I believe I have figured out the appeal of Atlas Shrugged.
#1. Herbert Spencer’s defense of capitalism is flawed. Before there was Ayn Rand, the philosopher of the market was Herbert Spencer, who used a social Darwinism message to defend the unchecked accumulation of wealth. The argument ran: “Evolutionarily speaking, if you’ve got it and you can keep it, you deserve it, no matter the source.”
The immense flaw with this plan is that if, say, the Russian Revolution came along and reminded merchants that they were a bunch of wussy powderpuffs wholly dependent people capable and willing to kick ass to defend them from brutal thugs who would kick their middle classes asses in a hot minute, then the very philosophy they espoused was turned against them: unable to hold onto things, they did NOT deserve them, and now the communists do.
Unsurprisingly, the business class found this problematic so it decided that it would be wise to find a business philosophy that wasn’t quite so red in tooth and claw, since they were, after all giant pansies.
Previous business philosophies (Smith, Malthus, etc.) were also flawed in the sense that if a better system could be found by the criteria of the system – producing more wealth, better livelihoods, more freedom, etc – then that system would also fail. Which is why they kept having to find new systems, because people were able to credibly argue that unchecked greed was NOT the best at producing whatever virtues or facts those previous philosophies asserted.
They were also not helped by the copious business crashes between the invention of laissez-faire capitalism (roughly 1776, which is when Adam Smith’s first book about it came out) and, say, 1929 provided copious empirical evidence that economic theory, as then held, was flawed. Particularly because the Adam Smith-based classical economics (of which Rand is very much a part) does not include bubbles and crashes into its models. Ouch. (By the way? Still doesn’t.)
Rand’s philosophy returned to the idea of “natural rights”. Now, while an influential concept, it’s really flawed, but Rand really loved it. In her natural rights philosophy, Objectivism, human reason (as defined, and defined poorly, by Rand) creates the natural right for people to pursue money through commerce as arising from the fact of their humanity. So, capitalism is the “natural” pursuit of humanity, and therefore unchecked greed and ego in the pursuit of unlimited wealth is transformed into the highest virtue. To her, the right of mercantile transactions is placed even higher than freedom of speech or religion, all that other stuff arising (what we think of as freedom) from property rights and trade rights.
How this is different from Spencer and the people before Spencer is that greed and selfishness are defined as natural rights. Dispossessing people of greed and selfishness is immoral, no matter the reason! So, unlike Spencer’s philosophy where your property and power were dependent on your ability to hold them, Rand’s rights are innate, universal but also specific to the rights of selfishness and the role of laissez-faire capitalism.
So those commie brutes? Their mere success in the Russian Revolution became not a measure of their power and success (as under Spencer), but simple a measure of their evil that they had to violate so many natural rights. Likewise the economic philosophy of Maynard Keyes, with its insidious taxation and business regulation, which Rand thought just as evil as communist tyranny.
This philosophy is, generally, more pleasing to capitalist because it creates no conditions under which capitalists are wrong. Other systems and beliefs have no criteria of proof – the goodness of selfishness and greed are defined as the highest virtue, with no exception.
Since the average business person wouldn’t even understand what “tautology” means if they looked it up in a dictionary, the tautological, standardlessness of Rand’s definition of virtue won’t ever bother them (though it figures heavily into the reason why professional philosophers laugh at her).
#2. Unlike previous capitalist philosophers like Smith, Malthus, Spencer, etc., who wrote weighty tomes filled with hard-to-read arguments, Rand’s philosophy is expressed in easy-to-read novels where pseudo-philosophical rants are punctuated with action and sex! The business class really loves that!
See, reading a lot of philosophy often contains the seeds of its own destruction. By the time you’re educated enough to understand what Spencer is saying, you’re also educated enough to understand Spencer’s critics. You understand that Darwin’s criticism of Spencer’s social Darwinism, for instance. That is likely to put a dampener on a person’s unvarnished love and affection for social Darwinism, and this is possible of any philosophy.
Rand, on the other hand, by spreading her philosophy primarily through novels, and many of the people who read her novels read little else, and almost never economic philosophy or ethics, are unable to even comprehend the arguments against Rand’s work. So an “egghead” philosopher’s totally reasonable criticism of Atlas Shrugged is literally meaningless to the people who love Atlas Shrugged. Without a sufficient background in philosophy, their arguments mean nothing at all.
(This also works in her favor with literary criticism, too. Since few people who like Atlas Shrugged read enough to know what traits make a book good or bad, academic literary criticism of Atlas Shrugged is literally meaningless to them, as well.)
This means that to most of Rand’s devotees, her books exist in an intellectual vacuum. Criticisms of her works – either literary or philosophical – are meaningless in the most literal way. It is only in that kind of intellectual vacuum that Objectivism can exist in any form.
#3. There is a self-reinforcing community of devotees surrounding Rand’s work. Almost like her stories, there exist enough devotees of Ayn Rand so her narrative can be passed back and forth between them until it acquires – inside that community – religious devotion.
Rand’s philosophy resembles religion in what I believe is a critical way: that when a religious “truth” disagrees with a truth arising from an empirical epistemology (such as science, but also history, law, most modern forms of philosophy, etc.), the empirical facts are wrong. The way that religious communities defeat the cognitive dissonance arising from the variance between their religious beliefs and the literal evidence of their senses as expressed through empirical epistemologies is the religious community, who tell each other that their fanciful interpretation of religious texts or dogma is more “real” that what is really there. Rand’s devotees follow this pattern.
So, when Rand’s followers find themselves in a situation where the philosophy of Rand is at variance with, y’know, the facts as expressed through empirical epistemologies, they can salve the harm of cognitive dissonance through the Objectivism community, who will take them by their hand and tell that the Objectivist Santa Claus is real, and they shouldn’t worry their heads about mere reality.
This community of like-minded people willing to salve the conscience of people undergoing serious cognitive dissonance (and, in online settings, generally willing to viciously attack anyone who deigns to disagree with Rand’s dogma), is one of the real hallmarks of modern religion! Which is why so many people feel that Rand’s philosophies are cultic – while they don’t have any belief in the supernatural, they do put a primacy on Rand’s writings ahead of empirical facts, and have a self-supporting community devoted to reinforcing the value of those writings above facts.
Endgame: The upshot is that you can sell a lot of books and influence a lot of people if you rationalize to them that they can do whatever they want and that, indeed, giving into their worst ambitions is the highest form of virtue. Greedy SOBs with unchecked ambition – you know, the rich and powerful – are going to eat it up and ask for seconds.
It will also appeal to people who very badly want to be the rich and powerful. It creates a fantasy that the reason they’re NOT the rich and powerful is because some faceless badguy is “holding them down”. If you want to actual fix social ills, even when they effect you personally, Objectivism isn’t for you. Any progressive political philosophy acknowledges that it is possible to be too rich, too powerful, and many of our world’s ills arise from selfish idiots with power who use what they have to get more and more and more without regards of who they hurt.
But if you’re on the losing end of society’s game, but you want to be a big winner – not simply make enough to live well and secure for your children a bright future, but the kind of wealth of a Donald Trump or Bill Gates – you’re also going to be drawn to Rand’s kind of philosophy that ignores the facts of society in favor of this hyper-competitive fantasy . . . even though you’re already out of THAT game.
So, the appeal of Objectivism is easy to see. It is, however, corrosive, and since it is the de facto political and economic philosophy of the libertarian branch of the Republican Party, and highly influential through all of the Republican Party, as well as the Tea Party, and the influence that Greenspan has through his successors in the Federal Reserve . . . well, it needs to be fought so that in the years to come it has all the power of, say, Scientology. Ayn Rand needs to die.