Thursday, December 18, 2014

Miss Ayn Rand

As part of the moving process, I have been confronted with the fact I own a considerable quantity of stamped paper objects known to the Luddites of the world as "books." Most of them I read once and consign to gather dust, decorating the room better than curtains or effete objet d'art possibly could. Other books I renew in my life regularly: St. Augustine's Confessions, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, the adventures of Dumas, Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, and a few liturgical histories. In college, I read The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk several times before I undertook to read the actual men mentioned in the book rather than Kirk's vignette's on them. One book I wish never to reread is Miss Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, a book William Buckley, with scalpel accuracy, described as "fourteen hundred pages of ideological fabulism."

Atlas Shrugged may be the bestselling book no one has ever heard of. It sells, inexplicably, over 150,000 copies every year despite half a century of age. Following Hugo's Romantic and exaggerative style, Rand constructed a paradigm of radical individualism. In her setting, the world is run by "looters" and "moochers"—lazy corporate welfare dregs and government bureaucrats—who stifle the heroic individuals who, by the power of their superior brains and will, would otherwise run the world. The heiress to a railroad company is left to fight for her future while the rest of the world's brain power has gone on strike, under the influence of a mysterious man named John Galt. The first 250 pages of Rand's magnum excrementum read like an engaging detective story before it preaches without subtlety. Midway through the book, a doomed passenger train enters a tunnel. The author gleefully describes the personal shortcomings of those about to die. The climax of the book is a seventy page sermon on the primacy of the individual, the nonsense of Original Sin and non-voluntary community, and radical self-empowerment. The book ends with one of the main characters tracing out the "sign of the dollar," the religious symbol of the rugged Randian individual whose work value is expressed in money.

This "ideological fabulism" appeals to most every young conservative during his university years at some point. I went through a very brief phase of it, as did most of the men in the college Republicans at my school, until I realized that it contradicted both my religion and my common sense. Communities are not, contrary to Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought, voluntary contracts between parties. They are entirely organic, which is why we flock, as children, to those of our own race, age, sex, and income bracket. We naturally and instinctively want to be around people like us, not to do business with people who can profit with us. There is certainly a place in both the Catholic faith and in common sense for individualism. The individual cannot be compelled to believe in something he does not, so long as he does not disturb the peace in the process. Leaving individuals to their own devices is often the best microeconomic advice, as only individuals are entirely appraised of their own unique variables in calculating their optimal decisions. Small businesses, large family purchases, and retirement plans work that way—or at least they did before the welfare state balloon under Johnson and Obama. But the individual does not exist in a bubble and enter into community. He, unlike the feral child John Galt, is born into it. 

I fear libertarianism, either in Randian forms or less extreme variations, is an adverse reaction to the collapse of communities and their replacement with a creeping Orwellian nebula, which is all-encompassing. Small town establishments, mom-n-pop stores, and churches have been swallowed into federal establishments, Fortune 100 companies, and megachurches (the Vatican is at the top of the list). People now naturally shy away from community because these perversions of community are all they have known, from baby-boomers to Generation Y. Do we go into the desert and attempt to live apart from the mad world as John Galt does, and as St. Anthony of Egypt really did, or do we try to fix our institutions as some restorationists would have us do? Both seem doomed to fail, but the over-arching nebula also cannot stand, as it both kills everything in its sight and bores those who remain alive. How much damage will the nebula do before the temperature rises and it dissipates? Regardless, the metaphysics of the Randian radical individualism will not help society return to normality.


  1. One of the people who died in that train was a thinly veiled reference to G.K. Chesterton, "Gilbert Keith-Worthing".

  2. After so many years of knowing Rand fans, I still cannot fathom why any thinking person fails to see through her nonsense, and why anyone with the slightest bit of aesthetic sensibility doesn't throw her novels into the trash.