Atlas Shrugged a Milestone of Capitalism
October 8, 1997
Forty years ago this month, one of the most influential books in American history was published. "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand was a massive best-seller that continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies yearly. Always popular on college campuses (among students, not faculty), Atlas sparked the origins of the modern libertarian movement in America. Its enduring influence was marked by a major conference in Washington last Saturday, co-sponsored by the Cato Institute and the Institute for Objectivist Studies.
By now, the general outline of Rand's novel is familiar even to those who never read it. It is the story of how government harassed and persecuted the industrialists and businessmen of America in the name of equality and justice for the oppressed. As the weight of government grew, the businessmen began producing less and less, leading to impoverishment for the whole society. Finally, the businessmen, under the leadership of John Galt, Atlas's lead character, revolt and overthrow the government's shackles, bringing forth a new era of economic freedom and prosperity.
One of the interesting things about Atlas is that although Rand viewed the businessman, the producer and the entrepreneur as heroes, she had nothing but contempt for their timidity and unwillingness to defend themselves against the relentless onslaught of the collectivists and statists. This was endemic to their nature, she believed, and she was right. The business class can never and will never be a bulwark against socialism. Indeed, as Lenin once noted, businessmen all too often will sell their enemies the very rope with which they are to be hanged.
Capitalism is the source of all wealth, in Rand's view. But her support for unfettered capitalism went far beyond mere efficiency and utilitarianism. To Rand, capitalism is the only morally and ethically correct economic system, because it is based on voluntary exchange and not coercion. Therefore, it is the responsibility of everyone, not just the businessman, to support and defend capitalism. Indeed, it is a moral imperative.
One is still taken aback by this unabashed, unapologetic and enthusiastic support for capitalism. But it was even more remarkable when Atlas was published in 1957. Capitalism's defenders were few and far between, limited to a few obscure economists like Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek. The governments of the world were nationalizing industries left and right, labor unions were at the pinnacle of their power, the success of Sputnik gave Communism enormous worldwide respect, and greed was just about the dirtiest of all words.
A generation later, Communism is kaput, privatization has replaced nationalization almost everywhere, and the power of the labor unions is but a shadow of what it once was. Today there are well-financed, increasingly influential think tanks like the Cato Institute, dedicated to supporting and defending capitalism and economic freedom. Rush Limbaugh rules the radio, Republicans control Congress, and a Democratic president takes pride in having abolished the federal entitlement to welfare.
The speakers at Saturday's conference were unanimous in crediting Atlas and Rand for capitalism's reversal of fortune. It is a point that is hard to prove, however. Except for Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, it is difficult to find any prominent politician or policymaker who directly credits Rand for his thinking. Yet clearly Rand has had an enduring influence, if only indirectly. She invigorated the libertarian movement more than any other writer or thinker in history; inspiring and motivating virtually everyone who has ever identified himself or herself as a libertarian. But most importantly, Rand established the moral foundation of capitalism for the first time. Impressive accomplishments for a mere novelist.
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