As the midterm elections come and go, it is a good time to remember that Ayn Rand defended limited government. She had concerns about just how limited, concerns which she addressed by drawing a clear line between might and rights:
The only proper function of the government of a free country is to act as an agency which protects the individual’s rights, i.e., which protects the individual from physical violence. Such a government does not have the right to initiate the use of physical force against anyone–a right which the individual does not possess and, therefore, cannot delegate to any agency. But the individual does possess the right of self-defense and that is the right which he delegates to the government, for the purpose of an orderly, legally defined enforcement. A proper government has the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. The proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect men from criminals; the military forces, to protect men from foreign invaders; and the law courts, to protect men’s property and contracts from breach by force or fraud, and to settle disputes among men according to objectively defined laws.
Author Wayne C. Grantham first read Ayn Rand in the 1970s, and he has been “very strongly influenced by her ideas and her philosophy” ever since. In his new futuristic novel, Freestate California, the former United States have regrouped into separate, regional governments. Freestate California, in former Baja California, is rich, peaceful, and the envy of the failing Republic of California to the north. Mars Marlowe, a police lieutenant from north of the border, is called to investigate a murder involving a Freestate tech smuggler. As Marlowe learns more about Freestate, he finds himself in direct conflict with the government he has sworn to serve and protect.
Grantham, who did a stint in the Navy when he was young, has had a longstanding interest in military discipline and high-tech weaponry that is represented in Freestate California. Here too you can see the influence of Ayn Rand, who abhorred force and violent crime. Grantham’s Freestaters have largely rid themselves of both through rational self-defense, a disciplined respect for property rights, and courts that strictly uphold them. As Officer Marlowe, overstepping, quickly learns, Freestaters really mean it when they claim equal protection under the law: “Our legal system makes sense. No one has any rights not shared by all. Not you, not me, not even the governor. Being an ‘officer’ means nothing here, unless in the militia, and on duty. No one may legally initiate the use of force against another.”
Freestate California is the first book of a planned trilogy. Grantham is currently working on book two, Freestate Texas.
The desire to create “The kind of universe which is right for me, in which I would feel at home,” is at the heart of Rand’s fiction and that of the many authors, like Grantham, that she continues to inspire. And that bothers some people. Since admirers of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged voted the novel into 20th place in PBS’s The Great American Read, an article in The Washington Post appeared in which Mark Athitakis complained that many of the books that made up the top 100, including Atlas Shrugged, are books that individuals first read in high school, and that some of those readers may not have read a novel since.
It is true, a lot of people first read Atlas Shrugged as teenagers. It is even plausible that some of those same people haven’t read all the novels Athitakis thinks they should. In that case, it is probably because after reading Atlas Shrugged they’re busy leading interesting, productive lives and don’t have as much time to read as they would like.
But Athitakis’s comments hint at more than just the failure to keep up with the latest fiction releases.
“But if we treat books mainly as mementos of our own experiences, like yearbook photos,” Athitakis warns, in the spirit of egalitarianism, “we diminish our capacity to see them as ways to understand that of others.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like Athitakis is telling a portion of the reading public that their experiences, as reflected in the books they read, don’t matter. That reading, properly done, shouldn’t make your life interesting and a success. Rather, it should make your life a little less significant, and leave you feeling just a little bit chastened.
That sounds a lot like altruism, and as Atlas Society’s founder David Kelley argues most recently in “Superhero Me! altruistic impulses are best avoided: “Rand is known as much for her unapologetic love of excellence as for her ethic of self-interest and libertarian politics. She was indeed a great admirer of human achievement, and, as a consequence, defended the rights and the honor of the highest achievers. Her goal as a novelist, she said, was "the projection of an ideal man." In the world she created in Atlas Shrugged, the economy comes to a halt when the most productive people go on strike against the altruist moral code and its demand that they serve as keepers of their less able brothers.”
So don’t demote Atlas Shrugged from the top of your list of favorite novels. I’d always rather read Atlas Shrugged and the numerous novels it has inspired. And the next time PBS holds The Great American Read, I’ll be voting.