I am a weak man, which explains why I could not resist clicking on the Bloomberg headline "Ayn Rand, Goddess of the Market, Wrote on Speed, Slept With Protege," even though I knew that learning more about Rand's sex life was likely to be a disappointing experience.
Which it was. But what I didn't expect was that Caroline Baum's review of two new Ayn Rand biographies would leave me not just in a state of arrested prurience but also steaming in befuddled outrage. Baum is generally a pretty good columnist for Bloomberg but her review includes a couple of outright howlers as she tries to explain why the financial crisis has led to a boom in sales for Ayn Rand's classics, "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged."
Sales of Rand's novels soared last year as life began to imitate her art -- specifically the fictionalized world of "Atlas Shrugged." In Rand's final novel, published in 1957, a government desperate to fix a collapsing economy confiscates the wealth of the most productive members of society.
What? Uh, no. In the world I've been living in, Wall Street financiers confiscated the rest of the country's wealth by gambling it away in a craze of greed and speculation. Their inability to properly manage risk led to the collapse of the productive economy, which the government is now desperately trying to fix.
It's not hard to understand why Rand has enjoyed a revival in the past two years. As the U.S. government encroached on the private sector, the Internet was filled with stories of people "Going Galt," a reference to John Galt, the hero of "Atlas," who was the first to go on strike.
As the government encroached on the private sector? Again, it was private sector fumbling that encroached on all the rest of us, to which the government has responded by attempting to pick up the pieces. And the "Internet" may have been full of stories of people "Going Galt" -- but does anyone actually know any member of the productive class who has gone on "strike" to protest government interference in the economy?
The idea that Ayn Rand's renewed popularity is a result of some kind of life-imitates-art recapitulation of the themes of her novels is ridiculous. What's really happening is much easier to explain. When world events conspired to destroy the myth that an unregulated free market is the best way to organize society, the true believers retreated into a shell made from their own hardened ideology. That's why Fox News has higher ratings, and Ayn Rand is selling more books -- because fantasy is more appealing than the real world, when the real world is telling you that what you believe is wrong.