Love it or hate it, “Atlas Shrugged” still inspires passion a half-century after it was first published. It’s not just that the book was well read, but that is has been so influential in the intellectual development of so many people.
Ayn Rand challenged the smelly orthodoxy of her time, the one that says the pursuit of entrepreneurship and capitalism are an evil, and the expansion of government to promote altruism is good.
“Atlas” and her other books are still radical today. The Soviet Union, which she fled, has crumbled, but the underlying philosophy that despises competition, freedom and individualism is still dominant throughout the world, even in America. Which is why “Atlas Shrugged” still inspires, enthralls and angers people. It’s still relevant. As a novel, it is more gripping than the typical nonfiction account about why an expansive government is so troubling.
People respond to strident defenses of ideas, rather than to mealy-mouthed apologies. And Rand was no shrinking violet. Rather than make apologies for capitalism as, say, a necessary evil, she portrayed it as a moral good. She championed the “virtue of selfishness,” explaining that individuals should pursue their own self-interest. That also happens to lead to the public good, although that was not her concern. The basic storyline of “Atlas Shrugged” is quite satisfying to those frustrated by the cravenness and incompetence of government and a system that rewards political connections and power over freedom, productivity and rationality.
We loved her description of those who succeed through government favors (including many business owners) as “looters.” We won’t spoil the story if you haven’t read it yet, but suffice it to say that the novel shows the result of putting such folks in charge: Society grinds to a halt as the leaders take the loot from the productive sector and transfer it to their cronies.
Rand developed her ideas into a complete moral philosophy, which is where she gets particularly controversial, even among those who agree with her basic ideas about the value of freedom and entrepreneurship. She was an avowed atheist, which is another sore spot for many people. Her movement at times resembled a cult of personality. Her attacks not just on government meddling, but on “altruism” itself, could be quite disconcerting.
Still, her direct defense of freedom resonates to this day, and nothing better expresses her view than “Atlas Shrugged,” which still seems as fresh as the day it was first published in 1957.