TOPICS: Atlas Shrugged, 50 years on

When Ayn Rand finished writing Atlas Shrugged 50 years ago this month, she set off an intellectual shock wave that is still felt today. It’s credited for helping to halt the communist tide and ushering in the currents of capitalism. Many readers say it transformed their lives.

A 1991 poll rated it the second-most influential book (after the Bible) for Americans. In addition to founding her own philosophical system, objectivism, Rand is honoured as the modern fountainhead of laissez-faire capitalism, and as an impassioned, uncompromising, and unapologetic proponent of reason, liberty, individualism, and rational self-interest.

But there’s a dark side to Rand’s teachings. Her defence of greed and selfishness, her diatribes against religion and charitable sacrificing for others who are less fortunate, and her criticism of the Judeo-Christian virtues under the guise of rational objectivism have tarnished her advocacy of unfettered capitalism. Still, Rand’s extreme canard is a brilliant invention that serves as an essential counterpoint in the battle of ideas. Must we accept her materialist metaphysics? No, there is another choice. Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics,

may have found that Aristotelian mean in his “system of natural liberty.” Smith and Rand agree on the universal benefits of a free, capitalistic society. But Smith rejects Rand’s vision of selfish independence. He asserts two driving forces behind man’s actions.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he identifies the first as “sympathy” or “benevolence” toward others in society. In his later work, The Wealth of Nations, he focuses on the second — self-interest — which he defines as the right to pursue one’s own business. Both, he argues, are essential to achieve “universal opulence.” Smith’s self-interest never reaches the Randian selfishness that ignores the interest of others. In Smith’s mind, an individual’s goals cannot be fully achieved in business unless he appeals to the needs of others. This insight was beautifully stated two centuries later by free-market champion Ludwig von Mises. In his book, The Anti-Capitalist Mentality, he writes: “Wealth can be acquired only by serving the consumers.”

Smith’s theme echoes his Christian heritage, particularly the Golden rule, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matt. 7:12). Perhaps a true capitalist spirit can best be summed up in the commandment, “Love thy neighbour as thyself” (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39). Smith and von Mises would undoubtedly agree with this creed, but the heroes of Atlas Shrugged — and their creator — would agree with only half.

The golden rule is the correct solution in business and life. But would we have recognised this

Aristotelian mean without sampling Rand’s anthem, or for that matter, the other extreme of Marxism-Leninism? As Benjamin Franklin said, “By the collision of different sentiments, sparks of truth are struck out, and political light is obtained.” — The Christian Science Monitor