Atlas Shrugged at 50

What the American right could learn from a Russian novelist


By the time her novel Atlas Shrugged was published on October 10, 1957, Ayn Rand realized she was no conservative, despite her opposition to government controls imposed in the New Deal era.

Instead, she declared, she was a "radical for capitalism."

The conservative movement turned its back on her as well. Atlas was a ferocious defense of values shared by many conservatives, then and now: limited government, economic liberty, the primacy of individual rights over collective needs. Still, National Review's editor William F. Buckley found the book's harsh flavor and relentless Godlessness alarming. He assigned former communist Whittaker Chambers to review it. Chambers squinted at this thousand-page-plus epic about America collapsing beneath an incompetent statism, and with a sighing, refined hostility, declared it "silly," "preposterous," and hateful. "From almost any page," he said, "a voice can be heard…commanding: 'To a gas chamber—go!'?"

Buckley and his team wanted to maintain a border fence around respectable conservatism. Rand belonged outside that fence, they felt, thanks to her uncompromising opposition not only to any government action beyond the protection of individual rights, but also to religion and to tradition for its own sake. She was too absolutist, too outrageous, too faithless.

Rand and her devotees are notorious for excommunicating those who might agree with them on everything from epistemology to ethics yet didn't embrace the same reasoning Rand used. But when it came to Barry Goldwater, whom she loved, Rand took a different tack, writing something conservatives should contemplate: "If he advocates the right political principles for the wrong metaphysical reasons, the contradiction is his problem, not ours."

In other words, when it comes to politics, politics is more important than metaphysics. And Rand has much to offer conservatives when it comes to political ideas.

Even when reinforcing her exile from conservatism in a 1967 National Review story, M. Stanton Evans recognized that "there are a number of subjects on which Miss Rand is right.…Foremost among these [are] issues having to do with the secular conditions of freedom." He noted her "excellent grasp of the way capitalism is supposed to work" and her "powerful" critique of "bureaucrats, planners, and social engineers." Also, her "effective" satire of "the intellectual flux and slither in which modern relativism seeks to bury moral issues."

Modern conservatism needs to emphasize such themes today. Unlike the leaders of today's Republican Party, Rand recognized not only that government shouldn't take from us, but also that it can't justly and pragmatically do as much as it tries to do. As government spending grows faster than ever before, as new plans to further bureaucratize Americans' health care arise, as the benefits of free trade and free movement of capital and labor are under continued assault, Rand's consistent defense of American freedom is sorely needed. As her character John Galt declared in Atlas, "a proper government…may resort to force only against those who start the use of force"—it ought not be a blunt tool for anything a majority of voters can be convinced they need.

In theory, conservatives should never have been so afraid of the pro-market Rand. Indeed, in foreign policy, where libertarians and conservatives are often at loggerheads, Rand was closer to a neocon than a libertarian non-interventionist. Her strong American patriotism, her disdain for non-Western cultures (whose members she generally considered "savages"), and her belief that it can be morally proper (though not always prudent) to overthrow tyrannical governments should appeal to National Review.

As Rand would say, conservatives ought not to fake reality: She was not one of them. But if the GOP can contemplate nominating the twice-divorced Rudolph Giuliani (who's with Rand on abortion rights), then conservatives should realize that political movements can't demand agreement on matters of faith and family in a modern, pluralistic world.

Political activists should note that Rand was uncompromising on how government needed to respect the inalienable right of Americans to live their own lives, and of American business to grow, innovate, and improve our lives without overweening interference. The right should also remember that millions of Americans have voted for her with their pocket books, and that hundreds of thousands continue to do so every year.

Fifty years after Atlas, Rand's advocacy of the still "unknown ideal" of a free market is something that America, and the conservative movement, ought to reconsider.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (PublicAffairs). A version of this article appeared in The Wall Street Journal.