To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement.
—Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics” (1964)
We are not our own…
—John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536)
Jesus or Ayn Rand?
Politics has long made strange bedfellows. Ayn Rand has for years been the darling of American conservatives. Her novels, particularly Atlas Shrugged, and her essays argue for a free market in terms of a libertarian worldview. But Ayn Rand was a self-conscious atheist, and a lot of conservatives are professing Christians. Smart liberals have pointed out this foolish inconsistency. So they ask… how can sincere Christians support the ethical philosophy and writings of a God-hating, third-rate novelist? These liberals aren’t concerned about the spiritual integrity of their Christian neighbors, of course. Their motives are political and their tactics pragmatic. Nonetheless, their question is a good one. It’s especially good since Ayn Rand deliberately linked her dedication to the free market to her atheism. The prophet’s ancient question, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3), is unavoidably relevant.
Rand’s ethics, like those of her fellow libertarians, begin with a simple assumption: “I am my own.” My old friend Murray Rothbard spoke of “every man’s absolute right of self-ownership.” For Murray, self-ownership is a natural right because it is simply what he thought to be naturally best for him. Murray could have done better—he was a sharp guy. His claim and the claim of other libertarians is ambiguous. What is “self-ownership”? And what is a “right”?
Let’s be honest—anyone can claim autonomy and self-ownership. Small children often yell, “I’m not going to do it, and you can’t make me!” Adults often make similar claims. Remember Henley’s poem, “Invictis.” Yet no man has ever willed himself into existence. No man ever chose his parents or the color of his skin. No man can control the growth or degeneration of his body’s cells. No man can stave off death by an act of their will. Nowhere in the objective facts of human life are there any grounds for the dogma of self-ownership—except in the trivial sense that a man’s consciousness is linked to a particular body and will inescapably enjoy or endure whatever physical conditions that body experiences. In the same way, a prisoner may be said to “own” his prison cell.
And, of course, a man’s claim to self-ownership does nothing to protect him from those who don’t accept his claim. You can be robbed, beaten, enslaved, or killed by others who have greater power or privilege. All the while you can scream, “I am my own!” But the claim will have no material effect on your situation. Nature will not avenge you or correct the situation in any way. Your “right” is an unenforced right.
And what shall we say about your oppressors in this case? Are those who have abused you evil? And if so, the question is always by what standard?
Absolute or Relative?
Good and evil have become vague terms for Post-Modern Americans. From a theistic perspective, there are absolutes defined by an absolute God. From any other perspective, they are emotional or pragmatic terms, much like “painful” and “pleasant.” For instance, if a man hurts me, I say he is evil; that is, he has caused me pain, and I don’t like it. In the broader scope of things, he has hindered me from caring for my family or being a productive member of my community. A lot of people wouldn’t like that. And so a lot of people will think my assailant is evil—or at least that he has done “evil.” But what if I’m a crazed dictator about to sign an order for continent-wide “kill all the Jews” genocide? Is my assailant then a “good” man, now maybe even a hero? Sure.
More Like Guidelines
Thinking libertarians properly distinguish rules from standards. We obey rules; we observe standards. Rules imply sanctions; standards don’t. They’re more like guidelines, I suppose. Standards in our culture tell us what we must do if we want a particular end, but they don’t compel us or require us to seek those ends. Libertarians hate rules, but they have their “standards” because they have outcomes in mind. In theory, however, those outcomes are personal and individual. Each man, after all, seeks his own long-term happiness. To say that the personal happiness of individuals will result in the personal happiness of everyone is an incredible act of faith.
But people desire different outcomes . They aren’t homogeneous in their tastes or desires. Nor are people omniscient. No man can say with any certainty what will or won’t create long-term happiness. The wisdom of past generations on such matters is fallible, even contradictory. But here’s the thing… Ayn Rand didn’t want folks to listen to any human authorities, except Ayn Rand. Better to be a bumbling, inconsistent god yourself than the disciple of anyone else—unless you were a disciple of Ayn Rand.
Libertarians and Private Property
Rand’s defense of private property had to be then, hypothetical. She liked the word if:
If a man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. (“This Is John Galt Speaking,” 1963).
According to Rand… for man to live as man, he must live rationally. He must value his personal happiness and work toward it. Private property is a necessary corollary to such happiness. Those who reject these conditions for happiness she writes off as thugs, parasites, and beasts. She will hear nothing of survival at any cost, but only the survival of her “man qua man.” And “man qua man” needs private property, she said.
But Rand’s standards are simply unfounded as well as blatantly religious. What if a man is quite content to live as a thug, a parasite, or a beast? What if a man prefers the life of the indolent, state-supported poor to that of the highly pressured but moderately successful middle-class? What if a man honestly prefers narcotic delirium to eight hours plus of mental discipline and exertion? It’s a little crazy for libertarians to say, “Well, he shouldn’t want to be poor”, unless libertarianism wants to become a prescriptive and authoritarian. Men value what they value, and there’s no accounting for taste. There is, however, the forgotten reality of sin.
Rand to the contrary, reason doesn’t and can’t prescribe morality and virtue. Reason may show man the most efficient way to obtain success or wealth or happiness, but it can’t oblige him to pursue any of these. What if a man doesn’t want to be happy? Worse, what if he doesn’t want to be rational? Reason sputters. Reason offers no real answers. Neither does Ayn Rand.
The Metaphysics of Ownership
The biblical concept of ownership or possession goes back into eternity, into the relationships among the Persons of the Trinity. In Proverbs, divine Wisdom says, “The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old” (Prov. 8:22). The word for “possessed” (qanah) can mean just that. But it often means to acquire by purchase. One may “buy” (qanah) food or cattle. Qanah is also the word Eve used when she bore Cain: “I have gotten a man from the LORD” (Gen. 4:1): that is, qanah can mean to acquire through begetting or bearing. That meaning is included in Proverbs 8:22. The Father possessed His Wisdom, the divine Logos, by eternal generation: the Word is the Father’s only begotten Son.
It may seem strange that Scripture uses the same word to describe relationships that are so different: the Father to the Son; a human mother to her child; a farmer to his land. The explanation lies in the relationship of God to His creation. The life of God is archetypical and original for everything within the created order. Every facet of reality points back to its Creator, though with varying degrees of clarity. This is especially true of man, who is made in God’s image.
A man’s relationship to his wife, his child, and his dog are by no means equal or equivalent. But all these relationships are within God’s sovereign purposes, and all are defined and delineated by God’s law. That is, they are covenantal. Neither spouse may sell the other, of course, but each has God-ordained responsibilities to and claims upon the other. The reciprocal responsibilities that define a marriage are not the same as those that define a father’s relationship to his son. The responsibilities of a man towards his dog, his land, or his money are quite different from those of marriage and family. But all of these relationships are personal in that they involve the requirements of an absolutely personal God, who owns the world.
Possessor of Heaven and Earth
God is the Creator and Owner of all things, “the Possessor of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:19, 22). He is both transcendent and immanent. He is distinct from His creation and yet present within it at every point and every moment. In other words, God is not as the Deists say… an absentee Landlord. He is personally involved with every person, object, and relationship in His whole creation. He is Lord of all economic goods and transactions. He has an infinite number of purposes in each. But this sovereign God has delegated limited responsibilities within His creation to individual men and women. The biblical word for this is stewardship.
Stewardship and Private Property
The eighth commandment from Sinai was, “Thou shalt not steal” (Ex. 20:15). This means that man’s stewardship of God’s world is primarily individual and particular. I am responsible for this house, this plot of land, this sum of money. I am responsible for my things; my neighbor is responsible for his. I am not to steal from him; he is not to steal from me. Pretty simple. We are alike responsible before God for all that we have, and one day we will give account of our stewardship. For God’s ownership implies a final reckoning, a Judgment to come (Matt. 25). It also implies covenantal judgments within time and history (Lev. 26; Deut. 28).
“Thou Shalt Not Steal” and the Public Good
“Thou shalt not steal” is an application of the greater commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt. 22:39). Christian ethics are radically at odds with selfishness and an uncaring attitude toward others. Paul says, “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:28). In other words, the prohibition of theft at the same time requires productive work and practical charity. A man should work hard, save his money, and give generously to those in true need. The laws that governed Israel extended this principle to include a tithe for the poor, the practice of gleaning, and zero interest on charity loans (Deut. 14:28ff; 23:19ff; 24:19ff). But the civil government’s involvement with these practices was minimal to nonexistent. The requirements for charity were moral and not statist, as those who love God would show love to their neighbors without compulsion.
At the same time, God did ordain civil government (Rom. 13:1-7). He set the parameters and duties of the state in His word. Its most common duties are to protect the life, liberty, and property of the innocent. Redistribution of wealth is not among its duties. Neither is creation of wealth out of nothing. It is wrong for the state to steal. As far as Scripture is concerned, eminent domain laws, excessive taxation, monetary inflation, wage and price controls, and government subsidies are all forms of theft. They are not acts of charity, but of oppression. The biblical state is a very limited thing, powerful in what it ought to do, but intentionally weak everywhere else. God favors civil liberty, but on His terms, spelled out in Scripture.
In The Screwtape Letters (no. 21), C. S. Lewis has the demon Screwtape say this about man’s natural ideas of ownership:
The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell, and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity come from men’s belief that they “own” their bodies—those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another!
John Calvin gets at the same idea from the other direction:
We are not our own; therefore, neither is our own reason or will to rule our acts and counsels… On the other hand, we are God’s; let us, therefore, live and die to him (Rom. xiv. 8). (Institutes, III: vii: 1)
It is one thing to cooperate with those who hate God in short-term projects with limited goals; we do that every day (I even use Google once in a while). It is quite another to embrace the worldviews of atheists or pronounce blessings upon their social ethics. Liberty is not the intellectual property of libertarians in general or of Ayn Rand in particular. Liberty is a Christian concept rooted in the nature of God and the promise of the gospel. Christians need to reclaim their intellectual property and be faithful to the Lord, Jesus Christ.
For Further Reading:
Gary North, The Dominion Covenant: Genesis (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1982).
Gary North, “Economics: From Reason to Intuition,” in Foundations of Christian Scholarship, Essays in the Van Til Perspective (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1976), 74-101.
Rousas J. Rushdoony, Christianity and the State (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1986).
Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard, The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, TX: The Institute for Christian Economics, 1985).