The producers of the new movie version of Atlas Shrugged struggled over how directly they should attempt to tie the story to current events. It turns out they needn't have worried, because events have a way of catching up with the story all on their own.
I was amused to read a blogger's report about going to see Atlas Shrugged at the nearest theater where it was showing: a vast mall built with millions of dollars in government subsidies—which now stands virtually empty. How fitting for a story that shows how government management of the economy is dragging America down into economic collapse. He concludes that the mall is like "a life-sized, 3-D diorama promotional display for Atlas Shrugged."
He understates his case. The whole country is a life-sized, 3-D promotional diorama for Atlas Shrugged. We are all living through a live-action version of the novel.
In Atlas Shrugged, businesses begin moving to Colorado, a state that is denounced as regressive because it has "hardly any government," in order to escape strangling government regulations in their home states. In response, the federal government issues a decree forbidding companies from relocating. Sound fantastical? Last week, in the real world, the Obama administration's National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint demanding that Boeing locate its assembly line for the 787 Dreamliner in Puget Sound instead of Charleston, South Carolina—on the grounds that Boeing should not be allowed to escape the death grip of the unions by moving to a "right to work" state.
In Atlas Shrugged, a brilliant young oilman invents a revolutionary process to extract oil from shale, but even though the country is desperate for energy, he is shut down by government regulations. Science fiction? In the real world, a process called hydraulic fracturing—hydrofracking or just "fracking" for short—is making it possible to extract astonishing quantities of natural gas from shale formations across the country. This promises to revolutionize domestic energy production. But even though the country is desperate for energy, the media and the government are readying a campaign to impose a moratorium on fracking and smother it in its infancy.
In Atlas Shrugged, productive firms are bled dry to provide bailouts for failing companies which produce "unreliable goods at unpredictable times." In the real world, General Motors and Chrysler were bailed out with $80 billion dollars of our tax money so that they could bring us nine of the eleven "Worst Cars on the Road."
In Atlas Shrugged, men of talent and initiative are disappearing and withdrawing from the economy because they refuse to accept punishment for their hard work and ambition. In the real world, legendary ad man and entrepreneur Jerry Della Femina just announced that he has sold his famous restaurant and is withdrawing from all of his other ventures because "I'm just not ready to have my wealth redistributed. I'm not ready to pay more tax money than the next guy because I provide jobs and because I work a 60-hour week and I earn more than $250,000 a year." And to show that art imitates life imitating art, he explains: "So why am I dropping out? Read a brilliant book by Ayn Rand called Atlas Shrugged, and you'll know."
In Atlas Shrugged, the advocates of uncontrolled government keep spending money faster than they can expropriate it from a shrinking number of producers. A chapter later in the novel is titled, "Account Overdrawn." In the real world, S&P has just downgraded the long-term outlook for US government debt, a precursor to downgrading the nation's credit rating. Enough said.
Atlas Shrugged was published more than 50 years ago, and Ayn Rand certainly didn't write it with today's events in mind. But she drew from real-world observations that suggested universal principles. She lived through the Bolshevik takeover in Russia and escaped to America in the Roaring 20s, a period of extraordinary industrial growth and achievement. She then watched in horror as America plunged into the Red Decade and the Great Depression, a permanent "temporary crisis" that was always used as an excuse for the government to grab more power. So when it came to understanding what made America great and what was destroying it, she had plenty of real-life material to draw from.
That's why Atlas Shrugged has been a perennial best-seller that resonates in any era. I remember how I became a convert to Ayn Rand's literature and philosophy. When I first picked up Atlas Shrugged, I read the first 200 pages and put it down, because I thought that her view of the world just wasn't realistic. Then over a period of months, I kept seeing people do or say something that made me think: "That's just like something from Atlas Shrugged." It made me realize that the novel might be realistic after all.
What was this dark, dystopian time that I lived through that made me think Atlas Shrugged was reflected in the real world? It was 1987, during the final years of the Reagan administration—years that seem like a comparative utopia from today's perspective. So I can only imagine what it is like for young people living through today's events.
Around that time, not far from where I grew up, there was a giant warehouse that was half-built and then abandoned by a struggling manufacturing firm. As you drove down I-74 in rural Illinois you could see the unfinished framework of the building, its white-painted girders gleaming like the bleached bones of a dead animal in the desert. At some point, someone had come along and spray-painted on one of those girders a tagline from Atlas Shrugged: "Who is John Galt?"
It was yet another life-sized, 3-D promotional diorama for Atlas Shrugged.