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Responses to my Ayn Rand sermon

If you haven't heard my sermon on the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand on July 3 you may want to listen to it to get the context for the conversation which follows.  Ayn Rand preached the virtue of selfishness and said that altruism was moral depravitity.  Her philosophy is that of the Tea Party movement and many influential right wing public figure.

After the sermon, I invited people to respond to what I had to say.  Here are some responses:

This is from Fritz Stocker:

Your fine sermon on Ayn Rand, which I heard this morning, struck a nerve with me -- a nerve, I must admit, that is somewhat atrophied.

As a long-time teacher of taxation economics (and former Exec Dir of the National Tax Association,) I've heard the "taxation is theft" slogan ad nauseam. What it reflects is ignorance of public goods theory, which was already well developed when Rand wrote.

In brief, PGT notes that many important goods (and services) are characterized by nonexcludability -- that is, if the good is to be provided there is no way to limit consumption to those who pay (which is the characteristic of normal market goods.) As no rational person would voluntarily contribute, some compulsory extraction (a tax) is required. A lighthouse is the classic example; modern examples include air pollution control and national defense.

Besides such "pure" public goods, where the benefits are entirely societal in nature, there are "mixed" goods, where part of the benefit is private but part (the "spillover" benefit) flows to society in nonexcludable fashion. Education is the classic example. Most public programs share this characteristic. It is easy to identify such public benefits but hard to quantify them. This is what right and left, Republicans and Democrats, fight over.

One who (like Rand) denies that such public goods even exist spares herself the mundane worry of how to pay for them and such attendant questions as what is a "fair" way to tax, how to minimize adverse side effects of taxes, how to administer (and comply with) them, and how to conform them to legal and constitutional norms. These are the questions that provide employment and research grants for teachers of public finance.

And from Jane Nelson:

Have you ever heard two people argue a point from opposite “belief” filters. These two people can listen to the same statements and hear entirely different things—and come to entirely different conclusions. We are divided by extremism. People who hear from the extreme position of the “right” will hear a statement that validates their “position.” The same is true for people seeing the world through a belief filter of the “left.” An objective observer might notice they are saying practically the same thing, but can’t hear each other through the colors their filters. When the filters are removed, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle.

I believe in helping the “poor,” but not in helping those who scam the welfare system—and we all know there are plenty of those. I believe there are many who are out of work through no fault of their own, and want a job with every fiber of their being. I also know there are some people who scam for unemployment benefits. It seems to me that “Democrats” believe that everyone is out of work through no fault of their own, and “Republicans” think everyone is scamming the system. Could it be that both are true?

Ayn Rand taught the “Virtue of Selfishness.” When I hear her say something like,
“Don’t sacrifice your own happiness for someone else,” I hear, “Put on your own oxygen mask before you help your child.” I hear, “Don’t give up you to be loved by someone else.” I hear, “Don’t believe someone who says, ‘I’ll love you if you behave this way.” I hear, “Don’t live your parents dream that you become a doctor when you would rather be an artis. When Ayn says, “Love someone because they ‘deserve’ it,” I hear, “It is difficult not to love someone I admire, and I’m working on Sainthood so I can love people I don’t admire.”

I don’t mind paying taxes, and I’m extremely upset about how much corruption my tax dollars pay for. I’m upset about the waste and the millions of dollars spent on special interest projects. I’m upset by the beautiful airport that was built in a city [reported on the news and I can’t remember all the facts] where airplanes land 3 days a week, because the Senator for that State was good at making deals.

I could go on and on. Mostly I think it would be nice if people did not through out the baby with the bathwater. Ayn Rand has some very profound and sensible things to say when heard from my filters. I can throw out what I don’t agree with without making her sound like an evil person.
Jane Nelsen
First time visitor (and I’ll be back. )

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