Alex Blaze

Jesus, Smith, Rand, and... Skousen?

Filed By Alex Blaze | March 12, 2007 11:43 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Adam Smith, Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, Christian beliefs, libertarianism, Mark Skousen

I just came across this Christian Science Monitor editorial about Randian economics. After explaining the entire plot of Atlas Shrugged (thanks for the spoiler), editorialist Mark Skousen writes:

But there's a dark side to Rand's teachings. Her defense of greed and selfishness, her diatribes against religion and charitable sacrificing for others who are less fortunate, and her criticism of the Judeo- Christian virtues under the guise of rational Objectivism have tarnished her advocacy of unfettered capitalism.
Gee, who'd a thunk, there's tension between capitalism and Christianity! Maybe Skousen should have read the Sermon on the Mount before Atlas Shrugged to have had a better idea of what to expect in terms of its morality.

Leaving that aside, he finds a middle road between Communism and Randian capitalism in Adam Smith:

Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, may have found that Aristotelian mean in his "system of natural liberty." Mr. Smith and Rand agree on the universal benefits of a free, capitalistic society. But Smith rejects Rand's vision of selfish independence. He asserts two driving forces behind man's actions.

In "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," he identifies the first as "sympathy" or "benevolence" toward others in society. In his later work, "The Wealth of Nations," he focuses on the second - self-interest - which he defines as the right to pursue one's own business. Both, he argues, are essential to achieve "universal opulence."

Skousen ignores two key points about reading Smith as a guidebook to modern economics, which I'll get into after the jump.

First, the world Smith was writing in was way different. The chief endt of the invisible hand was to produce the most wealth and distribute it fairly (not equally, just fairly). Since the biggest impediment to that in Smith's time was the self-centered system of monarchal rule, he saw unfettered capitalism as the answer to that. He did have the benefit of living through the Industrial Revolution, where he would have seen lakes catching fire because they were so polluting, the globe burning up in a way that no individualist ethic has the power or the foresight to stop, and factories working people into early graves at slave-labor wages to maximize profit. Smith, an astute economic philosopher, was no social scientist and he did not, nor could he, provide testable hypotheses and subsequent experimentation to prove his points.

Second, Smith's reconciliation of a will to altruism and a will for personal wealth in a way that maximizes both is not the fittest way of running business. Skousen says that the government should be hands off with regards to business decisions and charity will benefit from Smith's middle path. Well, la-de-da. It would be nice for our society to be run by high-minded and charitable corporate power, but, fact is, they're not all that way. They're not even close to all being that way. There are few notable exceptions (I'd add Ben & Jerry's to Skousen's list), but all-in-all, a charitable drive based on anything other than attracting more customers hurts a business more than it helps. If a business chooses to donate to orphanages anonymously instead of investing in a new store or better production equipment, they have become a little less fit in the contest for fiscal survival with other firms. Add up many choices like that, and the ones who win are the ones who follow Rand's model of self-centeredness, not Smith's middle path.

Of course, we could all adopt Skousen-style libertarianism and cross our fingers and hope that those who enjoy immense power at the heads of private industry exercise that power appropriately. But most of us will live in the reality that a system that is predicated on rewarding those who are greedy and self-centered will ultimately be ruled by people who are greedy and self-centered. Skousen finds Christian morality in this middle road, where it may well be in theory, but Christianity's heavy focus on the community over the individual and celebration of society's meek and down-trodden will always be thorns in libertarian economic policy's side.

Now if we could only get the average Christian Coalitioner to know who she's in bed with when she votes GOP....

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There shouldn't be any conflict between capitalism and Christianity. I recommend Eric Schansberg's book "Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left" to learn more about why this should be.

The reason there is a conflict between Christianity and capitalism is that the alleged practitioners of capitalism are really practicing a new age version of mercantilism. Capitalism properly understood is compatible with Christianity as originally posited (and not as alleged by power organizations since then).