The release of a film based on “Atlas Shrugged” has got people talking about freedom, prosperity, entrepreneurs and government. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Ayn (pronounced like the word “mine,” but without the “m”) Rand, the author behind the novel that led to the film, indulged in an error that characterized the mis-rulers of the Soviet Union.
A totalitarian government (including the Soviet Union during some of its existence) does not recognize a distinction between the civil society and the political one. That’s why a totalitarian society has thought police, churches that are forced to go underground, and the like.
Rand was right to oppose the over-reaching state. But she did so for the wrong reason. To grossly simplify her thought, the welfare state is bad because humans owe no responsibility to each other, save to refrain from inflicting harm.
While the totalitarians sought to control civil society, Rand rejected its existence. As a friend of mine put it, “This is the real tragedy of Ayn Rand: she had no concept of a civil society with voluntary institutions.”
I agree with Rand that the welfare state is bad–but it’s because humans do in fact have responsibilities to each other. The welfare state is harmful because it gets in the way of fulfilling those responsibilities.
In addition, rejecting the over-reaching state is a good political philosophy, but it’s incomplete as a philosophy of life.
For some critiques of Rand from a religious viewpoint, see a summary of a recent article in First Things. The take-down (some would say hatchet job) by Whittaker Chambers is a classic. Consider also the intellectual father of capitalism himself, Adam Smith, whose “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” “derives … economic progress … from the network of sympathetic relationships binding individuals to one another.”