Journal-Times (Grayson, KY)

April 27, 2011

Where do we draw the line?

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI

April 27, 2011 —     FRANKFORT — A question from the audience Monday at a Commerce Lexington luncheon illustrates the philosophical conflict for some of today’s conservative right and even for the public at large.

    U.S. Sen. Rand Paul was the guest speaker and he covered his usual themes: overreaching government, over-regulation of business, and the federal debt.

    Then he offered to take questions. One was from a man who said that he, like Paul, is a fan of Ayn Rand but sometimes feels her objectivist philosophy conflicts with his religious faith. He asked Paul how he personally reconciles the conflict.

    Paul shifted his answer to suggest private charity is a more effective way to act on one’s faith than government social programs but he didn’t address the fundamental tension between the two philosophies.

    Presumably, Paul’s questioner spoke of his Christian faith, a faith Paul publicly embraces. But the exchange highlights the conflict between objectivism and Christianity, the two value systems which John David Dyche, contributing columnist for The Courier-Journal and political biographer of Sen. Mitch McConnell, once told me represent the “twin pillars of modern Republicanism.”

    Ayn Rand, who wrote Atlas Shrugged (out in movie form although it’s receiving less than favorable reviews), The Fountainhead, and The Virtue of Selfishness disdained religion and especially Christianity. Her objectivist theory can be summarized this way: reason is supreme, religion is myth, self-sacrifice on behalf of others is foolish and one’s own happiness and fulfillment is the highest virtue.

    But the central article of faith in Christianity is the ultimate self-sacrifice. God himself willingly died to atone for the failures of mere humans. And those who believe are supposed to emulate that act in their everyday lives. It’s not hard to understand the man’s conflicted feelings.

    Without trying to impose a moral judgment, it seems to me the conflict illustrates the sorts of decisions the country faces as it debates how to bring the federal budget under control.

    If one believes individuals and personal achievement are supreme, that individuals’ choices are superior to the collective goals of society, then it’s easy to oppose higher taxes.

    It’s easy to oppose the welfare state, government regulation of industry or the environment, especially when spending is a higher percentage of GDP than ever.

    But if you think we have a collective responsibility to others, then it’s not difficult to believe the wealthy should pay more to balance the budget while preserving programs to help the less fortunate, especially when federal income taxes are a smaller percentage of GDP than they’ve been in 50 years and upper income groups’ wealth has increased. Competition or compassion?

    Both are shared but competing values in American history and society. Recent polling seems to indicate the public is just as conflicted as the man who posed the question to Paul.

    Respondents consistently say government spending should be reduced – but when they’re asked what to cut, those same respondents oppose cuts to education, Medicaid, and Medicare. They don’t want dramatic changes to Social Security. They think the federal budget can be balanced simply by cutting foreign aid, a small percentage of spending. It can’t.

    To his credit, Paul is one of the few members of Congress who’ll tell his audience that fact. The question is do people want to hear it.

    What we really want is to have it both ways. In that sense, we’re not that different from the man of faith who is attracted by the philosophy of Ayn Rand. The debate seems to be where to draw the line.

    RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com.