There’s a lot to criticize in the work of Ayn Rand—she’s always seemed to me to be a better novelist than political theorist, largely because of her tendency to think in absolutes when absolutes are inappropriate. Perhaps that’s why I’ve preferred The Fountainhead to Atlas Shrugged.
But I must admit that Atlas Shrugged is, in many ways, a lot more true to life today than it was in 1957, and it’s because Rand recognized some fundamental tendencies in American (and global) politics and economics. Industrialists are not all heros; politicians are not all corrupt or idiots. Nevertheless, there are some ways in which the profession of politics selects for the corrupt or the idiot.
An op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal makes the point:
Many of us who know Rand's work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that "Atlas Shrugged" parodied in 1957, when this 1,000-page novel was first published and became an instant hit.
Rand, who had come to America from Soviet Russia with striking insights into totalitarianism and the destructiveness of socialism, was already a celebrity. The left, naturally, hated her. But as recently as 1991, a survey by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club found that readers rated "Atlas" as the second-most influential book in their lives, behind only the Bible.
For the uninitiated, the moral of the story is simply this: Politicians invariably respond to crises -- that in most cases they themselves created -- by spawning new government programs, laws and regulations. These, in turn, generate more havoc and poverty, which inspires the politicians to create more programs . . . and the downward spiral repeats itself until the productive sectors of the economy collapse under the collective weight of taxes and other burdens imposed in the name of fairness, equality and do-goodism.