This article is from TOS Vol. 4, No. 1. The full contents of the issue are listed here.
Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and the World Today
An Interview with Yaron Brook
Craig Biddle: Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged has been in the news a lot lately because many people are seeing parallels between the story and current events. Without giving away too much for those who haven’t yet read it, what is the book about, and what parallels do you see between it and events in the world today?
Yaron Brook: In Atlas Shrugged we see a world crumbling under the weight of government interventions and regulations. The economy has ground to a halt. Roads and bridges are breaking down, buildings are falling apart, new inventions are few and far between, and each day more and more businesses are shutting their doors. The government blames greed and the free market, frantically imposes further controls, but the crisis only deepens.
The similarities to today are striking. Since the start of our current crisis, we’ve been told that the free market and “greedy” businessmen are to blame, and that the only solution is to hand progressively more power over to the government. We’re hearing the same charges, and seeing the same policies, with the same destructive consequences that Rand wrote about more than half a century ago.
In Atlas, we even read about a “banker with a heart of gold” who went out of business after lending to borrowers on the basis of their “need” rather than their ability to repay. Anyone who understands how the government’s “affordable housing” crusade led to an orgy of subprime lending can appreciate Rand’s foresight [see Richard M. Salsman, “Altruism: The Moral Root of the Financial Crisis”].
But Atlas Shrugged is not primarily a political novel. It is a novel about what happens to a world that denounces its best minds as greedy and immoral. It’s a novel about what happens when, instead of thanking and rewarding the brightest and most successful, a nation denounces, despises, and shackles them. It’s a novel about what happens when the best minds stop allowing that to happen. Whether this last aspect of the plot will play out in real life is yet to be seen, but the parallels to date are remarkable.
CB: What would you say is the fundamental reason for these parallels? What enabled Ayn Rand some fifty years ago to effectively project what we are witnessing today?
YB: Ayn Rand understood that ideas shape society. A society that values reason, the individual, and freedom creates the United States of America. A society that denounces the mind, preaches self-sacrifice, and worships the collective creates Nazi Germany.
Thus, once Rand identified the basic ideas driving American society in the 20th century, she could predict the course we would take. She could not predict the details, or the timing, but she could see where in principle a country committed to the ideas that prevail in the United States would have to end up—if it did not reject those ideas.
Above all, Ayn Rand understood that our culture’s dominant moral ideal, altruism, is incompatible with freedom.
Virtually no one in Rand’s time or today questions the precept that we are our brother’s keeper, that self-sacrificially serving others is good, and that being selfish is evil. What Rand saw was that this was irreconcilable with the vision of man as an independent, self-sufficient, sovereign being who deserves and requires freedom. If a society believes man’s duty is to sacrifice for others, then it cannot countenance capitalism—a political-economic system that enables and encourages men to pursue their own interests, their own profit, their own welfare.
The deepest reason Rand saw America as moving toward statism, however, was our deteriorating respect for reason. A culture that respects reason, such as the Enlightenment culture of the 18th century, will embrace a political system that leaves men free to exercise their own reason. But for more than a century now, our intellectuals have been preaching that reason is limited, that faith is superior to reason. What’s the result?
Well, as just one journalistic example, take the recent bans on allegedly unhealthy foods [see Stella Daily, “Of Freedom and Fat”]. The bans are based on the idea that we are irrational beings incapable of running our own lives, and so we need an authority to tell us how to live. Rand understood that a culture that rejects reason has to reject freedom.
Indeed, this is the theme of Atlas Shrugged: the role of reason in human life. What Ayn Rand shows is that reason is the source of human values. Businessmen, for instance, use reason to produce the goods and services—the food, the cars, the medicines—that enable us to live healthier and happier lives. To defend capitalism, Rand argued, one must defend business as a rational and therefore profoundly moral undertaking.
Unfortunately, the ideas Rand identified as destroying America in 1957 have not changed. Indeed they have taken hold in stronger fashion today.
CB: Which works of Ayn Rand besides Atlas Shrugged speak to the current cultural, political, and economic crises?
YB: On the level of politics and economics, the place to start is her book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. In there, Ayn Rand explains the nature and moral justification of a free market, and of the destructiveness of government intervention. The book also includes discussions of how Federal Reserve policy causes economic crises, such as the Great Depression, which is directly relevant to today’s crisis. Two of the most important essays from the book, “Man’s Rights” and “The Nature of Government,” are available for free on our website at www.aynrand.org/rights.
But Rand’s view of capitalism rests on an entire philosophy. In her view, you can’t understand or evaluate political or economic issues in isolation—you need to grasp the underlying issues, and above all moral issues, at play. For those new to her work, they might want to start with her essay “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World” in her book Philosophy: Who Needs It.
In that book, they can also read Rand’s refutation of today’s economic hero, John Maynard Keynes (in her essay “Egalitarianism and Inflation”), get her advice on how to move the culture in a positive direction (in “What Can One Do?”), and learn how to evaluate the future of a nation (in “Don’t Let It Go”).
But I want to stress: Ayn Rand’s philosophy is not designed to help us avoid and respond to crises. It’s to help us live and prosper. What Rand offers is a comprehensive, integrated, rational alternative to the ideas that are destroying America. Her focus is on defining a philosophy for living, for establishing freedom, and for defending capitalism.
You could say, then, that all of her writings are relevant to today’s crisis since, in her view, ours is fundamentally a moral, philosophical crisis.
CB: In addition to reading and disseminating Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s other works, what can concerned people do to help steer the culture in the direction of reason and freedom?
YB: In her essay “What Can One Do?” Ayn Rand makes the point that there is one thing above all that people can do to change the direction of a country: speak. People need to understand today’s issues and then make their views known.
What are the most crucial issues Americans need to know today?
First, that this is not a crisis of capitalism. Americans must stop blaming the free market for today’s problems because, as Don Watkins and I argue in our article “America’s Unfree Market,” there was no free market.
Second, Americans must grasp the actual causes of today’s crisis. They need to learn that it wasn’t the free market that failed, but the unfree market. They need to discover the role of the government’s reckless “affordable housing” crusade, and, above all, the role of the Federal Reserve’s easy credit policy, which made the housing boom possible.
Third, Americans must learn that the solution to the crisis is not to give up on freedom, but to expand freedom. We need to liberate the economy from the regulatory shackles that led banks to make unsound loans. We need to slash taxes and government spending, and start to rebuild capital. We need to end the bailouts, the nationalizations, and stimulus bills that are delaying recovery by propping up businesses that need to be liquidated. We need to end the Federal Reserve’s attempts to engineer the economy and, eventually, abolish the Fed altogether.
People can learn more about all these issues at www.aynrandcenter.org/crisis, a special section of our website devoted to the financial crisis.
But more than anything else, Americans need to understand the philosophical roots of this crisis. They need to know that freedom cannot coexist with altruism. And they need to know that there is a rational alternative to the destructive ideas that dominate America today: Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.
CB: What are the respective missions of the Ayn Rand Institute and the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, and how is each organization working to expose people to Ayn Rand’s ideas?
YB: The goal of the Institute is to create a culture of reason by promoting Ayn Rand’s philosophy. The Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights is our public
outreach division. Its mission is to advance individual rights as the moral basis for a fully free, laissez-faire capitalist society.
To achieve those goals, the Institute works to promote Ayn Rand’s books and ideas. In our Free Books to Teachers program, for instance, we give away free classroom sets of Ayn Rand’s books to any teacher willing to teach them. To date, we have given away more than one million copies of Rand’s novels.
We run one of the largest essay contests in the country. Each year, thousands of students from around the country—and around the world—answer essay questions about Rand’s novels and compete for thousands of dollars in prizes.
We also run an educational program, the Objectivist Academic Center, which provides students with systematic training in Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Many of our students plan to become professional intellectuals, where they will be able to advocate for Rand’s philosophy.
CB: Thank you for your time, Dr. Brook, and best success with your vital efforts.
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The Objective Standard, the preeminent source for commentary from an Objectivist perspective. Subscribe to The Objective Standard today!