Atlas Still Shrugs

08/10/2009 12:01 am EST

Focus: MARKETS

Terry Savage

Author, The Savage Truth on Money

Who is John Galt?

If that doesn’t ring a bell—or even if it slightly jogs your memory—I have a summer reading recommendation for you during this lazy month of August.

I’m in the midst of re-reading Atlas Shrugged, the legendary novel first published in 1957 by Ayn Rand. It reads as if it were written this month—and that’s only the first shocking thing that will strike you if you’re brave enough to attempt this 1,100-page work of art.

I remembered its influence it had on me when I read it as a teenager, and it strikes with new force as I read it today in the context of Obamacare, wage and car “czars,” and multibillion-dollar “cash for clunkers” payouts, and amid headlines decrying profits, bonuses, speculation, and well, financial success.

If the comparisons don’t strike you within the first 100 pages, you can stop reading. But if every page leaves you wondering how this novel could have been written 50 years ago, when it so perfectly depicts our own times, then I won’t have to exhort you to finish.

I’m about one-third of the way through, and as I reread through more mature eyes and in today’s context, I find it even more compelling. I’m sure I will have more to say on this blog in coming weeks.

The book tells the story of Dagny Taggart and Hank Reardon, two unrepentant capitalists who are determined to make an unapologetic profit by using a new kind of steel to build a new railroad line to the West, where the last remaining entrepreneurs are creating an economy built on free market principles. 

They are thwarted at every turn by the “establishment”—formerly wealthy businessmen who have co-opted government to save their uncompetitive businesses, while around them the infrastructure crumbles and society focuses on spreading the remaining wealth to the least efficient competitors. And there’s sex, too.

It is not your imagination that the public discourse has taken a turn that should make you uneasy. Strange things are happening in our politics, in our economy, and in the growing belief that the government can solve all our problems—either by taxing away our money or printing money.

Today’s Congressional rhetoric echoes the novel, where the “Equality of Opportunity Bill” was passed to “distribute” opportunity to unsuccessful people by forcing those who had built thriving businesses to sell portions of their companies to losers, financed by the government.

Ayn Rand’s entire philosophy, called “objectivism,” has been the subject of much debate over the years. In her own words: “Man must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”

Rand believed that laissez-faire capitalism was “the ideal political-economic system.” She called for “a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.” Rand, who died in 1982, must be rolling in her grave at today’s headlines.

At the website of the Ayn Rand Institute, www.aynrand.org, you can learn more about her philosophy. But don’t prejudge her philosophy before you read the novel. Don’t deny yourself the experience of translating her writings into today’s realities. Read the book first!

By the way, although rereading Atlas Shrugged has become my summer project (after completing work on a new edition of The Savage Number, which will be published this fall), I’m not alone in this quest for fresh air. The Economist reported that the 52-year-old novel ranked #33 among Amazon.com's top-selling books in January, 2009.

Have you read Atlas Shrugged lately? If so, what did you think? What lessons do you think is has for today? Please post a comment and join the conversation.

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