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Rand, 'Atlas Shrugged' Remain Flawed and Masterful

Rand, 'Atlas Shrugged' Remain Flawed and Masterful
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Tuesday, 24 April 2018 11:28 AM Current | Bio | Archive

One of my favorite classes that I taught at Adrian College featured Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." This novel was great for stimulating students to think seriously about political and economic ideas.

A Facebook friend, celebrating U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan's retirement, called him a "Randian carbuncle." This reminded me of an attack on Ryan by Paul Krugman , for whom one of Ryan's alleged sins was his interest in Ayn Rand's ideas. Krugman claimed that "Atlas Shrugged" "is a perennial favorite among adolescent boys. But, he sneered, "most boys eventually outgrow it."

My own discovery of Rand was not as an "adolescent boy," but as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. I read "Atlas" for background before Rand's scheduled appearance.

It profoundly depressed me, which wasn't hard, since my first year at Hopkins was not a happy one. Uprooted from undergraduate friends at Willamette University in Oregon, I was lonely and socially uncomfortable. My room in a private home had no cooking facilities.

With university dining halls closed, I ended up eating Christmas dinner alone in a Chinese restaurant — the only place I could find open. (Despite this, I still like Chinese food!)

My mental state was thus not ideal for plunging into "Atlas." I was ill-prepared for its jarring combination of a sour outlook on life with a sharp and useful distinction between voluntary associations and involuntary associations.

I should add, though, not everyone finds Rand's outlook sour. A thoughtful and very successful woman with whom I shared my own reaction commented that she "first read 'Atlas Shrugged' as an adolescent girl and found it to be a beacon of hope.

"Her message of personal self-determination hardly seemed like a sour view on life, to someone who was growing up poor and desperately hoping that she could still get somewhere!"

Rand's performance didn't impress me. She got nasty with a student who challenged her, announcing snottily that she hadn't come to Johns Hopkins to engage in debates. Years later, when I learned she was a chain-smoker, this didn't take her stock up in my book, either.

And yet, for many years I taught that class on "Atlas Shrugged." It always attracted an intelligent and diverse group who were not all predisposed to agree with her. One student, a favorite despite his left wing views at the time, took the class because his adviser told him it would "test his values." And I think it did.

Perhaps Rand's unhappy youthful experience before fleeing the Soviet Union led her to focus too much on the dangers of arbitrary government, though these are real enough. She underestimated government's importance in making voluntary associations on any scale possible.

Only government can protect property rights and enforce contracts (one way of creating voluntary associations). Only government can enforce basic rules of the road, preventing voluntary associations from interacting with each another in ways — like the economic meltdown 10 years ago — destructive to the general welfare.

Nonetheless Rand's sharp distinction between voluntary and involuntary associations helped me grope my way toward the general classification of human interactions summarized in my "periodic table of human associations."

One type of association in this periodic table didn't exist yet when I developed it. A Rand comment in "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal"  helped me discover its possibilities.

Studying the related problems of economic regulation and corruption, I had already concluded that privileges not available to everyone should be auctioned by government, acting as trustee for the public, to the highest bidders for limited periods. Receipts would be distributed equally to everyone as a social dividend.

My initial conclusion applied only to rights to broadcast radio and TV signals through scarce electromagnetic spectrum.

Extending this approach to "land" (as broadly defined by Henry George: everything handed to us by nature) hadn't occurred to me until I read Rand' words: "There is no difference in principle between the ownership of land and the ownership of airways."

Rand's statement was obviously true, but not in the sense she intended! Rather than letting airwaves become private property, Rand's assertion could equally well suggest not allowing land and other gifts of nature to become private property, (nor, heaven forbid, government property!) but to consider them public property managed for the benefit of the public by government-as-trustee.

I still find Rand's philosophy, including her atheism, unfortunate, and "Atlas Shrugged" is hardly great literature. But it contains great insights into the nature of human associations, and on top of that, Rand made money from her books. Lots of money! As an author myself, this is one quality of hers that I would dearly have loved to emulate.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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PaulFdeLespinasse
Ayn Rand's philosophy, including her atheism, is unfortunate. "Atlas Shrugged" is hardly great literature. But it contains great insights into the nature of human associations, and on top of that, Rand made money from her books.
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2018-28-24
Tuesday, 24 April 2018 11:28 AM
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