Atlas Shrugged Book Club, Entry 8: Is Ayn Rand a Better Philosopher or Novelist?

The other request is aimed at the subset of Atlas Shrugged fans who invoke it while supporting Republican candidates. I'd just point out that for the GOP to be worthy of that support, it would have to move beyond reflecting the anti-government parts of Rand's philosophy and take up the anti-cronyism imperatives too. Several of the book's great villains, like James Taggart and Orren Boyle, are the CEOs of major corporations who've lobbied their way to unfair advantages and outsized profits. The conservative movement has a long list of punching bags, from activists like Al Sharpton to journalists like Dan Rather to bureaucrats like Janet Reno to celebrities like Sean Penn. Can anyone think of a CEO who has been called out by the conservative movement as a personification of what's wrong with America? If one of the most egregious real-life cronies were attacked and it resulted in real reform, the credibility boost would be huge and deserved.  

From: Garance Franke-Ruta
To: Michael Brendan Dougherty, Conor Friedersdorf, Jerome Copulsky
Subject: Part III

Conor suggests most people who like Atlas Shrugged enough to recommend it to a friend would "have many disagreements with Rand," and "regard her as a better novelist than a philosopher, a hypothesis that can be supported by comparing the sales of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead to her nonfiction fare." 

If so, I couldn't disagree with them more. As philosophy, I found her work interesting, though not convincing, but as literature I have found Atlas Shrugged a terribly written and constructed book. And we all know contemporaneous book sales are not correlated with enduring literary value. That said, I am glad to have engaged with the book, which is a touchstone in parts of the contemporary political world, though only in the same way I felt a satisfaction at having watched Field of Dreams -- because of the endless references to it in the political arena, rather than because of any qualities of enjoyment in the enterprise of absorbing it.

As to Rand's main political argument, I would suggest that America already had a major Atlas Shrugged moment. It was called the '60s and '70s. I know people who were raised in or helped create the Galt's Gulches of those days -- there was a back-to-the-land movement among educated Americans, let us recall. And you know what? Rand was just wrong. America continued as it had, largely untroubled by the absence of these exemplars of excellence. If the nation had problems in the '70s, and it did, it had more to do with the lingering impact of the oil shocks on the economy and the "turn on" part of the "turn on, tune in, drop out" culture.

Society is not a bunch of schmoes with a handful of excellent people who keep it together, something that will fall apart without them. It's a system in which every clearing out of one group allows new people to rise to excellence, or at least prominence. But we all create each other, and can recreate each other and ourselves in response to the demands of the times.

Maybe in an oppressive, quasi-fascist state like the one described in Atlas Shrugged it is possible to stop the motor of the world. But in America, and in the real world, new people step up to the demands before them. Excellence and competence are not inherent genetic qualities, but the product of training, experience, intellect, values, and opportunity. In a free society, when elites go Galt, no one misses them for long, because new people rise up to take their place. The motor of the world preceded us, and it continues to turn after we step out of society, or even out of existence.

Galt's novel is a dystopian vision from start to finish. I give her credit for sensing something oppressive afoot in the tenor of the America of her times, and for, in a way, predicting the "Me Generation" with its communes and retreats and hippie back-to-the-land movement as a response to it. But we are past that now, and those who turn to her mid-century novel to direct their political thinking today are, sadly, turning to a dated vision of an America that never was to order their thoughts about what could be in a land that is freer and more welcoming of talent than Rand recognized.

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Atlas Shrugged Book Club

Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Jerome Copulsky

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