I think I was the only libertarian in the world who had never read Atlas Shrugged.
I knew about the book, its reputation and its controversial author, of course. Through the same cultural osmosis that tells me more than I care to know about Jon and Kate, I knew the basic plot and philosophy and its status as the gateway drug to libertarianism.
But I’d never read it myself. So when the teabaggers, Limbots and Beckholes started talking about “Going Galt”, I decided to pop my Rand cherry and see what all the donner und blitzen is about. Is it really as bad as everyone says? Why do people love/hate it so passionately? Why do so many people say it “changed my life”?
There was a fairly long wait list at the local library. I finally got my copy the week before Thanksgiving. 8 days and almost 1,100 pages later, I ‘m done. It turned out to be both better and worse than I expected. I actually enjoyed parts of the story and small doses of Rand's scenery chewing writing style (in an Ed Wood way, at least).
As politics and philosophy though, it’s a horribly mixed bag, with a few gems buried in endless piles of crap. With a very careful reading Atlas Shrugged could teach important lessons about economics and freedom, but it’s so badly constructed that readers are almost certain to take away the worse possible message. Digging for the gems just isn't worth the crap.
Ayn Rand Wrote About Libertarianism And All I Got Was A Bum Rap
In Part 2 I'll take plenty of biting shots at Rand’s writing. There’s so much schlock in those 1,100 pages it would be impossible to review Atlas Shrugged without pegging the Snark-o-meter.
But first, I want to look at how Rand shaped the public face of libertarianism. Almost single-handedly Rand took us from Leonard Read’s “Anything that’s peaceful” mantra to the Objectivism-spouting, Virtue of Selfishness jackasses we all knew in college. Modern libertarianism had its share of jerks before Rand (I’m looking at you, Murray Rothbard). But after Rand, that type dominated its public image for decades.
One Bad Mother
It’s ironic that Rand has birthed so many self-proclaimed libertarians.
Rand hated libertarians. She called us “hippies of the right” (not that bad a description, actually) and accused contemporary libertarian writers of stealing her ideas. Rand’s monumental ego allowed her to believe that she had originated ideas like the non-aggression principle and natural rights. She hated how libertarians held similar concepts but neither gave her credit for discovering them nor swallowed the rest of Objectivism whole.
To this day, Rand’s estate will not allow any of her writings to be reprinted in a “libertarian” book.
Despite Rand’s disdain and her efforts to drive libertarians from her sight, most people’s first exposure to a “libertarian” is likely to be through one of her disciples. Some kid who read Atlas Shrugged freshman year and decided that Rand’s supermen would welcome him into Galt’s Gulch with open arms (Warning: That's a Freeper link). As a result, most people think libertarians are self-centered, greedy, arrogant, morally bankrupt and more than a bit creepy. Anyone who would want to live in Rand's world is at least half bubble off plumb.
How could one book set us back so far?
Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal, Personally Responsible
The moral center of libertarian philosophy is that the world works best when people are free to make their own choices about their own lives. It is a humble philosophy that recognizes the limits of our own reason and respects the intelligence and abilities of other people. Like the bumper sticker says:
We’re pro-choice. On Everything.Politically, it says that central planning and decisions made by far removed governments are likely to have very bad unintended consequences. Planners don’t know, and can’t know even in principle, enough about individual people or local communities to run them effectively. When it comes to allocating goods and services, planners can’t match the distributed knowledge embedded in global markets. Lacking the god-like omniscience it would take to make central planning work, it’s better to leave most important decisions to individuals and local communities (This is a pretty middle-of-the-road definition. Hard-core libertarians go as far as Free Market Anarchy, calling for the complete elimination of the “State” at all levels.).
Mostly libertarianism says that regular people can take care of themselves, their families and their lives on their own. We may turn to a minimal state to provide security but we ask little else from it [Updated: See Catesby's critique of my original statement below]. When people are free from tyrants, safe in their own persons and property and able to reap the rewards from their work, the world will run just fine.
We Don’t Need Another Hero
This is not the world portrayed in Atlas Shrugged. Rand can say nothing about how ordinary people should live their lives because there are no ordinary people in her world. Every single character is a living God burning brightly with Promethean fires, a sniveling parasite sucking the world dry or a cardboard cut-out propped up by Rand to bask in the glory of her heroes.
Rand smashes these characters together with melodramatic vigor, generating much heat and a tiny spark of light. If you dig through the infamously long speeches that clutter the book, you can find traces of the more humble libertarian philosophy. But on the surface, this is a book about how men and women of superior ability must fight against the human muck of the world in order to live their glorious lives.
When Rand kills over 300 people in a horrific and completely avoidable train wreck, she spends several pages introducing brand-new, completely disposable characters. Each is given a short back-story to show just how badly that person deserves to die. She wraps up this bloody chore by stating that every single person on the train is just as bad, chokes them to death on coal smoke and, for good measure, blows them all to bits with a speeding munitions train.
The reader is left with the distinct impression that it is good that these wastes of skin died horribly. That it is good that none of Rand’s heroes were there to stop the disaster. That it is good that a vital transportation link has been destroyed and half the country will starve.
Le Monde Va De Lui-Meme
Compare that to the world-view found in “Let us do, leave us alone. The world runs by itself." (In the original French, “Laissez-nous faire, laissez-nous passer, Le monde va de lui-meme.”, the source of laissez faire capitalism, an idea as widely hated as it is misunderstood.) In a laissez faire world people don’t deserve to die just for being ordinary or for trying to live the best lives they can in an imperfect world. And we don’t need supermen to keep things from falling apart. If the would-be supermen just let us do, the world will run by itself.
When The Moon Hits Heinlein
Hero worship is a common problem in “libertarian fiction”. Robert Heinlein’s book The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress once gave many budding libertarians their first taste of “freedom philosophy”. In theory, this “classic novel... of libertarian revolution” is suppose to be about how independent, square-jawed frontiersmen who have colonized the Moon escape from the corrupt control of a collectivist Earth.
In reality, the main lesson is that it’s easy to create a libertarian paradise if you're lead by a Jeffersonian genius, your best friend is an omnipotent super-computer named Mike and a sympathetic billionaire shows up halfway through the book to subvert Earth’s population. It also helps if you live on top of a 240,000 mile high cliff so you can drop rocks on the bad guy’s heads.
Maybe it’s just very difficult to write a compelling story about regular people enjoying day to day life. But Rand and Heinlein could have tried a lot harder.
Coming Up Next
It's easy to see how Atlas Shrugged can generate such strong and lasting emotions. I was just going to toss-off a few pages about how badly Rand misrepresented libertarianism and I ended up with this. It's already way longer than I thought it would be and I haven't even touched on Rand's famously bad writing style or the most morally corrupt effects of her books and philosophy.
I'll post that tomorrow evening. Join me if you like.
If you've already had a bellyful of Rand, I won't blame you if you skip it.