It’s very easy to just make fun of Ayn Rand’s work. This is a problem that liberals and leftists have had since they started being critical of her work. Her books and ideas are so ridiculous, so devoid of artistic merit, so lacking in consistency, so void of rigor that we have a hard time grasping that her books and ideas need anything more than a little ribbing. Certainly, we say, when we expose how bad they are, how laughable they are, people will understand that we’re telling the truth and abandon Rand.
That doesn’t happen. What happens, instead, is that her books spread despite our humor. Her acolytes run the Federal Reserve, they spread through the Tea Party, they form the foundation of the libertarianism in both the Libertarian and Republican parties. Despite all our humor, Ayn Rand’s ideas and works flourish. In a survey, 29% of Americans say they’ve read Atlas Shrugged. In contrast, only about 20% of Americans have read the Bible from start to finish. When one counts Rand’s other books, it’s fair to say that Ayn Rand is more popular than the Bible in the US, and considerably more influential.
Her ideas are also more relevant. The Bible says nothing about the ethics of mercantile activity, industry, much less specific economic systems like capitalism. Rand does. At great length. Her books are still highly relevant (though the specifics are increasingly weird; American’s just don’t feel the significance of railroad like we used to, for instance).
And her ideas are held not only by Americans who have read her, but those who have learned of them second-hand. Who argue that all regulation must be stopped but can’t identify the source, or who say that the only proper function of government is protecting the right to own property (a right that is not mentioned in the Constitution).
So while I think there is a place for humor in the debate of Ayn Rand, we must also be prepared to counter her ideas with other, better ideas. And if you really want to show the flaws in her thinking, counter her ideas with facts. Facts – or, more precisely, the gulf between reality and the idealism of Rand’s followers – are like kryptonite to Ayn Rand.
So in Atlas Shrugged, the action in the story is totally divorced from reality. In my book, Atlas Stumbled, I’m going to base many of the characters are actual businesspeople from the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The one in particular is Howard Hughes. Hughes is really the closest you’re going to get to an actual Randian hero. He was this rugged individualist, communist-hating billionaire who would take wild chances with his money – and usually came out alright. He was also thin, tall, and good looking. If you’re going to look for an actual Randian hero made flesh, Hughes is the guy.
He was also a drug addict and nutjub recluse who thought that Mormons had “germ free blood” and was getting transfusions, and saved his piss and shit in jars. But until the very end, despite his madness, he made savvy business decisions.
That kind of specificity is poison, I think, to Rand’s works. It isn’t that I’m looking for business people with exceptional flaws – but that every business leader out there is an actual human being in defiance of Rand’s idealism. Whether it is Henry Ford’s literal Nazism or Steve Jobs rejecting science to fight his cancer with herbal remedies, even brilliant businessmen are nevertheless human. If anything, their wealth insulates them from the consequences of their actions to such an extent that their flaws are allowed to grow out of control – sometimes called “affluenza”, or the idea that wealth is very much like a mental illness that creates lack of empathy and grandiose thinking. And all of this without even talking about how businessmen holding laissez-faire ideals are often intensely corrupt – guys like Kenneth DeLay and Bernie Madhoff, or those who orchestrated the farce at Lehman Bros. or AIG. (I know their counter is that there has never been a perfectly capitalist system. But that is, itself, a flaw. A system that requires perfection to work will never work.)
Rand’s heroic business leaders lack the human flaws, and certainly the humanity, of their non-literary kin. So Rearden is like Howard Hughes in his ambition and success, but unlike him insofar that he has none of the troubles that Hughes grappled with all his life. To the extent that Rearden has problems, he can just discard them to live his perfect Objectivist life in a way that no human being actually can.
I believe by creating links between the real world, our world, and the highly stylized fantasy of Rand – populated only by virtuous heroes and contemptible anti-heroes, without any basis in realism or possessing any nuance – that it is possible to do real damage to Atlas Shrugged, which is the primary vector of transmission of Rand’s ideas for young people.
And the most important thing is to make it a good book. To make it a book people WANT to read, because I’m fighting an uphill battle, here.