A remarkable event occurred 40 years ago this month. Not the launching of Sputnik, which in retrospect, considering the collapse of the Soviet Union, had much less significance than people suspected at the time. Ironically, the event I am thinking of involved a woman who understood from the beginning that the Soviet Union was a fraud, economically, morally, and in all other respects.
The woman was Ayn Rand, who died in 1982, and the event was the publication of her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged , a grand novel that has sold more than five million copies, continues to sell very well today, and has had a deep impact on readers around the world. An indication of that impact came in a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club, which asked 2,000 members to name a book that “made a difference” in their lives. Atlas Shrugged placed second behind the Bible.
What kind of book could strike such a chord in readers? Rand’s novel is big in many ways. It is more than a thousand pages long; but more important, it covers a wide range of personal, political, and economic issues. In fact, it presents a full philosophy of life, from the nature of man and reality to the nature of knowledge, from a doctrine of good and evil to the morality of a free society, from a theory of money and trade to a theory of art. That all of this is integrated into an action thriller makes the book all the more remarkable.
Its many aspects are as relevant today as they were four decades ago. Two seem particularly worth mentioning now. One of Rand’s lasting achievements in Atlas Shrugged was to set out a moral case for the economic system we call capitalism. Rand often called it “laissez faire capitalism” to emphasize that she meant the complete separation of state and economy. She condemned the “mixed economy,” that contradictory brew of freedom and government control that has gripped the United States for much of its history. For Rand, capitalism was not merely the best system for producing material goods. (Today, unlike 40 years ago, hardly anyone disputes that.) Capitalism, Rand believed, was the only moral system, the only one suited to man’s nature as a rational, creative being. The free-market economy lets people produce, trade with willing buyers without interference, and keep the fruits of their effort. It is the system that recognizes each person’s right to the pursuit of happiness, to use Thomas Jefferson’s radical phrase from the Declaration of Independence.
Rand, who escaped Bolshevik Russia as a young woman, spent a lifetime trying to show Americans, of all people, how much a break with the past Jeffersonian America was. Until 1776, no political document had ever affirmed the right of the individual to live by his own judgment and for his own sake. That revolutionary philosophy produced the freest, most prosperous, most benevolent society the world has ever seen. Unfortunately, the country soon forgot its revolutionary origins. Rand’s book is a ringing reminder of that heritage and a proclamation that the free market embodies the highest human virtues.
As Hank Rearden, an industrialist in Atlas Shrugged , says, “I work for nothing but my own profit — which I make by selling a product they need to men who are willing and able to buy it…. I have made my money by my own effort, in free exchange and through the voluntary consent of every man I dealt with.”
There is a related point that shines through every page of Atlas Shrugged . Since life requires the production of values, men and women in business are heroes. They are often treated as villains, yet their ability and dedication make life possible and increasingly better. That point is at the very core of the novel. What, the book asks, would happen if the people of productive ability quit? Atlas Shrugged is a vindication and celebration of those unsung heroes who need never again be embarrassed by their profits.
The manifest failure of socialism and communism as economic systems has led to a renewed respect for capitalism. But it is a grudging, half-hearted respect. The economic appreciation of capitalism has not yet been matched by a moral appreciation of the system that leaves people free to make the most of their lives, to translate their ability into achievement, to keep and enjoy the rewards for their effort, and, as an inevitable byproduct, to lift the living standards of everyone.