The Persistent Influence of Atlas Shrugged

First published in Canvas: December 16 2013

In May 1999, the Modern Library published its Board List and Readers List of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century. The Board List contained few surprises; James Joyce’s Ulysses took first place, above F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

The Readers list however, threw up more than one shock. Compiled via an unscientific survey of 200,000 people, the list contained four novels by Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged was first; The Fountainhead second; and her earlier novels Anthem and We the Living seventh and eighth. Three novels by L Ron Hubbard (the leader of the Church of Scientology); Battlefield Earth, Mission Earth, and Fear also appeared in the top ten.[1]

The presence of three Hubbard novels on the list indicated one of two things: either there is a literary experience that is uniquely American, or that the ballot was rigged by over-zealous advocates. Certainly, scientologists have often been accused of tampering with sales of their books, and it would not be unreasonable to assume that they resorted to nefarious means to ensure that Hubbard’s’ books were well represented.[2]

However, it is legitimate to assume that the placing of Atlas Shrugged is genuine. Ayn Rand’s sprawling narrative of a society that is disintegrating under the crippling weight of unsustainable collectivism continues to sell well to this day, and it is hard to deny the impact that it has had on American society since its publication in October 1957. In 2009, the year after the financial crash, the novel sold 300,000 copies.[3]

Contemporary advocates can be found in various positions of influence; particularly in the Republican Party. An early advocate was Alan Greenspan – the Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987-2006. In his 2007 memoir Age of Turbulence, he recalled his friendship with Rand as one that permitted him intellectual growth beyond the confines of economic models; chiefly an understanding of how human beings formulate their values and how this influences their actions. “All of this started for me with Ayn Rand. She introduced me to a vast realm from which I’d shut myself off.”[4] To early critics he was less charitable, particularly when defending Atlas Shrugged: “Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfilment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.”[5]

The adherence of Paul Ryan (the 2012 Republican Candidate for Vice President) to Ayn Rand is well documented, if now disavowed as a youthful dalliance at odds with his Catholicism. Previously, Ryan claimed that Ayn Rand was the one person who had inspired him to go into public service, and that Atlas was required reading for his interns. “I always back to…Francisco d’Anconia’s speech on money when I think about monetary policy,” he stated in 2005. “And then I go to the 64-page John Galt speech…on the radio at the end, and go back to a lot of other things that she did, to try and make sure that I can check my premises so that I know that what I’m believing and doing and advancing are square with the key principles of individualism.”[6]

An appreciation for Atlas is also expressed by members of the business community; with Silicon Valley a notable hub for libertarian business sentiment. Luke Nosek and Peter Thiel are typical; two of the five co-founders of PayPal who made their fortunes after the company was sold to eBay for $1.5bn in 2002. Both have identified Rand as an influence; Nosek, who previously worked for Netscape, has cited her ideas as an inspiration: “I’m not a libertarian or an objectivist…but the most important lesson I got from Rand was that business can be good or evil. I have realised more and more that great companies, founded for a long-term purpose, such as Google or Facebook or SpaceX, may do more good in the world than any other vehicle that we have.”[7]

Thiel has made no secret of his devotion to libertarianism; he donated more than a $1 million dollars to the Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns.[8] He is also committed to the Seasteading Project devised by Patri Freedman – the grandson of economist Milton Friedman. The Seasteading Project seeks to bring Galt’s Gulch (the commune where the protagonists of Atlas seek refuge from collectivism) to life by creating autonomous floating cities that would exist on purely libertarian laissez faire principles. “The ultimate goal,” Friedman has stated, “”is to open a frontier for experimenting with new ideas for government.”[9] In spite of a successful Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for the development of the seasteading project, there is scant evidence to indicate that the proposal is achievable.[10]

Then there is Balaji Srinivasan, an entrepreneur and a lecturer at Stanford University, California. Whilst not in the same league as Nosek and Thiel, he made the news in late 2013 when he suggested that Silicon Valley should secede from the United States of America, so that those who live there could opt out of the social obligations of the US Government: “What do I mean by Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit?” Srinivasan stated. “It basically means: build an opt-in society, ultimately outside the US, run by technology…You don’t have to fight a war to start a new company. You don’t have to kill the former CEO in a duel. So a very important meta-concept is to create peaceful ways to exit and start new countries.”[11]

The efforts of Srinivasan and Thiel are not entirely original; in fact numerous attempts have been made to create a Randian-influenced libertarian paradise, and each of them has failed. In 1968, Michael J. Oliver, a Lithuanian born American real estate developer, published A New Constitution for a New Country, a treatise describing the problems that a libertarian utopia. Namely, it should avoid levying taxes, regulating relations between employers and employees, and should not be involved in the running of any business or service.[12] “Where industrious men are permitted to live with fewer government infringements,” he wrote “industry will move in and the place will prosper.”[13]

In 1972, Michael Oliver got his wish, when his organisation, the Ocean Life Research Foundation, purchased a ship, filled it with sand purchased from Australia, hired some workers, and set sail to create a new country. Land was reclaimed from a reef situated 250 miles from Tonga, and a small village was constructed. After the Tongan government issued a claim, Oliver declared the land as the Republic of Minerva, and created a coin currency. Within months however, Tonga had declared ownership of the reef, and Oliver gave up control.[14]

A further attempt was made in the early 1990s by a group of investors who found a shared interest in Rand. In 1995, they published an advert in The Economist heralding the creation of a modern day Galt’s Gulch named…Laissez Faire City. Investors were promised a libertarian paradise where they could live and do business without paying taxes or adhering to regulations. The group gathered interest and received a number of donations, and decided on Costa Rica for the location of the city. The idea eventually folded, and the investors that remained went onto other projects.[15]

In spite of these setbacks, Atlas Shrugged remains popular, and has undergone a renaissance since the Financial Crash of 2008, and the novel remains particularly amongst the young. “Atlas Shrugged was a very exciting book to read when you’re young.” historian Timothy Stanley stated to the BBC in August 2012. “Rand teaches you that the individual is in complete control of their life and adolescents are terrified of being told what to do. She tells students that when they leave college they will work for liberals who will take their taxes and don’t know anything. She massages the egos of juveniles.”

Stanley is correct, in that many readers first encounter Atlas Shrugged when they are in high school or university. Earlier this year, John Goedde, the Republican chairman of the Idaho Senate Education Committee introduced legislation requiring all high school seniors to read the novel before they graduate. Though the bill was meant at a protest over the policy of the State Board of Education, Goedde chose that book because of he believed its message of personal responsibility had helped his son find his Republicanism.[16]

The Ayn Rand Institute, dedicated to propagating Rand’s ideas, is receptive to the fact that many young people are attracted to Atlas Shrugged; they run an annual essay competition, with a top prize of $10,000. In recent years, they have become increasingly strident in their approach over the past decade, culminating in their participation in a debate held in New York between Yaron Brook, the Director of the ARI debated, and David Callahan, the co-founder of the think-tank Demos.[17]

Brook is a tireless advocate of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, and in recent interviews has claimed that a Randian revolution is closer than ever before. As Gary Weiss found when he interviewed Brook for his book Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul. Brook, he states is playing the long game: “In 50 years he sees Objectivism as “the primary challenge to whatever the status quo is…in 100 years, the apostle of no-government capitalism will be “the dominant secular philosophy in the United States.”[18]  

Weiss is clear in stating that he is not a fan of objectivism, or laissez faire capitalism. But he is a pragmatist. America is fighting a war of ideas, and objectivism is making headroads. In the epilogue to the book, Weiss envisages an objectivist America with no public services, no public transportation, and no welfare. The idea of such a society; with a small elite lording over an impoverished population, is almost utopian in its hellishness, and has more in common with the Soviet bolshevism that Ayn Rand escaped from than the America that the founders intended.[19]

The lesson therefore, is to take Atlas Shrugged seriously. Academics for example, often dismiss the teachings of Ayn Rand as lacking in intellectual rigor, but unless they confront them, then they cannot be properly addressed.  “Today, the revolution is being waged by the right,” Weiss concluded in a post for the Huffington Post. “It will be successful–unless the rest of us stop ridiculing Ayn Rand and begin taking her seriously.”[20]

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