and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
October #3

50 years later, 'Atlas Shrugged'
still influences the way Americans think
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, October 18, 2007

"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand was published 50 years ago this month. I read it for the first time five years later. Millions more have been influenced by it since.

On his Sunday TV show recently, George Stephanopolous wondered why Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul was getting so much support from young people. Panelist George Will responded that young people are still reading "Atlas Shrugged."

Director Vadim Perelman has signed Angelina Jolie for the long-planned movie. I don't know how anyone can make this 1,084-page paperback into a feature film; the characters and plot are secondary to the ideas, which are not just integrated into the story, but delivered as a 53-page lecture.

I once wrote to Rand suggesting that the book be serialized for television. This was long before miniseries like "Roots" and "Rich Man, Poor Man," so it wasn't considered then; and it probably wouldn't work today, given our sitcom-influenced attention span.

It's better to just read the book.

If you aren't interested in philosophy or wondering why the world isn't working, you might at least want to be prepared for being asked which of Rand's books featured the recurring question "Who is John Galt?" The question was posed recently on the quiz show "Who wants to be a millionaire?", and the contestant was able to advance toward his goal by giving the correct answer -- "Atlas Shrugged."

I won't tell you who John Galt is, since it's not revealed until the middle of the novel. However, my crumbling paperback jacket states that this is "the astounding story of a man who said that he would stop the motor of the world -- and did."

Rand fled the Soviet Union after the Bolsheviks broke into her father's pharmacy and declared his livelihood the property of the state. Written in America, her books reflected the ideological debate of the Cold War between communism and capitalism. Rand equates the latter with freedom.

But though the Cold War is over, the debate continues -- between socialism and personal responsibility, between government regulation and the free market, between reason and emotional decision-making.

My own first reaction to her writing was emotional. I had always felt that something was wrong with the ideas I'd been taught, but had no idea why. After I left my small town for the larger university world, three boys I dated told me that I would like the writings of Ayn Rand. One of them gave me "Anthem," which projects collective concepts into the future, creating a totalitarian world. If you can't find the time now for "Atlas," this tiny book is also still in print. It is similar to "1984," but with a happier ending -- the validation of individuality:

"I am. I think. I will.... These are the words. This is the answer.

"I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning ... I know what happiness is possible to me on earth. And my happiness needs no higher aim to vindicate it ...

"I am not a means to any end others may wish to accomplish. I am not a tool for their use. I am not a servant of their needs. I am not a bandage for their wounds. I am not a sacrifice on their altars.

"I guard my treasures: my thought, my self, my will, my freedom. And the greatest of these is freedom."

Finally, I had the words for what I had always felt. I read all of Rand's books, met with others who had formed her Objectivist Movement, and, taking her advice to think for myself, eventually went on to my own version of a freedom-based philosophy.

Limited taxation, though a compromise with pure libertarianism, helped me combine philosophy and a more pragmatic activism. I have been happy here.

Every issue in the daily news can be analyzed using the principles found in "Atlas Shrugged" vs. the concepts more commonly used in our society, especially those taught in our schools and expounded by most of our politicians. It's fun to find common ground with other people's principles, and easier to discuss things with them than with those who wander lost and confused in today's fast-moving world.

Taxation, health insurance, education: on all these issues we must decide between our right to keep our own earnings and the responsibility to pay for things that benefit us, and the socialist theory "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Is it better to pay for services with money taken by government force or with money voluntarily spent on casino gambling? (But if one is addicted to gambling, is that voluntary?)

Regarding immigration the question is posed: Restrictive borders or freedom to live anywhere one wants without taxpayer-funded services. Or should government open the door to more recipients of taxpayer dollars?

On war: Should we plan to protect only our own interests, or is there a requirement to help others in the world attain freedom too?

It is much easier when you define the basic principles, then move on to the complexities that exist outside of theory, in the real world. Reading "Atlas Shrugged" will give any reader a sense of where on the ideological spectrum he can start, depending on his response to its basic premise.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and Eagle Tribune, and often in the Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.