Friday, June 25, 2010

Americans Look to Big Ideas of Liberty: Resurgence of Ayn Rand

The following article originally was published June 25 by Grand Junction's Free Press.

Americans look to big ideas of liberty

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

We are pleased to see that Americans are taking big ideas more seriously. After television personality Glenn Beck featured Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, the book topped the Amazon sales charts and temporarily sold out from the University of Chicago Press.

Over a million people have watched "Fear the Boom and Bust," a YouTube rap battle from EconStories in which Hayek schools his tax-and-spend rival John Maynard Keynes. Colorado pundit Ross Kaminsky recently handed a copy of Frederic Bastiat's classic The Law to Sarah Palin; we only hope she reads it.

The phenomenal success, however, has been Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. The ambitious 1957 novel sold a respectable 70,000 copies in its first year. Since then, it has sold over seven million copies total, and last year it hit a record with over half a million copies. The novel has been reviewed on nationwide television shows by John Stossel and Beck. (An Atlas movie has also begun shooting, though, as Variety reports, the film was rushed into production on a paltry budget to retain feature rights.)

Unfortunately, many people, particularly critics of the novel, read it superficially at best. Rather than explore Rand's work on its own terms, they ignore what the book actually says and instead project their own biases and stereotypes onto its pages.

For example, while many claim Rand reflexively supports business, in fact she praises producers in a free market and condemns those who suck up corporate welfare and politically harm their competitors.

While many liken Rand's heroes to Nietzschean "supermen," in fact Rand populates her novels with virtuous people of all abilities and levels of success, and her heroes unfailingly interact with other peaceable people by reason and voluntary consent.

Thankfully, philosopher Diana Hsieh has helped organize several Atlas Shrugged reading groups on the Eastern side of the mountains, and she has developed a series of podcasts on the novel at ExploreAynRand.com. Why does Hank Rearden initially denigrate his fulfilling sexual relationship with railroad executive Dagny Taggart? Why does Taggart become locked in battle with John Galt, even though the two share fundamental values? What literary purposes does Galt's speech serve in the novel? Hsieh addresses those questions and many more.

Whether you've purchased the novel but left it sitting on the shelf or read it many years ago, we encourage you to read the work in light of Hsieh's enlightening commentary.

Rand's continued success has raised the ire of the left. What does the left typically do when it encounters ideas it cannot rationally defeat? It sharpens the hatchet for personal attacks. For example, David Sirota began his recent column, "For those who are not (yet) heartless cynics or emotionless Ayn Rand acolytes, the now-famous photographs of sludge-soaked pelicans on the Gulf Coast are painful to behold."

Sirota's claims that Rand's admirers generally are "emotionless" and that they don't care about the oil spill constitute reckless defamation. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged live rich emotional lives, and Rand has described "happiness as the moral purpose" of one's life. Rand is not remotely like Mr. Spock of Star Trek. However, Rand rightly holds that we learn the facts of reality by reason, not emotions, and we can achieve happiness only by acting rationally to advance our lives.

Regarding the BP oil spill, Hsieh, a supposed "emotionless Ayn Rand acolyte," wrote for her NoodleFood blog: "The oil spill is clearly a horrid disaster for mankind and our environment, including for our marine food supply, recreation, science, and more. I can only hope that the leak is plugged, and soon."

Apparently Sirota's idea of emotion is ignoring reason and reflexively calling for more political controls. Yet Hsieh sensibly notices that the oceans where the drilling took place effectively are nationalized property. Moreover, by preventing drilling in safer locations and relieving oil companies of liability, federal politicians significantly contributed to the spill.

Because Rand was a pro-choice atheist, many on the right smear her as well. More often, conservatives simply misunderstand her ideas. That is the case with a recent column from Mike Rosen.

Rosen suggests that Rand's ideas are libertarian, even though Rand denounced libertarianism as lacking a moral foundation and therefore a clear conception of liberty. Rosen claims that Rand's "rugged super-individualists are a minority in this society," ignoring the fact that they are a small minority in Atlas Shrugged, too. Rand's point is not that everyone must be like the genius John Galt, but that everyone can and should understand reality by reason and seek to live the best, most fulfilled life possible.

Whether you tend to love or hate Ayn Rand and her ideas, you'll never even know what those ideas are until you seriously grapple with them. So don't let some critic with an agenda determine your judgment. Pick up her work and evaluate its ideas for yourself.

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