To a sizable number of conservatives, Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged is practically scripture. To another sizable number, Christian scripture is a law higher than the Constitution.
If you want to appreciate just how strange that is, consider the passage that gives Atlas Shrugged its title:
“Mr. Rearden,” said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, “if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders – what would you tell him to do?”
“I … don’t know. What … could he do? What would you tell him?”
Both Francisco d’Anconia and Hank Rearden are heroes of the novel. Ultimately, Francisco convinces Hank and many other right-thinking capitalists to vanish and let the success-punishing world economy fend for itself without their genius and productivity. Francisco’s exit is particularly dramatic: He destroys all the assets that he can’t take with him into hiding.
The capitalists are Atlas. They shrug and let the world economy collapse. (Well, Francisco does a bit more than shrug. He didn’t just let those copper mines collapse. But never mind.)
Now imagine entering the novel to ask this question: “Mr. d’Anconia, if you saw Jesus, whipped and with a crown of thorns on his head, his knees buckling, his arms trembling, but still trying to drag his cross down the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha – what would you tell him to do?”
That impossible image – Jesus shrugging off the cross and returning to Heaven six weeks early – sums up the incompatibility of Randism and Christianity. Rand taught that the powerful bear no obligation to the helpless. Jesus had other ideas.
Rand held private property rights to be absolute. That’s how Francisco can guiltlessly blow up his mines. They’re his. Forget superstitious nonsense like Psalm 24’s “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Property is not something you hold in trust for a higher power. Owning property entails no moral responsibility at all. It’s yours. Do whatever you want with it.
Short of pure Orwellian doublethink, there’s no way to square that with Christianity. Rand herself didn’t even try. She found “the inviolate integrity of man’s soul” and “a code of altruism” to be “a great, basic contradiction in the teachings of Jesus”.
This is why men have never succeeded in applying Christianity in practice, while they have preached it in theory for two thousand years. The reason of their failure was not men’s natural depravity or hypocrisy, which is the superficial (and vicious) explanation usually given. The reason is that a contradiction cannot be made to work.
Ryan is a Randist whose budget plan Francisco d’Anconia would love. As Paul Krugman sums up, “it slashes taxes for corporations and the rich while drastically cutting food and medical aid to the needy”. It deals with the resulting deficit increase by closing unspecified tax loopholes that lobbyists will undoubtedly manage to keep open once they get specified.
But Ryan also claims to be a good Catholic, so now he’s trying to make that work too. Like Peter denying Jesus, Ryan now calls his Randism “an urban legend“. But that trick is hard to pull off in the Age of Google, when everything you’ve been saying for years is easily retrievable. You know who started that urban legend? Paul Ryan.
Unfortunately for Ryan’s attempt to wash his budget in the blood of the lamb, popes have been handing down bleeding-sacred-heart encyclicals on economic policy since Rerum Novarum in 1891. (You can get the general flavor from this week’s Sift quote or my article on John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens.) Worse, the Church has actual experts who keep track of these things, so you can’t just cherry-pick the Catholic tradition for out-of-context quotes and expect nobody to call you on it.
Ninety members of the Georgetown faculty called Paul Ryan on it:
we would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few. … In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The particular doctrine Ryan misuses is called “subsidiarity” (first enunciated in Rerum Novarum). As theologian Meghan Clark explains it:
According to the principle of subsidiarity, decisions should be made at the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary.
And BeliefNet editor David Gibson elaborates:
[Subsidiarity] argues that lower levels of society (individuals, families, communities) should be allowed to carry out social functions that they can fulfill and larger society (state and federal governments), meanwhile, should provide help (“subsidium,” is the formal Latin term) to cover things the smaller units cannot. … If Washington has to do it, so be it; if Mayberry can do it, all the better. But if Mayberry can’t, then Washington has an obligation to step in.
Conservative policy genuinely based on subsidiarity would work upward from below: As local churches, charities and neighborhood organizations developed plans and raised resources to care for the poor and helpless, local governments could re-purpose their resources on services that the state now provides. States could similarly replace federal programs, and the federal government would shrink because there was less for it to do.
None of that is actually happening in any significant way. Instead, conservatives at all levels cut programs and taxes, using the excuse that problems would be better handled further down the chain. But down-the-chain conservatives are not reaching up to take the responsibilities that up-the-chain conservatives are dropping.
I could sympathize with, say, Ryan’s desire to cut federal services for the poor in his district if conservative Governor Scott Walker were eager to expand Wisconsin’s state programs to take up the slack (and raise state taxes to pay for them) as subsidiarity demands.
But is he? I don’t think so.
If elected at all levels, conservative officials from the president to the councilman would shrug and let responsibility for the poor drop like a stone. That’s not subsidiarity, and it’s not Catholic or any other kind of Christian.
Francisco d’Anconia, though, could probably give a great speech about it.