Article by John Blundell
The most overtly pro-entrepreneur novel ever written is 50 years old this year. Ayn Rand’s best-selling book, Atlas Shrugged, is not on the reading list of any MBA course in the UK, nor on the syllabus of any British economics degree. Yet Rand’s narrative of heroic capitalists is ranked second only to the Bible as the book that has influenced most people, according to a survey by the Library of Congress (even a film, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, is in preparation).
Rand’s books have sold 23m copies around the world and have had a huge impact. Novels almost universally portray capitalists as crooks, conmen or clowns. Rand disagrees. To her the businessman is a kind of hero, while the public sector is parasitical. She describes politicians’ words as “the leper bell of the approaching looters”.
I had better not spoil the plot of Atlas Shrugged by revealing it here but it echoes Lysistrata’s fable about women withholding sex from their husbands to secure peace and end the Peloponnesian war; in Atlas Shrugged the capitalists go on strike, all creativity atrophies and the world lurches into crisis.
There are many secret and some open apostles of the Rand cosmology. Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, has said she inspired him. Hans Snook, who launched the Orange mobile phone network in Britain before it was bought by France Telecom, is also a devotee.
As a great reader of profiles of business people, I can attest that her name crops up often. Atlas Shrugged is animated by a number of inventions spun from Rand’s imagination in 1957. Some have become reality. She envisaged a metal alloy that was lighter and stronger than steel. Ultrasonic sound has become an applied technique. “Galt’s Motor” is a new type of machine driven by static electricity. She had no scientific claims; but she was perceptive. Her point is that all advances are made by accomplished individuals.
Rand termed her philosophy “objectivism” and the core of Atlas Shrugged is John Galt’s speech. It spans 56 pages and is a manifesto for business or capitalism.
In my view she may overstate her case and for a novel there may be too much evangelisation and a dearth of adjectives or jokes. Yet Rand was writing in her second language and at a time when virtually all the intellectuals were dedicating themselves to monster “isms” of the 20th century: communism, socialism or fascism. Her purpose was to try to wake up the business class to its primary role.
Rand was not an accountant trying to tell a story of balance sheets. She was indifferent to profit and loss, other than how they represented personal autonomy and responsibility.
Her philosophy involves hostility to religion – not the polite indifference some of us exercise. To her, faith is the negation of reason. She also advocated a rather brittle sexual liberation. She was not one of nature’s Rotarians or Chamber of Commerce merchants of banality. She did not see businessmen as models of silent propriety there to be milked by the state for all its “free services”, which I take to be the Confederation of British Industry’s world view.
She was born in Russia in 1905, and named Alyssa Rosenbaum. She witnessed the Red Revolution, including the Bolsheviks confiscating her family’s property. She graduated from the University of Leningrad and through a series of adventures ended up in Hollywood trying to be a film script writer. In storybook fashion she bumped into Cecil B De Mille at the studio gates. He employed her.
She was nothing but direct in her writing and was second only to the late Milton Friedman in her ability to cut to the heart of the matter. “Capitalism’s foreign policy is free trade” is among my favourites; as is “without property rights, no other rights are possible”. Another is her desire to see “a separation of state and economics in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church”.
The first of her blockbuster novels, The Fountainhead, was rejected by 12 publishers but eventually became a phenomenal success despite being ridiculed in all the reviews. It was made into a film in the 1930s, with Gary Cooper playing the lead. In the Atlas Shrugged film, Jolie is to play the female hero, Dagny Taggart, and Pitt will play John Galt, the entrepreneur.
Rand is scoffed at by the literary establishment. I do not claim that she is an unknown Jane Austen. She does not exhibit the grace, subtlety or wit. Yet Rand’s oeuvre of pro-capitalist stories has a compulsive, perhaps, hypnotic power over many of her followers.
A gift of Atlas Shrugged to a teenager can be a powerful inoculation against the urge to meddle and redistribute.
The theme at the heart of Atlas Shrugged is the phrase, “Who is John Galt?” I do not think I am revealing too much to say he is the hero-entrepreneur we all might fancy ourselves to be when we look in the mirror.
Business people are the creators of opportunity as much as the creators of wealth. The capitalist is portrayed as a noble spirit brought down not so much by taxation and regulation but rather envy. I can be confident in surmising that neither Chancellor Gordon Brown nor David Cameron, the Tory leader, has read Rand’s story.
John Blundell is director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs.