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Monday, September 14, 2009

Atlas Shrugged Relevant for Modern Times

The following article originally was published September 14, 2009, in the Longmont Times-Call.

Atlas Shrugged relevant for modern times

by Ari Armstrong

"Who is John Galt?" Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's novel first published in 1957, is more relevant than ever. Modern political interventions from the bailouts to health controls mirror events of the book, and the novel reveals innovative moral themes behind the politics.

In response to heightened interest in Rand's answers to today's moral and political crises, a local group that promotes Rand's philosophy, Front Range Objectivism, is sponsoring a twenty-week Atlas Shrugged reading group in Longmont starting October 1.

Sales of the novel have surged, surpassing 300,000 copies in the first half of this year, a 250 percent increase over the same period last year. The novel has been discussed recently by media ranging from the New York Times and National Public Radio to Rush Limbaugh.

John Allison, who turned BB&T bank into a stable and profitable powerhouse, has credited Rand's ideas for some of his success and called Atlas Shrugged "the best defense of capitalism ever written."

Meanwhile, respected philosophers such as Tara Smith forge bright new paths in moral theory and other fields based on Rand's work.

What is it about Atlas Shrugged that draws continued interest?

While the novel features detailed treatment of complex moral and political ideas, including a challenging speech by the story's hero, it is first a classic work of literature.

Rand draws rich, psychologically complex characters, including great champions of industry and the arts as well as despicable villains.

Which reader can forget the driven railroad executive, Dagny Taggart, or her passionate affair with steel titan Hank Rearden? Or Dagny's manipulative brother James? Or the struggle of James's virtuous wife Cheryl to understand her husband's viciousness? Or the three students and their beloved professor who vow to "stop the motor of the world" until its producers can work on their own terms?

On one level, Atlas Shrugged is about politics. Interventions such as Troubled Asset Relief, General Motors, "cash for clunkers," numerous offices of czars, and pending legislation on energy and health reflect the political controls of industry chronicled in the novel.

Rand eloquently makes the case that the proper purpose of government is to protect individual rights, including rights to control one's resources and exchange goods and services with others voluntarily. Government should protect us against force and fraud and otherwise leave us free to pursue our business.

Yet Rand advocates much more than free markets. She explains why we need economic liberty to live successfully. We produce the things we need to advance our lives through reason, by understanding reality and then acting in the world to achieve our values. Houses, computers, foods, medical treatments, automobiles: all are produced by applying one's knowledge to the task of living well.

Reason requires freedom. One must be free to look independently at reality and pursue knowledge, wherever it may lead. To the degree that some resort to force, they shut down reason and impede productive advancement. To live as beings of reason, we must achieve political and economic freedom and a world in which people interact through persuasion, not force.

Rand pushes ever deeper, exploring the foundations of value. Rand's heroes are driven by a love of existence -- a passion to understand the world around them and live successfully in it. It is ultimately this commitment to living that grounds all values, Rand's heroes discover.

The villains of the novel, on the other hand, seek to block out and obscure their knowledge, cheat reality, and ultimately abdicate their responsibility to pursue their lives.

Several participants of a summer reading group commented that, though they'd read Atlas Shrugged before, reading and discussing it in greater detail almost turned it into a new novel. It is a long book with a complex plot and set of ideas. The heroes develop over many pages and story-months, so Rand's meaning is not always obvious.

If you have never read Atlas Shrugged, now is the perfect time. If you have read it before, consider returning to the novel to mine its riches. It is a work capable of changing its reader -- and the world.


Ari Armstrong publishes FreeColorado.com. For more information about the Atlas Shrugged reading groups, see FrontRangeObjectivism.com.

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