Our phone hasn’t stopped ringing for months and it likely will continue for the next 8 weeks. If you live in a swing state, you are no doubt experiencing the same thing to say nothing of the incessant attack ads on TV. I was already burned out before the conventions started. Did you watch any of the speeches? I can say (and I am hardly alone on this) that the only one that stood out for me was that of former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
It stood out not because it was articulate and instructive (although it was). But rather because it spoke to the collective will of Americans to embrace public policy. That word – collective – has attained a certain tinge these days. The battle between Democrats and Republicans has, in some circles, been portrayed as collectivism vs. objectivism. In that context, collectivism is portrayed as central government creating policies intended to structure social and economic outcomes. At its extreme, collectivism is best represented by the Soviet system.
Objectivism gave expression to an ethic that relies upon self sufficiency. It gained notice in the 1920’s and 30’s because of the government’s shift in the direction of collectivism. Its champion, Ayn Rand, believed that men have a moral right to pursue happiness in the real world. The real world, being objective, was separate from one’s consciousness. In Atlas Shrugged, she said, “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
So, how would Jesus vote if he had a choice between these two philosophies?
The early English settlements in North America – most notably Jamestown – were unsuccessful because they had only a commercial purpose. And, the pioneers who settled them were not pursuing their own purpose but rather that of the English crown. But, the Mayflower settlement, led by John Winthrop, established a religious community with the goal of starting fresh, separate from the corrupt churches of Europe. It was this higher purpose that drove them to succeed. But their success was not enabled by government. It was enabled by a Christian ethic of hard work and sacrifice for the benefit of the community. This form of collectivism was grounded in a common religious belief and the need to survive in the new world.
So, was the Mayflower settlement objectivist or collectivist? I submit that it was both. Its very survival depended upon both a sense of responsibility for oneself and family as well as a responsibility toward the community. There was “productive achievement” to use Rand’s words as well as a collective purpose intended to structure social outcomes. This ethic – a Protestant ethic – prevailed in this country until the 1950’s.
Most of the Republicans who spoke in Tampa advocated objectivism in its purest form. They referred often to the striving of successful people who started with nothing. It was left to Dr. Rice to address our Christian instincts (although she limited her remarks to foreign policy): “I know too that it has not always been easy -- though it has been rewarding -- to speak up for those who would otherwise be without a voice -- the religious dissident in China; the democracy advocate in Venezuela; the political prisoner in Iran. It has been hard to muster the resources to support fledgling democracies -- or to help the world's most desperate -- the AIDs orphan in Uganda, the refugee fleeing Zimbabwe, the young woman who has been trafficked into the sex trade in Southeast Asia; the world's poorest in Haiti. Yet this assistance -- together with the compassionate works of private charities -- people of conscience and people of faith -- has shown the soul of our country.”
It is hard not to identify with her remarks. She speaks of American hegemony in human terms. We can relate to the needs of those less fortunate, suppressed by dictators and lacking the freedom or the resources to do anything about it. Our concern and our tax dollars speak to our Christian instincts.
Would Jesus vote for that?
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus and his apostles promote the value of hard work but always specify that the ends are for the glory of God not the idolatry of money. The Apostle Paul said, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as work for the Lord, not for men.” Jesus promoted the value of hard work and focused on the ends to which men worked. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” Phil 2:3. This stands in stark contrast to Objectivist philosophy. Indeed in Mark 10:17-25 he said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” That’s hard to hear for those of us who think of ourselves as Christians and strive for greater wealth.
In the reality of 21st Century America, there is evidence of capitalism working for the collective good. In Charlotte, NC (where the Democrats held their convention), Siemens AG, a German electronics manufacturer, has built a factory and created over 800 new jobs rather than go to a low wage country like India or China. Their decision to build in NC was the result of state and local governments investing in infrastructure and the schools meeting some specific education requirements. So, is this an example of collectivism or objectivism?
It clearly stands in contrast to the policies of both parties. The Republicans would seek to limit the role of government and Democrats would simply shower money on industries they favor, like the clean energy industry.
A local (S. Florida) entrepreneur and radio personality, Neal Asbury, has written a book called Conscientious Equity in which he outlines trade policy that would alleviate much of the world’s suffering. Neal is very much an objectivist. Yet, he understands that, as a business owner and community leader, he has a responsibility to his employees. Over the last few years, Neal’s Company (The Legacy Companies) has made several acquisitions. In each case, he has invested in upgrading factories and improving products. And, in each case, he has added American jobs. It is likely that Neal could make a few more dollars if he outsourced to Asia where he lived and worked for 20 years. However, Neal believes he has a responsibility to his country and his stakeholders.
I have no idea how Jesus would vote and I would not presume to instruct anyone on his behalf. But, I know true LEADERSHIP when I see it. Whether it’s a successful capitalist who feels he has a responsibility to his country and his employees or government leaders who achieve real results for their communities, the marriage of objectivism and collectivism works in the 21st Century just as it did for the Mayflower settlement.
So, how would Jesus vote?