“Read ‘Atlas Shrugged’ … that’s where progressive socialists want to go. They must be stopped.” In case you are wondering, yes, I did audibly laugh out loud when I saw that comment on Facebook. A bleak dystopian future is what everybody wants—handmaids for the right and looters for the left.
I liked “Atlas Shrugged” the first time I read it. The second time, not so much. The characters are flat, lifeless, and unattractive. They’re prone to tiresome monologuing. The Galt’s Gulch oath is all you need to know about them: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” It’s hard to imagine a sadder and lonelier existence.
I’ll grant “Atlas Shrugged” one thing. The book is thought-provoking. However, not all books that cause the reader to think about “big ideas” will necessarily lead them in a good direction.
The World Isn’t Simply ‘Producers’ and ‘Looters’
Ayn Rand’s magnum opus is a morality tale about the conflict between the heroic “producers” and the villainous “looters.” Rand’s “producers” are geniuses who are titans of industry and academia. Her “looters” are pretty much everyone else.
Ongoing national emergencies declared by a complicit government give looters the excuse to siphon off the producers’ valuable contributions until the producers decide to go on strike. It’s a quiet strike, with the producers disappearing one by one. They reconvene in a sort of commune hidden in the Rocky Mountains. It takes more than 1,000 pages to tell the tale. Between little snippets of action, there’s a whole lot of sermonizing.
Whittaker Chambers called it “a massive tract for the times” when he reviewed the book for National Review in 1957, the year “Atlas Shrugged” was published and before it gained cult status. “Its story merely serves Miss Rand to get the customers inside the tent,” he continues, “and as a soapbox for delivering her Message.” He also called it “remarkably silly,” although that’s a bit harsh.
Above all, the book is a treatise on Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, which encourages reason above all else and holds self-interest and personal happiness as the highest pursuits. Aggressive in its atheism, there is no room for God or religion in Ayn Rand’s world.
Rand’s Dystopian Future Is Just Not Believable
This is why I find it so interesting that the book has found a renewed following on the right. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan gave the book to friends and staff members as a Christmas present for many years before distancing himself from it when he ran for vice president in 2012.
The book is an interesting thought experiment in what the world would look like if progressive ideas of government regulation and wealth redistribution were taken to the farthest extreme, but I hardly think it is a demonstration of the world mainstream leftists want.
Some on the far left—way past Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—might find the looters’ policies intriguing. Likewise, some far, far to the right of Vice President Mike Pence might think Gilead of “The Handmaid’s Tale” looks like Utopia. That both sides attribute such dystopian dreams to each other is dramatically ridiculous. Both the “shruggers” and the handmaids should give it a rest.
“Atlas Shrugged” is an unvarnished appeal to selfishness. Galt’s is a world without empathy, a world without altruism. The “Shrugged” universe is a place where the pursuit of productive achievement is the final goal. In our real world, the American Dream feels out of reach for so many. As we become aware of how many of our countrymen are dying of drug overdoses and suicide, Rand’s philosophy feels especially callous and out of place.
Jean Valjean Offers a Better Heroic Model
In “The Conservative Heart: How To Build A Fairer, Happier, And More Prosperous America,” Arthur Brooks asks why Americans don’t find conservative ideas more appealing today. He concludes, “People don’t think conservatives care.” While this perception isn’t borne out by the facts—conservatives give roughly 30 percent more to charity than liberals do—the rhetoric of many conservative leaders and talking heads on cable TV certainly make it sound like they don’t care. The left is perfectly happy to feed this misperception, also, constantly accusing the right of the most horrible desires and plans like running concentration camps and hating people of certain skin colors.
Conservatives would do better to give less credence to Galt and more attention to the hero of an even weightier novel—Jean Valjean of “Les Misérables.” Valjean, recently played by Hugh Jackman in the movie-musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, is the 19th century’s fictional posterchild for criminal justice reform. Clocking in just shy of 1,500 pages, “Les Misérables” is the story of his life’s journey and is one of the most well-known redemption stories.
When we meet Valjean, he has spent the past 20 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving family of seven. Desperate to make a living as an ex-convict, Valjean succumbs to temptation and steals valuable silverware from Bishop Myriel, who had taken him in for the night shortly after Valjean’s release after 19 years in prison.
The Charity Shown in ‘Les Miserables’ Is Inspiring
The bishop not only forgives him but hands him the most valuable things he owns, two heavy silver candlesticks. “You must use this precious silver,” Bishop Myriel croons in the musical, “to become an honest man.” Valjean does.
He eventually dedicates his life to raising Cosette, the daughter of a woman who resorted to prostitution to provide her the medicine she required. He risks his life—and lives his life—for others. Most of Valjean’s actions run in complete violation of Rand’s Galt’s Gulch oath. Those Valjean touches, he undeniably blesses. Valjean’s final words in the musical are “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Truly, this was the life he lived.
What does any of this have to do with the Republican Party? Just this: Valjean is the model of conservatism the GOP should be elevating, not Rand’s heartless industry titans.
An act of charity, which we’ve already discussed is a conservative value, gave Valjean the bootstraps he needed to pull himself up. Due to the charity of Bishop Myriel, Valjean went on to build a business, create jobs, and become mayor of a town. He was a leader and someone the community depended on. He adopted a child and raised her in a loving home.
The government, personified in the character of inspector Javert, didn’t help him. Instead, ruthlessly sought to punish him despite his contributions to the community. Valjean took advantage of the breaks he got, overcame the odds, and built a life through hard work—another conservative value.
In His Actions, Valjean Is More American than He Is French
Americans love a good redemption story. We love to cheer the woman who pulls herself out of poverty through hard work and determination, the young entrepreneur who starts a business in his mom’s garage and turns it into multi-million dollar company, or the felon who spends his incarceration working towards becoming a productive citizen when he gets out of prison.
We view America as a place where our past or the nobility of our bloodlines are not a crucial ingredient nor an impediment to future success. We believe the can-do self-sufficiency of our pioneer forbearers still flows through our collective psyche. Both the right and the left tell these stories as proof of what makes America enticing to people across the world.
Valjean may be French, but we sense that American spirit in him. He is the embodiment of our overcoming stories and our yearning for the freedom to be the best possible version of ourselves. Valjean demonstrates that the conservative principles of hard work, community, and charity hold the key to the American Dream for our fellow citizens.
The world that Valjean creates in “Les Misérables” is a much more compelling vision for the future than Rand’s. If conservatives truly want to build stronger communities and stronger families, they would be best served to admire and emulate a hero who exemplifies those goals.