In 1991, Atlas Shrugged polled as the second most influential book in the United States, behind only the Bible. The nomination of Paul Ryan has caused renewed interest in the philosophy of Ayn Rand. The question of Christians is whether or not the teachings of Christ and Rand only diverge on questions of belief in God, or if their ethical systems are also incompatible.
Yesterday, in Bloomberg, Will Wilkinson made an argument for the compatibility of Ayn Rand’s ethics and those of St. Thomas Aquinas. He argues that both are virtue ethicists who are influenced by Aristotle. This is true, but simply belonging to the same broad category of ethics does not mean the two agree. Aquinas thinks poverty and self-giving are virtues. Rand thinks wealth and selfishness are virtues. The fact that they share the same virtue ethics framework should actually make it even easier to tell that they have completely antithetical beliefs.
Let me quote Summa Theologica at length (II-II Q. 66 A.7):
…whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose [Loc. cit., 2, Objection 3] says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals (Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.”
Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.
Aquinas takes St. Ambrose saying “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold,” to mean that bread is actually the property of the hungry man, and not of the person who happens to be temporarily stewarding it. Aquinas then says that not only can someone else’s goods/property actually be your property because of need, but you can even potentially take someone else’s property because of your neighbor’s need. “In a case of a like need a man may also take secretly another’s property in order to succor his neighbor in need.”
When you start from the premise that everything is God’s and it has been given to you to steward, then you arrive at very different conclusions about how you should use your money/possessions than if you start with the idea that you have earned everything you have. There is a debate going on in our political discourse over how much of an individual’s success is due to the individual and how much is due to society and luck. The properly Christian perspective goes straight past that debate by pointing out that all of it is due to God, and is given to us to steward so that we may come to the aid of those who are in need.
For more on Ayn Rand and her influence on the right, I highly recommend this longish piece by Jonathan Chait.
Update: I have edited this piece to clarify some confusion about St. Thomas’s argument concerning property rights. My original language was unclear.