I am confident that my readers need no introduction to Ayn Rand. Although she abjured the label, she is clearly one of the leading figures in the history of the libertarian movement. She is famous for her Objectivist philosophy, outlined in such essays as “The Virtue of Selfishness” and, of course, in her novels. Her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, was a huge best seller during her lifetime and, remarkably, its popularity continues today, 54 years after its publication.
This brief essay will offer an appreciation of Rand’s contribution to our politics that differs from the usual accolades one hears from her devotees. Before going further, I should say that although I admire Rand, I am not a Randian. For the reasons outlined in my book, I do not find her Objectivist ethics–the foundation of her political philosophy–convincing.
Moreover, while I thoroughly enjoyed Atlas Shrugged (and for that matter The Fountainhead), judged purely on their merits as literature, they are clumsy and pedestrian. Whatever their other virtues, her novels are short on insights into the nuances of human character, and her prose lacks the style of say a Faulkner or Proust.
Nevertheless, Atlas Shrugged is a compelling read, and I believe that the key to its enduring success is Rand’s keen understanding of human psychology as expressed in the political realm. I believe that the key to the novel’s appeal is the author’s skill in graphically depicting how a society can implode when it fails to internalize the “meta-legal doctrine” that Hayek refers to as the rule of law. See The Constitution of Liberty, chapter 10. In a nutshell, Hayek’s political ideal requires the state to maintain strict neutrality between different groups of citizens, acting only to establish and enforce the “rules of the road” that all members of the community can use to guide them in pursuing their individual projects.
When, instead, citizens view the state not as a neutral referee but as a vehicle for redistributing wealth, they can be blinded by the authorities regarding the extent to which government’s own policies have impoverished them, both materially and morally. They will develop habits of mind that incline them to see the successful entrepreneur not as a precious asset, responsible for enriching society and creating opportunities for others, but as a source of plunder to be taken for the “greater good.” As illustrated in Atlas, this envy will in turn lead to governmental interventions that discourage entrepreneurship, and when taken to the extreme, kill it.
Rand also ruthlessly portrays the ends to which the self-anointed guardians of social justice will go to realize their vision. When the political authorities in the fictional world of Atlas implement policies based on their economic fantasies, which then fail to bring prosperity to the masses, they resort to ever more draconian measures to maintain control, including murder. Rand saw this dynamic at play in her native country, the USSR, and it surely influenced her worldview.
The dystopian vision depicted by Rand may be closer to reality than we would like to think. For generations European politicians exchanged promises of economic goodies to voters (early and generous retirement benefits, “free” medical care, etc.) for votes. While the electorate was all too eager to accept these promises, they were untethered to fiscal reality.
Now the pledges must be redeemed, and the cupboard is bare. People are angry, and there is already fighting in the streets. It is difficult for me to see a happy ending to the real life scenario now playing out in Greece, Italy, Spain, etc.
We differ from the European political-economic model only in degree, not in kind. We have a very limited time in which to reverse course. If we do not, I fear that we will live through our own version of the misery and potential chaos that I fear for large parts of Europe. If this happens, I hope to see you all in whatever our equivalent is to Galt’s Gulch.