Welcome to the first installment of Act Three of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s biggest problem but your own. If you missed one or more of the previous installments, the entire series can be found here. 

In Act One of this series we discovered that as a society we cannot agree on a collectively applicable definition of greed. In Act Two we examined a half dozen answers to the question Why. Starting today we’ll take a deeper dive into the philosophy and theology of greed, with a look at how America’s long-celebrated individualism has evolved.


In his 2005 book Greed, Dr. Julian Edney wrote: “We exist in a kind of void, in which individualism flourishes, and narcissism, ego, materialism, the pursuit of self, wealth, status and greed–but nothing that moves the masses together.”

Two months ago, The Wall Street Journal declared: “The American creed of egalitarianism, liberty and individualism no longer holds our classes together.” The New York Times argues we’ve moved beyond “America’s mythic sense of the rugged individual…indeed, we’ve swung past self all the way to selfish.”

Is it true? Has America’s defining individualism, built on a platform of ambition and self-reliance, both increased, and, in the process, taken a nasty turn?

“Across all cultural indicators, researchers found evidence that individualism has been rising steadily,” reported the journal Psychological Science in 2015. San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge concurs:

In my 2006 book Generation Me, I presented data showing generational increases in self-esteem, assertiveness, self-importance, narcissism, and high expectations, based on surveys of 1.2 million young people, some dating back to the 1920s. These analyses indicate a clear cultural shift toward individualism and focusing on the self.

In an article titled, “I’m O.K., You’re Selfish,” The New York Times Magazine explained how “the character of individualism has changed.” It contrasted the older style, “which turned on self-reliance, achievement,” with a newer style, “expressive individualism,” which is “about emotional gratification, self-help, getting in touch with feelings, expressing personal needs.” The author, Andrew Cherlin, humorously notes “if my grandparents had been asked about the importance of communicating their feelings, they might not have understood the question.” Why? They were focused on surviving the Great Depression, not a really tough spin class.

unnamed-1Remarkably, in what was for me quite an unexpected discovery, Alexis de Tocqueville crystal-balled our present predicament in 1835. In his influential masterwork Democracy in America, he warned that “individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness.”

Is it really a surprise that today we find ourselves merrily languishing in de Tocqueville’s “long run”? What “lessons” have we oh-so-mindfully embraced over the past so-many years?

This quote, from Mildred Newman, co-author with Bernie Berkowitz of the 1971 bestseller How to be Your Own Best Friend: A Conversation with Two Psychoanalysts, pretty much summarizes our new American creed: “We are accountable only to ourselves for what happens to us in our lives.” (Sure, we want to love our neighbor in a feel-good, Facebook-friendly sorta way, but that’s the full extent of it if we’re to find the time to be our own best friend.)

You may defiantly join me in saying, “Well, that might apply to the other guy, but it doesn’t apply to me!” I hope you’re right; personally, with just a thimbleful of introspection, I’m not so sure about myself.

Certainly we all have bucketfuls of perfectly reasonable excuses for our own individualism: busy with careers, busy with school, busy with children, busy social lives, busy with having it all, busy with making sure everyone knows just how busy we are. It’s exhausting, isn’t it?

“How are you?” A friend asks between texts, not caring one iota.

“Busy,” I reply with a resolved and exasperated sigh (although I’m about to take a nap).

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Busy. It’s the new fine. So, so busy!

Politics helps out, of course, gives us an ideological crutch to prop up our selfish psychological infirmity. Half of us trend to the right. We can “shift towards individualism” and “focus on the self” because those with less than us, who might need our help, should get a job, occupy a desk, stop being so lazy, be self-reliant and ambitious. Nonprofit entities we don’t support beyond a token can help the worthy poor get back on their feet. I’m not obligated and, besides, I don’t have time. I’m just too busy!

The other half of us abdicates from the left. Employers should automate less, offshore not at all, and pay more, a “living wage” that allows us to go about living our own lives without concerning ourselves with the less fortunate. Moreover, government should take more from those who work, give more to those who do not, and finally solve all of those pesky social problems. I’m not obligated and, besides, I don’t have time. I’m just too busy!

Left or right, whichever “solution” we pretend to believe works, the result is the same: We have just barely enough time to finish that big project, impress the boss, get to the gym, pick up the kids from baseball, shop for stuff, and update our myriad social media wherein we both needlessly document and complain about all of it. (Or, if the pumpkin spice double shot latte has us feeling extra perky, we may humblebrag, so “grateful” to get it all done!)

How have we managed this expressive evolution from Davy Crockett to Dr. Phil, from Amelia Earhart to Paris Hilton?

“The higher living standard of advanced capitalism,” Professor Cherlin writes, “has reduced the need for support from others and thus for strong lifetime commitments. It has allowed more Americans to steer toward individualism.”

Capitalism certainly supported the two psychoanalysts, as People reported in a 1974 article, “Mildred and Bernie Cash in as Their Own Best Friends.” The “exploitative” authors partied with Neil Simon, Rex Reed and Nora Ephron. In addition to their Manhattan digs, they had a “retreat” in upstate New York and a yacht berthed in Europe.


One 20th century author in particular epitomized the “own best friend” mantra and alchemized capitalism and individualism to create a Mary Shelley-esque philosophy called objectivism. Sixty years after its initial publication, Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, the foundational document of objectivism, is a perennial bestseller and influencer of countless politicians and policymakers. (Shameless plug to help buy me a yacht berthed in Europe: Objectivism is also a central theme of my novel, Eat What You Kill, which explores the philosophy’s logical endgame, that is, what happens when a person attempts to live out the money-is-morality philosophy.)

“Ayn Rand was a champion of individual rights, which protect the sovereignty of the individual as an end in himself,” says the Atlas Society, objectivism’s standard-bearer. In her own words:

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.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand famously wrote “The words ‘to make money’ hold the essence of human morality.” Please contemplate that for a moment: Making money is the core of morality. It may not be what we think, but is it what we practice? Let’s leave that as a rhetorical question for the moment.

Over the years, many notable critics have disagreed with Rand, of course. In 1961, Gore Vidal wrote “Ayn Rand’s ‘philosophy’ is nearly perfect in its immorality … to justify greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.” More recently, apparently unaware of his colleague’s “accountable-to-only-ourselves” mantra, psychologist Bruce Levine painted Rand as the sole source of our nombrilisme: “Ayn Rand removed Americans’ guilt for being selfish and uncaring about anyone except themselves.”

In Greed, Dr. Edney does not specifically reference Rand in the following lament, but nonetheless he accurately describes objectivism:

In the new philosophy there is no conspicuous concern with sympathy, compassion, honesty, courage, grace, generosity altruism, charity, beauty, purity, love, care nor honor. It accepts that humans are fundamentally selfish and egoistic and that they don’t care about society as a whole. … The concept of “the common good” has almost disappeared, and nobody is his brother’s keeper.

In her personal notes dated October 25, 1944, Ayn Rand asked herself a question, “If morality is not based on the common good, what it is then based on?” She provided an answer: “on a definition of the moral individual and on that which is good for him.”

unnamedAnd what do moral individuals do that is good for them? They make money. Moreover, according to Rand, they must keep it for themselves. “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject,” Rand said in 1960 in a lecture delivered at Yale University. “Altruism is the poison of death in the blood of Western civilization.”

Obviously, objectivism fundamentally rejects self-sacrifice for the sake of others, as Rand made clear: “The point – no man exists for the sake of another man – must be established very early in my system. It is one of the main cornerstones – and perhaps even the basic axiom.”

No man exists for the sake of another man. One must assume Rand has a problem with Christianity, and religion in general. That assumption is indeed correct. From her Yale lecture:

It was mysticism, the unearthly, the supernatural, the irrational that has always been called upon to justify altruism–or, to be exact, to escape the necessity of justification. One does not justify the irrational, one just takes it on faith. What most moralists–and few of their victims–realize is that reason and altruism are incompatible. And this is the basic contradiction of Western civilization: reason versus altruism. This is the conflict that had to explode sooner or later.

Yes, indeed, one unsavory fact that both religious conservatives (who trumpet Rand’s economics) and secular liberals (who reject Rand as morally bankrupt) conveniently ignore is that, in addition to individualism and capitalism, atheism is a fundamental pillar of objectivism. “Faith is the worst curse of mankind, as the exact antithesis and enemy of thought,” Rand wrote in her journal on April 9, 1934. “I want to fight religion as the root of all human lying and the only excuse for suffering.”

According to one commentator, “among authors and philosophers, Ayn Rand is noteworthy for her atheism and uncompromising opposition to religion. Unlike many non-believers who see utilitarian value to religion, Rand is somewhat unique in seeing virtually no value to religion.”

Alexis de Tocqueville warned us in 1835 that individualism would eventually attack and destroy all of our virtues. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing today, “Me Generation” gurus tell us to be our own best friends, to be accountable to none but our authentic selves, and to pursue our own happiness as our ultimate goal and reward. Remarkably timeless Rand tells us that money is our morality, people in need are parasites, and God and guilt and generosity are all civilization-destroying lies.

Where does this long evolution of our expressive individualism leave us today?

Mario Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian writer, politician, journalist, essayist and college professor. In 2010 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is also agnostic. He recently wrote that our modern western society has left us … alone.

Alienation–the illusion of a lie that has become a truth–has taken over social existence, turning it into a representation in which everything that is spontaneous, authentic and genuine–the truth of humanity–has been replaced by artificiality and falsehood. In this world, things–commodities–have become the real controllers of life, the masters that men and women serve…

Things control our lives. Untethered from our fellow humans, freed from earthly and divine obligations to care, with politics fueling our emancipation, things are the masters we now serve.

In 2013 in “The Gospel According to Me,” The New York Times asked: “Is the prosperous self the only God in which we believe in a radically inauthentic world?” Ayn Rand would certainly hope so and, based on the state of our nation, culture and the suffering of “the least of those among us,” how might we argue otherwise? Who are we today? What do we stand for, together?

I suggest those are two trick questions, because alone together, relentlessly pursuing our own happiness, we are no longer we. Ayn Rand wrote in Anthem:

I am done with the monster of “We,” the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame. And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride.

This god, this one word: “I.”

Beholden to none, accountable to only myself, I am an individual, an island of me, guided by reason, free to pursue and purchase what I must possess to be my authentic, empowered, heroic self. That is my right, my entitlement, and my only destiny because on this earth, I am god.

It may not be what we think, but is it what we practice? It’s no longer a rhetorical question but, I’m sorry, right now I am just too busy to answer it.