Today’s Ayn Rand’s birthday. The big 100. Steven Chapman at the Chicago Tribune argues that she is the mother of both the counterculture ’60s and the Reagan Revolution. He also repeats a story I’ve heard before about Atlas Shrugged:
In 1991, when the Book-of-the-Month Club polled
Americans asking what book had most influenced their lives, "Atlas
Shrugged" finished second only to the Bible.
I’ve heard it was a Reader’s Digest poll. Maybe both are true or maybe they’re apocryphal. What is undeniable is that the book has been incredibly popular. Chapman again:
In all, Rand’s books have sold about 22 million copies and continue to sell at the rate of more than half a million a year.
Which raises a puzzle. If her books are so popular and influential, why does the world look like it does? Why is government so big? Chapman touts her influence on the move toward free markets and yes, we’ve headed in that direction. But not very far. If Atlas Shrugged is indeed our secular bible, you’d think we’d have a smaller government.
One answer is that the government doesn’t give people what it wants. I doubt it. True, we get some ghastly special interest provisions put into any particular bill, but it’s hard to believe that on the basics like the size of government, the politicians are able to fool or distract us enough to give us big government when most of want small.
An answer I find more compelling is that people take half the message of Atlas Shrugged to heart. The half they like is that it’s OK to be happy. The other half, that government should leave us alone, is shrugged off.
My colleague Bryan Caplan has a nice post over at Econlog on Rand’s virtues. (And here’s Bryan’s essay making the case that government pretty much gives us what we want.) Then he wonders why she isn’t more popular, especially among people you might think would be sympathetic:
If Rand has so much to recommend her, why the hostility?
Non-leftists rarely do well in intellectual popularity contests, but
even thinkers who broadly agree with Rand express distaste
for her. The main reason, I have little doubt, is that she had a touchy
personality, and lots of sour and dogmatic followers. I doubt I could
have stayed friends with her for long. But that’s a flimsy reason to
snub her work.
The secondary reason, I suspect, is that disappointment with Rand as
a human being has led critics (many of them former admirers) to apply
unreasonably high standards to her work. Yes, many of her philosophical
arguments are question-begging. Shocking… unless you’ve read the work
of Descartes, Locke, Kant,
or Mill. They all make plenty of embarrassingly bad arguments. If you
don’t want to dismiss their whole subject matter, you’ve got to judge
philosophers based on their best work and/or the novel questions they raise. And by that standard, Rand more than holds her own.
I have a different explanation. It’s not her personality that turns people off, it’s the personality of her fictional heroes. We might admire them, but they’re hard to love. I have no problem with selfishness and understand the power of the invisible hand. I even can argue that Bill Gates has done more for the world by building Microsoft than his foundation will ever achieve. But Rand’s characters don’t have much love or empathy in them. Ayn Rand’s world is a bit cold for most of us to embrace, even if we defend her understanding of how markets and government work.
And yet. And yet. Her use of fiction has fired a lot of imaginations. And Atlas Shrugged is some page-turner. Has there ever been a book close to that long finished by so many readers who start it?