The pandemic completely unraveled the libertarian ideal of individualism in Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’

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A member of the National Guard reading “Atlas Shrugged” in the Capitol as the House debated impeachment against President Trump in January 2021.

  • Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures and cohost of the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast with Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein.
  • In the latest episode, they spoke with evolutionist David Sloan Wilson about his novel, “Atlas Hugged.”
  • Wilson says the pandemic has unraveled the Ayn Rand philosophy that self-interest should trump societal needs.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Like a lot of white males, I read Ayn Rand’s bestselling novel “Atlas Shrugged” when I was 18. And like a lot of white males, “Atlas Shrugged” turned me into a huge jerk for a couple of months.

“Atlas Shrugged,” which was published in 1959 and came in second only after The Bible in a Library of Congress survey of influential books, is a 1,200-page sci-fi novel about what would happen if all the “makers” in the world were to go on strike. The mysterious hero of the book, John Galt, encourages captains of industry, inventors, and other heroes of capitalism to join him in a secret utopia hidden in Colorado called Galt’s Gulch. The rest of the world – populated only by collectivists, politicians, and other assorted “takers” – quickly begins to fall apart without them.

“Atlas Shrugged” serves as a page-turning enticement to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, which is based on the idea that selfishness should be the guiding virtue for all mankind. (If you think I’m overstating or mischaracterizing her message, please note that Rand literally published a non-fiction book titled “The Virtue of Selfishness.”)

Self-interest, Rand argues, is the best motivation for economics, finance, politics, and basically all of humanity’s pursuits. Putting others first, she argues, means that everyone finishes last.

The appeal of selfishness

Rand’s simplistic Objectivist worldview couldn’t be better designed to appeal to sheltered middle-and-upper-class suburban white boys like me – the kind of people who, in the immortal words of Barry Switzer, were born on third base and thought they hit a triple.

For kids like me at the time, Rand’s message that we earned every piece of wealth that we inherited was a comforting one, and it pleased our egos by centering us as masters of the universe who deserved our elevated perch.

Thankfully, it didn’t take me too long to shake off the themes of “Atlas Shrugged.” As soon as I befriended people who were not suburban white dudes, and once I understood that they had to work five times as hard to enjoy half of the privilege that I enjoyed, I realized that Rand was singing a heroic ode to the comfortable. With the application of a little bit of empathy and life experience, her philosophy fell apart.

But plenty of powerful adults still subscribe to Rand’s philosophy. Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has spoken often, and lovingly, about the impact Rand had on his life. Former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan was a Randian acolyte, along with both Ron and Rand Paul. Some of Silicon Valley’s most powerful players, including Peter Thiel and Travis Kalanick, have praised Rand.

Her writing to this day informs a particularly virulent form of conservative thought – fiercely libertarian, aggressively anti-government, blindly in favor of handing power to corporations.

In this week’s episode of “Pitchfork Economics,” Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein talk with celebrated evolutionist David Sloan Wilson about his debut novel, “Atlas Hugged.” “Hugged” rebuts the claims of Shrugged using Sloan’s unparalleled understanding of evolutionary biology, which reframes humans as cooperative and community-minded animals and not mono-maniacally selfish actors.

Self-interest versus the pandemic

And for a ripped-from-the-headlines example of why humans are absolutely not the sociopathic strivers of Rand’s fiction, look no further than the pandemic. How would Galt’s Gulch have responded last year when COVID-19 arrived?

To begin with, none of Rand’s rugged individualist protagonists would abide by a mask mandate. They loathe government regulations of all types, and since mask-wearing protects other people as much as it does the person wearing the mask, it violates Rand’s primary directive of selfishness above all else. The same goes for six-foot social distancing rules.

So already, Galt’s Gulch looks like a petri dish for coronavirus. Rand envisioned her utopia as a haven for CEOs and presidents of big manufacturing firms, and the average age of CEOs in America has climbed in recent years to just under 60 years old. Given that 95% of all coronavirus deaths have been in people over 60 years old, the survival rate for Galt’s Gulch isn’t looking great.

I hear the protests now: “But surely these unfettered capitalists would be able to buy or manufacture ventilators to keep those infected CEOs alive?” Probably not.

If you recall, ventilators were in high demand in the early days of the pandemic, and then-President Trump had to use powers of government to force General Motors to manufacture them – a gross violation of Rand’s philosophy.

And the global supply chain was completely broken in those early days, meaning all the money in the world couldn’t get ventilators or the parts to manufacture ventilators to Galt’s Gulch in time to save those poor sickened Objectivists.

Then consider the fact that Galt’s Gulch likely has no public health department to inform the populace about at-risk behaviors and demographics, no way to direct private business in ways that benefit the public good without massive price-gouging, and no tax dollars to support people who lose their jobs because of the pandemic, and John Galt’s utopia is starting to look a lot like “The Hunger Games.”

The science fiction of individualism

There’s a reason why libertarians have been so quiet since COVID arrived on our shores a year ago, and why Republican hyper-conservatives were bleating about Dr. Seuss when Democrats were passing an incredibly popular pandemic relief package.

The pandemic is proof of the single inescapable fact that destroys Ayn Rand’s philosophy: We live in a society, and nobody is truly a self-made master of their own destiny. The sooner we understand the American ideal of sovereign individualism is the stuff of science-fiction, the faster we can get to work building a world that’s better for everyone.

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