Atlas Takes Up Again

Today, when the word “forefront” is used in conversation, its companion is very likely to be a variation on the word “economy.” And in many circles, the idea of unmoderated capitalism has become an associated whipping boy.

In the midst of the fray, proponents of both perspectives and political-economic leanings have turned to literature as a battlefield, a rallying cry, or a pointed, “I told you so.”

aynAt the forefront of this economic stichomythia is 1930s-50s author and philosopher Ayn Rand, “the novelist who is to blame,” according to a headline in the Business Standard in India. A symbol of extreme capitalism, Rand’s works are rife with characters like John Galt, of Atlas Shrugged, who preach Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, laissez-faire, and self-interest.

True, literature has great influence, but how does the Business Standard journalist take the connection to such a dramatic conclusion? Here’s a synopsis, from the article:

Alan Greenspan, who, first as chairman of the Council of Economic Affairs and later as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of the US, was at the center of economic decision making for two decades right up to 2006 was a great admirer of Ayn Rand and a true believer in the philosophy she espoused in Atlas Shrugged. […] When Greenspan took his oath of office at the White House for his first public policy job as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, he had Ayn Rand standing beside him.

(Also see Kansas City StarAlan, like Atlas, shrugged)

Others, defending the free market (see Grand Junction Free Press and the San Jose Mercury News), argue that the US, not purely capitalistic, cannot name current economic conditions as the inevitable result of Rand’s vision. They take a dark view of a future that promises more government involvement. Neither is the Ayn Rand Institute silent on current affairs.

Still others find camaraderie in the pages of Atlas Shrugged. On this editorial page from the southwest Florida News-Press, the third letter down points readers to a re-creation of “Galt’s Gulch,” the capitalist sanctuary established in Atlas

A recent poll released by Zogby International informs politicians that 8.1% of Americans have read Atlas Shrugged. What does it mean? and why does it matter? Perhaps the only point is that, as a classic, Atlas remains potent; but perhaps, on a broader scale, literature dealing with the history and philosophy of the American economic system is back in vogue.

Is it any wonder that a film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged currently swirls around Hollywood?

In one sense, then, it does not matter if Rand’s writings are an example of a misguided system that has wreaked havoc in global markets or a manifesto detailing the consequences of excessive government intervention.

For whether Atlas shrugs or stoops again to the yoke, Rand’s revived prevalence in public discourse undeniably reminds us that strict boundaries between literature and society are like the “impenetrable” gateway to Galt’s Gulch – ultimately, an illusion.


8 Responses to Atlas Takes Up Again

  1. RnBram says:

    Anyone who has read Atlas Shrugged, and Capitalism:The Unknown Ideal would no better than to write,
    “In one sense, then, it does not matter if Rand’s writings are an example of the misguided system that has wreaked havoc in global markets or a manifesto detailing the consequences of excessive government intervention.”

    The “if” is so small an escape hatch as to be disingenuous.

    This crisis was neither a failure of laissez-faire capitalism nor Ayn Rand’s ideas, it was a failure of intensive regulation —with Greenspan’s hypocritical contributions. From The American Competitive Enterprise Institute:
    While the Dow collapses, we have a bull market in government regulations. The 50-plus departments, agencies and commissions are now at work on 3,882 rules; 757 will affect small businesses. More than 51,000 final rules were issued from 1995 to 2007.

    That’s nearly 54,000 NEW regulations, added to what was there before, in only 12 years!

    That is hardly Rand’s laissez-faire capitalism; that’s massive socialist/fascist government interference! At root, those are the very ideologies Rand spent her lifetime hoping to save Americans and America from. Now, when the effects of those destructive ideologies from Washington hit the fan, everyone is blaming laissez-faire capitalism instead. They are ridiculous, uninformed, or dishonest.

    Greenspan dropped any pretense of understanding Rand’s arguments well before he became head of the Fed., and he then became a major part of the problem. His monetary policy and suppression of interest rates (1%!!), when Rand would have said “let the market decide”, were an appalling government intervention. Add in the HUD, CRA, CDS, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the recipe for a catastrophically distorted market, including the trading of derivatives, was complete. There is no room for the implicit doubt of “if”.

    Edward Cline wrote, “Reason and rationality flee when force becomes a factor in men’s decisions, to be replaced with the pragmatism of punishment-avoidance or a risk-free shot at easy money.

    So imagine YOU are the CEO of a large financial organization. Your competitors are complying with the regulations and appear to be making good for their shareholders, while things are getting tight for your firm. What do you do?

    You want to buy a house, and the government directly or indirectly tells your lender they will protect him from default so long as he keeps the mortgage interest low. What do you do?

    You do the pragmatic thing, join in, and trusting in the state’s easy money guarantee. As a CEO, if you are able to understand the fraud in the government’s game, you build yourself some protection for when the government’s house of cards collapses. Most people believe the “government is here to help” (say by regulation), so they don’t protect themselves.

    You would not have dared to engage in the risky lending or buying that lead to the crisis, were it not for the handful of people in the US government who believed they were smarter than the free market and installed legislation to distort it. Without those people, lending rates would have adjusted themselves years ago, paper money would not have been printed like it grew on trees (e.g. “helicopter Bernanke”) and the present crisis would never have materialized.

  2. RnBram says:

    1st line above; should be “know”.

  3. jenecrit says:

    Thanks for your comments. I recognize and fully agree that the verity of Ayn Rand’s philosophy will prove to be of the utmost importance in its relation to economics.

    The point of this post is not to elevate one argument over the other, but to show how, in the midst of current events, we are drawing from literature for understanding. I have read Atlas Shrugged, though not Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal (maybe at some point in the future!) and have great admiration for Rand’s ambitious project. The paragraph mid-way through my post, beginning “Others, defending the free market…” highlights and links to a similar position to your own, in an effort to fairly represent both sides.

    However, in one sense – namely the proof that literature and society are not divorced from one another – the outcome of the debate is secondary. Because the focus of this blog is the impact of literature on society, that’s the angle I have chosen. Although I am interested in the economic debate, I am not qualified to take a definitive position. I happily leave that role to those better qualified in economics.

    Again, thanks for sharing your ideas and for your interest in my blog.

  4. “…as a classic, Atlas remains potent” It certainly does; it was written fifty years ago but, if any remnant of civilisation remains five hundred years from now, it will be just as potent then. Have you any thoughts on what makes a work of literature potent? You say that you admire Atlas Shrugged; did you also like it?

  5. jenecrit says:

    I have many thoughts, all of them incomplete, but here goes… 🙂

    Off the top of my head, what makes a work of literature potent:

    1 – raising questions and issues that are general to all times and all people.
    2 – containing characters who combine elements of Everyman and the heroic.
    3 – drawing readers in, so they have something at stake in the book’s ending.
    4 – demonstrating innovative or powerful use of language.

    Do you have any thoughts about the question?

  6. […] and Institutes When writing my recent post on Ayn Rand, I visited the Ayn Rand Institute to gain more information about the author. Although […]

  7. […] Read my earlier comments on the Atlas phenomenon in “Atlas Takes Up Again.” […]

  8. After reading the article, I just feel that I need more info. Could you suggest some resources ?

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