Over the coming week, a libertarian think tank in India will commemorate the 50th anniversary of author-philosopher Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. A book that laid down the principles of what Rand later developed into her world-view, Objectivism, Atlas Shrugged influenced a generation of free-thinkers and modern individualists in an era when various systems - from Communism to Macarthyism to state intervention in some form or the other - circumscribed the rights of the individual towards a supposedly "larger good" vaguely defined by the state. Rand postulated a refreshing alternative: A laissez faire ideal, where individuals worked and created in pursuit of liberty and happiness in accordance with the matrices of enlightened self-interest. An aggregation of individual and individually enlightened self-interests made for a just, fair and ultimately prosperous society. This was a break from such collectivist and millenarian visions evoked by Communism, Fascism, organised religion - or even democracy as we have come to know it - catering to the lowest common denominato
Rand's work inspired countless people. In the West, particularly in the United States, Rand's children, as it were, sought to integrate what they had learnt at her feet - and in her books - into public policy. An early Ayn Rand adherent was Alan Greenspan, later to become head of the US Federal Reserve and the first economic policy-maker to actually say that the IT revolution had not just made existing businesses more efficient but spawned an economy of its own - the "New Economy" as he called it. Indeed, the IT revolution, a phenomenon where gifted and creative individuals used their intellect to shape new contrivances, programs and processes for the rest of society, with minimal state and external interference - the inspectors and regulators and tax collectors were to come later, when the IT buzz grew into the IT industry - represented the happy ending that Rand had dreamt of for Atlas Shrugged. Her book was about creative individuals rebelling against a social system and a Government structure that sought to cripple them. It was a manifesto against all forms of statism.
While Rand has her little band of loyal followers in India, it is sobering to realise that, even two decades after the economic reform process began, Objectivism has scarce influence on public policy. The state is still overwhelmingly powerful; it has far too many economic duties than a free market system would warrant. Nor is the individual - and his ingenuity and entrepreneurship - given pride of place in India's self-image. Rather, anti-intellectualism seems to have become the trademark of a society on the make. As both a moral reference point and a perhaps unattainable destination, Ayn Rand's universe should tell us how far India still needs to go.
This editorial article was published in The Pioneer on October 12 2007.