Academic journal article Journal of Private Enterprise

Inclusion of Atlas Shrugged in Economics Classes

Academic journal article Journal of Private Enterprise

Inclusion of Atlas Shrugged in Economics Classes

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

In 1957 Ayn Rand published Atlas Shrugged, which has become one of the most popular novels of the past half-century (The Week, 2009). The only book with a focus on economics that has outsold this one is Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. The use oí Atlas Shrugged on college campuses has accelerated as the United States contemplates renewed calls for government regulation, large government interventions into markets, and expanding public programs. The distribution of Rand's philosophy, Objectivism,1 and pro-capitalism ideals has been significantly expanded by the establishment of some 60 university programs with support from the BB&T Foundation (CISC, 2009). In addition, attention is being given in collegiate circles to "Taking the Right Seriously" (Lilla, 2009).

By using a suspense novel, Rand was able to advance certain moral and economic concepts.

Atlas Shrugged demonstrates two economic positions. The first illustrates how entrepreneurs' efforts contribute to economic prosperity. The second details the obstacles that the political process places in the way of innovative activity. In the novel the U.S. economy is in free-fall, and the "prime movers" in the economy go on strike. Motivated by the novel's hero John Gait, the strikers withhold their "grand talents" from an oppressive society, with many ultimately fleeing west to a mountain valley hideout. As Gait stated, each striker chooses "...not to work in his own profession, not to give the world the benefit of his mind" (p.747). For Rand the strike was motivated more by moral positions than economic reasons.

We suggest that several hurdles have limited a broader inclusion oí Atlas S hrugged into economics curricula. We reduce those hurdles by the use of the book as a springboard for economic debate rather than free-market indoctrination. We identify seven major economic areas in which the book provides a more stimulating basis for student inquiry compared to traditional economic texts. Along with Rand's stand and representative scenes from the book, we briefly indicate the counter-case espoused by others. Finally, we give some insights into our own classroom experience in the type of questions students raise while reading Atlas Shrugged and the ensuing vibrant debates.

II. Where does Atlas Shrugged Fit in the Economics Curriculum?

We have used the novel as the primary resource in an upperdivision Comparative Economic Systems course. Through that experience we have gained valuable insight as to how this literary classic can be best utilÍ2ed to broaden students' understanding of fundamental economic issues. Certainly Atks Shrugged contains ideas that are consistent with other accepted economic philosophies and relevant to the problems faced by today's economy. When published, "the Left was appalled by its blatant pro-capitalism; the religious Right rebelled against its rejection of religion" (Berliner, 2009, p.134). As a catalyst for inquiry, the novel enlivens the "dismal science."

There are several barriers to the use of the book in economics classes. One is Rand's emphasis on the moral basis for capitalism rather than traditional efficiency arguments that are found explicitly or subtly (e.g., unfettered markets maximi2e total surplus) in major economics texts. Although Rand's free market approach was quite similar to the economic ideals set forth by Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, the political agenda of libertarians and conservative politicians, Rand distanced herself from alignment with these groups and was often highly critical rather than complimentary of them because of their emphasis on economic efficiency rather than morality (Mayhew, 2005).

Her support of free markets is unqualified on moral grounds. In this regard she differs from economic thinkers dating back to Adam Smith, who favored the market primarily for its efficiency. Like others, Rand sees self-interest as a motivating force for individuals to innovate and respond to demand as expressed by prices. …

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