadly, to the separation of compassion and state?


  1. Leroy:

    Once again you have raised such an important distinction. I fail to understand why middle class and lower income people could embrace an idea that is so destructive to the life of this nation. I understand that the United States is not ready for socialized medicine but please let's not give up on compassion and justice by separating politics and economics.

  2. You're exactly right. It does lead to separation of compassion and state.

    However, it's also misguided on other accounts. For one thing, as Friedrich Hayek pointed out but which anybody can see, capitalist enterprise requires a state-sponsored system governed by the rule of law. In addition, the state enforces all the rules against cheating, fraud, theft, etc., and it builds the infrastructure required by business. So to suggest that government and economic enterprise can be separated is plainly an ideological falsehood.

    Furthermore, what laissez-faire does, which the Marxists were uniquely able to see, is turn society over to the law of the jungle, and most people end up wage slaves to powerful corporations/capitalists--hardly an advance in freedom. It has always appeared to me to be the logical extension of feudalism minus the responsibility of the lords to make life secure for their serfs.

    It's an ideology originally fashioned in a time when most workers were farmers or those of small cottage industries. It was reinforced during industrialization by neo-classical economics and Social Darwinism. (At least the Social Darwinists were honest about its effects.)

    Of course, Ayn Rand's "selfishness" is probably a poorly chosen word, given that its everyday use typically refers to self-centered jerks. That's not how she's using it. But it does grab one's attention.

    David is so right. I, too, do not understand why American working-class people don't see through the smokescreen of laissez-faire.

  3. Here are helpful comments Dr. Milton Horne tried unsuccessfully to post directly. (I wish it was not so hard for comments to be posted; he certainly is not the only one who has had difficulties doing that.)

    "I think the libertarians (including tea-partiers) would like John Stuart Mill's 'On Liberty,' or at least up to the point of where he is no longer a supporter of their proposals. For, as much as he draws clear boundaries as to where the government (through laws) and society (through opinion) may intervene in an individual's behavior, he still allows a remarkable latitude for government.

    "We might consider these words, from the opening of his chapter 4 entitled: 'Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual'

    "He says: '...everyone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct toward the rest.'"

  4. Thinking Friend Les Hill of Kentucky also had trouble posting the following pertinent comments:

    "You did not include the conservative Christians who tout Ayn Rand's positions. They fail to take into account that she was as anti-religious as she was anti-government. That of course explains her advocacy of selfishness and opposition to altruism. She has no biblical corrective, though many of those who support her position do. Strange bedfellows!

    "Monuments to the cooperation of strong business and government include: opening the lower Mississippi to free navigation, flood control and irrigation means of Hoover Dam, rural and nationwide electrification beginning with the TVA, aqueducts that began New City's clean water potential, the interstate highway system and the present new World Trade Center. This does not include the many efforts to overcome the great depression-the much questioned and threatened (?) social security system lives on. I find it interesting that the country so many consider as 'Christian' seems to be the only developed nation that has not already assured medical care for all its citizens. Hopefully we are on the way!?!"

  5. Strangely, while I disagree with them on most issues, on one subject, they have been exactly right. Decades ago, in the early days of the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC, one of the explained, "They use our Bible, but not our dictionary." Then just a few days ago, Speaker John Boehner said:

    "Listen, the President and I have a very good relationship. We get along fine,” said Boehner. “But, we come from two different worlds. I come to this job as a small business person who felt that government was too big, spent too much, and was out of control; and I still look at myself as that same person. The president comes from a different ideology. And while we have a good relationship sometimes the conversations that we have would be like two groups of people from two different planets who barely understand each other. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but there is a reason why you have two major political parties with big disagreements." (See http://cnsnews.com/news/article/boehner-talking-obama-talking-someone-another-planet.)

    We have gone from different dictionaries, to different planets. I wonder if we would be better off if we actually worked on that theory. Just assume, that when a conservative says something that sounds like a monstrosity, that in fact he is just talking in space alien. Now if we could just borrow that universal translator from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy!

  6. With various overlaps, there are those who believe in Church, those who believe in State, those who believe in both, and those who believe in neither. The vocal polarity of the first two (which in my opinion have their place but are out of balance) is where the tension is heard.

    As Christian economists have pointed out, if people would give 10% of their income to the religious institution of their choice to do good, their would be no need for government social programs anywhere in the world. (Of course there is always the problem of self-perpetuation in both Church and State when a job is done.)

    Non-profits (including the Church) are generally far more efficient with resources than the State (I have worked for both), yet they only receive about 2% of people's income. (Of course there will always be the shysters out there, but the IRS has means of testing, just not means of making them known.)

    How does society encourage altruism by all to efficiently benefit all?

  7. Significant comments from another Thinking Friend in Kentucky:

    "That's the key question, Leroy. And I think the answer is a resounding yes. I've recently finished reading 'The Fountainhead' and 'Atlas Shrugged.' They advocate the most extreme form of individualism and represent a direct repudiation of the Jewish-Christian tradition. In one of the closing scenes of 'Atlas Shrugged' is a judge's proposal to introduce a constitutional amendment to prohibit any legislation restricting free enterprise. Sadly, many of the Tea Partiers think the ideas they espouse come from the scriptures!"

  8. A very good point. A fresh reading of the holy Scriptures, and of the United States Constitution to see what they really say, instead of listening to others' interpretations, would be good for all American Christians.

  9. I'm ready for (and already have) socialized medicine (Medicare), and I thought Medicare-for-All would have been a good plan. Regarding Social Darwinism, I'd like to suggest a new approach to social betterment via evolutionary principles: "The Neighborhood Project" by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson. He speaks about Ayn Rand and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and compares them to the individualistic water striders and the social insects like ants and bees. We humans have both "model citizens" and "knaves." We usually exist in equilibrium, but there may be techniques to increase the numbers of altruistic humans, and "convert" the cheaters and crooks. . . .

  10. Here are comments received a few hours ago in an e-mail from a Thinking Friend who lives in Tennessee:

    "I am glad you posted the information on Ayn. I have not read hardly any of her writings either, but every reference others make to her philosophy frightens me. She evidently has no concern for others, which makes for an unlivable society."

  11. The same Thinking Friend who recently read Rand's two large novels (see above), wrote again, saying,

    "I'm afraid our most ego-centric self wins out over an other-directed self when it comes to personal gain. Rand's heroes don't even want to thank other people for doing something nice lest it appear that they act out of something other than self-interest."