Ayn Rand: Champion of the Working Class?

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In his libertarian manifesto For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard accused Ayn Rand of being a pawn of corporate people profiting from the welfare state. As evidence that she was out of touch with reality, he cited her famous statement that the businessman is America’s most persecuted minority (Mises Institute edition [388], quoting Rand, “America’s Most Persecuted Minority: Big Business” [1962]; reprinted in Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal).

Objectivism, to the extent that the general public knows anything about it, is often regarded as a rightwing position and can be seen as a boon to efforts to push libertarians into the hand of the Tea Party Right. While this belief is ignorant, the masses do not have a detailed and nuanced grasp of the details of libertarian doctrine, nor should we expect them to. Many people merely adopt a false and shallow impression that libertarians are some type of conservatives who are on the far Right, compared to moderate Republicans. Some left-libertarians, such as I, are very frustrated with the tendency of Objectivism to be classified in this way. The truth about Rand (like the truth about all things) is deeper and more surprising than a first impression would allow. Rand should not be considered a member of the Right. In several important ways, indeed, she resembled a populist leftist.

The middle-aged Rand, still fresh from her own experience of poverty, tended to respect working-class folk more than rich people.

To examine the sense in which she was, historically, a friend of the working class and an enemy of the conservative Right, several things come into focus. First, let us consider Rand herself. She was a working-class woman, and quite poor during much of her adult life. It was only with the sale of the movie rights to The Fountainhead, when she was almost 40 years old, that she achieved significant self-made wealth, which was to last and grow for the rest of her life. To say, then, that Ayn Rand hated the working class and loved the rich would be to assume that she hated herself for many years — something absurdly contrary to her fundamentally self-loving and perhaps narcissistic personality.

Second, Rand always had a particular affinity for working-class people who want to earn their wages instead of relying on the welfare state. For example, Rand pushed to have The Fountainhead movie premiere in a working-class area, saying that she knew her “real audience” was there (Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Anchor Books edition, 212). When the audience in working-class Southern California applauded the movie at its premier, Rand said, “That’s why I like the common man.” The middle-aged Rand, still fresh from her own experience of poverty, tended to respect working-class folk more than rich people.

Third, and perhaps most obvious and also most extremely inconvenient for rightwing libertarians, is the conservative movement’s frequent hatred of Rand, and her counterattacks against that movement during the 1960s. Any disciple of Rand knows what the hateful, anti-Randian sentence “To a gas chamber, go!” means and embodies; for those who don’t, a more extensive knowledge of the history of the libertarian movement is required (for which I recommend Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, one of the best works on the subject). Rand’s hatred of conservatives is undeniable. The title of her essay “Conservatism: An Obituary” (1962, reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal) is self-explanatory. If one goes beyond the title to read the text, one sees that Rand held nothing back. She was full of anger. She once said that liberals seek to enslave the body and conservatives seek to enslave the mind, both conceding freedom to that part of human existence which they care about least. This comment is hardly flattering to the Right.

Fourth, and finally, consider Rand’s signature novels themselves. Of course, all her fans have read them, but few have read carefully. In The Fountainhead, Gale Wynand gets rich by pandering to the stupid masses in his newspapers. In Atlas Shrugged, James Taggart, the major villain, is, among many other things, a rich white male businessman who inherited vast wealth and is the CEO of a major railroad. Is this a character created to praise the rich, a character that rich people should love?

Rand would have seen the working class as a place where many potential John Galts exist.

Or did Rand seek to praise productivity and intellect, not the rich as such? Compare James Taggart to his sister Dagny, a hero of the novel. Dagny is a woman who actually runs, not simply pretends to run, a great railroad. Her role in the novel makes it years ahead of its time in terms of gender equality. Let us not forget that Rand was a woman, and, as such, a living embodiment of the freedom of women to pursue careers, a freedom by no means certain for most women in America during Rand’s lifetime. Most people would regard progressive feminism as a leftist element in Rand. The creator of Galt’s Gulch, the Utopia in Atlas Shrugged, is fairly prosperous in the Gulch itself, but in “our world” he is a mere day laborer who lives in poverty — and that’s where he lives during most of the book. It is easy to connect the dots and assume that Rand would have seen the working class as a place where many potential John Galts exist. One of the basic messages of the novel is that our world would condemn all such people to a meager existence.

Murray Rothbard despised the big business Right (at least before his “paleolibertarian” phase); I believe that Rand did as well. Contemporary conservatives may exploit Rand’s ideas, just as they exploit so many other ideas, both economic and philosophical; but that’s no reason for working-class libertarians and left-libertarians not to embrace Rand as one of their own.




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Nathaniel Branden, R.I.P.

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On February 22, a memorial will be held in Los Angeles for Nathaniel Branden. Branden (1930–2014), a close associate of Ayn Rand during the writing and initial success of Atlas Shrugged, remained a brilliant interpreter of her philosophy and a strong influence on libertarians and individualists. He was also a controversial and perennially interesting personality.

Old friends of Rand and Branden have had much to say about him. Liberty asked two younger friends to comment, the writers Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian.

Garin:

A half century ago, when he was a student at UCLA, Nathaniel Branden wrote a letter to Ayn Rand. Many years later, when I was a student at UCLA, I wrote a letter to Nathaniel Branden.

I had discovered Objectivism through my friend Alec Mouhibian. In high school we had read most of Rand's writings. We had read Branden’s writings, too. We had become good disciples, I think, although there are some reports of our arrogance from those years. In the tenth grade we published a political newsletter called "A Dose of Sense."

It was Nathaniel Branden's essay "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand" (and later Barbara Branden’s book The Passion of Ayn Rand) that had alerted us to the possible excesses of our passion. Nathaniel had raised important questions: was there a “principle of benevolence” in addition to the “virtue of selfishness” praised by Rand? Were we guilty, in our endless debates with classmates and teachers, of an “appalling moralism”? Had we become bad and unkind people?

There is a time in life when one is certain of things and then there is a time when one is not, and for me and Alec the transition between those times was marked by Nathaniel Branden and his essay. That is why I had written to him. It was one of the last letters I wrote to anyone from my college e-mail address: rational@ucla.edu.

The following week Nathaniel took me out for a cheeseburger. Some time later, Alec met him, too. And then we met together. I will let Alec finish the story here and to tell you who Nathaniel was for us.

Alec:

When I first met Nathaniel Branden, a full decade ago, I had a good sense of how Ayn Rand felt when he walked into her home for the first time in 1950. What a day that must have been for her! Some writers, if they are lucky, get to see their creations come to life on a movie screen. Rand’s highly idealized, very unrealistic hero stepped right out of the pages of The Fountainhead and through her front door, destined to convert the peculiar genius of her stories into a cultural force that would never die. That is what Rand thought, during the next 20 years of her life, until her disastrous break with him over matters that had little to do with culture.

He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both.

One must talk of movements in a memorial of Nathaniel Branden. He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both. (Movements tend to call for that.) His work with Rand, and his reflections on it, were also vital to the modern libertarian movement. His essay, “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand,” offered all aspiring martyrs for liberty a priceless, personal account of how a passion for ideas can become a slavery to ideas, if one forgets the more mysterious values of human life.

Like so many people over the years, I had a strong desire to meet Nathaniel Branden, and in 2004, at the age of 19, I was lucky enough to get the chance. I was introduced by my comrade Garin Hovannisian, who had written about Nathaniel and subsequently met him for a cheeseburger. I showed up at his front door without a cheeseburger, but with many, many questions to ask. I asked him about Rand, of course, and I asked him about Iraq, torture, the meaning of death. We even discussed some dark subjects, like self-esteem and sex.

There is a reason the Q&A sessions after Nathaniel’s public talks invariably set off a stampede to the microphone, with brutal consequences for anyone in the audience who had forgotten to wear steel boots. Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small. I asked him everything on my mind that afternoon. Most of all I longed to know, not disinterestedly, how he had recovered from that glorious time when he once knew everything. Our conversation itself was his answer, not that I fully appreciated this at the time. We parted on warm terms.

Who was Nathaniel Branden? Objectivist, psychologist, therapist, or God forbid, “public intellectual” — none of these labels, in my view, measure up. Ideologues, even good ones, tend to be transparent and predictable, whereas Nathaniel remained a mystery to adversaries and admirers alike. I myself have tritely attempted to liken him to a character in a novel, for I believe that a profound love of liberty, and that elusive ideal of objectivity, were alive and pure in his soul. One of the last times I saw him was at a screening of the first Atlas Shrugged movie. Barbara Branden, his former wife and eternal friend, was also present, and there was nothing trite at all about how exhilarated they were by the long-delayed illustration of their early intellectual dreams. The poem had survived.

Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small.

When news of Nathaniel’s final illness began to surface, Stephen Cox, a longtime friend of his, wrote this about the ever-surprising question of influence: “We literally do not know what we are doing.” An unexpected epitaph for a man dedicated to rationality, and also a perfect one. Nathaniel Branden was ultimately a monk of the mind, whose thoughts, like the prayers of a religious monk, performed wonders far beyond what anyone could track.




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No Regrets

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Every year at about this time, Liberty’s Entertainment Editor, Jo Ann Skousen, produces a film festival in Las Vegas, in conjunction with the big gathering of libertarians and libertarian conservatives known as FreedomFest. Jo Ann is an expert at many things, but she can’t be a producer and a reporter at the same time, so I’ll poach on one of those territories and report on some things I witnessed in connection with this year’s Anthem, which happened on July 9–12.

One was Part 3, the final part, of the Atlas Shrugged movie, which will begin its public, theatrical run on September 12.

My impression was: not bad. Very good in many parts. None of the characters was cast in the way I would have done it; I would have made them look just like the people in the book. But good characters have more elasticity than that. In the tricky role of John Galt we have Kristoffer Polaha, who looks exactly like the dark, hunky, American boy you’d see in a truck commercial. Odd, but it’s possible and he makes it work. He even has a sense of humor. Laura Regan, as Dagny Taggart, is fine when she’s a bossy railroad executive; but when she’s a woman discovering Galt’s Gulch or being in love with John Galt, she’s commonplace, with the irritating whine that many commonplace women put in their voices these days.

These filmmakers don’t believe in just anything; they are attached to specific stories of specific people who are trying to be free.

The screenplay is more than competent, although strong deductions must be made for the overuse of a voiceover telling you what’s been happening to the country while the main characters are having their conversations and love affairs. The device is obviously appropriate for a story of this length and complexity, but I thought I saw more visual effects in Part 1 than in this part, and there need to be more. I wish the budget had provided for them, although I’ve got to say that the torture of John Galt is much more effective in the movie than it is in the book.

What about the Speech? Story consultant David Kelley, who’s a smart guy, noted with some satisfaction that 33,000 words had been cut to 600. How? By “dropping from the speech what wasn’t foreshadowed in the movie.” In other words, by cutting what wasn’t directly relevant to the action. Fine with me.

A very interesting preview. But as interesting to me, for some of the same reasons, were the films on themes of liberty that were entered in the festival by small independent filmmakers. By “small,” I don’t mean “narrow” or “unimportant.” I mean done on small budgets. These filmmakers are important. They are volunteers in the first line of defense of small (i.e., also on small budgets) Americans like you and me.

Here’s Sean Malone, who’s come out with a film called No Vans Land, which is about how commuter vans are illegal in a lot of places. And Drew Tidwell, who has lots of distinguished movie and TV experience and who once made a movie inspired by Leonard E. Read’s famous I, Pencil (the movie’s called by the same name), which is about how everyone who uses even such a simple thing as a pencil should understand how much capitalism is involved in the multitude of processes necessary to make it. Now he’s the producer of a film called Empire State Divide, about people in southern New York who want to enrich the state by extracting natural gas from their land, but aren’t allowed to do so. And a charming couple, Dean and Nicole Greco, who made 100 Signatures, a film about the ways in which various states render it virtually impossible to run for office unless you’re nominated by one of the two major parties.

I asked the Grecos who did what on their film, and Dean replied, “We filmed it, wrote it, edited it, everything.” Fortunately, they finished it in October, because their daughter Andie (who made no comment but seemed happy to be with us) arrived in November. Nicole was once a TV newscaster, directed by Dean, but they decided to go out and make this film “to be helpful to mankind.”

That’s pretty much the story I got from the other moviemakers, too. But it was never the vague, general “I want to help” that becomes so difficult to hear when the community-servers and program-pushers use it. At Anthem the desire to help always had a local habitation and a name. “What keeps you going?” I asked Sean and Drew. Drew answered, “I believe in these projects,” and Sean answered, “I believe in the stories.” Each nodded at the other’s answer. They don’t believe in just anything, or in the vast generalizations that too many libertarians clutch to their bosoms; they are attached to specific stories of specific people who are trying to be free.

The libertarian and libertarian-conservative filmmakers have one hell of a time raising just the minimum amount of money required to cover their costs.

One person I spoke with — Kels Goodman, maker of a not so fictional film called The Last Eagle Scout, which is “about how government tries to shut down the Boy Scouts” — saw it as a warning about an imminent future, “a what if?, not 1000 years in the future but the next stage of the political correctness we have now.”

Of course, government has all the resources, and it’s a ratchet effect: the more money and power it takes, the more it has to maneuver us into letting it take more. The libertarian and libertarian-conservative filmmakers have one hell of a time raising just the minimum amount of money required to cover their costs. And besides the money, there’s the rejection. It has insidious effects. As Nicole said, “it creeps up in weird ways.” You have to believe in a story a lot to keep coming back after being rejected by donors, film festivals, distributors, everyone but yourself. The people I talked to emphasized that. They didn’t like it. But they took it. And they responded by providing even more of their own energy and cleverness, and their money, if they still had any.

One person who had money was John Aglialoro, producer of Atlas Shrugged. When asked about the financing of the movie’s three parts, he said: “Part 1, $10 million, all by me. Part 2, $20 million, five by me. Part 3, $10 million, two-thirds by me.”

It’s a symbol of the libertarian movement. If you want to do something, you’ve got to do it yourself. Might be fun, though. Nobody expressed any regrets.




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The Apple of Knowledge and the Golden Rule

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Russell Hasan is an author who has contributed a good deal to Liberty. Now he makes a contribution to liberty itself, in the form of two extensive monographs: The Apple of Knowledge: Introducing the Philosophical Scientific Method and Pure Empirical Essential Reasoning, and Golden Rule Libertarianism: A Defense of Freedom in Social, Economic, and Legal Policy. Both works are available online, at the addresses that follow at the end of this review. And both are very interesting.

I’ll start with The Apple of Knowledge, which itself starts with an account of the author’s quest for wisdom. He did not find it in the lessons of professional (i.e., academic) philosophers, who venerated the counterintuitive claims of earlier professional philosophers, often echoing their conviction that objective truth could not be found. The author turned to the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, but found that “it was truly a political philosophy, and not a rigorously reasoned system of metaphysics and epistemology. Rand’s ideas seemed clever and useful, but they contained contradictions and holes and gaps.”

So, as an intellectual entrepreneur, Hasan decided to see whether he could solve crucial philosophical problems himself. That’s the spirit of liberty.

He states his agenda in this way:

The six problems that this book will solve are: 1. Induction, 2. Consciousness, 3. Knowledge, 4. The Scientific Method, 5. Objectivity, and 6. Things in Themselves.

Hasan believes that these problems can be solved by his versions of “(1) the philosophical scientific method, and (2) pure empirical essential reasoning.”

What does this mean in practice? It means a rejection of dualism and radical skepticism, a reasoned acceptance of the world as empirically discovered by the healthy consciousness. An example:

When you look at this book and say “I am looking at this book, I am reading this book, I am aware of the experience of this book,” and you wonder about what it means to be conscious and to have an experience and to see this book, the only things in the picture are two physical objects, (1) this book, which physically exists and is the thing that you are experiencing and are conscious of, and (2) your brain, which is the consciousness that experiences and is aware of the book by means of the perceptions and concepts in your brain. Similarly, when you see a red apple, the red apple itself is the red that you see, and your brain is the subject which perceives that object and is aware of that object. Nowhere in this picture is there a need to deny that consciousness exists. We need not deny that you really see a red color. We need not deny that you are aware of an apple. And there is also no need to believe in ghosts or non-physical souls as an explanation for your being aware of an apple and seeing its red color.

As this example suggests, Hasan has an admirably clear style throughout. His clarity may also suggest, erroneously, that the problems he addresses are easy to solve, or that he deems them easy to solve. They aren’t, and he doesn’t. For every statement he makes there are time-honored quibbles, evasions, and yes, real challenges. The enjoyment of reading through this fairly long book comes from following Hasan’s own path among the challenges, assessing his arguments, and finding out how many of those arguments one wants to buy.

To this process, a statement of my own ideas can add no particular enjoyment. For what it’s worth — and it isn’t directly relevant to Hasan’s essential concerns — his grasp of Christian and biblical theology could be much stronger. Here’s where the dualism that he rejects asserts itself despite his efforts; he tends to see Christian ideas (as if there were just one set of them) as dualistically opposite to his own: Christians are against the world, the flesh, and the devil, while he is heartily in favor of the first two, at least. But it’s not as simple as that. “World” and “flesh” can mean a lot of things, as a concordance search through St. Paul’s epistles will illustrate. You don’t need to believe in God to recognize the complexity of Christian thought. (And, to digress a bit further, “666” didn’t come “from ancient confusion between the Latin word ‘sextus’ which means six and the Latin word ‘sexus’ which means sex.” No, it originated in the biblical book of Revelation [13:18], and it’s a code term, probably for “Nero.”)

It makes no difference whether you’re smarter or richer than I am, because it requires the same effort — that is, none — for both of us to leave each other alone.

About the philosophical problems that Hasan treats I can say that he usually appears to make good sense — very good sense. His education in the objectivist tradition is evident; his respect for the real world — which is, after all, the world that all philosophy is trying to explain — is still more evident. Both are valuable, and essential to his project. Indeed, Apple of Knowledge can be viewed as a particularly interesting and valuable addition to the objectivist tradition of philosophy that begins with Ayn Rand.

Golden Rule Libertarianism is an exposition and defense of a variety of radical libertarian ideas — about victimless crimes, war and peace, government intervention in the economy, and so on. Few libertarians will be surprised by the results of Hasan’s inquiries in these areas — but what does “Golden Rule Libertarianism” mean?

This represents what I take to be a new approach, though one that is nascent in the libertarian concept of the great “negative right,” the right to be left alone. From this point of view, it makes no difference whether you’re smarter or richer than I am, because it requires the same effort — that is, none — for both of us to leave each other alone. The Golden Rule, most famously enunciated by Jesus but, as Hasan points out, hardly foreign to other religious and ethical teachers, yields a more “positive” approach. “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Yet nobody wants his neighbor to do certain things — to prohibit him from speaking or publishing his views or sleeping with whomever he wants, even on the pretense of helping him. In this sense, the Golden Rule turns out to be just as “negative” as libertarians could wish. As Hasan says in one exemplification of his theory:

if you let me be free to make economic decisions, including what wage to pay and at what price to buy services from other people, then I will give you the same freedom to make your own choices instead of me making your choices for you.

There is a pragmatic dimension to this. In case you are wondering whether letting everyone be free to make his or her own decisions would leave the poor in the lurch, or, to vary the metaphor, in the clutches of an exploitative capitalism that the poor are not capable of turning to their own advantage, Hasan adds:

The best thing you can do for me is to get the government out of my way and let me be free, because capitalism helps the poor more than socialism.

Libertarians understand this, and Hasan provides plenty of reasons for everyone else to understand it too. His book will be valuable to nonlibertarians, because there is something in it for every interest or problem they may have. As he says, in another exemplary passage:

The liberal concern for civil liberties, e.g. my freedom to write atheist books, and the conservative concern for freedom from regulation, e.g. my freedom to buy and sell what I want on my terms, is really two sides of the same libertarian coin, because if the government claims the right to be the boss of your beliefs then it will soon usurp the power to be the boss of your place in the economy and take total control over you, and if the government is the boss of the economy then it will inevitably take over the realm of ideas in order to suppress dissent and stifle criticism of the economic planners.

I believe that Hasan is right to pay particular attention to what he calls “the coercion argument,” which is one of the strongest ripostes to libertarian thought. It is an attempt to argue against libertarian ideas on libertarian grounds. The notion is that if I leave you alone I permit someone else to coerce you. As Hasan says,

Some version of the coercion argument underscores a great deal of anti-libertarian sentiment: poor people will be coerced into selling their organs and body parts, which justifies denying them the right to do so. Poor people are coerced into accepting dangerous, low-paying jobs such as coal mining, or are coerced into working long hours for wages that are lower than what they want. They are coerced into buying cheap high-fat fast food, or are coerced into buying cheap meat, packed at rat-infested plants, and so on. The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

Hasan’s insight into the legal history and ramifications of the coercion argument is enlightening:

An example of the grave seriousness of the coercion myth is legal scholar Robert Lee Hale’s famous law review article “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State” (1923). Hale brainwashed generations of law students with his argument that capitalist employers exert coercion upon workers, and socialism would not produce more coercion or less freedom than capitalism.

This is a powerful myth, but Hasan has little trouble refuting it. Others are yet more formidable; I would be surprised, however, if even a hostile reader could emerge from a serious consideration of Hasan’s arguments without admitting serious damage to his or her own assumptions.

For libertarian readers, the fun is in seeing what Hasan will do with various popular topics of libertarian discourse — natural rights versus utilitarianism, racial discrimination, gay marriage, an interventionist versus a non-interventionist foreign policy, privatization of education and banking, disparity of wealth, etc. Even well-informed libertarians will be surprised, and probably grateful, for many of the arguments that Hasan adduces.

Hasan is one of the few questioning occupational licensing, which exacts immense costs from society, and especially from the poor, who must pay dearly for even the simplest services.

I was such a reader — and for me, the book gained in stature because I did not always agree with it. For me, libertarianism is more a matter of experience and less a matter of moral logic than it is for Hasan; but even within the large area of our philosophical, or at least temperamental, disagreement, I found myself admiring his intrepid and intricate, yet nevertheless clear and cogent progression of thought. I suspect that anyone who shares my feeling for the great chess match of political economy will share my feeling about this book.

Not all of Hasan’s many topics can possibly be of intense interest to everyone, but that’s just another way of saying that the book is rich in topics. My heart rejoiced to see a chapter on the evils of occupational licensing — a practice that virtually no one questions but that exacts immense costs from society, and especially from the poor, who must pay dearly for even the simplest services of licensed individuals. And I was very pleased to see Hasan take on many of the most sacred cows of my fellow academics.

One is game theory. Readers who are familiar with game theory and with the part of it that involves the so-called prisoner’s dilemma know that for more than two decades these things have been the favorite pastime, or waste of time, among thousands of social scientists. (If you ask, How can there by thousands of social scientists? or, Why don’t they find something better to do?, see above, under “occupational licensing.”) The tendency of game theory is to deal with people as objects of power, not subjects of their own agency. Its effect has often been to emphasize the statist implications of human action. Hasan cuts through the haze:

The specific refutation of Game Theory and the “prisoner’s dilemma” is that the solution is not for the group to impose a group-beneficial choice onto each individual, it is for each individual to freely choose the right choice that benefits the group. If the benefits of the supposedly right, good-for-the-group decision are really so great, then each individual can be persuaded to freely choose the right, optimal, efficient choice.

My advice is to get the book, which like the other book is available at a scandalously low price, read the introductory discussion, then proceed to whatever topics interest you most. You may not agree with the arguments you find, but you will certainly be stimulated by the reading.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Apple of Knowledge: Introducing the Philosophical Scientific Method and Pure Empirical Essential Reasoning," and "Golden Rule Libertarianism: A Defense of Freedom in Social, Economic, and Legal Policy," by Russell Hasan. 2014.



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The Mystics of Magic and the Mystics of Science

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In John Galt’s climactic speech in Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand describes two foes of capitalism, the “mystics of the spirit” (or, as Rand also put it, “witch doctors”), who promote religion, and the “mystics of muscle” or “Attilas,” that is, especially, the communists, who are atheists and promote Marxist materialism as the antidote for religion. What gets lost in a lot of libertarian theory is the fact that, to take Rand’s idea and expand on it, people who believe in rationality, science, and technology are not necessarily friends of liberty. Indeed, precisely the opposite is often true. Some of capitalism’s most vicious enemies have come from the ranks of scientists and technologists.

Two types of mystics do exist — whom I prefer to call the mystics of magic and the mystics of science. The latter are my main subjects here.

I am an atheist. Not only do I not believe in God, but I am also of the rather abnormal (but increasingly popular) sentiment that the proposition “I know that God does not exist” can be rationally justified, i.e., atheism is knowledge and not mere belief. However, many of the people who share my view go in the opposite direction and elevate science into a new religion. Here I refer not to the cult of Scientology but to the scientific atheism of, for example, famous philosophy professor Daniel Dennett.

Let me offer two examples.

First, in a Facebook group that discusses philosophy I recently saw someone say something like this: “bitterness and sweetness do not exist, what exists is atoms and void, and sweetness is an illusion.” This assertion was provided as a scientific approach to philosophy, but it manifests a desire to transform science into a new religion, a mysticism of science. Such a religion would depict the world you and I perceive as an illusion. Instead of saying that access to the hidden truth of reality is revealed by God and the Bible, the mystics of science say that revelation comes from reading science textbooks and scientific journals and knowing the results of experiments and research studies.

Some of capitalism’s most vicious enemies have come from the ranks of scientists and technologists.

Mystics of science love to talk about how neurobiology has figured out all the ways that the human brain is flawed and perceives illusions. Yet, as I explain in my book The Apple of Knowledge, the truly scientific attitude is that the sweetness of an apple does exist objectively in reality, in that the apple’s sweetness, and the apple itself, which physically exists in objective reality, are one and the same thing. The apple’s sweetness is what that collection of atoms tastes like when it acts as a whole upon the tongue’s taste buds. In other words, qualia exist, but they are not subjective; instead the experience of something that physically exists is identical with that thing in itself, because the brain’s means of perception do not alter or create the objects that are perceived. (This is the tip of iceberg, and I needed 400 pages in my book to explain what I mean; the theory is fully developed there.)

The mystics of science would reply that I am ignorant of the fact that taste comes from smell and not from taste buds, so the taste in the mouth must be an illusion. To this I reply that these hate the idea that human beings have direct access to knowledge of objective reality. I say that we can know what an apple tastes like by eating it; the idea that we cannot know, that sweetness is an illusion — this is sheer mysticism. In my opinion, these mystics of science are far worse than the mystics of magic, because at least the religious mystics are open and honest in their commitments.

Second, Daniel Dennett, a popular advocate of the movement called “New Atheism,” has expressed a position that I call “biological relativism.” This, basically, is the idea that reality looks the way it does because the human body and human sensory organs evolved in such a way that we humans experience this world of our experience. He has actually said that apples look red because the human brain evolved to sort edible objects by color, so that redness comes not from the apple but from the evolution of the human digestive system as expressed in the human brain’s hunger regions. This means, ultimately, that the sky is blue because blueberries are blue. (See Dennett, Consciousness Explained [1992].) If that is true, then the world we experience is entirely relative to perception, is completely subjective, and is a creation of the human brain. This, to me, means that access to objective existence is impossible, since we could never get outside our brains to see reality as it exists objectively.

The only thing about Dennett’s idea that is scientific is the allusion to evolution and the brain. In every other respect it is mysticism, because it denies the possibility that human beings have direct access to objective reality by means of perceiving the external world. Taking my cue from Rand, I dispute any position which defends that idea, considering it not only false but unscientific. The experience of an apple’s redness and the physical reality of the apple are identical, not such that the apple itself is subjective, but such that the experienced apple is objective. Redness exists in physical objects and is not a subjective creation of the eyes, despite all objections from the mystics of science, who would lecture me about the workings of the retina, the optic nerve, and the occipital lobe. Mystics of science might say that the depth and length we perceive are illusions because our brains and eyes process the data subjectively — despite the fact that measurements of space and time recorded by scientific instruments are accurate and objective, e.g. a building could be 100 feet long but our eyes cannot see this clearly.

The mystics of science hate the idea that human beings have direct access to knowledge of objective reality.

Kant once helped to save religion from science by persuading people that the experience of reality is subjective and knowledge comes from intuition. Dennett, in the name of science, simply buys into this Kantian error. To me, if reality is subjective, then wishes and thoughts can control it, which is a religious worldview that tells people to seek to change their lives through the power of prayer. In contrast, if reality is objective, then it exists outside the mind, in which case science and technology are the correct approach to improving human existence, and Francis Bacon’s maxim “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” is justified because the mind must obey reality in order to succeed. A true philosophical science says that we must learn about reality by observing the external world, instead of trying to use our minds to impose subjective phenomena onto reality. (Again, these are complicated ideas that cannot be presented in one short essay, but I try to explain it fully in The Apple of Knowledge.)

Now let me explain why atheism has very little to do with libertarianism and, contrary to Rand’s assertions, why there is no direct correlation between rationality and freedom. This is obviously true because, historically, the Marxists were (mostly) atheists, and the conservatives who have fought against socialism in America are (mostly) Christians. For one poignant case study, note that the famous science fiction author H.G. Wells was a notorious socialist, as were many men of science of his era. The trend continues to this day, as antisocialists tend to be religious, and socialists and modern liberals tend to be secular.

In The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek tried to explain why men of science tend to be socialists. He argued that scientists seek order and patterns in reality, and this leads them to try using government to impose their ordered plans and schemes onto society; this is a recipe for socialism, especially in the context of the Hayekian belief that freedom is consistent with an order spontaneously emerging from chaos. Just as a scientist might want to design a new plan for a car engine to improve fuel efficiency, a scientist might also want to design a new plan for an economy to improve allocations of wealth. The problem is that a car engine is a mindless tool, whereas an economy is a collection of thinking human beings, each with his or her own plans, standards of “improvement,” and rights to life, liberty, and property. Many of the bosses at the American government’s regulatory agencies are scientists or technologists with advanced degrees, and many of the nonscientists have degrees in economics and mathematics. The EPA’s regulators are often experts in the science of the environment and pollution, and therefore knowledgeable in chemistry, metallurgy, engineering, physics, etc. But their science does not dispose them to become libertarians.

Being a scientist, or being rational, or being an atheist, has very little to do with political support for freedom. If any group has been more responsible than others for saving America from a descent into total communism, it is the conservative movement, which is fueled by a belief, one which I think on its face is irrational and crazy, that God supports capitalism and the Bible demands that the American patriotic tradition of free market economics be defended. As Hayek has noted in his essay “Why I am Not a Conservative,” the conservatives love capitalism not chiefly because of any of its virtues but only because it is the old, established, traditional system in America. This attitude is not particularly intelligent or rational, but it achieves a practical result — the defense of liberty by a vast portion of the American voters. To cite only one example, the Tea Party in the House of Representatives, backed by the Tea Party conservatives, has done much to stop Obama’s socialist agenda, although there was little it could do to repeal laws that were already passed, such as Obamacare.

Without much exaggeration it can be said that, absent the conservatives, you would not be able just to go to a coffee shop and buy a cup of coffee. Instead, the atheist Marxist central planners, chosen by Obama and his cronies, would assign your beverages to you, just as they want to assign your healthcare to you, and you would drink carrot juice instead of coffee whether you wanted to or not, and see the end of a soldier’s gun if you tried to escape from the socialist plan drinking. You owe your freedom to the Bible, at least to some extent, whether you like it or not.

Being a scientist, or being rational, or being an atheist, has very little to do with political support for freedom.

The best defense of liberty, which most libertarians ignore or are ignorant of, is a Biblical idea, the Golden Rule. This principle of ethics asserts that you should do unto others as you would have others do unto you. In Golden Rule Libertarianism (Hasan [2014]), I argue that the Golden Rule’s implementation in politics is, and can only be, libertarianism: if you desire the freedom to do what you want, you must let me have the freedom to do what I want; but if you force me to obey you, I will be justified in forcing you to obey me, which you cannot possibly want.

In short, the hatred of religion that is felt by some libertarians, especially those who entered the movement through Ayn Rand (but also, to some degree, through Murray Rothbard) is misplaced. If Rand’s “mystics of muscle” idea is taken seriously, then there is a basis in her texts for opposing the mystics of science as fiercely and ardently as we oppose the mystics of magic.

Works Cited

Hasan, Russell. The Apple of Knowledge. Norwalk, Connecticut, Russell Hasan Books, 2014.
Hasan, Russell. Golden Rule Libertarianism. Norwalk, Connecticut. Russell Hasan Books, 2014.
Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom. Routledge, London. The University of Chicago Press, 1944
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York, New York. Random House, 1957.




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Barbara Branden, RIP

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Two weeks ago I received a message from Barbara Branden expressing joy that her book, The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986), was now available as an ebook, with a new introduction by her. Nice going! I thought, to have a book in print for 27 years, and to be reintroducing it today, in a form of publication unknown when the book was written.

In her 84 years, Barbara herself passed through many forms and editions, without ever losing her essential being, or her essential spunk. When very young, she and her former husband Nathaniel Branden became acquainted with Ayn Rand — first as inquirers into the philosophic and literary work of an author who was not, at the time, particularly well known; then as virtual family members, the innermost of Rand’s inner circle; then as Rand’s chief publicists; then as her first biographers (Who Is Ayn Rand? [1962]); then as disillusioned former disciples (1968).

Now here is the very unusual thing: both Barbara and Nathaniel repudiated their absurdly flattering and credulous biography and many of the fanatical conclusions that their mentor had derived from her libertarian and Objectivist premises, but they didn’t throw the accomplishments out with the failures. They kept investigating and publicizing the best parts of Rand, her true intellectual accomplishments. And in 1986, Barbara produced the first real biography of her former friend, a work that demonstrated she could not only admire but also distinguish what was worthy of admiration. She showed where her earlier biography had gone wrong, and she had a lot to say about where she herself had gone wrong during the time when she wrote it. No maudlin emotions, no spite was expressed — but a great deal of gratitude for the true things Rand taught.

Very few authors ever repudiate anything they’ve written; even fewer repudiate their writings in a candid and discriminating manner. And very few libertarians or Objectivists have ever possessed the charm, the personal persuasiveness of Barbara Branden. I sometimes think that there would be millions more libertarians if there were only a few more people able to speak like Barbara. She was never interested in rhetorical victories or smart remarks (though she did have a taste for ironic epigram); she was interested in stating a case clearly and smoothly (no “ums” allowed). She succeeded, both in private and in public.

Barbara was a prize speaker at libertarian events, but I can tell you that she was also an excellent listener, one of the best listeners I have ever known among ideologically inclined people. She didn’t debate; she didn’t spar for intellectual advantage; she didn’t pretend to know what she didn’t know; she asked questions, acknowledged contrasting ideas, made suggestions, said things like “I hope you’re right,” and smiled with joy over the human fellowship that real conversation brings.

Very few libertarians or Objectivists have ever possessed the charm, the personal persuasiveness of Barbara Branden.

Memories. I remember sitting on the big couch in Barbara’s apartment in Los Angeles, while she took a day to help me with the research I was doing for The Woman and the Dynamo, my biography of Isabel Paterson. Rand was Paterson’s disciple, and Barbara was Rand’s disciple, and now Barbara was helping me, the latter-day disciple of Paterson. She was completing one of the many circles that libertarians needed to complete. When my book came out, Barbara received it with pleasure, despite the different interpretations it presented of some important things in her own book. Another author would have resented them; she assuredly did not.

I remember attending the party that preceded the auction of some of Rand’s papers, at Los Angeles in 1998, talking with Barbara, and watching her pose for pictures with Nathaniel. She didn’t pretend not to cry; not all the cycles of her life had been pleasant for her, although she was happy to see this particular cycle returning on an upward curve. She did not cry when I talked with her on the phone while she was recovering — oh, this was many years ago — from a cancer that could have claimed her life. I called, fearing to find her at death’s door. Not at all! Her voice was a little weak, but her spirit was confident. “I am learning,” she said, “not to be a cancer-prone person.”

I remember Barbara telling me about the time when she (and Nathaniel, I believe) were arguing with Bennett Cerf, Rand’s publisher, a man known as a modern liberal. “I don’t think that went very deep,” Barbara said. “When we pressed him about the liberal idea that people should sacrifice to help ‘those less fortunate than themselves,’ he finally said, ‘We have to do it, because otherwise they’ll destroy us.’”

I remember looking forward to visiting Los Angeles so I could go with Barbara to her favorite restaurant (a place with “Hamburger” in the name) and hear more of her stories. I remember Barbara’s healthy appreciation for handsome, hunky men. I remember her humor. And I remember her good humor. Some people are born bitter; others have bitterness thrust upon them; Barbara always refused that gift. She was interested in more vital matters.

I remember so many other things about Barbara . . . but how strange it seems to say “remember,” as if she were actually gone. True, she died on December 11, 2013 — in her sleep, after leaving a hospital where she had been treated, apparently with at least temporary success, for a lung ailment. But no one who knew Barbara Branden will believe she is actually gone.

rsquo; he finally said,




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Are Objectivists Also Libertarians?

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The second Atlas Shrugged movie has now come out. Should this be viewed as a cause for celebration within the libertarian movement? Well, to know that we must first answer whether Objectivists are also libertarians. Is Objectivism a part of libertarianism?

Many people who claim to be Objectivists vehemently say No, it is not. My first reaction, on hearing them say that, is to think, “This is preposterous!” But it is hard to “answer” the question, because there is so much political and intellectual baggage caught up in it. In order to say “Objectivism is a type of libertarianism” you would need to define the two terms, and definitions vary so much that most people won’t agree on any two you give. And naturally, one doesn’t want to start a fight.

But let me put on my Objectivist hat for a moment and say: “In the next part of this essay I am going to demonstrate that reason and reality say that Objectivism is, in fact, a form of libertarianism, and I will be presenting the objective, neutral honest Truth.”

Here goes.

1. If “libertarian” means “extreme and radical defender of capitalism,” and “Objectivist” means “a follower of Ayn Rand,” then because Rand was an extreme, radical defender of capitalism, all of her true followers must be this type of person also. So all Objectivists are libertarians.

2. If “libertarian” means “a believer in the idea that aggression should never be initiated and violence should be used only in self-defense,” and this thought can be seen at the heart of Rand’s politics (consider the Project X episode in Atlas Shrugged, for example), then she was a libertarian and those who accept her philosophy are libertarians.

3. If “libertarian” refers to a belief that property comes from natural rights and human nature, a belief that mirrors one of Rand’s core beliefs, then the same conclusion can be drawn: she was a libertarian and her followers are also libertarians. Rothbardian libertarianism and Objectivism are like brother and sister, and Rothbard’s anti-Rand play “Mozart Was a Red” was merely a case of brother being mean to sister.

4. If “libertarian” refers to a belief that property rights are practical, pragmatic, and utilitarian, in the tradition of Hayek and Friedman, then yes, on the surface one might say that this is different from Objectivism. But let’s look more closely. The utilitarians say that capitalism will produce wealth and make people happy. Objectivism holds that capitalism is the system for “life on this Earth.” Translation: capitalism will make people happy. Rand bases her ethics on what will work in practical reality, although she takes this practicality and dresses it in the language of strict, almost puritan “morality.” Utilitarians like to say that they will obey whatever idea works best, whether it be capitalist or socialist, but in practice Hayek and Friedman were some of the most passionately idealistic and principled of capitalism’s defenders. Libertarian utilitarians take practicality and mold it into a theoretically consistent ideology based on the idea that capitalism will make people happy. Even in this sense, Objectivism is a type of libertarianism, if interpreted correctly.

5. If “libertarian” refers not to specific ideas but to a historical political movement and that movement’s members, then how can anyone ignore the steady foot traffic from Rand’s novels to the libertarian movement, during at least the past 50 years? This is the reason why It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand was so popular among libertarians. I suspect that an accurate poll of movement libertarians would reveal that at least 25% to 30% are post-Randian Objectivists, which is probably just as many as are Rothbardians or Ron Paul fanatics.

The truth is that the “official” Objectivist movement is a subset of libertarianism that, unfortunately, seeks to exclude and cast out anyone who disagrees with it, in an effort to preserve its ideological purity, which revolves around the quasi-worship of Rand; and that the “unofficial” Objectivist movement is overtly libertarian. Another truth is that many, perhaps most, of the other subsets of the libertarian movement are also obsessed with ideological purity and seek to cast out nonconformers. Anarchists hate minarchists, and vice versa, and some followers of Rothbard and his vision of anarchy are as stubborn as any Randroid. A more detailed account is beyond the scope of this essay, but can be found in Brian Doherty’s history of libertarianism, Radicals for Capitalism.

But all these people, including the Objectivists, are libertarians, whether they like it or not. Any contrary belief is illogical, self-contradictory, and blatantly irrational — precisely the type of thinking Rand preached against, although she herself had a spotty and checkered history of applying her theory of strict rationality in her personal life.

Some Objectivists reason in this form:

  1. Rand defined Objectivism.
  2. Rand said that Objectivists are not libertarians.
  3. Therefore Objectivists are not libertarians.

This sequence of assertions has a remarkable simplicity, of the kind that often appeals to the young. But, of course, the truly Randian thought would be: what matters is not what people believe or say, even about their own ideas; what matters is what exists in objective reality. I couldn’t agree more with this essential Objectivism. And I hope I have selected an appropriate way to provide an “unanswerable” question with an objective and obvious answer.




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The Second Reel of Atlas

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The two questions I have been hearing from my libertarian friends all week are these: Have you seen the new Atlas Shrugged? Is it any good?

My answers are Yes! And Ye-es.

I was invited to attend a posh private screening with the producers in Manhattan two days before the official opening. David Kelley, founder of the Atlas Society (neé the Institute for Objectivist Studies) and script consultant on the film, introduced the screening to a friendly audience of Rand enthusiasts. Esai Morales, who plays Francisco d’Anconia to perfection, also attended. It was a festive event honoring the Herculean efforts of producer John Aglialoro to bring this book to the screen.

As the lights dimmed and the film began, my biggest concern was whether the film could stand on its own merits, despite its being the middle chapter of a three-part story. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the entire cast and director were changed from Part I, making it virtually impossible to use flashbacks for exposition.

I am happy to report that it does indeed work as a standalone film. Three main subplots drive this episode: Dagny Taggart’s quest to uncover the secret of a mysterious engine that could solve the world’s energy crisis; the government’s enactment of “Directive 10-289,” which freezes all employment, wages, and even personal spending at the previous year’s rate, thus making it illegal for anyone to quit, retire, be fired, be promoted, earn less, earn more, or even spend less or more than in the previous year; and the inexplicable, almost spiritual, disappearance of the world’s brightest and most creative thinkers at the hands of a mysterious stranger.

I would love to see a film inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but not wedded to it.

Rand purists will be relieved to hear that the plot remains faithful to the original (almost to a fault). Some lines of dialogue have been inserted intact from the novel, and even the changes made in the name of streamlining remain true to Rand’s intent. Hank Rearden’s speech in front of Congress, in which he defends (or, rather, refuses to defend) his right to determine who will buy the metal he produces, is powerful and thrilling. It should resonate even with viewers who have never heard of Ayn Rand.

A few welcome adjustments have been made in the casting to acknowledge 21st-century racial integration, without drawing special attention to race. Dagny’s assistant, Eddie Willers (Richard T. Jones), for example, is black, but the film places no greater significance on the fact than if he were blonde or brunette. He just is.

Similar updating of the story itself would make this film more accessible to non-Randians. Yes, Ayn Rand loved trains. Without trains, Atlas Shrugged would not be Atlas Shrugged. And yet, for audiences who don’t care one whit about the author of the foundational work, a 21st-century setting in which trains are the primary mode of transportation simply doesn’t make sense. The film’s producers attempt to explain this with a note in the opening credits saying that in the future, trains have become the most economical form of travel, but come on. No one is going to buy that. Train travel is luxurious and impractical, especially in a country as vast as the United States. Cars and planes can go almost anywhere; trains are limited to where the tracks can take them. It’s especially laughable when Dagny travels by herself to Colorado in her private rail car. How could it possibly be more economical for one person to take a train than a car?

Modern audiences will also have a hard time believing that a single man — such as Rearden (Jason Beghe), Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel), Ken Danagger (Arye Gross), and Francisco d’Anconia, could control the entire markets in metal, shale oil, coal, and copper respectively. I think my friends and colleagues, the ones I would like to convince by inviting them to see a film like this, would be able to relate to the story more if the heroes were adapted so as to represent smaller, more sympathetic businesses. I would love to see a film inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but not wedded to it. Such a film would be true to the purpose of the book, but would not be held back by the setting and technology of 60 years ago. Rand set her novel in a dystopian near future; it is disconcerting to find it mired in the technology of the past.

Coincidentally, I happened to see Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People on Broadway the day after I saw Atlas Shrugged II. Several critics have complained about how the language of this classic play has been updated to modern vernacular for this production. I disagreed. Ibsen was a realist. He rejected the larger-than-life heroes and cosmic issues of classic drama to write about everyday people experiencing everyday conflicts. His protagonists spoke in current language about current issues. If he were writing today, he would be using today’s idioms and swear words. So while director Doug Hughes’ version is not true to the language of Ibsen’s play, it is true to the spirit and intent of Ibsen’s play. The result is fast-paced, tense, and very modern.

So YES! I have seen the new film, and I had a great time. And ye-es, it is good, but with some caveats. The story stands on its own. The main points about the sovereignty of the individual are strong and intact. It injects some delicious ironic humor, such as the placard held by a picketer that says, “We are the 99.98 percent!” John Galt is both mysterious and inspiriting — I can’t wait to see what D.B. Sweeney does with the role in the final installment. Exposition is handled deftly, using dialogue to bridge the gaps between Part I and Part II.

But I’m still not pleased with the casting. Diedrich Bader, best known for portraying intellectually challenged characters like Oswald on “The Drew Carey Show,” Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), and Rex Kwon Do in Napoleon Dynamite (2004), draws laughter when he first appears as Quentin Daniels, the scientist working to unlock the secret of the engine. Similarly, Teller (the silent half of Penn and Teller) creates a stir with his small speaking role as Laughlin. Both acquit themselves well as dramatic actors, but they create a distraction when they appear onscreen, pulling audiences out of the scene.

Rand set her novel in a dystopian near future; it is disconcerting to find it mired in the technology of the past.

Far from being cool and sophisticated, the new Dagny (Samantha Mathis) is frumpy, and she lacks chemistry with Rearden. Nor is there any chemistry between Dagny’s brother James (Patrick Fabian) and his new wife Cheryl (Larisa Oleynik), the shopgirl with whom he falls in love, despite their social differences. In fact, none of the characters is particularly passionate, with the exception of Francisco, who moves and speaks with a natural intimacy, and Galt, who manages to inject more charisma and personality with his unseen, offstage voice than Dagny is able to create with all her screen time. Not surprisingly, Francisco and Galt are brought to life by the most seasoned actors of the crew, and it shows.

Despite these shortcomings, Atlas Shrugged II is an admirable work, made more difficult by the rigorous expectations of Rand’s hard-to-please fans. The original score by Chris Bacon is strong, and the special effects are impressive. I applaud the efforts of the producers and all those responsible for the script.


Editor's Note: Review of "Atlas Shrugged: Part II," directed by John Putch. Atlas Distribution Company, 2012, 112 minutes.



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