Author’s Note: This is a column I wrote back a few years ago but never published. Instead, it appeared in abbreviated form in my latest book, Letters to a Young Progressive. Given recent political trends, I thought it would be good to publish it in its original extended form.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the books of Ayn Rand. After escaping from the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Rand became a famous American playwright, philosopher, and novelist. She has written many books – three of which I would urge everyone to read. The first, Anthem, is a lot like Orwell’s 1984. The second, The Fountainhead, is a longer novel expounding on her philosophy, which is known as objectivism. The third, Atlas Shrugged, is her most famous work and includes the most complete explanation of her views on economics and morality.
As a Christian, I reject a good bit of what Ayn Rand has to say. She defends capitalism eloquently but fails to understand exactly why it works better than socialism or communism. That reason, of course, is rooted in the Judeo-Christian idea of man as a fallen being. Man, by nature, is desirous of competition. He must try to best his neighbor and, therefore, cannot function in a system based on the idea of taking from each according to his ability and giving to each according to his need.
Nonetheless, atheist Rand comes to many correct conclusions without fully understanding the reasons why she is correct. That is why I am not at all uncomfortable recommending her books. There is much to be learned by studying the works of those with whom you disagree – and much to be missed by ignoring them.
For those interested in Rand, I also recommend a song that was inspired by a rock musician who reads her work. His name is Neil Peart – a member of the band “Rush.” Neil is the greatest rock and roll drummer who ever lived. He is also one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived.
When I was a teenager in the 1970s, Peart wrote “The Trees,” which fast became one of my favorite songs. I didn’t know at the time that the song was a stinging indictment of socialism and communism inspired by Neil’s reading of Ayn Rand novels. I’ve reprinted the verses below with some brief comments in between most verses.
There is unrest in the forest,
there is trouble with the trees,
for the maples want more sunlight
and the oaks ignore their pleas.
When I look back on it, I am somewhat embarrassed that it took me so long to figure out the symbolism behind the oak versus maple contrast. This is a classic Marxist over-simplification, which is intentional on Peart’s behalf. There were only two classes of people according to Marx - the “haves” and the “have nots” or, as he called them, the “bourgeoisie” and the “proletariat.” Here, the oaks are the “haves” or the “bourgeoisie” and the maples are the “have nots” or the “proletariat.”
The trouble with the maples,
(And they're quite convinced they're right)
they say the oaks are just too lofty
and they grab up all the light.
This verse is interesting because it raises the issue of absolute versus relative poverty. When the maples claim that the oak trees grab up all the light they are exaggerating – actually, the author of the song, Neil Peart, is exaggerating for effect. Oaks are big trees, to be sure. In my own yard, there is an oak that is 100 feet tall that will eventually grow to be about 125 feet tall. But maples are big trees, too. I have a sugar maple that is about 60 feet tall that will eventually grow to be about 80 feet tall.
Peart, quite ingeniously, shows that the “have nots” would be more accurately characterized as simply “having less than others.” Their problem is not that they do not have enough to get by. The problem is that, in their view, the oaks are just “too lofty.” In other words, others have too much. That is the key phrase in this paragraph because it reveals that covetousness, rather than true need, is what motivates the maples. In reality, that is always the motive of the collectivist.
But the oaks can't help their feelings
if they like the way they're made.
And they wonder why the maples
can’t be happy in their shade.
It is funny to me that the lyrics to this song were written just a few years before Ronald Reagan became President of the United States. After he took office, there was no small amount of controversy about his ideas concerning “trickle down” economics. Here, the oaks seem to reference the idea that their loftiness benefits others, too – this time, in the form of shade. This is a classic “trickle down” economic argument.
There is trouble in the forest,
And the creatures all have fled,
as the maples scream "Oppression!"
And the oaks just shake their heads.
So the maples formed a union
and demanded equal rights.
"The oaks are just too greedy;
we will make them give us light."
This is classic Ayn Rand. She focuses on unjustly taking from someone that which he has earned – noting that this always involves a violent struggle. The maples begin by screaming, and then they start demanding. Finally, they settle upon force, not reason, in order to obtain what they want. The results are always predictable.
Now there's no more oak oppression,
for they passed a noble law,
and the trees are all kept equal
by hatchet, axe, and saw.
This last verse is chilling because it reveals two truths about progressivism:
1) Progressivism is not progressive. Oppression is ended and equality is achieved not by advancing anyone but by retarding the achievements of some.
2) Social justice is punitive, not restorative. No one is restored under a progressive system, but people are often punished in order to guarantee equal outcome. That is another reason why Rand prefers to use the term “collectivism” rather than “progressivism.”
Ayn Rand was not a Christian. Nor was she one who professed belief in the Ten Commandments. Nonetheless, she understood that what is often packaged as compassion is really covetousness in disguise. We would do well to familiarize ourselves with her work in an age of “collective” historical amnesia. Screams of oppression and cries for revolution are never more than a generation away.