Why the spirit of noble capitalism is still vital today

Article by John Blundell

A gift to a teenager of Atlas Shrugged – a novel with ­capitalist heroes – can be a powerful inoculation against the urge to meddle and redistribute .

The most overtly ­­pro-entrepreneur novel ever written is 50 years old this year. Ayn Rand’s best-selling book, Atlas Shrugged, is not on the reading list of any MBA course in the UK, nor on the syllabus of any British economics degree. Yet Rand’s narrative of heroic capitalists is ranked second only to the Bible as the book that has influenced most people, according to a survey by the Library of Congress (even a film, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, is in preparation).

Rand’s books have sold 23m copies around the world and have had a huge impact. Novels almost universally portray capitalists as crooks, conmen or clowns. Rand disagrees. To her the businessman is a kind of hero, while the public sector is parasitical. She describes politicians’ words as “the leper bell of the approaching looters”.

I had better not spoil the plot of Atlas Shrugged by revealing it here but it echoes Lysistrata’s fable about women withholding sex from their husbands to secure peace and end the Peloponnesian war; in Atlas Shrugged the capitalists go on strike, all creativity atrophies and the world lurches into crisis.

There are many secret and some open apostles of the Rand cos­mology. Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, has said she inspired him. Hans Snook, who launched the Orange mobile phone network in Britain before it was bought by France Telecom, is also a devotee.

As a great reader of profiles of business people, I can attest that her name crops up often. Atlas Shrug­ged is animated by a number of inventions spun from Rand’s imagination in 1957. Some have become reality. She envisaged a metal alloy that was lighter and stronger than steel. Ultrasonic sound has become an applied technique. “Galt’s Motor” is a new type of machine driven by static electricity. She had no scientific claims; but she was ­perceptive. Her point is that all advances are made by accomplished individuals.

Rand termed her philosophy “objectivism” and the core of Atlas Shrugged is John Galt’s speech. It spans 56 pages and is a manifesto for business or capitalism.

In my view she may overstate her case and for a novel there may be too much evangelisation and a dearth of adjectives or jokes. Yet Rand was writing in her second ­language and at a time when virtually all the intellectuals were dedicating themselves to monster “isms” of the 20th century: communism, socialism or fascism. Her purpose was to try to wake up the business class to its primary role.

Rand was not an accountant ­trying to tell a story of balance sheets. She was indifferent to profit and loss, other than how they represented personal autonomy and responsibility.

Her philosophy involves hostility to religion – not the polite indifference some of us exercise. To her, faith is the negation of reason. She also advocated a rather brittle ­sexual liberation. She was not one of nature’s Rotarians or Chamber of Commerce merchants of banality. She did not see businessmen as models of silent propriety there to be milked by the state for all its “free services”, which I take to be the Confederation of British Industry’s world view.

She was born in Russia in 1905, and named Alyssa Rosenbaum. She witnessed the Red Revolution, including the Bolsheviks confiscating her family’s property. She ­graduated from the University of Leningrad and through a series of adventures ended up in Hollywood trying to be a film