The Continued Relevance of Ayn Rand's Villains

On Saturday, my parents called to report they had driven an hour into Reno, Nevada, to see Paul Johansson’s adaptation of Atlas Shrugged. Despite the film’s strongly negative reviews, the theater was full. Curiously, this scene was true across the nation this weekend, as the film brought in more than 1.6 million despite only opening in 300 theaters: an average of $5,600 per theater, leaving it behind only the heavily advertised films Rio and Scream 4.

Unfortunately, the quality of this adaptation is representative of its low budget and brief production time. The film meticulously retains the original plot of Rand’s opus, going so far as to lift much of the dialogue directly out of the novel. However, due to the large amount of material being covered, the result leaps through the original plot line in a somewhat disjointed portrayal, which can be difficult to follow. While Johansson is to be commended for finally bringing Atlas Shrugged to cinema after almost 40 years of negotiations, delays, and difficulties, it is disappointing that the end result is not more impressive.

Despite the film’s mediocre quality, its end was met by a surprising response in Reno on Saturday. As the main character, Dagny Taggart, climbs a flame-engulfed hill to be confronted with the destruction of petroleum magnate Ellis Wyatt’s oil fields — the lifeblood of what little remained of the American economy — she screams in terror. The camera pulls away, revealing Wyatt’s parting farewell: “I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It’s yours.”

The crowded theater began to applaud.

While some people of all ideological persuasions, including libertarians, find Ayn Rand’s rather idiosyncratic beliefs and obscure moral code distasteful, the theater’s reaction captures the hidden resonance of her greatest work on grounds she would not have completely anticipated. Indeed, many of the film’s difficulties are less the fault of the director, and more of Rand herself. The primary protagonists of the book are emotionless industrialists, stilted and one-dimensional in their behaviors, thinking only of metal, railroads, and factories.

Atlas Shrugged is compelling, not for its heroes, but for its villains. Published in 1957, Rand’s description of politicians and lobbyists in a time of economic crisis is almost prophetic. These Washington insiders scheme behind closed doors to retain and expand their power. In elaborate press conferences, they attempt to convince the unsuspecting populace of their legislation’s necessity by vilifying productive companies and portraying their own destructive, self-serving designs as being in the interests of the advancement of equality, stability, and progress.

For instance, in Atlas Shrugged, the lobbyist Wesley Mouch decries the capitalist Hank Rearden’s invention of a wonderful alloy that is stronger than steel. And last week, in the real world, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. took to the house floor to declare that Steve Jobs’s iPad was killing jobs. Congress must, according to Jackson, recognize that Apple is driving companies such as Barnes & Noble and Borders out of business, and the company should be stopped in the interests of fairness.

Jackson decried Congress for failing to foster “protection for jobs here in America to ensure that the American people are being put to work.” It’s as if he wanted us to believe the printing press was harmful to the economy because it decreased the demand for scribes. Such a condemnation of a successful business and a demand for protection of failing industries could easily have been lifted directly from Rand’s novel.

However, the similarities are not restricted to a lone Democratic congressman. Similar absurd arguments were bountiful on both sides of the aisle in debates about policies ranging from Obamacare to the bailouts. Americans are directed to believe that if they would just allow the federal government to act in order to prevent further change in the economy, then stability could be restored.

It is this paltry masquerade of politicians feigning action and granting themselves greater power in the name of equality and economic stability that leads Americans to Rand’s story. Indeed, Republicans and Democrats both put on a charade of activity last week, claiming to remedy our nation’s budget woes. Both parties threatened to shut down the government over a series of austerity measures amounting to a final savings of $352 million this fiscal year. That’s $352 million out of budget deficit of approximately $1.6 trillion, or .02 percent of what would be required to actually balance the budget. Politicians bickered over funding for relatively low-cost line items like NPR and Planned Parenthood, all the while ignoring the harsh reality that our public debt is on track to surpass our GDP.

In other words, Republicans and Democrats have managed to mortgage the entire household worth of the United States. Their remedy for this self-imposed tragedy? Grant themselves greater power through increased regulations and rising taxes.

With each repeated failure of federal action to remedy our economic situation, politicians reveal themselves more fully to the American people as nothing but self-serving villains. Their strategy relies on the appearance of action coupled with soaring rhetoric to convince Americans of their good deeds. Meanwhile, these politicians are gambling with our lives and prosperity, risking the well-being of hard-working individuals in thoughtless policies designed merely to secure reelection.

It is due to her apt depiction of these self-serving villains that Ayn Rand’s novel has climbed to number four on the top-sellers list on Amazon and that the film is likely to do far better than its mediocre quality would merit. Americans are growing tired of politicians gambling away their prosperity to preserve their own power. The crowd in Reno applauded as Ellis Wyatt walked away, not because he was some great hero, but because they understood the pain of working tirelessly while a reckless and unproductive government needlessly spends away the results of your labor and rewards your hard work with mounting regulations.

The idea of walking away has become attractive — and indeed, Americans are increasingly leaving the United States for opportunities abroad, with record numbers emigrating to Australia and East Asia.

So long as Ayn Rand’s villains continue to resemble the reality in Washington, the story of Atlas Shrugged will remain popular. The average American may not be a powerful railroad executive or steel magnate, but most believe they are entitled to the fruits of their labor. Many are beginning to realize that their future is being gambled away by politicians whose only risk is losing the votes of the individuals who have lost everything.

J. Patrick Rhamey, Jr.
Whiskey & Gunpowder

April 22, 2011

The Daily Reckoning