Marketplace Scratch Pad

‘Atlas Shrugged’ comes off the shelf

Scott Jagow Apr 20, 2009

I find it fascinating that so many people are reading, talking about, buying and using Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, “Atlas Shrugged.” The book has recently soared up Amazon’s list of best sellers and is now #1 on the classics list.

Columnists and pundits continue to reference the book as it supposedly pertains to our current economic plight. From a Forbes column today:

Many Americans intuitively understand that our collectivist shift toward bailouts of companies and individuals is exactly what Rand warned us about over 60 years ago. Simplified, if the government allows the unproductive to partake in the gains created by the productive, the productive just might disappear.

One guy named John Reale of Mine Hill, N.J., has started a project he’s calling Going John Galt, referring to the “Atlas Shrugged” character who organizes a strike of society’s “producers:”

Such is the mission of this project: To identify the most practical strategy for withholding liberty’s fruits from the world, to the end of showing the public that the destruction of liberty will no longer be tolerated. But developing such a strategy, designed to minimize personal risk, attract the greatest number of adherents, minimize defection/treason, discourage backlash, and ultimately inspire, is a task the difficulty of which can hardly be overstated.

I’m not sure what he has in mind, but Mr. Reale does note on his site that he’s looking for work, so I don’t know how much he intends to withhold.

Someone else has launched a campaign to send copies of “Atlas Shrugged” to the politicians in Washington and deliver “the message that we want our individual rights and freedoms protected, not plundered.” Er, taxed.

All of these efforts were fodder for a Stephen Colbert segment last month in which he ridiculed the novel and the people who uphold it. He called it the “Conservative’s Bible.”

That prompted a response and interview with a senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute on the Huffington Post:

The Colbert segment was a cheap shot, so, no, I don’t think he was trying to open a debate. If anything, by attacking a straw man, he was trying to close debate.

But that particular blog post already has 137 comments from people debating the merits of the novel, Rand’s philosophy and so on. There certainly is a debate, although I can’t say I enjoy all the quoting out of context and using the novel as a political weapon.

I think John Wellington Ennis gets it about right in his Huffington post:

The inherent problem of literature is that often times citing it is in itself an appearance of wisdom, superior reasoning, of being right. And as grandiose as the grunting of “Going Galt” by conservatives has been, their many detractors have disparaged an otherwise good novel.

I liked Rand’s novels, particularly “The Fountainhead,” because they inspired me in some way. They made me think about an individual’s pursuits and being true to yourself. But as Ennis says, “Astonishingly, one actually can have compassion for other people and not thereby be enslaved.”

These values are in constant conflict within each of us, I believe. Look at Alan Greenspan. He was in Ayn Rand’s inner circle in the 1950’s, and yet, you could argue his Federal Reserve of the late 20th century was extremely meddlesome. Recently, he even said nationalizing some banks might be necessary.

But Greenspan isn’t a character in a novel. “Atlas Shrugged” is a work of fiction that revolves around a philosophical ideal. I think it’s worth reading and discussing.

And that’s about the extent of it.

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