Anne Heller on Libertarianism

My interview with was recently published on their website. I discuss five books on Libertarianism. The beginning of the interview here:

Can you define libertarianism?

I will give a quote. This is what H L Mencken said in 1926: ‘It [the State] has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a State religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men.’

Your first book is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

If you read only one book about libertarianism, read this legendary 1957 novel, a 1,100-page deconstruction of the Marxian proposition, ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ It took her 14 years to write Atlas Shrugged and that wasn’t working on it part-time. That was working very, very hard and at one point she stayed inside her house or on her property in California for a month. She was very intense. This is her magnum opus. Ayn Rand was born Alyssa Rosenburg in St Petersburg, Russia, and was 12 when the Russian Revolution took place and all her family’s property was snatched.

How old was she when she left Russia?


So she was properly Russian.

Oh, she was Russian. You should have heard her voice! So, Atlas Shrugged is the mature, the fullest expression of her rejection of any kind of collectivism. It’s probably the only novel of ideas that was written in the form of a detective story. It’s a real page-turner. The heroes of the novel are the entrepreneurs in America in the mid-20th century – the steelmakers, the coal miners, the productive people have all been disappearing from public view and nobody knows where they’ve gone. This happens over the course of ten years, and the heroine, Dagny Taggart, who owns a railroad, which is the controlling metaphor for the novel, tries to find out where they’ve gone, because she’s not able to run her business without all these wonderful suppliers. The ones who are left are all dolts taking government handouts. What she finds out is that a man, the hero, John Galt, who later becomes her lover, has been recruiting the best people everywhere to go on strike. Nothing in the economy can be done without these people, and they stay on strike until the nation comes to its senses and stops becoming a socialist economy. It’s basically about the Roosevelt administration and what it did to the economy. It’s a fantastical rebuttal.

There aren’t many people who would think of America as a socialist society.

Well, she did. And there were lots of people who did in the 30s, 40s, 50s. Before Roosevelt, before the Depression, you can’t imagine how much less government regulation there was in the United States. And that’s the America that Ayn Rand and H L Mencken loved. It’s a whole kind of old-school libertarianism. It’s isolationism, free markets, free minds and not letting the state get too powerful. Individual rather than state power.

It is the only page-turning critique of the welfare state, the bureaucratisation of the ‘altruistic’ impulse, and the transformation of America from a culture of self-reliance to one of self-entitlement by an author whose four mid-century novels (with The FountainheadAnthem and We the Living) sold one million copies in 2009.

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