A high school classmate shared this image on Facebook (thanks, Kris!), and it got me thinking:
This image is an apt metaphor for many who struggle with their political choices. Ethically, the high road is to be found through something like the Gospels: being your 'brother's keeper', and caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan. People not raised with the Bible might not express it that way, but Christians and Jews need not boast that they have a monopoly on common decency: most religions emphasize the value of compassion for others, including those outside their faith tradition. The great world religions implicitly recognize the "brotherhood of man", and (at least some of the time) urge their believers to practice charity and compassion toward the less fortunate.
When we see that in this country one party is in danger of abandoning any commitment to their brothers, that they have lost their ethical core, those of us who carry this altruistic impulse feel that "nothing's right" with the right. And, to my dismay, that is exactly what is going on with some GOP politicians who have taken Ayn Rand as their compass for economic policy. An apostle for selfishness writ large, Rand regarded altruism as essentially evil, an immoral response that inevitably compromised individual responsibility and freedom.
Rand wasn't really as brilliant as her followers would have you believe, but one thing she didn't lack was chutzpah. The reason that so many young people find her thought so bracing and inspirational is that she truly had the nerve to be unflinchingly consistent in her advocacy for the individual. Rand saw quite clearly that the natural impulse to help your neighbor (and it is a natural impulse) was at odds with her Gospel of the Self, and so to maintain a seamless garment she not only condemned altruistic impulses in general, but utterly rejected religion (specifically theism) as schemes to rob the individual of their freedom to pursue their own interests. Me, me, me and also I, and I also. How many teenagers have bought this line of reasoning, hook-line-and-sinker, drawn in by its seductive alignment with the navel-gazing and self-absorption of youth?
So, if we look in the mirror and we do not want to think of ourselves as followers of Ayn Rand, and especially if we are Christians who are aware that Jesus did not preach selfishness or individuality, the tilt by many in the GOP toward Objectivist philosophy is disturbing, even repugnant. And so, come election season, we turn to the left.
But, could conservatives be right? Is it, ultimately, unwise to yield to our altruistic impulses at the level of governance? Many conservatives argue that they do not lack compassion, they simply see government as the wrong vehicle for the expression of compassion. They think government's functions should be limited to those things that can only be accomplished by a collective, and that things like charity should be left to the individual, to exercise as they see fit in their private lives. Part of this argument derives from the undeniable tendency of governments to grow, and from the perception that where political liberals are concerned, an unthinking willingness to address every social ill with a government program. This eventually leads to deficit spending and the weakening of the economy (leaving "nothing left"). Since it is often assumed by conservatives that the only people who are in real danger of growing the government is "bleeding hearts" on the left, there is a felling that we should turn right.
It is a measure of how far that we have come that the word "liberal" has now largely been framed in terms of this caricature of fiscal irresponsibility. But, in point of fact, as many who have tried to wear the seamless garment have pointed out, Republicans have been equally guilty of growing those aspects of government that promoted policies of interests to themselves. People who consider themselves Ayn Rand-style libertarians have become fond of pointing this out in recent years, declaring with obvious self-satisfaction their dismay with both parties. And, in the 2010 election cycle, for the first time a significant number of politicians who gave lip service to Ayn Rand-style libertarianism won seats in Congress.
You might wonder if I am going to say that such folk might represent a principled "middle path" between the fiscal excesses of both parties, a "road less traveled by" whose time has come? Well, absolutely not. The "Tea Party" and its fellow travelers do not represent a reform in government, as they would have you believe, but rather an enshrinement of the notion that government must fail. In the House of Representatives, the rank-and-file GOP has demonstrated that it is utterly incapable of compromise, and indeed relishes its role of obstructionists, as if they were all Horatius at the gate. But they are simply fanatics who are determined to get their way for themselves and their interests, which happen to coincide (for the moment) with populist sentiments that (for the time being) have been co-opted by conservative political groups. Their hero, Congressman Ryan, has been adroit at painting himself as a brilliant budget analyst and a standard-bearer against big government and its ills. And what does Ryan himself, a nominal Catholic, really believe about economic policy? Let me suggest that the choices in Ryan's much-discussed budget from 2011 reveal his true priorities, his true allegiance. Robert Reich says it better than I can: