Politics & Policy

Going Galt

Ayn Rand's books are booming -- but what about her ideas?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sales of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged are soaring. Even reliably statist Hollywood wants in on the act: Angelina Jolie plans to bring the novel’s heroine, Dagny Taggart, to cinematic life in the near future. Is Rand freshly relevant in the Age of Obama? Or was she not worth reading in the first place? Half a century ago, National Review’s Whittaker Chambers delivered a famously searing review. We’ve asked a distinguished group of contributors to discuss Rand’s newfound popularity.

JONATHAN BEAN

Big government punishes the productive while “moochers” receive government bailouts — today’s news reads like a chapter out of Atlas Shrugged. In Atlas, the hero, John Galt, leads a movement of entrepreneurs who withdraw from the collectivist world. But the John Galt solution is a false one: The Galts of this world are always moving. Immigrants seek opportunity in free lands, and investors flee from governments that punish success. Ronald Reagan called it “voting with your feet.”

Rand appeals to the Promethean individualism of adolescents. Many read and embrace her philosophy of “objective” egoism. Alas, Rand’s “truth” leaves no room for God — or for disagreement.

#ad#Where does this lead? Rand mirrored many of the traits she abhorred in Stalinism: dogmatic, didactic, and extremely intolerant, she constantly purged deviationists. Led by a cell of True Believers, her followers have turned militaristic in the name of her cause.

William F. Buckley Jr. was right: Rand’s movement was stillborn from the beginning. She left no room for compromise. Her crude dismissal of altruism and religion is contradicted by her own philosophy: If we have  “selfish genes,” we are also wired for altruism and belief in God. Shouting “God is dead!” is no way to win converts or to fashion a movement with any meaning or influence. Her movement was Dead On Arrival.

– Jonathan Bean is a history professor at Southern Illinois University and research fellow at the Independent Institute.

BRADLEY J. BIRZER

NR has offered a proper view of Ayn Rand for more than 50 years: Rand (born Alisa Rosenbaum) was little more than a right-wing ideologue. The “little more,” though, cannot be completely dismissed. Rosenbaum possessed genius in her ability to create plot (Atlas Shrugged), to show the evil of evil (We the Living), and to demonstrate brilliance (The Fountainhead). Overall, though, Rosenbaum produced stiff characters, stiff dialogue, and stiff philosophy. Intentionally dismissing any continuity of the Western tradition, Rosenbaum very selectively borrowed from Aristotle, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Her characters, full of purpose, seek only to denominate those deemed to be beneath them or to submit to their superiors.

The Ragnarok-ish end of Atlas Shrugged reveals much. The world, through mediocrity, has burned itself out. Those who embrace hierarchy and will, the new gods, return after having hidden in a secret redoubt in the Rockies. As they descend from their Valhalla, presumably to conquer, the new chief god blesses the world with the “sign of the dollar.”

Offensive, ignorant, and devoid of faith, hope, and love, Rosenbaum ends her novel. Her philosophy and her reputation should have ended there as well.

– Bradley J. Birzer holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College.

JOSEPH BOTTUM

Ayn Rand? The Cher of the libertarian movement? Sweet Mary and Joseph, it’s hard to believe she’s back in the news. Does nothing ever go away? Are we never rid of the flotsam and jetsam of ages past? Then put your little hand in mine. / There ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb — ’cause I got you, babe.

Look, we all read Atlas Shrugged back when we were 14, mostly for that randy little minx, Dagny Taggart. Was there any heroic character in the novel who didn’t, at some point, enfold her in his orgasmic embrace? But let’s not pretend it actually meant anything worth thinking. Fourteen-year-olds don’t like to read serious philosophy; they like to read about Dagny’s sex life and pretend that it’s serious philosophy. They say we’re young and we don’t know. / We won’t find out until we grow.

#page#

Taken simply as fiction and prose, Ayn Rand is something an adult reader would hesitate to shove in a laundry bag, for fear it would soil the dirty socks. William F. Buckley Jr. and National Review did the world a favor, all those years ago, by throwing the randy Randians overboard. Do we really have to let them climb back on the ship now?

– Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.

DANIEL J. FLYNN

Ayn Rand makes for an entertaining novelist but a poor deity. Readers who believe her more a god than a scribbler always see the world through the lens of Atlas Shrugged.

That said, it’s hard, even for those who hold Rand to be the Right’s version of hack novelist Upton Sinclair, not to think of the Russian writer in these strange times.

#ad#One sees Atlas Shrugged’s ingenious premise — the producers going on strike — in ABC’s report on wealthy Americans trimming earnings in reaction to tax hikes. One Louisiana lawyer reasoned, “Why kill yourself working if you’re going to give it all away to people who aren’t working as hard?” Zug, an obscure Swiss canton that has attracted thousands of businesses by boasting corporate tax rates as low as 9.5 percent, invites thoughts of Galt’s Gulch. Rand’s readers likewise see “looter” James Taggart in the executives of Countrywide, AIG, and GM, glimpse Ellsworth Toohey broadcasting weeknights on MSNBC, and recognize the moochers sponging off Hank Rearden in any number of stimulus-package beneficiaries.

Those rebelling against efforts to boost deficits in order to mitigate the effects a debt-ridden society, to make money cheaper in order to cure the hangover from cheap money, and to reward corporate malefactors with more money to mismanage might feel that they’ve read this story before. In fact, if they’ve read Anthem, We the Living, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, then the rational individuals rebelling against an irrational world is a story they’ve read four times before.

– Daniel J. Flynn, who wrote a chapter on Rand in his book Intellectual Morons: How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas, blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.

BURTON FOLSOM JR.

Ayn Rand’s legacy and durability may be most apparent in her nonfiction works. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal points us in the right direction in its treatment of markets. Her criticism of antitrust laws and her praise for entrepreneurs are well done. For example, she describes James J. Hill’s solid construction of the Great Northern Railroad with no federal subsidies while exposing the bankruptcies of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific when they had extensive federal aid.

On Christianity, Rand is a non-believer. And her fictional heroes are also non-believers. Therefore, her central protagonists in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead were very entrepreneurial but avoided charity. In real life, most entrepreneurs wanted to make a lasting mark with their philanthropy. John D. Rockefeller, for example, was the wealthiest entrepreneur of the late 1800s and was the largest donator to Christian and other social causes in American history.

– Burton Folsom, Jr. is the Charles Kline Professor of History and Management at Hillsdale College and author of New Deal or Raw Deal?

LEO GRIN

At base, Rand’s fiction is the stuff of fantasy and myth, in the best sense. Howard Roark and John Galt fill outsized roles once occupied by the likes of Achilles and Odysseus, Arthur and Lancelot. Impossibly brave and resourceful, towering in their loves and hates, they stand as sterling exemplars of treasured traits. The need for such larger-than-life heroes is evergreen.

How quickly we have forgotten the unutterable darkness of the shadows cast by various strains of collectivism throughout the 20th century! More than a hundred million dead, entire populations subjected to inhuman servitude: Against that monstrous, encroaching gloom, Rand crafted tales that sanctified freedom and individualism, burning away the saccharine happy-face of liberalism and exposing the fangs and poison sacs beneath. True, outside of Rand’s fevered imagination, Atlas is unlikely ever to shrug with such thunder and panache. But for more than 50 years, countless readers have been quietly transformed by the strength and resonance of her capitalist clarion call.

#page#

Still relevant in the Age of Obama? With all due respect to Whittaker Chambers, if we didn’t already have her, we’d have to invent her, double-quick.

– NRO contributor Leo Grin’s literary journal The Cimmerian was twice nominated for a World Fantasy Award.

ELIZABETH KANTOR

Many of us are having Atlas Shrugged moments these days. As we ask ourselves whether the country has reached the point at which Americans waiting to be rescued — or eager to get their busy hands on the levers of the rescue — outnumber Americans who still want to be responsible for themselves and their families, it’s tempting to fantasize about what would happen if the 20 percent of our population whose industry, intelligence, and thrift are responsible for producing 80 percent of the economic output went on strike.

#ad#Ayn Rand’s novels passionately interest young people, but no person of mature literary taste would willingly reread them. Rand’s books are for young adults what the Oz books are for children — with greatly superior economics. In that role they have been extraordinarily valuable, introducing several generations of budding American intellectuals to economic realities, the possibility of a consistent philosophy of life, even the law of non-contradiction — truths that have led many of them through Objectivism to better things.

– Elizabeth Kantor is editor of the Conservative Book Club and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature.

ANDREW LEIGH

A friend who lost everything in the financial crisis took it as an opportunity to come to both Christ and Ayn Rand. Knowing me as a fan of both, he asked how I reconciled them, considering that Rand was an atheist. I think it’s rather simple: Rand was the first to make me realize that government is force. Most Christians would never dream of pointing a gun at someone and forcing him to donate to a particular charity. So why is it acceptable when the government does it?

Rand teaches us that the most just society allows the maximum freedom to follow one’s own conscience and creative energies. And by happy coincidence, such a society also results in the greatest prosperity for all.

In the last election, many younger evangelicals embraced the nostrums of “social justice” over the proven creative power of capitalism. Experience shows us these are destined to fail. Unfortunately, every generation or so, the lesson needs to be relearned. That’s where Ayn Rand comes in, by reminding us that Barack Obama’s rhetoric is nothing new and his solutions just as shopworn.

My friend is still waiting for his bailout. I told him to keep praying — and to finish Atlas Shrugged.

– Andrew Leigh is a screenwriter and producer based in Los Angeles.

GREGORY L. SCHNEIDER

Is Ayn Rand relevant in the Age of Obama? It depends whether one is talking about Rand’s ideas or the Nietzschean überfrau herself, described with keen insight by Jerome Tuccille in his book It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand (1971). Tuccille’s verb choice in the title says it all — while it may have begun with Rand, it rarely continued and ended with her. Like a flame drawing moths, the intensity of her light smote many a disciple.

Rand’s relevance is not in her personality cult, but in her ideas. She was an unapologetic “radical for capitalism,” which she equated to a moral and ethical system superior to any other. She was also an astute critic of collectivism in any form, including organized religion.

This made her enemies with many in the conservative and libertarian spectrum, including Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Murray Rothbard. But her doctrine of individualism had few equals — she unapologetically called selfishness a virtue, in fact — which epitomized her desire to transcend societal constraints, religious morality, and statism. Her defense of capitalism and critique of collectivism is more necessary than ever today and explains why her work is seen as prescient and relevant in the Age of Obama.

– Gregory L. Schneider is associate professor of history at Emporia State University and the author, most recently, of The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution.

NR Symposium — National Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.

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