Economics 101

Reading Ayn Rand Through A Biblical Lens

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Photo courtesy of Anna Roarke

Ed. note: this post is adapted from portions of David Kotter’s research paper, Check Your Premises: Ayn Rand Through A Biblical Lens. You can read the full paper here.

How does one explain the popularity of Ayn Rand over the decades?

All of her books are still in print, and more than thirty million copies of her novels Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, We the Living, and Anthem have been sold.

I think that one reason for Rand’s continued popularity is that her work sometimes presents deep truths from the Bible, however unintentionally, that resonate with readers.

Even when Rand is inconsistent with the Bible, her novels are appealing because they attempt to provide justification of the sinful pride resident in everyone.

For example, Rand divides all people into two categories: myself and everyone else.

With respect to the self, she contends that selfishness is the virtue which allows individuals to be free to live, free to work productively, and free not to fear violence. When I read her books as an unbelieving teenager, it was because of my sinful nature that I was drawn to her arguments that justified caring for myself more than anyone else.

Interestingly, the Bible also contains motivating appeals to self-interest. For example, Jesus presumes that everyone will act according to self-interest in asking in Matthew 5:46, “if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”

Further, Jesus repeatedly declares that a reward will be given to those who give to the needy in secret (Matthew 6:4), or lend at generous terms (Luke 6:35).

Since Rand operated strictly from a materialist perspective, she missed Jesus’ point about eternal reward, much less about living for the glory of God in everything and not for one’s self.

In dealing with others, Rand contends selfishness requires that relationships should fundamentally be based on trade for mutual benefit, whether among family members or in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, she completely misses the essence of loving self-sacrifice for family, friends, and the church. For Rand, this led to awkward character development of the relationships in her novels, and also the the tragic relationships she experienced in her own life.

Rand’s viewpoint regarding trade for mutual benefit in the marketplace is consistent with the biblical worldview of the marketplace where individuals pursue an honest profit by serving others with fair prices and quality goods.

Nevertheless, the Bible also cautions that self-interest can devolve into the sin of selfishness and greed. These can lead to still more sinful behavior. For example, employers could be tempted to short workers on the wages (James 5:4), or a buyer could be less than honest during a transaction (Proverbs 20:14).

This points to the fact that the Bible views self-interest differently than how most of us would define it. For more on the difference between self-interest and selfishness, see this post by my colleague Jay Richards.

In addition, individuals have the right to profit from productive labor, but this right is not a license for hoarding wealth nor self-indulgence. Among the reasons for the destruction of the city of Sodom, according to Ezekiel 16:49, was that they “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

This highlights a conundrum faced by people in business every day: free markets are driven by self-interest to produce prosperity for millions of people, yet self-interest apart from the gospel rapidly devolves into the sinful selfishness promoted by Rand.

How else do you think Ayn Rand’s views compare and contrast with a biblical worldview? Leave your comments here

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