Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand

If you put the verbosity of Dostoevsky, the philosophy of Nietzsche, and a relentless faith on selfishness in a mixer, what you would get is Ayn Rand.

Libertarianism would not be what it is in the United States without Ayn Rand. In a best case scenario, Libertarianism as we know it would be a snobbish-academic project, similar to Ralph Nader's. Our traditional ngram shows how mentions of Rand have increased with time, with occasional spikes whenever taxes go up, or a Democratic administration takes power. In 2009, The Economist issued an article on how the sales of Atlas Shrugged in Amazon behaved in the aftermath of the collapse of Lehman, peaking every time that the government took a "collectivist" measure like bailing out the banks, or approving TARP.

After reading Atlas Shrugged, a mammoth of 1070 pages which Rand considered her masterpiece, it's easy to see why it has become influential. Rand has been neglected by academics (though there's an Ayn Rand Institute, dedicated 100% to research on her thoughts and ideas) but common people who have read her books love her. I think Atlas Shrugged always comes on the highest positions of most surveys asking what are the most influential books in the United States, along with the Bible and the Constitution.  And the thing is that Rand touches a very basic string in political psyche: the idea that taxes are bad.

The book also tries to emulate the epic style of Victor Hugo's novels, whom Rand admired. Atlas Shrugged is the story of an entrepreneurial woman struggling to thrive in a world taken over by collectivists and parasites. Atlas Shrugged is an apology of selfishness. In Rand's view, rational actors will always find a market-based solution. Market failures and natural monopolies don't exist in her world, and taxes should be abolished or kept to a minimum in order to keep the government limited to punish thieves. Though I dislike them, I will not go into the politics of the book. For one thing, you can always google "critiques to rational choice" or "Coarse Theorem" to see what's wrong with this vision of the World. Additionally, there is a huge number of novels written by committed authors trying  to sell and impose their view of the World rather than engage the reader in an intellectual discussion. Atlas Shrugged tries to simplify reality in good guys versus bad guys plot, but so do other masterpieces as Les Misérables, The Karamazov Brothers, War and Peace, Oliver TwistDemian, and practically all  Latin American novels written during the "boom" years. Libertarians have the right to get supporters through literature just as communists do.

Putting politics aside, the book is repetitive and predictable, as its 30 chapters follow the same structure: the protagonists see some light at the end of a plot designed by the government, there is a dialogue between the protagonists and the bad guys where the stupidity of the bad guys is put in evidence, and then the government designs another plot to destroy entrepreneurship. The only exception to this structure is chapter VII, part 3, which is a pseudo-philosophical monologue of 70 pages.

Ayn Rand's ideology is on the rise. Some Tea Party members think that we are entering the dystopia presented in Atlas Shrugged and wear t-shirts with the emblematic question of the book, "who is John Galt." A movie on the first part of the book was released recently (trailer here), though apparently it was not very successful from a commercial point of view.

The people who don't like Ayn Rand will have problems countering her ideology. Again, she praises selfishness, and that's really cool when you are 14 or you are a single young adult with no attachments. She will not be beaten through academic debates, as Hitchens and Nader try to do, but with the most lethal and straightforward political weapons since the French Revolution: humor. John Colbert does it here.

This is Ayn Rand's first interview on TV. To see parts 2 and 3, just go to Youtube.

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