EDGE: Conservatives and ‘Atlas Shrugged’

How can you tell that conservatives have responded to the Obama presidency by retrenching rather than reflecting? By what they apparently are reading in droves.

The Ayn Rand Institute this week announced that sales of the novel “Atlas Shrugged” by the eponymous high priestess of capitalism have tripled in the first four months of 2009 compared to the same period last year — all but guaranteeing a new annual record to top last year’s benchmark of 200,000.

That this turgid, tedious novel, published in 1957, has continually found fellow travelers on the right is a great oddity of American intellectual life. In his dismissive review of the book, Whittaker Chambers, then at National Review, called it “remarkably silly” and “preposterous” — which no doubt suited Miss Rand just fine.

An exile of the Russian Revolution, she had great admiration for America’s Founders. Her early discernment of the evils of Soviet communism was incandescent. Her criticism of 1960s campus leftism was sharp and merciless.

Yet, like the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, she refused to identify herself as a conservative; the movement’s Eisenhower-era toleration of the welfare state rendered it a dead letter, she asserted.

Nor did she hold with the libertarian label, a seemingly more appropriate category for her belief in the individual’s right to freedom from state coercion. Libertarianism for Miss Rand smacked of free-loving hippies and other assorted moral relativists.

Miss Rand was open about the fact that her self-styled philosophy — objectivism — and her belief in unfettered free markets were profoundly radical.

Then, too, there’s Miss Rand’s strident atheism. If she were alive today, she’d be right alongside Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, railing against the moral perversity that results from belief in a deity.

How well I remember reading, as a boy, a syndicated column by an Ayn Rand Institute representative that defended the “this-worldly” aspects of the Winter Solstice, better known in these parts as Christmas. The materialism of the season, he wrote, was a feature, not a bug.

Conservatives’ embrace of “Atlas Shrugged” today is nothing more than blinkered escapist fantasy — rather like a besieged army turning to Norse mythology or J.R.R. Tolkien to boost morale.

There are plenty of sources to turn to in the resistance against a newly ascendant left-liberalism, from Ludwig von Mises to Milton Friedman to Thomas Sowell. But those authors don’t buck up the rightist reader in quite the same way that “Atlas Shrugged” does.

The utilitarian argument for free markets — that they’re the most efficient means of determining the value of scarce resources and allocating them — is a far cry from the sanctification of capitalism one finds in Randism.

From whom else besides Ayn Rand, for instance, can one find such a full-throated defense of so-called Big Business, which in a 1962 lecture she dubbed “America’s persecuted minority”? Indeed, Miss Rand’s writings are catnip for those who seek to deflect any and all blame for the current economic crisis away from the private sector. Like the airtight religious belief system that it essentially is, Randian capitalism can never stumble or fail — it can only be betrayed.

Responding to fears of a federal bank takeover, David Frum wrote on his Web site NewMajority.com in February: “I wonder, though, if we conservatives understand clearly enough why it is a bad thing. It’s not because we are living through an enactment of the early chapters of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ It’s because the banks are collapsing.”

In September 2008, it was not the titan Atlas whose shoulders were buckling; it was those of government figures such as Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, who were holding the system aloft, however ineptly. (In his memorably limpid assessment of the situation, former President George W. Bush said, “This sucker could go down.”)

American conservatism, broadly speaking, has had a remarkable ability to assimilate the expansion of federal power. Quite from the beginning — from the federal assumption of states’ debts after the Revolution to the Louisiana Purchase to Henry Clay-style “internal improvements” of the nation’s infrastructure on through to the New Deal.

Nevertheless the “irritable mental gestures” of the movement, as literary critic Lionel Trilling famously put it, always lurk on the margins. The political theorist and early National Review-ite Frank Meyer, for instance, spied creeping “totalitarianism” in the federal school lunch program.

The resurgence of “Atlas Shrugged” is another of these mental gestures.

However viscerally gratifying the revenge fantasy of “Alas Shrugged” may feel today — in the novel, heroic captains of industry withdraw from the economy in protest of collectivism — it remains just that: a fantasy.

Only in a novel can capitalist-individualists such as John Galt, the fugitive embodiment of Miss Rand’s ideas and ideals, de-link themselves so dramatically and completely from government and society — “stopping the motor of the world,” as she put it in “Atlas Shrugged.”

Mired in fantasy, intoxicated by legend, embittered in non-reality: This is no way for an opposition party to act.

At least not one that has any hope of relevance or vitality.

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