Ayn Rand: Capitalism’s enduring crusader

Novelist Ayn Rand worshipped the free market. Why is she enjoying a revival when capitalism is supposedly in crisis?

How big is Rand’s comeback?

She’s more popular than ever. Rand has always had a strong following in the U.S., but her magnum opus, the 1,088-page Atlas Shrugged, has enjoyed a huge surge in sales since the start of the financial crisis. It sold 200,000 copies in the U.S. in 2008 and so far this year, the book is selling at its fastest rate since it was first published, in 1957. Sales have spiked whenever the federal government has intervened in the economy—during the subprime crisis, last October’s bank bailouts, and with the passage of President Obama’s economic stimulus package. In January, the book reached No. 33 on Amazon’s best-seller list, briefly surpassing Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, and is now at No. 20. There’s a Hollywood movie in the works, possibly starring Angelina Jolie as Rand.

What is Atlas Shrugged about?

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The evils of government control. Rand’s fourth novel describes a dystopian United States in which industrialists and the rest of America’s “producers”—oppressed by government regulation—are persuaded by the novel’s hero, charismatic inventor John Galt, to forsake the world of mediocrities, parasites, and “second-handers” (i.e., the altruistic) and go on strike. (See below.) The strikers, or “Atlases,” retreat to a mountain hideaway, where they build an independent, unregulated economy. The strike stops the “motor of the world”—factories close, skyscrapers crumble, people riot, pirates roam the seas. The litter-strewn streets become hunting grounds for beggars and criminals. In the end, the socialists who have provoked this catastrophe beg Galt to take over the economy.

To whom does the book appeal?

People who are more scared of governments than of bankers. Many conservatives and libertarians see the federal response to the current economic crisis as the beginning of a government takeover of private enterprise. Obama’s economic strategy “is right out of Atlas Shrugged,” writes Stephen Moore in The Wall Street Journal. “The more incompetent you are in business, the more handouts the politicians will bestow on you.” More fanatical free-marketers even predict a Rand-style revolution, in which those tired of making sacrifices for their fellow citizens decide to “go Galt,” by refusing to work or pay taxes. On Capitol Hill, Republican Rep. John Campbell of California has been handing out copies of the novel to his interns.

Who was Ayn Rand?

Born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum in 1905 in St Petersburg, Russia, she was the daughter of an entrepreneur whose business was seized by the Bolsheviks. In 1925 she fled to America, changed her name to Rand, and began working for Cecil B. DeMille in Hollywood, before moving to New York to become a writer. She wrote two short novels before gaining popularity in 1943 with The Fountainhead, the story of an architect driven by the “second-handers” to blow up his own building. But it was Atlas Shrugged that made her a national institution and gave the world a new philosophy, known as Objectivism.

What is Objectivism?

Rand described it as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” The only social system consistent with this morality, Rand insisted, is pure, unfettered capitalism, and the only function of government is the protection of individual rights. Rand attracted a group of disciples, known, with self-conscious irony, as the Collective, which included former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. It wasn’t just her ideas that inspired the group, it was Rand’s charisma. At the height of her popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s, Rand cut a highly exotic figure with her bobbed hair, Russian accent, dollar-sign brooches, and long cigarettes, smoked through a holder. She saw smoking as a Promethean symbol of creativity and regarded health warnings as a socialist conspiracy. When she died of lung cancer, in 1982, a 6-foot-high floral dollar sign was erected by her open coffin.

Did Objectivism outlast its founder?

A 1991 survey by the Library of Congress described Atlas Shrugged as the second most influential book in the U.S., after the Bible. Several universities have founded centers for the study of her views. Ronald Reagan was a fan; so were sports stars such as Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. But of all her prominent admirers, it was Alan Greenspan who was the most devoted. He even invited Rand to his swearing-in to President Gerald Ford’s Council of Economic Advisors, in 1974. His 18-year reign as chairman of the Fed, during which he presided over the unprecedented growth and deregulation of the U.S. economy, was arguably the apogee of Objectivism. But after the financial industry imploded last year, Greenspan admitted there was a “flaw” in free-market ideology. This admission hasn’t gone down well with Rand disciples. Says Yaron Brook, head of the Ayn Rand Institute: “I believe Greenspan sold his soul to the devil.”

John Galt in his own words

The hero of Atlas Shrugged outlines Objectivism in a 60-page speech. These excerpts provide a sense of the character’s—and the author’s—intensity:

“While you were dragging to your sacrificial altars the men of justice, of independence, of reason, of wealth, of self-esteem, I beat you to it, I reached them first. I told them the nature of the game you were playing and the nature of that moral code of yours, which they had been too innocently generous to grasp. I showed them the way to live by another morality—mine. It is mine that they chose to follow.”

“All the men who have vanished, the men you hated, yet dreaded to lose, it is I who have taken them away from you. Do not attempt to find us. We do not choose to be found. Do not cry that it is our duty to serve you. We do not recognize such duty. Do not cry that you need us. We do not consider ‘need’ a claim. Do not beg us to return. We are on strike, we, the men of the mind …”

“The world will change when you are ready to pronounce this oath: I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine.”

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