Rand’s Atlas: a myth for America

Many are returning to Ayn Rand’s seminal fiction novel amid recession. But they should not forget the lessons reality teaches.

When the tumult of day-to-day existence throws reality into disarray, people tend to go back to basics, asking questions like, âÄúWho am I?âÄù and âÄúWhere am I going?âÄù With political and social movements, this generally translates to a little bit of electoral soul-searching and revisiting the philosophical foundation of your ideology. Considering the recent collapse of public confidence in conservative politicians and multibillionaire CEOs, laissez-faire economics is being revisited to bolster the confidence of the business class, and nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than the resurgent popularity of Ayn RandâÄôs capitalist encyclical, âÄúAtlas Shrugged.âÄù Since President Barack ObamaâÄôs inauguration, sales of the book have been âÄúgoing through the roofâÄù according to Yaron Brook, the president of the Ayn Rand Institute. Brook claims that the book has sold more copies in the first four months of 2009 than it did all last year. And why not? The book is an unrepentant defense of the capitalist, a defiant call that selfishness and profiteering are to be emulated, not scorned. Considering the impression much of conservative America has of Obama and a popular sentiment that regards Wall Street businessmen as slightly more palatable than Osama bin Laden, a book that offers a laudatory pat on the back while condemning âÄúsocialismâÄù is a welcome change of pace. Although currently en vogue, âÄúAtlasâÄù has been an ideological refuge for quite some time. A 1991 survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club noted that it was the second most influential book in America, behind the Bible. But thereâÄôs a problem. Rand’s vision of businessmen in âÄúAtlasâÄù was like Walt Disney’s version of the animal kingdom in âÄúBambiâÄù: the dirty and impolite aspects that actually animate their lives were handily ignored. Unlike Disney, RandâÄôs choice to exclude reality was not done to enable the narrative, but to make it possible to drive home a philosophical point. Like PlatoâÄôs âÄúPhilosopher-KingâÄù (or its 18th century variant, the âÄúEnlightened DespotâÄù), Rand used her narrative to create a philosophical ideal in the form of the businessman. This ideal, like all ideals, embodied all âÄúgoodâÄù things, and no âÄúbad.âÄù Due to the pervasive effect of RandâÄôs book on American culture, itâÄôs also been important in shaping a cultural perspective on businessmen as an exponent of American prosperity and a conceptual justification for complete, unbridled economic liberty, or in RandâÄôs words, âÄúthe separation of State and Economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of Church and State.âÄù However, the benefits of this ideal have been dubious because the deified philosophical ideal is fictional and the product of wholly wishful thinking. It is the result of a thought experiment that characterizes efforts to regulate business as âÄúpunishmentâÄù and manufactures a conflict that compels the public to see business as an eternal adversary. As such, RandâÄôs is a conceit that we ought to banish, not because, as socialists believe, businessmen are inherently evil, but because they are not, as she believes, inherently good. Capitalism, like any economic system, is merely a tool, and the use of that tool determines whether it is a âÄúgoodâÄù or âÄúbadâÄù thing. This makes it a results-oriented arrangement whose sole motivation is profit. Enamored of the notion that selfishness is the highest ideal, Rand and her ilk are unwilling to see the occasionally pathological consequences of the profit motive. Instead, they set their sights on removing any impediment to any profit. In a piece from the Ayn Rand Institute titled âÄúStop Blaming Capitalism for Government FailuresâÄù the aforementioned Yaron Brook emphasizes that the goal should be âÄúno regulatory bullying, no controls, no government interference in the economy.âÄù The governmentâÄôs only job is âÄúto protect individual rights from violation by force or fraud.âÄù One of the consequences of leaving business to itself is that the demand for a product and its subsequent profitability are the only important aspects worth consideration, but this kind of change would produce undesirable businesses. For instance, in Thailand, sex tourism capital of the world, there exists a market for child prostitutes. The principal thing that keeps it from being legal is a government stipulation that all sex workers are older than 18, but in a system without laws governing business âÄî the so-called âÄúregulatory bullyingâÄù and âÄúgovernment interferenceâÄù âÄî the individual pimping a consenting 10-year-old is as legitimately a businessman as the local manufacturer of antibiotics and pediatric vaccines. The same holds true for other forms of child labor; if children are ready to go work for their share of the family take and a business were prepared to employ them, there would be nothing to stop a boom in bobbin-changing jobs. Other businesses would spring up that are decidedly anti-growth; short sellers and âÄúempty creditorsâÄù (lenders and creditors who make their profits by betting on business failures), bolstered by the leverage to sink as many companies as possible, would effectively become economic incinerators. These kinds of entrepreneurs donâÄôt come to the fore in âÄúAtlasâÄù because its ruins the dream; instead, the focus is on railroad executives, mining magnates and the boss of the steel foundry. Nevertheless, they would arise in a system where market-driven demand determines a businessâÄô merit. Philosophically, the Rand set believes that government needs to practice a âÄúhands-offâÄù approach, but this is a solution that is no better than over-regulation and equally catastrophic. In reality, we need a light governmental touch to steer the motor of industry. To believe otherwise is fiction. Chris Benson is the senior editorial board member. Please send comments to [email protected].