The Ayn Rand world has no entitlements, nor “collective commitments.” But that’s not the same as saying, “you’re on your own.” Instead, each person looks after his own welfare, and can better do this when he and his neighbors obey the same laws.
Ayn Rand on entitlements
Most people read only the novels of Ayn Rand. There she showed the evils of a society that entitles people to things but does not let them earn those things. The extreme form of this mind-set is communism, in which no man owns anything, and everyone holds everything in common. Recall how Karl Marx described his ideal:
From each, according to his ability, to each, according to his need.
Apart from communism, the entitlement society “entitles” each member to certain goods, services, or even levels of income. This much is his by right. Anything more than that is not truly his to keep. The law at the time might say that what he earns over his “entitlement” is his, but laws, especially tax laws, change. And indeed, the entitlement society cannot allow anyone to keep all the excess over the entitlement level. The funds to give each person what the society “entitles” him to, must come from somewhere. Money does not grow on trees, and neither do goods or services. (And some person must care for the fruit tree, or it will yield no fruit.) So inevitably, society limits what its ablest members may keep over the entitlement, and confiscates the rest so that it can hand out that entitlement. And if a society never taxes anyone at 100 percent, or close to that, it only grudgingly concedes a hard fact. If it wants anything more from the able person, then it had better let that person keep some of the extra. Otherwise he’ll have no reason to work harder.
Ayn Rand on emergencies
But in one of her essays, “The Ethics of Emergencies,” Ayn Rand did say that neighbors should help one another against a threat to life. That is how she defined emergency. In Atlas Shrugged she memorably showed what that meant. Agents of the “looter’s State” capture John Galt, the leader of the “strike of the men of the mind.” Members of his community then form a voluntary militia to rescue him. They act this way for two reasons:
- They are his friends, and think the world will be a better place with him in it.
- They know that he would likely do the same for any of them.
The latter point is key: in an emergency, everyone works together to meet the threat. And rational people know a life threat when they see it. They do not need a sheriff, a governor, or a President to “declare an emergency,” though sometimes that helps.
The Bible on self-help and helping others
The Bible says two things that careless readers think contradict one another. Galatians 6:2 exhorts Christians to “bear one another’s burdens.” But Galatians 6:5 says that each man must carry his own burden.
The words that each translate as “burden” in English are not the same. The Greek word baros in Galatians 6:2 is a heavy object, like a tree, that takes a team to lift and carry. The word fortion in Galatians 6:5 is a backpack load. The Message is plain: each person should look after the typical “burdens” of life. But friends and neighbors should help with a “burden” too large for one person to handle.
And common sense shows that one person can “handle” even a very heavy “burden” if he plans ahead. People have invented a service to handle such burdens. We call it “insurance.” When a person buys insurance, he bets against himself and does not mind losing, even year after year, premium after premium. (This is also why some religious sects teach against insurance: to them, it’s gambling.) If he would rather not bet, he can save the money he would otherwise “bet” (that is, pay out in premiums). (Some religious groups have created “sharing” plans, in which all members take part in meeting needs as they come up.)
The one “bet” that insurers almost never take is against war or civil disorder. (Exceptions have happened in history; Lloyd’s of London once insured several people against “riot and civil commotion.”) These are threats of force. Governments, and voluntary militias, exist to meet that kind of threat.
Entitlement in practice
Ayn Rand knew that entitlements never work out, except in the minds of those who plan them. The history of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security bear this out. At best, those programs are grossly inefficient, and sometimes seem to change the rules when someone makes a claim against them. At worst they invite outright fraud, whether by clients who “game the system,” or providers who bill for work they did not do.
The case of Social Security is worse. President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it as a collective retirement savings and “insurance” plan. (The official name of the Social Security payroll tax is Old Age, Survivorship, and Disability Insurance.) In theory, Social Security pays current benefits out of a “trust fund,” into which workers pay with the special tax. In practice, that fund holds part of the sovereign debt of the government itself, and nothing else! If any company bought its own bonds, to fund pensions or anything else, its officers would probably go to prison.
Once again, that Ayn Rand world doesn’t look so terrible, after all. Instead of government programs that they call “insurance,” people would own real insurance policies, or savings accounts. They would then decide what they were willing to pay, either for that insurance, or for the goods and services that the insurance would pay for. In the Ayn Rand world, personal autonomy and responsibility go together. And personal autonomy and responsibility work better than government authority and irresponsibility.
This article is part of the “Ayn Rand World” series.
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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.
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