Nearly thirty years after her death, Ayn Rand’s novels continue to be wildly popular—"Atlas Shrugged" alone is selling more today than it did when it was first published in 1957 -- more than one million copies have sold since the 2008 elections.
Especially among Tea Partiers, Ayn Rand is being hailed a prophet. How could she have anticipated, more than 50 years ago, a United States spinning out of financial control, plagued by soaring spending and crippling regulations?
How could she have painted villains who seem ripped from today’s headlines?
There’s Wesley Mouch, who in the face of failed government programs screams like Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts for wider powers.
There’s Eugene Lawson, “the banker with a heart,” who like former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is ever ready with a bailout.
There’s Mr. Thompson, who like President Obama seeks to rally the country behind pious platitudes.
There’s Orren Boyle, who like President Bush says that we must abandon free-market principles to save the free market.
And in the face of this onslaught, what can you do? Should you, like Rand’s heroes, “go Galt,” stop working, retreat to a secluded valley, and try to rebuild only when the country has collapsed?
Rand was asked these very questions in her own lifetime. Her answers might surprise you.
In the 1970s, America was in a deep financial crisis (a new word, stagflation, had to be coined), urban violence was rampant, and power-seeking politicians like President Nixon instituted wage and price controls that led to, among other things, gas stations with no gas.
How, people wondered, could Rand have foreseen all this? Was she a prophet? No, she answered. She had simply identified the basic cause of why the country was veering from crisis to new crisis.
Was the solution to “go Galt” and quit society? No, Rand again answered. The solution was simultaneously much easier and much harder. “So long as we have not yet reached the state of censorship of ideas,” she once said, “one does not have to leave a society in the way the characters did in Atlas Shrugged. . . . But you know what one does have to do? One has to break relationships with the culture. . . . [D]iscard all the ideas—the entire cultural philosophy which is dominant today.”
Now, the fact that "Atlas Shrugged" is not a political novel might surprise you. But the book’s point is that our plight is caused not by corrupt politicians (who are only a symptom) or some alleged flaw in human nature. It’s caused by the philosophic ideas and moral ideals most of us embrace.
“You have cried that man’s sins are destroying the world and you have cursed human nature for its unwillingness to practice the virtues you demanded,” the novel's hero John Galt declares to a country in crisis. “Since virtue, to you, consists of sacrifice, you have demanded more sacrifices at every successive disaster.”
He elaborates: “You have sacrificed justice to mercy.” (For example, calls to make homeownership “accessible” to those who could not afford it and then bailouts and foreclosure freezes to spare them when they couldn’t pay.)
“You have sacrificed reason to faith.” (For example, attempts to prevent stem cell research on Biblical grounds, or blind faith that Mr. Obama’s deliberately empty rhetoric about hope and change will magically produce prosperity.)
“You have sacrificed wealth to need.” (For example, Bush’s prescription drug benefit and Obamacare, both enacted because people needed “free” health care.)
“You have sacrificed self-esteem to self-denial.” (For example, attacks on Bill Gates for making a fortune; applause when he gives that fortune away.)
“You have sacrificed happiness to duty.” (For example, every president’s Kennedyesque exhortations to “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”)
The result? “Why . . . do you shrink in horror from the sight of the world around you? That world is not the product of your sins, it is the product and the image of your virtues. It is your moral ideal brought into reality . . .”
This is what "Atlas Shrugged" is asking us to question: our ideals. Rethink our convictions and philosophy of life from the ground up. Without doing so, it argues, we won’t escape further crises.
Strike, the book urges us, but intellectually, since to strike means to reject the fundamental terms of your opponents and assert your own.
This kind of thinking is difficult, Rand held, but necessary to enter the Atlantis depicted toward the end of the novel.
"If Atlas Shrugged" has been on your list of books-I’ve-been-meaning-to-get-to, then consider finding out for yourself how a story published in 1957 so eerily captures the world we live in today and so beautifully presents a road to a brighter future.
Postscript: And if you’re like the millions who prefer reading e-books, I highly recommend the just-released Atlas Shrugged app for iPad: it includes the unabridged text of the classic novel, and offers a glimpse into the backstory of the book and sketches out the essentials of Rand’s original philosophic system, Objectivism.
Dr. Onkar Ghate is a vice president and senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. He teaches at the Institute’s Objectivist Academic Center, speaks on philosophy and Objectivism across North America, and publishes scholarly articles on Ayn Rand’s fiction and philosophy. Recently he wrote "A Teacher’s Guide to 'Atlas Shrugged,'” a classroom resource published by Penguin.