Is There any Virtue in Selfishness?


I’d always thought not, at least in the sense I mean it here; to hold a thing to oneself to the exclusion of almost all others. In the religious or political sense, to be exclusivist, elitist.

But it appears a lot of “professional” conservatives practice this sense of the word “selfish” religiously, yet hold themselves out to be virtuous. There is an irony here since so many of them at the same time despise the author of the notion that there is indeed virtue in selfishness.

For you see, with the recent opening of  “Atlas Shrugged, Part One,” there has been the expected attacks on followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy from the Left, but also, from the “putative Right” as things both Christians and conservatives should hate.

Ordinarily, in peace time, these would be considered little more than intellectual cat fights and no one but club members would pay any attention. But this is wartime and I’m more interested in talk of meeting and defeating the Enemy. So I find these kinds of plumage display childishly churlish at best, but in wartime, downright unpatriotic if they in any way interfere with our fight. Even 4-F’s should feel some sense of humility by respecting the men and women actually out there fighting the Enemy, while they are comfortably at home raking leaves and having some of mom’s apple pie.

How tiny-minded of the weak and infirm.

So I thought it might be helpful to discuss Miss Rand’s contributions to conservatism in light of our war with the Left, which she helped launch, since that really is the only relevancy these days, as we all find ourselves up to our elbows in snapping crocodiles, and nary a 4-F in sight to fight for us.

Are Ayn Rand’s followers deemed fit to fight in our ranks against the Left? That is the only question. To me it is a closed matter. Of course they are.

But are their scolding detractors?

The Professing versus the Professional

As you know, I often distinguish between professing and professional Christians, and in like manner, professing and professional Conservatives. There are many parallels as you’ll soon note here.

With me the fight is everything, so I don’t mind a big mouth with bloody knuckles, but have found most professional conservatives won’t as much as roll up their sleeves. What you read from them is about all you ever get.

About political and religious agnostics and other Randians

As a professing Christian, I have always felt I have been dealt the very best of hands in dealing with atheists and agnostics. This is in part because my creed dictates it…charity, love, outreach, humility, etc. But I am not so much being ecumenical, as these are mostly people of no faith, not anti-faith (who are of the Left, and already in our gunsights), and my years of experience have shown me there are several paths for them to find their way out over to our side…and that Ayn Rand has lighted one or more of those paths.

So we share common ground. These things I already know.

You see, Christ would sit among publicans, prostitutes and tax collectors, and spoke His words quietly and politely. I expect He also listened.

My mother, on the other hand, would not. You would never have any difficulty telling the difference between the two for she spoke her words sharply and reproachfully, with a wagging finger in her tone even when she wasn’t actually wagging it. It was plain to see she didn’t like “them” in her presence. Christ apparently had a different idea of who “them” were.

I like Christ’s way best. Besides, I find such people interesting. They too have their story.

In the end I’ve found the self-righteous of all stripes to be exclusivist, yep, elitist, and dare I say it, selfish, unwilling to share even the least bit of their creed in comity and love, preferring instead to wag their fingers, then say, “Begone.”

At best this is a vanity, at worst, a deep sickness of the soul. I can’t say, but I find these mocking “professional” Christians to be hypocrites, bordering on bigotry.

So I have little time for professional Christians and doubt they’ll ever show up to square off with the devil in the places he is normally found. But they give all the rest of us a bad name, for they allow our enemies to accuse us of a kind of dictatorial Christianity that atheists themselves would like to impose on us. Our true creed allows atheists to co-exist under our protection, when, were the shoe on the other foot, no such protections would ever be offered.

This is why I like having the best hand.

In like manner, as a constitutional conservative, I think I have equally been dealt the very best of hands, for my conservatism stems almost entirely from the U S Constitution and the freedoms it says are ours at birth. The Constitution guarantees us much, but gives us nothing other than a blueprint to go about exercising that freedom, and protection along the way…mostly from government. It makes no mention of monetary policy, or abortion, or homosexuality, communism or socialism, but it infers many things, mainly that a moral people and a free people pursuing self-interest will keep that blueprint alive and vibrant and everlasting..

So, by my conservative creed, I also find myself indulging people as they exercise their liberty very narrowly,  to live as they see fit; to be religious or not at all, to freely speaks their minds, and to think virtually any thought, to pursue wealth and lots of it, and to be restrained in what they say and how they act only when they attempt to destroy the foundations of those freedoms.

So while my faith says “Obey God,” the Constitution says “Yep.” And when my skills say pursue wealth and self-interest, the Constitution also says “Yep.” It finds no inherent contradiction between the two, assuming that only a moral society can prosper, while a greedy society (Albania, modern Russia, China) will ultimately fail. Knowing these things requires no great depth of philosophy, only common sense.

Enter Ayn Rand

I was a 19-year old freshman in college when Ayn Rand published her essays The Virtue of Selfishness. I read it then, in 1964. And I couldn’t understand a thing she said, except that there is no such thing as altruism, which I rejected out of hand, and a central theme that selfishness was a good thing, which was contrary to my beliefs.  But at 19, if she had said instead that the “pursuit of self interest” is a good thing, I’d probably have rejected that as well. That’s how backward I was.

My only other experience with Miss Rand until she died in 1982, and the retrospectives on her life, was the film “Fountainhead.” I have never read her fiction, and it was a good flick, but at 16, I never figured out the nuances. I’ve seen it two-three times since. I’ve always liked Raymond Massey as a villain.

I also didn’t know she had a league of followers, Randians, or her own philosophy, Objectivism. I didn’t know she was a co-founder of the loose confederation of ideas called libertarianism, or that it included Milton Friedman, or that William Buckley had ‘expelled’ her from the circles of conservatism in 1957.

I learned all that later. I did know that Buckley and National Review still spoke approvingly of her war against the Left up until she died in 1982, but that her personal behavior made her something of a pariah in polite circles. She was a shrew, I read.

Sometime around the time of her death in 1982 I reread some of her essays from Selfishness, and did some re-evaluation, and later, I read closely the expanded publication of Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution in 1999 (orig 1971) about the New Left. This is one of five books I own that I have dog-eared and underlined with margin-notations, it is that good, and that important to me.

For quite frankly, Ayn Rand knew the radical Left in those days better than Saul Alinsky knew the woosie Right…only 30 years later Alinsky seems to be winning, if you haven’t been paying attention.

So, I’m a veteran of the days when Ayn Rand was expelled from the circles of conservatism in the late 50’s, yet, spoken more gently about when she wrote something worthy of conservative consideration, as that 1971 The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. It was received and cherry-picked for whatever value it could provide conservatives at the time in their own war against the Left, circa Vietnam War. That is what professing conservatives are supposed to do.

Well that war has gotten considerably hotter, making Ayn Rand far more relevant that a coffee klatch debate or a playground game of doing the dozens about her position on God.

For today I look around to see selfish conservatives elitists, while invoking the name of Buckley and Reagan, trying to run off all but the most craven of toadies, belittling and mocking anyone who could even think to say a nice word about anything that Miss Rand ever wrought. And for the most childish of reasons.

Well, what Ayn Rand wrought is important to this war, but it is not ideas, rather soldiers that she has given us. Even generals. And by generals, I mean rolled up sleeves, callouses, furrowed brows and deep set eyes, not in expectation of a fight, but from long years already in it. Some of these are her progeny, not God’s, not Buckley’s or Reagan’s.

These are the sort of men who have for years confronted the Left on the field of battle every day, not in print, but in back alleys or wherever they can be found, and are so well known to the Left, one I know, has to remote-start his car every morning to insure it hasn’t been “wired.” Yes, these Randians are not just your everyday fat-assed, cubicle dwelling wanton wannabes.

Maybe we should be paying more attention to Rand’s notions about the Left, while simply ignoring her thoughts on how to build a better railroad and not feeling guilty about it.

The Constitution pays no mind at all to the agnostic, or the greedy. It simply infers, as I said above, that a moral society would cure all these illnesses, that good in society would curb most expressions of greed. Indeed, it had.

Only that is what is under assault in America today, that corpus of goodness and morality, for the Left knows exactly who and what their enemy is, even if many on our side aren’t quite sure who the enemy really is.

Ayn Rand does very little to drive men away from the Constitutional blueprint merely by saying there is no God. As a miner of mens’ sensibilities rather than their souls, Ayn Rand digs where few Christians have been wont to go these past few decades; among the indifferent to God’s existence, people who Bernie Chumm always called the Don’t-Give-A-Damns. At one time they comprised no more than 15%-20% of the population, but with heavy government subsidies and encouragement, they now approach a majority of American public life. And while they once sneaked, and hid inside their houses when the church bells pealed on Sunday, they now parade down the streets, car horns a’blaring, and even loudly cut their grass during Sunday School.

This was Ayn Rand’s turf. It was she who went out against the Left, alongside real Conservatives, even before the Moral Right had taken shape, only her words dug deep into the catacombs of Don’t-Give-A-Damn turf to present a case of logic and reason, sans God, where Christian-based morality held little currency. And she lit a path out that places them now on my side of the battlefield, not the other.

True, Miss Rand had no truck for the common man, attempting to appeal only to the highest minds, preaching a secular intellectualism in the most rarefied of air. Hell, she was from Russia, and they didn’t have cowboys, or the Texas Rangers, or Augustus McRea in Russia. It wasn’t her fault. Ayn Rand never understood one single thing about America and its common roots. I suspect her kind never could. But I never held that against her. She was pretty tame, in fact, compared to modern professional conservatives, who should know better, but who seem to enjoy going out and ganging up any passersby, for the mere thrill of an easy kill. She was no hyena, just a shrew.

So I doubt Ayn Rand ever could understand the kind of people she rescued. For while we see almost exactly the same sort of intellectual vanity and elitism spewing forth from her rarefied class today from the professional conservative class, I look around and see arrayed on the battlefield students of hers from the most ordinary of backgrounds, not the intellectual ranks of the Ivy League.

I am quite certain that Ayn Rand never drove any professing Christian or conservative into the dark, just as I am equally as certain that she has brought thousands upon thousands of Don’t-Give-a-Damn’s into the light, and made them soldiers. Our soldiers.

Not theirs.

So when the battle line is formed, and you elitist, selfish, conservatives come finally to join the battle, armed only in a fountain pen, wanting to know where your generals stars are, you will just as quickly be shown the door. Those stars are already being worn by some of Ayn Rand’s followers, accomplished soldiers and leaders all. Fall in the ranks, or get out.

Ayn Rand died before selfishness hit a new low spot in American culture. She may well have changed the title had she known.




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April 19, 2011 7:29 pm

You always have such extraordinary understanding of how the world works, Vassar. Can hardly find words that measure up to your ability to analyze and give reasoned perspective. I mentioned on P. Smith’s post today, that I had read “Atlas Shrugged” many years ago, and had a sense of “Yes!” when I was done reading the book. Didn’t know anything about Rand then, but so much of what she said about those that we consider our “enemy” today, she was right on target about. This fits that model of “the enemy of my enemy, is my friend.” One of your… Read more »

April 19, 2011 7:30 pm

I haven’t read the book but the movie was great. Not sure why they are waiting another YEAR for Part II. I would have rather pulled a “Titanic” and sat thru 4 hrs all at once. One pottie break included. 😀

Mike gamecock DeVine
April 19, 2011 8:45 pm

…and even the Bible says that if you are able, but won’t work, you ought not eat. Rand’s book illuminates many great truths, despite her faith in un-faith.

April 19, 2011 9:22 pm

Vassar, I grew up in a home where we were taught that any expression of “me”, “my” or “mine” exemplify selfishness and is therefore wrong. Odd how something can be so misleading to someone that age!!! It wasn’t until years later, mostly through the school of hard knocks, that I started understanding that the concepts of “me”, “my” and “mine” play a part in self-awareness and acceptance of responsibilities. For example, as a Christian, I have a responsibility to guard my own soul from things that are of evil in this world. And I also have the responsibility to resist… Read more »

April 19, 2011 10:07 pm

What a miserable life, to grow up without Cowboys or August McRae. It’s a miracle she turned out as well as she did.

I’ve still got that radio, by the way, whenever one of those Generals needs a Fire For Effect…

April 19, 2011 10:27 pm

VB, I expected the left to come after the movie. I have to admit I was caught off guard by the attack on Rand and the movie by some on the right. Like you’ve said, we are at war with the left and in the foxhole we should all be praying for the same thing: victory. I was a dont-give-a-damn in an earlier life. Maybe most people are/were but the elitist right has always cared. A lot. They care about things like class, clean hands and the awesomeness of their being. For the work at hand, they aren’t worth a… Read more »

Cold Warrior
April 19, 2011 11:33 pm

Thank you.