On the 50th anniversary of its publication, Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s epic about a group of businessmen who rebel against a society that shackles and condemns them, is everywhere. Hardly a day goes by without a mention of the novel in the media or by some prominent celebrity or businessman as the most significant book he’s read. Meanwhile, Ayn Rand’s novels, including Atlas Shrugged, are being taught in tens of thousands of high schools. And last year sales of the novel in bookstores topped an astonishing 130,000 copies — more than when it was first published.
As executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, I see the impact of Atlas Shrugged on a daily basis. I’m continually amazed by how many people, from every walk of life and every part of the planet, from high school students to political activists in countries from Hong Kong to Belarus to Ghana, eagerly tell me: “Atlas Shrugged changed my life.”
Scores of business leaders, from CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, say they have derived great spiritual fuel from Atlas Shrugged. Many tell me that the novel has motivated them to make the most of their lives, inspiring them to be more ambitious, more productive, and more successful in their work. And many of America’s politicians and intellectuals who claim to fight for economic freedom name Atlas Shrugged as the book that has most inspired them. I have no doubt that the novel has played a considerable role in discrediting socialism as an ideal and in making discussion of capitalism intellectually legitimate.
If you have read Atlas Shrugged and entered the universe of Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, and John Galt, you can understand why the novel has inspired so many in this way. Atlas Shrugged portrays great businessmen as heroic, productive thinkers, and it venerates capitalism as the only social system that leaves such minds free to create and produce the material values on which all of our lives depend. It gives philosophic and esthetic expression to the uniquely American spirit of individualism, of self-reliance, of entrepreneurship, of free markets.
But while many people appreciate these elements of Atlas Shrugged on a personal, emotional level, they are often uncomfortable on a moral level with the novel’s arguments in support of business and capitalism.
Ayn Rand’s ethical philosophy of rational selfishness — on which her admiration for successful businessmen and her impassioned defense of capitalism rest — constitutes a radical challenge to the dominant beliefs of our culture. Rejecting the prevailing ideas that morality comes from a supernatural being or from a societal decree, Rand holds that morality is a science that can be proved by reason. Rejecting the altruistic idea that morality consists of selflessly serving something “higher” — whether the Judeo-Christian God or a collectivist society — she maintains that the height of moral virtue is to rationally pursue your own selfish ends.
Socialism as a political ideal is dead. But the morality that spawned it — from each according to his ability, to each according to his need — still haunts us. So long as need and the “public interest” are regarded as moral claim checks on the ability of the productive, the continued growth of the government’s control over the economy and our lives is inevitable.
Those who have read Atlas Shrugged are often struck by the similarity of the events in the novel to the disastrous events reported in the daily news — from the government’s attempt to take over medicine to decaying infrastructure and collapsing bridges to the shackles on businessmen inflicted by Sarbanes-Oxley. The similarity is no accident: the justification for these government programs is the needs of the uninsured, the so-called public interest, and the necessity to curb the selfishness of businessmen. Without a moral revolution, we cannot win true economic or political freedom.
So while Atlas Shrugged has provided millions with inspiration and with some level of appreciation for the virtues of capitalism and the evils of statism, it has not had nearly the influence it could have had, had its underlying ideas gained wider understanding. Though it has changed individual lives, it has not changed the world. But I believe it could — and should.
Imagine a future America guided by the principles found in Atlas Shrugged — a culture of reason, where science is cherished and respected, not banished from biology classrooms and stem-cell research labs — a culture of individualism, in which government is the protector of individual rights, not its primary violator — a culture in which markets are not just regarded as the most effective option of an imperfect lot, but in which laissez-faire capitalism is recognized and venerated as the only moral social system — a culture in which business innovators understand that ambition, productive effort, and wealth creation are not just practical necessities, but moral virtues — a culture in which such innovators, proudly asserting their right to their work, are fully liberated and their productive genius fully applied to the generation of unimaginable economic progress.
This is the world that Atlas Shrugged challenges us to strive for. But in order to get there, the novel’s full philosophic meaning must be grasped. This is precisely why the Ayn Rand Institute exists: to convey Rand’s profound message. And her message is getting out, all the way to professional intellectuals, on campuses and elsewhere across America, who are taking up Ayn Rand’s ideas with a seriousness that they never have shown before.
With more and more thinkers giving it the attention it merits, I am confident that the real influence of Atlas Shrugged has yet to be felt.