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One thinks of the Chevy Volt, dubbed “the car from Atlas Shrugged Motors” by Patrick Michaels last month at Forbes.com. Despite its plans to produce 100,000 such cars, GM sold 326 Volts in December, 321 in January, and 281 in February. Even the inducement of a $7,500 tax credit can’t get consumers to buy this electric car. The Volt makes the Edsel an automotive success story in comparison. The company/governmental agency will lose millions over it. But social responsibility, not profit, motivated, so the consciences of GM executives are clean. Like Eugene Lawson, their motives are pure.
The chief villains in Rand’s magnum opus aren’t political figures but businessmen who game the corrupt system, i.e., Looters. The recent experience of the U.S. government indemnifying the failed capitalists of AIG, Bear Stearns, and General Motors most directly evokes Atlas Shrugged. In a world where success is punished through taxes and failure is incentivized through bailouts, it is no wonder that there are so many capitalists who have made good despite bad performance.
Ultimately, Atlas Shrugged is a novel, not life. Its robotic dialogue, misanthropy, and Manichean neatness remind readers that they’re nose-deep in a fantasy, and a dark one at that. Anyone opening up Atlas Shrugged is sure to glean insight into the world outside of it. But Atlas Shrugged is an imagined world, not our world. What flesh-and-bones woman, for instance, swoons for the man who tells her, “I love you…as I love my work, my mills, my Metal, my hours at a desk”? Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, its aim is not high literature but political persuasion. “Atlas Shrugged was a throwback to Socialist realism,” opines Rand biographer Jennifer Burns, “with its cardboard characters in the service of an overarching ideology.” The author’s proximity to the reader’s outlook gets mistaken for profundity. The book ultimately doesn’t transcend the political community that its cheerleaders called home.
Like other extraordinarily brilliant people, Ayn Rand exhibited deficiencies that seemed as extreme as her gifts. Socially retarded, she accepted votaries but not friends. As biographer Anne Heller observed, the dogmatic “Rand was Russian by both birth and temperament.” Her objectivism often displayed itself as a subjective rationalization of her personal likes (Hitchcock, bad; Charlie’s Angels, good) and wants (abortion, adultery, tobacco). Pumped up on an unbalanced diet of amphetamines, coffee, cigarettes, chocolate, and, worst of all, ego, Rand praised rationality on paper but rebelled against it in life. When your philosophy is selfishness, it’s hard to differentiate what’s selfish from what’s philosophy.
Atlas Shrugged is a warped vision from an unbalanced woman. Nonetheless, that the dystopian novel at all resembles the country in which we live suggests that the hour is later than we think.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left (Crown Forum, 2008), Intellectual Morons (Crown Forum, 2004), and Why the Left Hates America (Prima Forum, 2002). He writes a Monday column for Human Events and blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.
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