Atlas mugged: What's wrong with Ayn Rand

More than half a century after publication, and after years of talk about an Atlas Shrugged movie project, Ayn Rand's best-selling novel finally hit the big screen– met with indifference by most critics, with excitement in libertarian and conservative circles. Why now? Partly because the last two years have seen something of a Rand revival, based on the belief that the Atlas vision of a bleak, collectivism-ridden, freedom-stifling future America is a prophecy for the age of Obama.

As a moderate libertarian conservative with a longtime interest in Rand's work, I have mixed feelings about this revival. I believe that Rand is underappreciated and often unfairly maligned. But I also fear that the current Rand vogue often focuses on the worst, not the best, aspects of her legacy– and will widen the gap between Rand acolytes and non-believers who see her as the evil guru of the right.

Part of the problem lies with the book itself. Contrary to her detractors' claims, Rand was a writer of high and unique talent. Atlas is among the worst of her works. Most of the characters are either demigods or vermin. The plot suffocates under endless speechifying, with every point hammered over and over. The earlier novels, We the Living and The Fountainhead advance Rand's ideas but allow for shades of gray and sympathy for flawed characters. In Atlas, the ideologue has all but crushed the writer.

The film, which covers the first of the novel's three parts, suffers from the same problems. It describes railway executive Dagny Taggart's struggle to save the family business from assorted scoundrels, including her own brother, and of her romance with unhappily married industrialist Hank Rearden. It's fairly standard prime-time soap material, except that the good guys rhapsodize about property rights, competence, and individual achievement, while the baddies babble about sensitivity, feelings, and helping the needy.

In this way, the movie plays to the worst caricature of Rand's philosophy– as an excuse for vulgar materialism and greed unfettered by moral constraints. In fact, some of the most contemptible villains in the book Atlas Shrugged are businessmen whose pursuit of self-interest involves seeking unfair and dishonest advantage over competitors rather than offering the best product. Rand also stresses and celebrates the spiritual aspects of economic creation– something the Atlas movie actually captures well in the scene in which Dagny and Hank ride a high-speed train on the rail line they have built. More broadly, Rand's challenge to the assumption that altruistic goals are inherently noble, and her passionate defense of the moral foundation of economic and individual freedom, remain compelling.

However, Rand's vision also has severe limitations, including her low regard for charity and family– two institutions most conservatives, and many libertarians, regard as essential complements to the free market. In pure form, her philosophy would work perfectly if people were never helpless and dependent on others through no fault of their own. Unsurprisingly, many young Rand fans move on when concerns with family, children, and aging make such a worldview seem untenable. For some, Rand becomes a gateway to more sensible small-government beliefs.

But there is a more serious problem with Ayn Rand – one that, unfortunately, makes her too good a fit for today's political environment. She consistently and viciously demonizes the people and ideas she disagrees with, reducing them to grotesque caricatures and easily shredded straw men.

The evil bureaucrats of Atlas Shrugged, for instance, argue that even when steel production is at disastrously low levels, Rearden can't be allowed to produce too much of it since it would disadvantage other steel companies; or that, even if his new metal is perfectly safe, it would be a "social danger" because it is so superior to other products. Many Rand fans apparently believe that a world in which such arguments win the day– in which the government can rapidly pass draconian laws to curtail competition or prohibit an individual's ownership of more than one business– bears a strong resemblance to the United States under the Obama presidency. If so, it doesn't say much for their sense of objective reality– a much-vaunted Randian virtue.

Amid the collectivist pieties of the left and the religious pieties of the right, Rand's message of individual liberty and achievement could have been a welcome alternative – if stripped of its extremism, paranoia, and ideological intolerance. Unfortunately, it is precisely those qualities that are likely to resonate today.

Cathy Young (a contributing editor at Reason magazine) is a columnist at The Boston Globe, where this essay first appeared. She is the author of "Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood."
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