Is it conceivable to endorse the cinematic adaptation of Ayn Rand’s libertarian manifesto Atlas Shrugged – as I do – while rejecting the flawed ideology which inspired it?

I would argue, yes. On the one hand, I place the Beatles at the pinnacle of 1960s pop music while concluding that their song “Mr. Moonlight” is wince-inducing to the point of being unlistenable. Likewise, I admire 99.9 percent of G.K. Chesterton’s body of work yet disagree with him on his assertion only men should vote. On the other hand, I disagree for the most part with Camille Paglia’s worldview yet admire her writing style and intellectual honesty.

So it goes with Ayn Rand. Her free-market views were a welcome antidote to New Deal policies and the malignant growth of government programs and crony capitalism. And for the same reasons I warmly welcome the first installment of the planned cinematic trilogy of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged – timed to coincide with the traditional Tax Day this coming Friday – which renders her themes in such a fashion they appear ripped from the headlines of today’s Wall Street Journal.

Atlas Shrugged-Part I captures the malaise of our times in its depiction of a United States of the near future when businessmen look to government to throttle competition by any means necessary (e.g. legislation and regulation) rather than innovating and investing to succeed. Part I ignores Rand’s anti-collectivism, rampant individualism, atheism and, for the most part, libertarian libertinism, to focus on her depictions of government looters and corporate rent seekers.

All this recommends the movie to lovers of liberty properly understood, to borrow a phrase from Russell Kirk. In fact, I’ll go so far as to encourage readers to see the film and skip the book.

My problems with Rand and Objectivism, the ideology of “enlightened self-interest” she founded, go beyond the oft-quoted admonition of Whittaker Chambers in which he expressed her autocratic intransigence led him to read Rand’s command to all detractors real and perceived “to the gas chambers go!” on every page. There is some truth to Chamber’s critique, to be sure, in that any worldview that rejects faith and community eventually succumbs to obduracy leading to what Russell Kirk labeled the “chirping sect” of libertarianism (a phrase he borrowed from T.S. Eliot).

By chirping sect, Kirk intentionally references Edmund Burke’s “insects of the hour” — those libertarians who splinter into ever smaller groups and thereby sacrifice both the personal and common good on the altar of their own narcissism masked as “individualism.” One need only read about the internecine strife within the Objectivist’s ivory tower to note the wisdom of Burke and Kirk. The CliffsNotes version: Arguing with Rand meant immediate exile to intellectual Siberia.

Contrary to Rand’s individualism, the United States since its beginning has congregated in townships and parishes where true democracy flourishes under the express influence of religious faith. Nineteenth-century writers Alexis de Tocqueville and Orestes Brownson both noted these communal incubators and conservators of liberty – small collectives that reflect their respective faiths to advocate for the good of all within their sphere.

As Tocqueville wrote in his seminal Democracy in America:

In the United States the influence of religion is not confined to the manners, but it extends to the intelligence of the people. Amongst the Anglo-Americans, there are some who profess the doctrines of Christianity from a sincere belief in them, and others who do the same because they are afraid to be suspected of unbelief. Christianity, therefore, reigns without any obstacle, by universal consent; the consequence is, as I have before observed, that every principle of the moral world is fixed and determinate, although the political world is abandoned to the debates and the experiments of men. Thus the human mind is never left to wander across a boundless field; and, whatever may be its pretensions, it is checked from time to time by barriers which it cannot surmount. Before it can perpetrate innovation, certain primal and immutable principles are laid down, and the boldest conceptions of human device are subjected to certain forms which retard and stop their completion.

Among his many salient points against libertarianism enumerated in the essay, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries,” Kirk said:

What binds society together? The libertarians reply that the cement of society (so far as they will endure any binding at all) is self-interest, closely joined to the nexus of cash payment. But the conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbor.

Elsewhere in his essay, Kirk delineates the differences between individualism as expressed by Rand and her like and the community spirit so intrinsic to our national character by invoking Eric Voegelin, whom, Kirk states:

[R]eminds us – is not between totalitarians on the one hand and liberals (or libertarians) on the other; rather, it lies between all those who believe in some sort of transcendent moral order, on one side, and on the other side all those who take this ephemeral existence of ours for the be-all and end-all-to be devoted chiefly to producing and consuming. In this discrimination between the sheep and the goats, the libertarians must be classified with the goats – that is, as utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct. In effect, they are converts to Marx’s dialectical materialism; so conservatives draw back from them on the first principle of all.

In short, capitalism and the toxic individualism of Rand and others for the instantaneous benefits supposedly granted leads to liberty misunderstood in the forms of materialism and licentious behavior – both antithetical to liberty properly understood as the fully realized temporal life in community and faith.

So I’m thankful Atlas Shrugged-Part I avoids the toxic elements of Rand’s so-called “philosophy” and am hopeful the subsequent installments of the film trilogy steer clear of the same pitfalls. By all means, see the film and avoid the book.

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  • http://yahoo.co.uk Luke Daxon

    Interesting. Burke was not an economic theorist as such (which is not to say he did not have clear views on the matter) but he did see more clearly than most that the market does not create civilisation. Rather, it is knowledge of the love of God and a sense of chivalry and duty that civilises human beings, thus making a market economy possible. As he put it:

    “If, as I suspect, modern letters owe more than they are always willing to own to antient manners, so do other interests which we value full as much as they are worth. Even commerce, and trade, and manufacture, the gods of our oeconomical politicians, are themselves perhaps but creatures; are themselves but effects, which, as first causes, we choose to worship. They certainly grew under the same shade in which learning flourished. They too may decay with their natural protecting principles…Where trade and manufactures are wanting to a people, and the spirit of nobility and religion remains, sentiment supplies, and not always ill supplies their place.”

    Incidentally Bruce – I think you raise an interesting point about film adaptations of literary works. If the film completely glosses over the character of the original, that does strike me as dishonest. Even if the film is good, it makes its inspiration out to be something that it really isn’t, and I can’t think that is right.

    Obviously it’s true that Rand opposed statism and collusion between government and business. But that bland statement can’t possibly capture the essence of the book. What animated her was a ferocious veneration of egotism, strength and the will to power, coupled with an absolute abhorrence of weakness and ordinary human frailty. Especially revealing is her documented sympathy and admiration for William Hickman, the child murderer. This suggests someone with a deeply disordered personality, as much opposed to the ethics and spirit of Christ as it possible to imagine. It is out of this that the book emerged.

    If this film is honest then it has to mirror and express her total rejection of Christ because, as Chambers intimated, this oozes from every page. If the picture ends with John Galt tracing the sign of the dollar over the stricken earth, then I suppose it will have done so. If it doesn’t, then I think it is a deception, and she’d be the last to thank the makers of it.

  • http://facebook Kathi McAvena

    This is a brilliant explanation of Ayn Rand’s Ideology and its affect on our society. I first saw the movie with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal as a very small child, thinking it was mainly society rejecting change especially related to art which also provided function. Later after hearing the pet phrase or slogan of her creation bandied about, which on its own expresses nothing, I was glad to get to see the movie again. And yes you are right, the movie has many merits mainly related to film making and performance. I knew there was a second layer to the film, which had I not heard of her ideology, I would have blithely stopped at viewing the movie. But I bought the book and after seeing a picture of her luckily I didn’t visualize poor Patricia Neal when I thought of Ayn Rand, as I found her ideas and philosophy selfish and destructive to the common man. I found Mr. Walkers analysis to be both scholarly, and written in a manner that can be clearly understood. Bringing in references from Burke, the Enlightenment, Kirk and the Chirping Sectaries, ( giving credit to T. S. Elliot). Note: I mention this as not all but much of what is called Conservative analysis, is only opinion these days, without backup facts, foot notes, etc. His quotes from Tocqueville were also informative and backed up his assertions
    about Ms. Rand’s toxically flawed Ideology! As this began with the question about the appropriateness of seeing a movie when the author of the book it was based on espoused a philosophy one is completely at odds with, I will say I agree with questioner. See the movie skip the book. Briefly I can’t help but mention that there were other major components and dangerous ideas, that along with Ayn Rand’s ( who’s ideas were quite major) helped put together this
    poison brew, example the soon to be a Supreme Court Justice, Lewis F.
    Powell’s Manifesto, written in 1971 just prior to accepting Richard Nixon’s appointment to the Supreme Court. It was written as a memo to a friend in
    the US Chamber of Commerce entittled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise
    System” .Paraphrasing from an article in Wikipedia, in it, his main goals were
    changing the way individuals and society think about the corporation, the
    government, the culture, and the individual. This “memo” can be credited to an enormous degree to the re-shaping of public opinion by business on these topics for decades and it’s influence continues today. These and other elements came together to create the toxic brew we have today, the facade Democracy behind which are the true leaders, the Plutocrats and their Corporatocracy.

  • Nathanael Snow

    It is important to recognize what Rand was after. She wanted a purely rational system with no emotional mumbo jumbo. If the world were honest it would have to confess that pure rational thought leads to Objectivism. But the God-shaped-hole does not close easily.
    Christians can read Rand and notice what pure rational living without God looks like, and reject it. But we can only do so thanks to regeneration. We have a rational faith, and one internally consistent with our nature, because we have a new nature.
    Rand’s ethic of exchange is rejected when we accept Christ’s sacrifice, for which we can offer nothing in exchange. Then we rationally accept the ethic of sacrifice. This is most blatant in marriage, which is founded on mutual giving for the Christian, but mutual rape for Rand.
    Interestingly purely sacrificial Christians would not bother Rand. So long as we gave voluntarily and did not attempt to impose the ethic on others.
    People often say a libertarian society would neglect the least of these. Just so. But then Christians would stand out all the more for their acts of mercy, done not for greater reward (for what greater reward is there than to have Christ, and the Holy Spirit is the gaurantee that we do have Him) but out of the joy that comes in participating in the work of God?

  • Joe

    The author conflates Objectivism, Rand’s all-encompassing philosophy, with Libertarianism, a political philosophy that makes no judgment on matters outside of government. Objectivism specifically rejects any sort of religion, or what Rand would call “mysticism.” Libertarianism is a political philosophy that (in simplistic terms) advocates limiting government coercion. There is no reason one cannot be a Libertarian Christian the same way someone can be a Conservative Christian or a Liberal Christian.

  • Tom Grey

    The essence of Rand is that Greed, and other Individual Desires, cause the Heroes to do good, and be Successful, under Capitalism (the unknown ideal). The villians are those who are filled with Envy. (para-capitalizing her)

    I think Rand’s descriptions of the “do-gooder” envious, and the “second rater” envious is more accurate than any other in literature.

    But the basis of the success of capitalism is far more Christian: it is peace. While the greed of entrepreneurs may well be necessary, it is the peaceful contractual arrangements, and trust, which allows capitalism to be so much more successful than other economic systems. In theory, companies could also be successful while being run based on selflessness, which Rand hated, instead of greed — but I don’t know of any examples (including Acton).

    The relevance and importance of being anti-Envy is very clear — the gov’t uses force, not peace, in order to do its programs. Some Christians, like Sojourners, are protesting any gov’t budget cuts, implicitly endorsing the Envy based punishment against success which Rand was opposing.

    Rand was right to oppose envy, tho wrong to celebrate greed.

    Her own personal lack of children allows her to avoid the complexities of real life, where children really are temporarily dependent. This is not well covered in her two main novels, and haven’t heard of any Objectivist explanation to tempt me to read her non-fiction.

    While “mutual rape” is one way to describe her sex, seeking an Alpha Male worthy of a top Female seems more likely. There are too many feminist girly-men beta males — which is why so many hot babes are with Alpha jerks. As college women become ever more sluttish, er, responsibly promiscuous, this issue is becoming a more discussed feminist issue. (Karen Owens of Duke F-list fame/shame comes to mind.)

    I’m looking forward to the movie.

  • Roger McKinney

    I think Kirk’s depiction of libertarians is a straw man. Rand was an immoral atheist, but that doesn’t mean libertarianism promotes the same. Libertarianism merely says that the Church should determine and enforce morals, not the state. The state, or courts in a Rothbard/Hoppe stateless society, should be concerned only with the protection of life, liberty and property.

    Rand’s individualism was the pseudo-individualism of the enlightenment that Hayek attacked in “Individualism: True and False.” She did not understand the true individualism of Adam Smith, paleo-conservatives and modern libertarians. Rand’s individualism leads to socialism, as Hayek demonstrated.

    Modern concepts of liberty from the state came from Christianity and thrived as long as orthodox Christianity remained popular. Above all, orthodox Christianity restrained envy and covetousness. The decline of orthodox Christianity unleashed the forces of pseudo-individualism and pseudo-rationalism, and elevated envy and sexual sins to virtues. The only outcome possible will be greater power to the state until we are immersed in socialism.

  • Nathan

    The basic individualism and selfishness of Rand’s core philosophy (as I viewed it in her books in my teens and early twenties) CAN be (if barely) reconciled with Biblical Christianity, provided you excise her atheism and her view of the world as being strictly physical, with no spiritual element. I did not, even after studying Objectivism in later years, see Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead as being “Objectivist” in nature, even if they can be used to support that philosophy. So I see no reason to NOT read the books. Of course, I am a christian, and a libertarian (free-market anarchist), and an engineer, so my viewpoint of her books and philosophy is biased. Her emphasis on selfishness is fairly easy to reconcile: as created beings, it is definitely in our own best interests (selfish interests) to do what our Creator wishes us to do, even if He gives us free will. Everything else as far as giving and love flows from that: and if He commands us to “give ourselves” to others, it is possible only because He first created and then redeemed us so that we can OWN ourselves, and the giving is for OUR fulfillment and not for the person receiving it. As for individualism, how can we NOT see ourselves as individuals, when He makes it so clear that WE are individually and personally responsible to Him for everything we do and are. His grace in making up for our failure to live up to His requirements, through the sacrifice of His Son (for His own self-fulfillment – that is, purposes), is a necessary result (from His View) and also is for us as individuals. I have grown more intolerant in my old age, and fail to see how a faithful christian who rightly divides the Word of God can be anything BUT a libertarian (anarchist free-market type).

  • http://the-classic-liberal.com/ theCL

    I like Russell Kirk. He had important insights. I agree with him a lot of things. But he also got a lot wrong. He was only human.

    But his “Chirping Sectaries” was more of a rant, a temper tantrum. than it was intellectual thought. It was and is insulting. As Roger McKinney said above, it argues against a straw man. And you’ve now done the same thing too.

    Lord Acton and Alexis de Tocqueville are libertarian heroes. In no way, shape or form does libertarianism “reject faith and community.” Nor is there anything “libertine” about libertarianism.

    Libertarianism is strictly a political philosophy. It’s plumb line, the non-aggression axiom, is no different than the words of Jesus, “do unto others …” We are not saved collectively, but through a personal relationship with Jesus. Is that also “rampant individualism?”

    Attacking strawmen does none of us any good.

  • http://www.Libertarian-International.org rks
  • Stan1026

    The problem with the movie is that it is being promoted as some sort of articulation of conservatism. That is a problem, because it isn’t. Regardless of how the movie treats the subject, it is still based on the philosophy of Ayn Rand. If it were clearly stated that it was a Libertarian movie, or an objectivist movie or what ever description one might wish to apply other than conservative, there would not be a problem.

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