It was sort of like being caught in a raging stream, and swimming hard against the current, inch by inch, to reach safety.  The time was many years ago, when, as a college freshman, I fell into the currents of liberalism.  And they were powerful.  Just go with the flow, and you could get approval, a trendy sense of superiority, and—if you were a Southerner like me—some degree of redemption from the original sin of Southernness.

But being of a stubborn temperament, and a nominal Christian, I didn’t like the flow at all.  In the back of my mind I recalled Sunday School stories about prophets who stood against the crowd, and the lesson that fashion and numbers don’t decide what is right or true.  Nevertheless, my greatest aversion to liberalism was liberals themselves.  They were sometimes bright, and their arguments were sometimes compelling, but their schoolmarmish moral arrogance was pretty hard to take.

How often I listened to their passionate ice-cold professions of love for “the poor,” haughty confessions of guilt, and barely concealed malice toward anyone who dared to disagree!  We must create a new society, they intoned in so many words, and we as superior people must spare no sacrifice to make all men equal.  Many had disturbing sympathies for Uncle Ho, Che Guevera, and the other fashionable red icons of that era.

The hard-core leftists seemed to get great certitude from their Marxist ideology, and the less-radical liberals seemed pretty certain, too, despite their constant profession that all beliefs are relative.  In any case, I realized the need to strengthen my own certitude, lest the leftist currents sweep me away.  I began reading National Review, but I didn’t find a consistent set of principles there to meet my need.

A view most conservative writers seemed to hold was that Christianity was the basis of conservatism.  But was it really?

Like most atheists and agnostics I’ve known, one of my liberal dorm mates was a professed expert on Christian ethics.  He informed me that a “true Christian” was a pacifist, and that the essence of the Faith was allowing anyone and everyone to walk on you.  Jesus and the early Christians, he continued, were all good socialists who preached fuzzy sweet “love” and “tolerance.”

He made his case by cherry-picking various verses from Scripture, and that case seemed strong, given my lack of biblical knowledge.  Thus, I concluded that a conservative couldn’t be a Christian, and indeed that no self-respecting man would want to be one either.

So I kept looking for a rock, a haven in the stream to grab onto.  I came across Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness, a booklet that outlined her philosophy of Objectivism and its ethical system.  Rand, an anticommunist Russian émigré and novelist, held that the basis of ethics should be self-interest pursued in the real or “objective” world.  For her, all faith-based systems were mystical hocus pocus that cause men to sacrifice true self-fulfillment and happiness.

Particularly anathema to Rand was “altruism,” the notion that rational men should submerge their interests for the benefit of other individuals or groups.  Self-sacrifice to groups she denounced as collectivism, which she called the basis of communism and other totalitarian ideologies.  She denied, however, that her system promoted what we commonly describe as selfishness (for Rand, “egotism”).  Rather, she maintained, individuals who rationally seek their own self-interest (“egoism”) would find common values and community with others doing the same (“ethical egoism”).  The result would be general benevolence, freedom, and prosperity with men exchanging the goods and services they produced.

This was very heady stuff for me, at least at first, but after about five years I realized that this wasn’t the haven I sought.  Even now, though, I would not deny the power of Rand’s vision and the fact that there are indeed many true and good things about it.  That’s why it has an enduring appeal, wielding great influence in the libertarian and conservative movements.

And that is why it is truly dangerous.

Among the good things about Rand’s philosophy is that it encourages people to think consistently and understand what they believe and why they believe it.  The alternative is to go though life with a hodgepodge of inconsistent ideas and values, thus making one an easy mark for manipulators, ranging from individual con men to the mind-bending mass media.  Also redeeming about Rand was her advocacy of art that expressed human nobility and heroism.  To her everlasting credit she loathed the sickness and nihilism of “modern art” in all its forms.  And greatly to her credit, too, was her passionate anticommunism.

The problem, as suggested by her colleague (and lover) Nathaniel Branden, was that she never understood human emotions.  I would go further to say that she simply didn’t understand human nature.  The problem with the noble selfishness advocated by Rand is that, like some rarefied radioactive isotope, egoism readily breaks down into something base—in this case, just plain, old-fashioned, nasty selfishness.

Simply put, if benefit to self is the only standard for judging right and wrong, it becomes quite easy to fudge here and there and justify behavior that clearly harms others.  Randians might say that commitment to objectivity would prevent this, but when ego becomes the sole standard of judgment, subjectivity often overcomes objective restraints—and the ego does what it pleases.  That, indeed, appeared to be the case with Rand herself, who cheated on her husband and ran the Objectivist society that gathered around her as a petty tyrant.

In my years as a Randian, I ran across a group that dedicated itself to living out the principles of Objectivism.  But a problem developed, a friend informed me, when the leader told the flock that, because he was the most rational individual there, all the females in the group should objectively be attracted to him.  Later, I heard that he and his wife had marital problems.

As time went on I also came to appreciate the paradox that unalloyed selfishness, of whatever stripe, is not even good for the self.  At a Rand-oriented conference I attended, one of the speakers was an Objectivist psychologist who lamented that many Objectivists he counseled were often frustrated and unfulfilled in their lives, definitely not what “the virtue of selfishness” was supposed to offer.  The psychologist offered varied explanations.  What I found from my own experience was that preoccupation with self produces self-consciousness, with all the inhibition and lack of confidence that term suggests.

A closely related paradox is that happiness is most likely found when one doesn’t pursue it directly.  These paradoxes, which must be learned from experience, may defy abstract reason, but they are quite real nonetheless.  Stressing abstract rationality at the expense of experience is the pathway to delusion and unreality.

A perfect example is Rand’s castigation of group loyalty (besides the loyalty one has to others sharing Objectivist values).  In her view, the very natural ties of family and community are scarcely any different from the forced and unnatural collectivism of communist tyranny.  In her novels Rand belittles family relationships because reason is superior to blood ties.  Perhaps, but I found that when I was having a bad time it was my parents, not my fellow ideologists, who really cared.

One interesting thing about Rand’s novels is that, despite all the passionate sex engaged in by the heroes and heroines, no children ever result.  And that omission seems revealing, given that children have a way of messing up any illusions about the virtue of selfishness.  Parents naturally tend to sacrifice for their kids, even when their children don’t deserve it.  Again, that may not be rational, but it’s as real as flesh and blood.

Paradoxically, the most dangerous thing about equating organic society with socialism is that it empowers socialism and its collectivist variations.  Radical individualism leaves individuals isolated and unable to resist the growing state and corporate power we witness today as political correctness.  Family, traditional community, culture, nation, and ethnicity are banners of unity that can rally individuals to stand against tyranny.  And not surprisingly, the tyrants of p.c. target all these social entities for dissolution.

Randians may claim that Objectivists would rationally band together against oppression as they did in Atlas Shrugged, but the thought of such egocentric people—all chiefs and no Indians—ever cooperating truly strains belief.  Besides, if self is all you care about, why would you ever want to risk it for a collective purpose?  A far more “rational” course would be to collaborate with the tyrants.

Hard-core Objectivists are relatively few, but Rand’s books have reached a vast audience, and her ideas have definitely skewed the American right toward libertarianism.  (Interestingly, Rand herself had little use for most libertarians, regarding them as anarchists and hedonists.  Yet those of that stripe seem to have a better understanding of what her philosophy implies than she did.)  By severing social ties and duties in the name of individualism and freedom, they serve the collectivists who push the same goals for their own purposes.

So if Objectivism isn’t the rock of refuge in the stream of liberalism, then what might be?  A place to start is a sane and unsentimental Christianity, one that properly humbles the ego while also teaching that we are heirs of the Father.  Such a faith would not endorse effeminate masochism as humility, but would recognize such “humility” for what it truly is: the sinful pride of pridelessness.  Randians can claim all they want that religion is nonobjective “mysticism,” but it’s hard to see how objectivity can exist without God.  Even Rand’s favorite philosopher, Aristotle, saw the necessity of God, at least as a Prime Mover.  He also understood that human beings are social creatures.

Genuine conservatism must oppose rootless “rugged individualism,” while at the same time endorsing rugged individuals who draw strength from their loyalties and obligations to their living kinsmen and countrymen, and the common heritage of all.  Such conservatism must bind reason to reality, rather than let it take flight to wild abstractions.  A related task is showing that tradition, far from arbitrary prejudice, is a reasonable guide to action, being the collective wisdom of all who have come before us.  At the same time, we must figure out how to adapt tradition to modern realities.

Unfortunately, while we of the right have right on our side, we have generally failed to make our case in a logical and inspirational way.  This must be our top priority; otherwise, the raging leftist stream will keep sweeping its victims to perdition.