October 2007 -- In the newsrooms of New York, in the corridors of Congress, and in the parlors of political parties, prognostication is the always the order of the day. In what direction is the stock market or the public mood swinging? Will controversial legislation become law? Who will get an appointment or nomination? Who will win an election?
Predict correctly only a few months ahead, and you’re sharp; a few years ahead, and you’re a high-paid sage.
So, what should we think of someone who gets it right on a scale of decades?
It’s been a half-century since the publication of Ayn Rand’s monumental Atlas Shrugged. That book has attracted millions of readers with its compelling story and inspiring vision of a free, prosperous, rational future. It’s also been lauded as brilliant socio-political prophecy. In fact, it’s common for people reading today’s headlines with anger, fear, and frustration to comment, “It’s like something out of Atlas Shrugged .”
Yes, one of Atlas’s achievements was to seemingly foretell the future. But there was nothing mystical about Rand’s prophetic powers. She understood principles.
The Power of Principles
Atlas Shrugged tells a tale of America in decline. It starts with beggars on the streets, closed stores, industrial and consumer products in short supply, and, ominously, competent and intelligent workers hard to find. We see governments intervening to help some favored group or industry, often at the behest of politically connected businessmen bent on extracting unearned wealth from their competitors—a trend that causes further economic hardships. This disintegration accelerates throughout the story until, in the end, we see the collapse of industrialized America.
Ayn Rand didn’t write Atlas to predict this would happen, but “to keep it from becoming prophetic.” It was the ultimate cautionary tale. The story is believable because she understood that a peaceful, prosperous society is possible only if individuals have the moral right to pursue their own self-interest, dealing with each other by mutual consent, with government restricted to protecting their individual rights. She understood that individuals should live for their own happiness. She understood that we must create the means of our physical survival and spiritual well-being. And she understood that the only proper means to those ends is the use of reason.
Rand also understood that it is not possible for anyone to predict with certainty what the future will hold. There are no gods, dialectics, or forces of historic inevitability governing human society. Because individuals have free will, we are the masters of our fates, for good or ill. Rand further understood that the principles on which individuals act will determine whether they are prosperous or impoverished, happy or miserable. And to the extent that people abandon the principles necessary for survival and flourishing, scenarios like those in Atlas Shrugged will play out in the real world.
Let’s look at a few of those scenarios and the principles behind them.
In Atlas, the most productive and competent individuals—the wealth producers, the giants who hold up the world—simply disappear. These are not thieves fleeing justice with ill-gotten gains; they are individuals of the mind who create wealth for themselves and, in the process, prosperity for others. But they refuse to participate any longer in an economy that crushes them with confiscatory taxes and dictatorial regulations. They also abandon a culture that scorns them for their productivity and competence—while simultaneously exploiting them for those same virtues.
The principle is that individuals of self-esteem will not work as slaves; they will not accept unearned guilt for their achievements and virtues; and they will do what they can to avoid their own destruction by quitting or fleeing.
That was fiction; but in the decades since Atlas was published, we’ve seen millions of productive people “voting with their feet”—moving from one city, state, or country to another, or even simply retiring, simply to avoid exploitation and persecution.
In the 1970s, New York City, Rand’s chosen home, went bankrupt. A principal reason was that high taxes drove many businesses out of the city, into other jurisdictions. In the 1990s, California also tried to bleed businesses with high taxes and heavy-handed regulations. It likewise suffered a recession, giving nearby Nevada and Arizona, with more business-friendly environments, a transfusion of creators and entrepreneurs fleeing that repressive state.
In her 1964 essay “Is Atlas Shrugging?,” Ayn Rand explained the principles behind what many were then calling the “brain drain.” This phenomenon saw the best-trained, most competent individuals leaving their countries of origin in Europe—for example, physicians fleeing Britain’s socialized medicine system, which had made them a new order of serfs.
More recently, we’ve also seen physicians in the United States retiring early. In some cases, this is because government regulations forced them to treat hospital patients who couldn’t pay their bills, leaving them no means to collect for the life-saving services they had rendered. They had worked hard, calling on the best within them to acquire healing skills admired by all; but under the law—and under the moral code of self-sacrifice—others could demand their services for free, and they were expected simply to comply.
In other cases, physicians shrugged in response to predatory plaintiffs’ lawyers going after them with bogus lawsuits. There has been no surge in deaths in recent decades from physician incompetence. But, because of a liability system that allows the looting of those with “deep pockets,” physicians have faced not only unjust fines but tripling and quadrupling of the rates charged them by the insurance companies to cover such costs. A doctor who’s never harmed a patient must pay protection money against the looters loosed upon them by an unjust legal system.
In 1976, Ayn Rand observed that Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and movie star Bibi Andersson had left their homeland to avoid confiscatory taxes and because of a general resentment against them—not because of their vices, but because of their achievements. Theirs was a culture based on envy.
Fast-forward to 2006, when John Fredriksen, Norway’s wealthiest man, who had made a fortune in shipping and aqua-business, gave up his citizenship because of a law aimed specifically at making him pay more taxes. That country’s prime minister said, “It is exactly people like John Fredriksen that should pay.” And that morally obscene attitude is exactly why Fredriksen—and many less famous—chose to shrug.
As a matter of fact, nations with high taxes, especially in Europe, recently have been complaining of “harmful tax competition” from nations that don’t punish their productive citizens as severely, thus becoming havens for those trying to keep their own money. The envy-driven countries, in league with the United Nations, are now pushing for “tax harmonization” and a global tax system to make sure no one can escape. Call this “Atlas chased”!
Ayn Rand knew that, in the long run, attempts to keep individuals from “shrugging” by preventing them from fleeing repressive governments and envious cultures would not work. This is because the human mind cannot be forced. Ultimately, a regime that imprisons its own most creative people will run out of victims and collapse.
In Atlas Shrugged , we see this happen in a factory run on the communist principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The novel ends with the collapse of the entire American economy, because it has been compelled to follow this predatory morality of self-sacrifice.
So it was no surprise to readers of Atlas that, in the years following its publication, communist regimes tightened their borders with more barbed wire, machine guns, and, most infamously, the Berlin Wall, to prevent its victims from escaping. But what did surprise these readers during the 1960s and 1970s was the widespread fear among Western leaders that their countries would inevitably decline, because they believed that freedom just doesn’t work—that the Soviet Empire was strong and on the move precisely because of its centralized, statist economic policies. Many advocated conciliation and negotiation with the communists, on the belief that the Soviets otherwise would beat the West in weapons production.
Rand, a refugee from the Soviet Union, knew better. She understood that the moral evils of communism and the principles on which that regime’s tyranny was based would necessarily lead to its collapse. She even mused about how many of their missiles, if fired, would actually work, so unreliable was Red technology. And she was right to point out that it was Western assistance that kept such regimes propped up: Germany and other European countries, for example, extended loans to Warsaw Pact countries.
When the collapse came, it was with stunning speed. The Soviet’s eastern European empire fell during the last six months of 1989. A few years later, the Soviet government itself was gone, and the Communist Party was banned in that country.
The post-mortems revealed that the socialist economies had been hollow shells. Just prior to the Soviet collapse, the CIA had estimated that its economy was at least half the size of America’s. In fact, it turned about to be as little as fifteen percent of America’s size. At the end, the shelves of Russian stories were empty, industries were unproductive, bureaucrats were corrupt, and there was little more that the looters could squeeze out of an exhausted people.
It was like something out of Atlas Shrugged !
One of the most startling and controversial insights in Atlas Shrugged was that those who reject the moral principles of rational self-interest and individual liberty were acting—whether they knew it or not—on a death premise, and that the more consistently they adhered to their course, the more deadly the results.
As Atlas opens, we hear James Taggart, a businessman with a “social conscience,” as well as other characters, justifying statist policies in the name of “society” and “the people,” or to help “the little fellow,” “the poor,” and “those who never had an opportunity.”
This of course mirrored the rhetoric of American liberals in the 1950s and ’60s. Men like Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey said they didn’t want to overthrow the capitalist system. No, they just wanted to do a little bit of wealth-redistribution, a little bit of fine-tuning in the name of “fairness.” After all, rich businessmen have enough money, so they’d hardly miss a few extra dollars in taxes.
Such men might be mistaken; but—a death premise?
- He was suddenly seeing the motive that had directed all the actions of his life. It was not his incommunicable soul or his love for others or his social duty or any of the fraudulent sounds by which he had maintained his self-esteem: it was the lust to destroy whatever was living, for the sake of whatever was not.
Rand wasn’t saying that all who stumble along with a confused mixture of goals—to help the poor through government, while preserving a measure of free enterprise—would end up this way. But she was saying that this is the logical end of any moral philosophy that rejects man’s life as the standard of value and rejects the lives of individuals as moral ends—whether such rejection is in the name of a social or religious good, or any goal higher than and apart from the individual.
The rise of Islamists is a stark and terrible vindication of Ayn Rand’s insights about where the premises of irrationalism and self-sacrifice logically lead. As Osama bin Laden expressed quite bluntly in 1996 concerning his al Qaeda terrorists, “These youth love death as you love life.”
No one can pretend that the maniacal pleasure that Islamists take in killing others—their suicide murders and the sick celebrations that parents hold to mark the suicides of their own murderous children—are simply normal reactions to socio-economic or geopolitical grievances. Rather they worship death, just as Rand understood.
In her lifetime, Ayn Rand singled out another ideological movement that seemed to have the same suicidal impulses seen in other anti-individualist ideologies and religions: the environmental movement.
It’s one thing to want clean water and air for the sake of one’s own health and well-being, or beautiful forests, rivers, or lakes for one’s relaxation. But Rand observed that those who speak of the earth, and of its non-human life and resources, as having “inherent value,” would be led to devalue human beings and the human mind—the source of all values.
Sure enough, today we see those who put not heaven, the proletariat, or the race above the individual, but Gaia or Mother Nature, instead. The title of a recent bestseller even extols the prospect of The World Without Us. A glowing review in Salon puts it this way:
- [Author Alan] Weisman embarks on an audacious intellectual adventure: He tries to imagine what the world would be like if humans suddenly disappeared. “How would the rest of nature respond if it were suddenly relieved of the relentless pressures we heap on it and our fellow organisms? How soon would, or could, the climate return to where it was before we fired up all our engines? How long would it take to recover lost ground and restore Eden to the way it must have gleamed and smelled the day before Adam, or homo habilis, appeared? Could nature ever obliterate all our traces?
The gleefully nihilistic Salon reviewer goes on:
- The World Without Us taps into one of our deepest, if only furtively acknowledged, pleasures: imagining destruction. Just as Tom Sawyer sneaked deliciously into his own funeral, we gobble up Weisman’s anecdotes about the decay and dissolution of everything human.
Ayn Rand saw this coming. At the time, everyone said she was cruelly caricaturing environmentalists as “anti-human.” But she was right.
Consider the literal and symbolic end of a world based on just such anti-life principles, a world that she depicted in Atlas as seen from a plane flying over a collapsing country:
- New York City . . . rose in the distance before them, it was still extending its lights to the sky, still defying the primordial darkness . . . The plane was above the peaks of the skyscrapers when suddenly . . . as if the ground had parted to engulf it, the city disappeared from the face of the earth. It took them a moment to realize. . . that the lights of New York had gone out.
In the novel, the observers react in horror; but today, more than a few would welcome the spectacle of civilization’s collapse.
The 1965 New York blackout was not caused by faulty philosophy, although many individuals did comment that “it was like something out of Atlas Shrugged .” But it was a shock to the country, a reminder of just how technology sustains our lives, lifting us out of primitiveness and darkness, and of just what the world would be like without such technology.
Sadly, in 2007, we witnessed a symbol of the deepest philosophical darkness—the death premise—as the lights of cities in Australia and other industrialized countries were extinguished. This was not the result of power failures or natural disasters; it was deliberate, a way for governments to urge us all to limit our energy consumption. The message was not simply to save our own money by turning out our lights when we’re not using them. The message was that Prometheus should take back his fire from mankind.
This is not the symbol of regretted death but, rather, of the suicide of a civilization.
Changing the Prophecy
While many of the terrible scenarios in Atlas Shrugged have found their way from its pages into those of our newspapers, many didn’t—perhaps because Atlas helped prevent them from coming true.
Atlas gave rise to the Objectivist movement, and it has informed libertarians and lovers of liberty for many decades, giving them unprecedented arguments by which to fight for freedom and capitalism. Along with the political and economic ideas of free-market thinkers like Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, Rand’s ethical ideas informed the “Reagan Revolution,” and they continue to inform policy-makers and think-tank scholars who pursue the positive vision of a free, prosperous society.
Atlas has given many entrepreneurs a moral understanding of themselves as creators, which has in turn given them pride in their acts of creation. The ethical revolution of rational self-interest will continue to be one of the book’s most important legacies. Our freedoms may still be preserved if its defenders seize and hold the moral high ground that she staked out in her seminal novel. And Atlas continues to inspire new generations of young people, who are importing its principles into their lives and careers.
Atlas Shrugged demonstrates the power of ideas. A study of the book allows us to see the world through the lenses of timeless philosophical principles, principles that enable us to often predict how the lives of individuals, cultures, and countries will progress—or decline. Perhaps by the novel’s centenary, future generations will have employed its insights to make certain that their world will not be a collapsing ruin, but a free, radiantly rational civilization.
Why, it would be like something out of Atlas Shrugged .