Maybe it’s no coincidence that my junior year of high school I fell for the two fads named in the title of this post. And while it may seem like a stretch to compare a diet to a political and moral philosophy, the similarities are there; I promise.
For readers less acquainted with these twin heresies, allow me to provide some background. Ayn Rand was born in Russia in 1905. She experienced first-hand the soul-crushing oppression of collectivism during the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s police state. Her father’s shop was twice taken over by the government and quickly run into the ground by incompetent bureaucrats. After immigrating to the United States in her twenties, Rand formulated her own philosophy, which she humbly titled “Objectivism.” Objectivism promotes reason as the only means of attaining knowledge, rejecting any role for faith and religion. In matters of morality, Objectivism glorifies selfishness as a virtue and condemns altruism as misguided at best and immoral at worst. Rand’s philosophy finds clear expression in her two best-selling novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), where the characters serve merely to illustrate her philosophical points. Her views are best encapsulated in the pledge sworn by John Galt, the enigmatic hero of Atlas Shrugged: “I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
Now if that doesn’t just throw up a red flag right there, then I’m a wealthy African prince and I have a business opportunity to discuss with you. For starters, how could any family—that unit most crucial to our survival and civilization—have ever developed if each of its members (fathers, mothers, children) followed this principal? Even Rand’s hero, Aristotle, began with the family as the basic unit of society and therefore politics, but not Rand. Instead she elevates the happiness of the individual as the highest moral imperative while ignoring the fact that we are social and emotional beings. Our happiness is bound together with those closest to us, and the most beautiful part of our nature is our willingness to put aside our own desires for something we truly love, be it our children, our community, or our country. Rand’s selfishness principal is also decidedly anti-Christian as Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice. He put aside his love of his own life to save ours, and he asks us to join him in this sacrifice. In 10 Books Conservatives Must Read—Plus Five Not to Miss and One Imposter (Atlas Shrugged being the imposter), Benjamin Wiker convincingly argues that Rand’s so-called Objectivism was really just her own thinly veiled narcissism. She defined “reason” as “whatever I happen to believe,” blasting any and all critics as hopelessly irrational. Worst of all, she began an open affair with a much younger follower, Nathaniel Brandon, and expected her husband and his wife to just accept it. After all, if each man lives only for his own happiness, then wives and husbands have no right to limit the sexual acts of their spouses or saddle them with outdated, “irrational” expectations of fidelity. Yet when Brandon began an affair with another woman, Rand excommunicated him from her band of sycophantic followers.
Readers are probably more familiar with the Atkins Diet than Objectivism. Almost all of us have tried to lose weight at one point or another. Not all of us are tempted to even begin a 1200 page book that contains a 50 page speech as part of its climax. Robert Atkins was unhappy being overweight and unhealthy, just as Rand was unhappy living in Stalinist Russia. Atkins found success after following a low-carbohydrate diet and began recommending the same approach to his cardiology patients, ultimately publishing them in Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution (1972). In the initial stage of the diet, virtually all carbs are off limits, including fruits and vegetables. Deprived of glucose, the body is forced to use fats as its primary fuel source. It is during this initial phase that most dieters experience weight loss, which can be significant.
However, at least in my experience, almost all of its followers end up abandoning the Atkins Diet as weight loss tapers off dramatically after the initial period of success. I have personally suffered under the Atkins Diet, and it is not pleasant to deprive your body of the energy it needs in this fashion. Any weight loss I experienced was as short-lived as the satisfaction I obtained from living my life for myself and myself alone. Incidentally, Rand’s Objectivist philosophy is most popular among young adults with limited real-world experiences.
Hopefully the similarities between the Atkins Diet and Objectivism are beginning to emerge, but let me try to complete the analogy.
For starters, both run counter to the conventional wisdom. For decades, fat was the enemy of any diet, and “low-fat” products from mayonnaise to cookies were the way to go. Likewise, corporate greed and the selfishness of the 1% have proved attractive targets for politicians and movements pledging to rid the world of these evils. The Atkins Diet and Objectivism succeed in illustrating the flaws of the conventional wisdom, especially their inability to achieve the desired outcome. Show me someone who has lost weight eating low-fat mayonnaise and low-fat cookies, and I’ll show you the society that has helped the poor by demonizing and punishing the rich.
Both stand against the right things, whether it’s processed sugars and flour on the one hand or big government corruption and collectivism on the other. Eating a bunch of chemically processed simple carbs is certainly no way to live. Neither is collectivism—whether it takes the form of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or Hitler’s Nazi state. Just ask anyone who’s ever tried. Atkins is correct in defending some amount of fat as being necessary for us to feel full and our bodies to meet our basic needs, especially brain health. Rand is correct in defending the individual against the encroachment of the state. She expertly illustrates how big government liberalism taxes the profits of “evil corporations” in order to fund their generosity while simultaneously vilifying the lifeblood of their supposedly benevolent schemes.
Both are attractive in their simplicity. The Atkins Diet has one cardinal rule: Protein= good, Carbs= bad. Objectivism has one cardinal rule: Selfishness= good, Anything that limits the individual’s pursuit of his own happiness= bad. Yet the same simplicity that makes these heresies attractive is also what makes them dangerous if not impossible to follow. Are all carbs really bad? Surely there is a difference between a sweet potato and a Twix bar, just as there is a difference between a lean cut of salmon and a fatty Porterhouse. In Rand’s case, self-interest can be good. Adam Smith argues in the Wealth of Nations that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” In a free and competitive marketplace, allowing individuals to pursue their own self-interest can benefit society as a whole. But there has to be a limit. Most of us would condone selling cupcakes or flowers for a profit, but not our children’s organs. While self-interest can prove as a useful means to an end—economic growth, for example—it cannot become the end itself. Even a society built around capitalism must also show compassion to the poor and avoid the Social Darwinist mantra of “survival of the fittest.”
A good diet would incorporate the good parts of the Atkins Diet, leave out the bad, and put it all in a comprehensive framework. The best way to lose weight and live a healthy life is to eat real foods found in nature—lettuce, fish, berries, nuts, whole grains, eggs. How many times have we been told that diets don’t work, only lifestyle choices? Michael Pollan states it best in the title of his book In Defense of Food: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Simple enough, right? So why do we constantly search for quick fixes and follow fad diets when common sense tells us exactly what to do?
Conservatism properly understood is like a healthy, well-balanced diet. It puts self-interest in its proper context and urges moderation and prudence. Conservatives favor limited government and the strong protection of individual liberties because these are the conditions that best allow man to fulfill his moral potential. We must take personal responsibility for our own lives and decisions, relying more on our families and neighbors than a distant, impersonal government. By surrendering our freedom of choice to the state in exchange for the promise it will provide for and protect us, we delegate our moral responsibilities and forfeit the very thing that makes us human to begin with—free will. Big government liberalism keeps us in a permanent state of adolescent immaturity, and it is no surprise that one big side effect is the moral degeneration of our culture.
Conservatives know that we cannot change the basic composition of man’s nature. (You are not going to look like that supermodel on TV after six weeks of using an Ab Master.) We cannot create heaven on earth, and any promised utopia that simplifies reality will quickly devolve into a dystopia. Ideologies like communism, socialism, or modern-day liberalism offer a magic pill to cure society of its ills in much the same fashion that diet pills claim to help you shed 30 pounds in a month without having to exercise or change your eating habits. They prey on our emotions, hooking us with dreams of “hope and change,” but in the end they make us poorer and less healthy, left to chase the next miracle cure in a vicious cycle of disappointment. It’s not that liberals care about people and conservatives don’t. Liberals make false promises that only exacerbate the problems they seek to solve, while conservatives must make the moral case that our ideas are not just expedient and practical but compassionate as well.
The final ironic similarity between the Atkins Diet and Objectivism is that the founders of both heresies suffered profoundly for their misguided beliefs. Rand died miserable and unhappy and alone, having alienated or destroyed those closest to her. Robert Atkins suffered a heart attack in 2002 and died a year later after slipping on icy pavement.
If there is any good to be found in either of these deeply flawed philosophies, it is the danger that comes from taking a small slice of the truth and blowing it out of proportion to the exclusion of everything else. While America seems to have gotten over its momentary infatuation with the Atkins Diet—his company eventually went bankrupt after declining sales—the lure of Objectivism remains. In a 1998 online poll of most influential books of the 20th century, Atlas Shrugged ranked #1. Conservatives would do well to reject Objectivism and make the moral case for a conservatism that respects and benefits the individual, the family, and society as a whole. John Rogers says it best in this famous quote:
“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”