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An Appreciation: Atlas Shrugged at 60

Sixty years ago this month, Ayn Rand’s monumental novel, Atlas Shrugged, was published. It helped a vast number of people around the world to become advocates of the philosophy of individual liberty and free markets. And remarkably, it is still doing so. 

I'm certain nearly all libertarians can remember fairly precisely when or where they first read it—and sometimes The Fountainhead. I can still remember cutting classes at Stanford for two days as I sat in my room buried in the riveting book. (I am not a speed reader!)

I fondly remember the Atlas Society’s great 50th Anniversary Gala of the book’s publication. I had the pleasure of sitting next to my old friend from way back in the late 1960s, the late great Manuel (Muso) Ayau, the founder of Universidad Francisco Marroquín (UFM) in Guatemala, an outstanding academic institution that describes its mission as being dedicated “to teach and disseminate the ethical, legal and economic principles of a society of free and responsible persons.” I believe The Fountainhead was the book that sparked his interest in the ideas of liberty. And there is a sculpture honoring Atlas Shrugged at the UFM business school.  

Manuel Ayau (left) and David Kelley

Ayau persevered in building a world-famous institution dedicated to teaching liberty in an environment of Marxist terrorism and violence, in which businessmen were constantly threatened with kidnapping or shooting. The late author, journalist, and commentator Jeffrey St. John told me a story about once having dinner at Muso's home with a small gathering of free-market intellectual leaders. He said the long dining table was formally set with all the requisite silverware and wine glasses -- with one necessary addition. Each place setting had a revolver placed at the right hand side of the dinner plate. The threat of terrorism was that omnipresent.

Muso also delighted in collecting jokes portraying economic commonsense as well as socialist nonsense. One of his favorites went as follows:

A government economics minister who was driven to work every morning in a chauffeured limousine would often see a well-dressed young man carrying a briefcase and running behind a bus. He began to watch for this young man and noticed that the pattern was always the same. 

Finally, he became curious enough that one morning, on spotting the runner, he asked his chauffeur to stop and honk at the man. He rolled down the window and waved him over and said: "Young man, I've seen you running behind that bus nearly every day for weeks. What is the problem? Are you a procrastinator and always start to work too late and miss the bus and are frantically trying to catch it, or what?" 

The young man replied: "No. You see, I am working in the city now, but I hope to start my own small business one of these days, so I run to work each day behind the bus and save $2 on every trip. Eventually I will have saved enough to start my business."

The government minister responded: "Oh that will never work. It will take forever. You must try another strategy."

Curious, the young man asked: "And what is that?"

The minister replied: "Oh it's very simple. You must run behind a taxicab and you can save $10 on every trip."

Atlas Libertas, sculpture at the UFM campus

It was also a pleasure seeing both Barbara and Nathaniel Branden at the gala.

I also really love Rand’s much shorter work, Anthem. I think it is a brilliant depiction of the rediscovery of freedom in a collectivist society.

I’m sure all three of these great books will be inspiring freedom lovers another 60 years from now.

Among the many noted people who have been influenced by Atlas Shrugged are Nancy and Fred Cline, owners of Cline Cellars winery in the Carneros region of Sonoma County, California. The Clines had a long struggle in fighting the efforts of the federal government to shut them down for supposedly destroying jurisdictional waters of the United States by planting vineyards on their land. Eventually, after a long and costly fight, the Clines prevailed.  

Nancy remains a great fan of Atlas and on October 9, 2010, when the Clines were holding a gala dinner honoring me and CEI for our work on property rights, the Clines's highway billboard recognized CEI. (As of this writing the Clines' wineries have survived the fires raging all around them.)

(This post has been updated.)