Those who haven’t yet picked up Ayn Rand’s 1957 classic novel Atlas Shrugged may be wondering why so many people are invoking the book in discussions of today’s events.
Well, the short answer is: because today’s world is strikingly similar to the world of Atlas Shrugged.
Consider the government’s affordable housing crusade, in which lenders were forced to make loans to subprime borrowers who allegedly “needed” to own homes.
“We must not let vulgar difficulties obstruct our feeling that it’s a noble plan motivated solely by the public welfare. It’s for the good of the people. The people need it. Need comes first…”
Those might sound like the words of Barney Frank, but in fact they belong to Eugene Lawson, a banker in Atlas Shrugged who went bankrupt giving loans to people on the basis of their “need” rather than their ability to repay. In the quoted scene, Lawson is urging his politically powerful friends to pass a law restricting economic freedom for the “public good” — long-range consequences be damned.
Or consider this cry from Atlas Shrugged villain Wesley Mouch, head of the “Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources”:
“Freedom has been given a chance and failed. Therefore, more stringent controls are necessary. . . . I need wider powers!”
This mirrors the incessant claims by today’s politicians and bureaucrats that all our problems would disappear if only they had more power. They tell us that health care is expensive and ineffective — not because the government has its tentacles in every part of it and forces us to pay for other people’s unlimited medical-care wants and needs — but because there is no bureaucrat forcing us to buy insurance and dictating which tests and treatments are “necessary.” They tell us that American auto companies failed to compete — not because they were hamstrung by pro-union laws and fuel efficiency standards — but because there was o government auto czar. They tell us that we are reeling from a financial crisis — not as a result of massive, decades-long government intrusion in the financial and housing markets — but because the intrusion wasn’t big enough; we didn’t have a single, all-powerful “systemic risk” regulator.
Atlas Shrugged shows us an all-too-familiar pattern: Washington do-gooders blaming the problems they’ve created on the free market, and using them as a pretext for expanding their power. And more: it provides the fundamental explanation for why the government gets away with continually increasing its control over the economy and our lives. The explanation, according to Atlas, is to be found in the moral precepts we’ve heard all our lives.
From the time we’re young we are taught that the essence of morality is to sacrifice one’s own interests for the sake of others, and that to focus on one’s own interests is immoral and destructive. As a result, we want the government to protect us from doctors and businessmen out for their own profit. We want the government to redistribute wealth from the successful to the unsuccessful. We want the government to ensure that those in need are given “free” health care, cheap housing, guaranteed retirement pay and a job they can never lose. We want the government to take these and many other anti-freedom measures because virtually everyone today believes that they are moral imperatives.
This view of morality, Atlas argues, inevitably leads to the disappearance of freedom.
A free society is one in which the individual’s life belongs to him, where he can pursue his own happiness without interference by others. That is incompatible with the view that morally his life belongs to others. So long as you accept that self-sacrifice for the needs of others is good, you will not be able to defend a capitalist system that enshrines and protects individual freedom and the profit motive.
The only way to stop the growth of the state and return to the Founding Fathers’ ideal of limited government is to recognize that individuals not only have a political right to pursue their own happiness, but a moral right to pursue their own happiness. This is what Ayn Rand called a morality of rational self-interest. It is a selfishness that consists, not of doing whatever you feel like, but of using your mind to discover what will truly make you happy and successful. It is a selfishness that consists, not of sacrificing others in the manner of a Bernie Madoff, but of producing the values your life requires and dealing with others through mutually advantageous, voluntary trade.
It’s no accident that, at the very instant Washington is extending its grip over our lives, Atlas Shrugged is selling faster than ever before. Americans sense that Atlas has something important to say about this frightening trend. It does. If you want to understand the ideas undermining American liberty — and the ideas that could foster it once again — read Atlas Shrugged.