On Capitol Hill, Rand's 'Atlas' Can't Be Shrugged Off

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These days it can feel like the country is unsteady — politically, economically. In a search for the way forward, scholars and politicians often turn to their fundamental beliefs. NPR is taking a look at some of the most influential philosophers whose ideas molded the present and could shape the future. You might not know all their names, but you're certainly familiar with their ideas. They are woven into the fabric of our society.

Ayn Rand is best known for her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The ideas behind them — her philosophy — have sunk so deeply into our political thought, most people don't even recognize them as her ideas anymore.

But Rand does have important admirers, like House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Recently, House Speaker John Boehner channeled Rand when he said, "Job creators in America basically are on strike."

Underpinning that statement is a philosophy Rand introduced through her best-selling novel Atlas Shrugged.

However, when it was released in the late 1950s, the book wasn't exactly embraced.

Rand's 'Objectivism,' Explained

CBS News journalist Mike Wallace interviewed Rand years before he first appeared on the program 60 Minutes.

"Throughout the United States, small pockets of intellectuals have become involved in a new and unusual philosophy, which would seem to strike at the very roots of our society," he says, introducing the 1959 segment.

Wallace is in a chair, on a stark set, holding his notes and a cigarette. Across from him sits Rand, a native Russian, small and sharp and a little nervous. Wallace asks her to outline the idea she calls "objectivism."

It is, she says, a system of morality "not based on faith" or emotion, "but on reason."

Rand wholly rejected religion. She called it a weakness, even a parasite — one that convinces people their purpose is to work for the betterment of others. In fact, she says, for man, the truth is just the opposite.

"His highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness," she says.

Wallace asks Rand how her philosophy applies to politics and government. And his question reveals a journalist's assumptions about the America of that time — with Eisenhower in the White House and Leave It to Beaver on TV:

"One of the principal achievements of this country in the past 20 years, particularly — I think most people agree — is the gradual growth of social, protective legislation, based on the principle that we are our brothers' keepers."

Like welfare. Social Security. Fair labor standards. Public health programs.

"How do you feel about the political trends of the United States?" Wallace asks.

"I feel that it is terrible that you see destruction all around you, and that you are moving toward disaster until and unless all those welfare state conceptions have been reversed and rejected," Rand answers.

These programs are destroying individual liberties, Rand says, especially the freedom of producers, entrepreneurs, businessmen. The government has no right to take their property, she says.

"I imagine that you're talking now about taxes," Wallace says. "And you believe that there should be no right by the government to tax. You believe that there should be no such thing as unemployment compensation, regulation during times of stress."

"That's right," Rand replies. "I am opposed to all forms of control. I am for an absolute, laissez-faire, free, unregulated economy."

By now, these ideas should sound familiar.

A Prediction Of The Future?

At the time, Rand's novels were almost universally panned. Her ideas were called "the height of immorality." Her followers, the objectivists, were seen as a radical sideshow in politics and economics.

But now?

"Every time you submit to a regulation, it diminishes your liberty," says Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa, speaking just off the House floor a few weeks ago. King says he loves Rand.

Freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican, has read Rand's novels six or eight times each.

"It's almost frightening how accurate a prediction of the future the book was," Mulvaney says.

In Atlas Shrugged, which Rand considered her masterpiece, the wealthy corporate producers are the engines of the American economy, but they are constantly stymied by invasive legislation and terrible government regulations.

That's exactly what Florida Republican Rep. Allen West sees happening in America today — and, he says, it's very dangerous.

"If you start to demonize a certain segment of your society that are the producers, eventually they'll stop," he says.

That's just what they did in Atlas Shrugged. Rand's wealthy heroes go into hiding, leaving behind the welfare class — Rand calls them "the moochers" — and the government, or "the looters."

Put in today's language: "Job creators in America basically are on strike."

This idea that Boehner put forth in a recent speech before the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., could have come straight from Atlas Shrugged.

Businesses, Boehner said, need to be set free. Instead, "they've been antagonized by a government that favors bureaucrats over market-based solutions. They've been demoralized by a government that causes despair, when what we really need is to provide reassurance and inspire hope in our economy."

Boehner uses the language of slavery when he says, "We need to liberate our economy from the shackles of Washington."

Thriving Ideas

Back in that 1959 interview, Wallace asked Rand why — if her ideas were so right — Americans, in their democracy, hadn't voted to protect the all-important producer class.

Her answer? Because the people hadn't been given that choice.

"Both parties today are for socialism, in effect — for controls. And there is no party, there are no voices, to offer an actual pro-capitalist, laissez-faire, economic freedom and individualism," she said. "That is what this country needs today."

If Rand were alive today, she might be pleased to see that, more and more, Americans do have that choice. And her ideas are alive and well-represented in the U.S. Capitol.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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