Last year I attended an event in Rosario, Argentina to celebrate the 25th year anniversary of the International Liberty Foundation – a classical liberal think tank. The highlight of the event was the presence of Mario Vargas Llosa, Peruvian Nobel Prize winning novelist and arguably Latin America’s most prominent advocate for free market ideas of liberty. During the celebration, Vargas Llosa received the keys of the city of Rosario from a less than enthusiastic councilman who said something to the effect of “while I don’t agree with your ideas, I respect your success.” (To be sure, a very socialist thing to say, ‘I have no idea why you are popular but the fact that you are makes you important to me’). This awkward presentation was followed immediately by one of Argentina’s great classical liberal philosophers who sternly scolded the young councilman “we know who Vargas Llosa is – who the blazes are you?”
It is in this spirit – “who the blazes am I?” – that I will attempt to offer my reflections on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; a feat not even great conservative writers the likes of Whittaker Chambers were able to accomplish with any real insight.
Atlas Shrugged is of course Ayn Rand’s masterpiece and the capstone of her work as both a novelist and philosopher. Everything else that she wrote was either leading up to it, or trying to better explain its ideas. The plot of Atlas Shrugged pits a small group of heroes – the men and women of the mind – against the overwhelming mass of the looters whose dearth of any motive power of their own forces them to seek political power. The heroes decide that their only solution is to go on strike – they refuse to work as slaves. Thus begins the drama that ends the only way possible, in violence.
The criticisms and defenses of Atlas Shrugged are well known. This book is a worldwide best seller read from universities to the halls of power and in dozens of languages. It has become a reference point for ideas of liberty and a lightning rod for attacks. I can offer nothing new in this regard – save perhaps a thoughtful reaction to one; Whittaker Chambers’ assertion, parroted by millions, which states “Its story is preposterous.”
Chambers, and all those who utter the same contention, are wrong.
Let me explain.
The first time I read Atlas Shrugged (I re-read it occasionally – as I am doing now) I was working in Venezuela, during the last half of the first decade of the 21st century. Those were the years when the now-deceased Hugo Chavez was building his political project. I spent the evenings reading a novel written more than a half century before by a displaced Russian immigrant to the United States who had never been to Latin America; and then I would spend the day watching the exact scenarios laid out eloquently in Rand’s ‘preposterous’ book as they played out on the streets and in the government buildings of Socialist Venezuela. It was all there; from the ‘equalization of opportunity’ laws to the regulations restricting production and consumption to the seizures of private industry. From the expropriation and subsequent collapse of the national power grid (blackouts are now the norm) to shortages of basic food and medicine items (it takes days of hunting to find milk and chicken and blood-pressure medication) and on to the ‘accidents’ that are blamed on conspirators and ending in the ‘humanitarian’ handouts of stolen money to prop up other failed states – modern day Venezuela is a picture postcard of Dagny Taggert’s tragic world. Even worse, I saw the country congeal before my eyes into two opposite bands: those who work and expect a just reward for their efforts and those who take, seize, and steal while spitting at those who produce their food and keep their lights on. The latter group was the largest, as it usually is, and – just as they did in Atlas – I watched in horror as they seized the apparatus of the state and the institutions of democracy.
Goaded on by hate, Venezuela’s poor and nouveau rich ‘Chavistas’ then turned on the former middle class ‘opposition’ – using illegal laws, unjust judges and finally outright violence. And, despite the cries of ignorance which will arise when this disastrous experiment is over, everybody has been involved. Those who do not participate directly do so passively by turning a blind eye; making common cause with the regime that sustains their lives through the enslavement of a segment of society. The opposition – more than 2,000,000 of them – did not run to Galt’s Gulch; instead they have fled to the USA, Spain, Australia, Canada, London, Estonia, Dubai and other far-off places.
Read any news article on modern day Venezuela and you can see the results. For those doubters who are left – although you must be few by now – I defy you to find a different interpretation of what has tragically happened in a once modern country turned ‘people’s state’. And if any of you have a greater interest, I have tried in my imperfect way to follow Rand’s footsteps – I wrote about what I saw. “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio: Chronicle of a Bolivarian Revolution” is available in both English and Spanish. I invite you to pick up a copy.
In Venezuela, Atlas has indeed Shrugged.