Ayn Rand, the Russian-born novelist and philosopher, died in 1982. But in this Bush-Obama season of fantastical government growth and encroachment into all areas of human activity, Rand has become a Banquo’s ghost at the banquet of politics, an antistate spirit haunting politicians and commentators who thought her free-market worldview was safely buried by the fall 2008 financial collapse.
Signs of the Rand revival abound. The surprisingly large anti-government Tea Party protests have been chock-a-block with signs such as “Atlas Is Shrugging” and “The name is Galt. John Galt.” Sales of Rand’s classic Atlas Shrugged have soared in 2009, above a level that was already extremely impressive for a 1,000-page, critically unloved, 52-year-old novel. Two major publishing houses brought out new biographies of Rand almost simultaneously this fall. And after decades of Hollywood development limbo, Atlas Shrugged may finally be hitting the screen soon in the form of a cable mini-series starring Charlize Theron.
Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), who gives out copies of Atlas Shrugged to departing interns, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who says Rand inspired his political career, both have said recently that the age of Barack Obama reminds them of the statist dystopia portrayed in the novel. Ryan—who stresses that, as a Catholic, he is not a full-fledged adherent to Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, which embraces atheism as well as laissez faire—says that as he looks around Washington these days he can’t help but think he’s seeing a lot of Wesley Mouch, the sleazy lobbyist in Atlas Shrugged who rises through his connections to become a de facto economic dictator.
“What’s happening now is Americans are awakening to see [that] this enduring principle of self-government and individualism is being taken away,” Ryan says. “I really believe the entire moral premise of capitalism is being shaken to its core because of the acceleration of government right now, and that’s waking people up.”
Ed Hudgins, director of advocacy with the Atlas Society, an organization that promotes Rand’s philosophy, says that when he looks at House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and federally owned mortgage lender Freddie Mac, he thinks of another Atlas Shrugged character: banker Eugene Lawson, who in Hudgins’ words “destroys his bank and a good part of the state of Wisconsin because he’s making loans based not on sound business practice but on the basis of need.”
Many political bloggers this year have preferred to invoke one of Rand’s heroes by spreading the idea that more and more people may soon be “going Galt”—that is, following the example of Atlas Shrugged hero John Galt by going “on strike” against an overly statist America.
And it isn’t just Rand devotees who are seeing her shadow across the landscape. As The Economist noted in February, “Whenever governments intervene in the market…readers rush to buy Rand’s book. Why? The reason is explained by the name of a recently formed group on Facebook, the world’s biggest social networking site: ‘Read the news today? It’s like ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is happening in real life.’ ” To Rand’s fans, the U.K. Guardian explained in March, “the Obama administration’s support for beleaguered homeowners and banks…smacks of tyrannical socialism, forcing the strong and successful to prop up the weak, feckless and incompetent.” Everyone seems to agree: Ayn Rand is back, and more relevant than ever.
But will those who are freshly encountering or rediscovering Rand really embrace her radicalism? As important as she remains to the post–World War II American political and intellectual scene, Rand comes with baggage that slows the spread of her ideas, making it difficult for an explicitly Randian political/intellectual movement to gain traction.
More than ever, Rand’s uncompromising and unconservative (though hyper-free-market) vision rubs violently against the realities of contemporary American politics of both right and left. That her ideas are spread mostly via novels, and not nonfiction or polemics, renders reader reaction to her hard to replicate. Despite the obvious signs of a Rand resurgence, from Congress to Tea Parties, from biographies to political chatter, from Main Street to Hollywood, it remains highly unlikely that the author’s ideas will become remotely as successful in politics as they are in publishing. The American Atlas may be grumbling, but he isn’t shrugging yet.
Atlas Shrugged portrays a world reduced to terrifying dysfunction by a government fanatically dedicated to managing and manipulating the economy in the name of fairness and helping the needy. It’s a scenario that many see as scarily similar to America in 2009.
As in Atlas Shrugged, the U.S. is suffering through a shrinking, staggering economy. One of its major transportation industries is falling into the calcifying hands of government management (trains in Atlas, autos now). Pull and connections in the nation’s capital are often more important than productivity in determining whether a business will thrive. The most heeded political voices are calling for one-sixth of the economy to be subsumed by the state in the name of universal health coverage. The political leader of the United States identifies “selfishness” as his own greatest moral failing and says that the country’s biggest sin is not caring enough for the “least.”
For millions of readers worldwide, Atlas Shrugged has generated more than just fondness for a corking and unusual tale; the book commonly inspires a life-changing adoration. But from the beginning it also has met widespread intellectual contempt, even from sources that might be expected to endorse Rand’s free market views. In National Review, for example, Whittaker Chambers famously argued in 1957 that Atlas Shrugged was suffused with “a voice…commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!’ ” Also in 1957, Time slammed the novel as a “weird performance…not so much capitalism as its hideous caricature.” More recently, a character on South Park declared, after reading Atlas Shrugged, that “because of this piece of shit, I am never reading again.” The joke works because Atlas Shrugged is widely understood as a cultural totem of bizarre, cultish unreadability, often by those who have never tried to get through it.
While complaints about Rand’s prose and character development are perennial, the nub of Atlas hatred isn’t literary: It’s the idea that Rand’s work is positively evil, celebrating a raw selfishness and glorying in a lack of compassion for anyone who fails to be a heroic producer, or even so much as disagrees with any aspect of Rand’s complicated system of epistemology and ethics. As Gore Vidal wrote in Esquire back in 1961, Rand’s “ ‘philosophy’ is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous.”
When The New York Times made one of its contributions to the copious body of journalism branding 2009 as the Year of Rand, the paper hooked its story to Rand fan John Allison, chairman of a successful Southern bank, BB&T, which had been forced to take federal bailout money. The article went straight to where Rand’s moral rhetoric hits America square in the gut. Allison complained to the Times that if a child fights to defend what’s his against another kid, he’s apt to be told to share rather than defend his property. “To say man is bad because he is selfish,” he concluded, “is to say it’s bad because he’s alive.’ ”
Right there is the Rand her enemies love to hate: the woman who named one of her books The Virtue of Selfishness, who allegedly championed the haves against the have-nots. This year in The New Republic, Jonathan Chait slammed Rand as the fountainhead of the idea that the rich deserve their wealth. This caused him to turn what was supposed to be a review of two serious new books about Rand into a disquisition on the theme that sometimes luck rather than accomplishment earns people wealth in the modern world, which is not a point that Rand would dispute. Neither is it at all relevant to her belief that people deserve whatever they earn, so long as they are not robbing others.