Conservative philosophy has been on full-throated display in recent days. Between the Republican talking points at the Health Care Summit (which essentially boiled down to "we don't care about the uninsured or less healthy people, especially if it might cost any rich people a penny in taxes"), the Senate floor where Republicans held hostage a bill to help unemployed people because they wanted a chance to let mega-millionaires off the hook on inheritance taxes, and the speeches at the CPAC conference, the last few days have allowed us all to see the modern conservative philosophy in all its undisguised glory.
My reaction to all this is that I owe Ayn Rand an apology. Given that she's been dead for a while, she's not likely to care, but even so Ayn: I'm sorry. I underestimated your influence. Where I wrote my book about the history of the American political debate, The Progressive Revolution: How The Best In America Came To Be, I neglected to mention Rand. I did this for a couple reasons. One was because her extreme form of libertarianism seemed to me only one modest strand compared to the intellectual and/or political giants of historical American conservatism such as John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John C. Calhoun, the Social Darwinists, or even the modern day conservative movement builders like Buckley, Helms, Goldwater, or Reagan.
The other reason that I discounted her was, well -- how do I put this diplomatically? She was such a freak. Her twisted novels extolling selfishness and cruelty -- apparently based in part on her admiration of a kidnapper and murderer who dismembered his twelve-year-old victim and threw her head and torso at the girl's father as he sped away in a car -- are so twisted and nasty that I had trouble believing she really merited note in a discussion of influential conservatives.
But the victory of libertarian Ayn Rand disciple Ron Paul at the CPAC straw poll, the strong influences of her thinking on such CPAC heroes as Michele Bachmann and Glenn Beck, and the increasingly strident me-first-and-only-me rhetoric of a Republican party utterly captured by Tea Partiers have made me realize just how big Rand's influence is. Rand's philosophical magnum opus was a book she entitled "The Virtue of Selfishness." In it she argues not only that selfishness is moral and good, but that altruism, charity, and even kindness are evils - a "moral cannibalism" is what she called it. Like Glenn Beck, who glorified (to the laughter and cheers of the CPAC audience) the "lion eating the weak," people who are poor or weakened or in trouble for any reason are just parasites, nothing more.
Rand went even further, writing that people who place even their families and friends above their own work and desires are immoral. Rand and Beck's philosophy that selfishness is the ultimate virtue, and that any kindness or generosity or compassion toward others - even your own family and friends -- is so the opposite of what all the world's great religions and moral traditions teach us that you would think Bible toting conservatives would run from these beliefs. You'd think that the contradictions would be too great, and there are certainly rifts at times between the true libertarians and the Christian conservatives. But for political reasons conservatives try hard to keep a combination of these two philosophical strains in place at the same time, a sort of hybrid conservative that scours the Bible for quotes that can be somehow interpreted as pro-free market and against taxing the rich. My personal favorites in this genre include a Christian Coalition issues guide which argues against labor unions by quoting a verse about how slaves should obey their masters, and a guy named David Barton who argues that the Parable of the Talents (which some Bible readers might have thought was an analogy about spiritual matters) means that there should be no Capital Gains tax.
The great irony is that the length these conservatives go to in order to find and squeeze every last verse they can find to justify selfish libertarianism is overwhelmed by the literally hundreds and hundreds of verses about helping the poor, loving thy neighbor, showing mercy and kindness, lifting up the oppressed, etc., etc. The fact that the parable of the talents verse that Barton uses to justify not taxing the wealthy is immediately followed by the famous passage in which Jesus we could all be judged by how we treated "the least of these" is completely ignored by him and all the Rand-Beck libertarian conservatives.
It seems so strange to have to actually point out to the modern Rand-Beck conservatives' movement that most Americans do not value selfishness as the ultimate good and giving to others as immoral. We don't believe that cruelty is ever justified, or that letting a dying man die alone on the side of the road because he is "weak" and a "parasite" is a good thing. We don't laugh when thinking about the "lions eating the weak." We don't attack the idea of community and altruism and giving each other a helping hand; we embrace it.
Ayn Rand/Glenn Beck -- the glorifiers of selfishness, cruelty, and the lions eating the weak -- have become the dominant players of modern day conservatism. Let's hope they never take control of our country.