Atlas Shrugged is Just Left Behind for Libertarians
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Ever since the “Who is John Galt?” signs started popping up at Tea Party rallies, I have developed a fascination for all things Rand. How did Rand’s fringe philosophy of Objectivism become a major plank in the Republican Party platform?
As an ex-fundamentalist Christian, I have always been intrigued by the alliance between the religious and Libertarian right. Not since the Pharisees teamed up with the Herodians to tempt Christ have two more diametrically opposed groups come together for a purpose. How could fundamentalists embrace Rand in light of her atheism, sexual immorality, and outright hostility toward Christianity? How could they reconcile her glorification of selfishness with the altruistic message of the man from Galilee?
Part of the answer is that just as most churchgoers have never studied the Bible, few Tea Partiers have read Rand’s works. I noticed early on that all my Tea Party friends seemed to have formed their rabid anti-government views as a result of frustration with minor bureaucratic red tape. They had a tax audit, or had to jump through some hoops to get a business permit. The people interviewed by Gary Weiss for his book Ayn Rand Nation showed the same phenomenon. The line at the DMV is probably responsible for more Tea Party Patriots than Dick Armey and Glenn Beck.
But why have so few religious leaders taken them to task? There was some minor backlash at Glenn Beck’s comments about social justice churches, the Catholic bishops published a statement condemning Paul Ryan’s budget, and Chuck Colson of Watergate fame spoke out before his death, but I’m not aware of any others.
In order to understand the Rand culture, Weiss recommends actually reading her works. I had read Atlas Shrugged about 35 years ago, but realized the hypocrisy of espousing a Randian worldview while attending college on a Pell Grant, so it didn’t take. Taking Weiss’s advice, I dutifully slogged through Rand’s grand opus once again to see if maturity made any difference in how I interpreted Objectivism.
For those who couldn’t make it through Rand’s thousand plus pages of contrived plot, one-dimensional characters, sixty-four page rant, and straw man arguments that wouldn’t pass muster at a high school debate tournament, here are the Cliff’s Notes:
Atlas Shrugged is the story of Dagny Taggert; single female heir to a railroad empire, Francisco d’Anconia; international playboy and scion of a copper fortune that dates back three centuries, and Hank Rearden; self-made steel tycoon. Relying on pure grit, 1950’s technology, and a few World of Tomorrow science fiction inventions, these three champions oflaissez-faire capitalism struggle in a dystopian, not-too-distant future United States that has adopted a Soviet style centrally planned economy. A mysterious stranger named John Galt shakes things up in the latter half of the book. He also creates a really weird love rectangle, as d’Anconia, Rearden, and Galt all end up sleeping with Dagny at different times.
Rand’s heroes are slim, youthful, straight forward, confident, self-reliant, morally upright, and virtuous, marital infidelity notwithstanding. They are often described as wearing their hats at just the correct rakish angle. Her villains are the protagonist’s idle rich, ungrateful family members, self-righteous avant-garde authors, vacuous new-agey philosophers, incompetent, excuse-making business failures; and clueless rule-enforcing government bureaucrats. They’re all easy to hate. This might be the reason Atlas has such an appeal, despite its hack style and other literary shortcomings. Mitt Romney’s infamous 47% speech could have been given by Francisco d’Anconia or John Galt himself, because they live in a world contrived by its architect to make such a sentiment true.
The major plot device in Atlas Shrugged is that every once in a while, one of Rand’s heroic “makers” suddenly disappears without a trace, eventually leaving the economy in shambles because the “moochers” and “takers” who live off the government are too incompetent to run the world without them. Led by Galt, they have gone on a capital strike, and are hiding out in a remote Colorado valley waiting for things to completely fall apart.
And there is the common thread that links fundamentalist Christians and Ayn Rand devotees, one which is apparent early on in the novel. Dagny’s favorite composer, Richard Halley, is said to have written four concertos and an opera before vanishing into thin air at the height of his popularity. When she hears a lowly railroad worker whistling the strains of his fifth concerto, she begins to realize what’s going on. In short, the libertarian rapture just happened. Atlas Shrugged is the Left Behind series without the religious trappings. Taking your marbles and going home is the appeal to both groups. The righteous have been spirited away; the Christians to Heaven, the capitalists to Galt’s Gulch. From these safe havens they will watch with delight as they are vindicated.
God pours out his wrath, the economy collapses, the world comes to an end, and the rest of us finally get what we deserve. After the smoke clears, Jesus Christ triumphantly returns and begins his thousand year reign on Earth. The capitalists emerge from Galt’s Gulch, say “We told you so” to the survivors, pick up the broken pieces and remake society in their free market image. Both groups ascend to their rightful destiny as rulers and judges of all.
The link between fundamentalist Christians and the followers of Ayn Rand, therefore, is arrogant sanctimony. Unless that link is broken, it’s going to be a long millennium.