I recently interviewed Yaron Brook about Atlas Shrugged and the state of the world. Dr. Brook is president and executive director of both the Ayn Rand Institute and the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights. —Craig Biddle
Craig Biddle: Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged has been in the news a lot lately because many people are seeing parallels between the story and current events. Without giving away too much for those who haven’t yet read it, what is the book about, and what parallels do you see between it and events in the world today?
Yaron Brook: In Atlas Shrugged we see a world crumbling under the weight of government interventions and regulations. The economy has ground to a halt. Roads and bridges are breaking down, buildings are falling apart, new inventions are few and far between, and each day more and more businesses are shutting their doors. The government blames greed and the free market, frantically imposes further controls, but the crisis only deepens.
The similarities to today are striking. Since the start of our current crisis, we’ve been told that the free market and “greedy” businessmen are to blame, and that the only solution is to hand progressively more power over to the government. We’re hearing the same charges, and seeing the same policies, with the same destructive consequences that Rand wrote about more than half a century ago.
In Atlas, we even read about a “banker with a heart of gold” who went out of business after lending to borrowers on the basis of their “need” rather than their ability to repay. Anyone who understands how the government’s “affordable housing” crusade led to an orgy of subprime lending can appreciate Rand’s foresight [see Richard M. Salsman, “Altruism: The Moral Root of the Financial Crisis”].
But Atlas Shrugged is not primarily a political novel. It is a novel about what happens to a world that denounces its best minds as greedy and immoral. It’s a novel about what happens when, instead of thanking and rewarding the brightest and most successful, a nation denounces, despises, and shackles them. It’s a novel about what happens when the best minds stop allowing that to happen. Whether this last aspect of the plot will play out in real life is yet to be seen, but the parallels to date are remarkable.
CB: What would you say is the fundamental reason for these parallels? What enabled Ayn Rand some fifty years ago to effectively project what we are witnessing today?
YB: Ayn Rand understood that ideas shape society. A society that values reason, the individual, and freedom creates the United States of America. A society that denounces the mind, preaches self-sacrifice, and worships the collective creates Nazi Germany.
Thus, once Rand identified the basic ideas driving American society in the 20th century, she could predict the course we would take. She could not predict the details, or the timing, but she could see where in principle a country committed to the ideas that prevail in the United States would have to end up—if it did not reject those ideas.
Above all, Ayn Rand understood that our culture’s dominant moral ideal, altruism, is incompatible with freedom. . . .