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This week marks the anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged, a book which among libertarians needs no introduction. Ayn Rand’s defining work has remained popular for over fifty years, and the recent film is a testament to its continuing relevance. Atlas Shrugged, however, is not Rand’s best novel. The book is unsurpassed as an exposition of Objectivism, but, in my opinion, it lacks the vigor of Rand’s earlier work. The plot is too unbelievable for mainstream fiction, yet not fantastic enough to make decent science fiction. The culmination of the novel is surprisingly condensed and anticlimactic, especially compared to its bloated buildup. Extended monologues famously mark the high points of the novel but do little to advance the drama of the story.

Most of its characters are flat and unsympathetic. While Dagny Taggart’s passion is admirable, she seems inhuman. She is unable to understand or appreciate other characters, a flaw which hinders the reader from sympathizing with her. Hank Rearden, the most interesting of the main characters, still lacks any emotional power himself. Rand is excellent at getting the reader to root against the “bad guys” but rarely do her “good guys” command emotion in Atlas Shrugged.

The exception, of course, is Cherryl Brooks, the wife James Taggart parades to his false friends. Here we finally encounter a character that deserves our respect and sympathy. We see Cherryl’s hopes and dreams as a dime-store cashier. We then see the disillusionment that comes with her marriage to James, which finally leads to her suicide. While perhaps a bit baroque, Cherryl’s story is powerful—more powerful, certainly, than the escapism of the “strikers.” It’s a shame that her character is introduced so late and removed so quickly.

While Atlas Shrugged, in my opinion, is a bad book, Ayn Rand is not a bad writer—she’s a great one. Unfortunately, her most well known work is not her best. That distinction belongs to We the Living, which was originally published in 1936, turning 75 this year. It was Ayn Rand’s first novel, and her experiences in Soviet Russia were fresh on her mind during its development. While parts of the book draw on Rand’s own life, it is not autobiographical. Probably because of her close connection to the story, Rand’s writing in this book has a force unmatched in any of her other works.

We the Living prefigures the themes of Atlas Shrugged. Rand explores how the state, family, and society at large suppress the individual. Her treatment of these issues is more nuanced, with the world and the characters that populate it painted in shades of gray rather than starkly delineated in black and white. Good and evil exist in the world of We the Living, as they do in Atlas Shrugged, but the dichotomy is more real and more pernicious.

A reader of We the Living familiar with Atlas Shrugged might first be struck by the portrayal of love in the novel. Unlike the guilt-motivated “love” Hank Rearden has for his family, Kira Argounova, the heroine of We the Living, displays the common, almost unconditional love most people have for their family. Even when Kira’s family opposes her decisions, she still really loves them. Despite her sister’s increasingly fanatical religiosity— which Kira despises— Kira can’t help but be sentimental about her sister. In some ways, the relationship between Kira and her sibling Lydia may be influenced by Rand’s interaction with her own sister, who declined to stay in America with Rand much to her disappointment. Kira’s family, unlike Rearden’s, truly loves her. They reconcile themselves with the way she lives her life. There seems to be more humanity in this version of Soviet Russia than in the America of Atlas Shrugged.

Romantic love also seems more realistic in We the Living. Much of the plot is driven by Kira’s dual loves, Leo Kovalensky, a former aristocrat, and Andrei Taganov, the leader of the university’s secret police. The two men, seemingly opposites, change throughout the course of the book— a standard of literature largely absent in the personages of Atlas Shrugged. Leo, the scion of a fallen house and bold fighter of the regime, eventually betrays his ideals. He falls in with a cast of unscrupulous moochers and into the bottle. By the end of the novel, he is a thoroughly detestable figure. Ugly, pitiable, and wasted, he is the antithesis of Rand’s ideal. But Kira still loves him. Unexplainably, and in a way which the older Rand may have condemned, Kira continues to support Leo, going so far as to abuse Andrei Taganov’s genuine love for Leo’s benefit.

Leo cuts quite the tragic figure. He is the man of wasted potential. But Andrei’s story is more moving. At heart, Andrei is an admirable man. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely character as a Randian hero. He is dedicated to the Communist cause, unbending in his principles and virtuous in a way reminiscent of Hemingway’s code heroes. He falls in love with Kira, and she feels drawn to him too. However, Leo remains Kira’s real love, and she exploits Andrei to support Leo. Just as Kira cannot stop loving Leo once he becomes a drunken gigolo, Andrei cannot stop loving Kira after she reveals her motives to him. He does realize just how far removed he is from his comrades, though. Unlike the apparatchiks that surround him, he maintains his principles and his individuality in spite of the collectivist philosophy he claims to espouse. These same apparatchiks depose him, excommunicating him from the party. His life’s work and life’s love now gone, he commits suicide.

The party members of the book, Andrei excluded, are the precursors of the hated moochers in Atlas Shrugged. They are chameleons and flatterers, without honor or principles. Their only motivations seem to be vindictive in nature. Instead of shaping the world around them, they can only react to the actions of the novel’s protagonists. It is disturbing, then, to see them “win.” Comrade Sonia, an evil pig of a woman, manipulates her way to the top. Pavel Syerov, a cowardly but silver-tongued young man, desires the prestige of party leadership. Even Kira’s cousin, the weak and Iago-esque Victor Dunaev, works to hide his upper class origins so that he can gain favor with the party. While none of these rogues can be happy, their ilk does ultimately destroy the true individuals of the story, which stands in contrast to the ending of Atlas Shrugged.

The novel’s ending is bleak, which seems fitting for a novel about the hardships people endured after the Russian Civil War. Just as the Bolshevists won that war, collectivism grinds down the remaining individualists, corrupting some and destroying others. This world is not without hope though. Kira and Andrei become martyrs for their refusal to give in. Kira dies with a smile on her face, just as the martyrs on the ikons which Lydia prayed to were said to have died. Should we speculate that maybe Kira is the martyr who will lend strength to future victims of collectivist totalitarianism?

Rand highlights love’s nature quite nicely in this book. She pinpoints its arbitrariness and, in the context of the setting, how totalitarianism can poison even the highest human emotions. She’s also able to convey powerfully and subtly the danger of collectivism and its link to totalitarianism. She eulogizes the erosion of morality, a consequence in her mind of the hobbling of the individual’s will. There’s as much philosophy in We the Living (or any great novel) as there is in Atlas Shrugged, but there is a nuance and vigor to Rand’s earlier work that her later material lacks. Atlas Shrugged is a novel that primarily attacks state imposition on capitalists. We the Living describes the more complete totalitarian degradation of the individual. Unassuming and profound, We the Living should be read by everyone who appreciates good literature. And, being the book’s 75th birthday, it is the perfect occasion to pick it up.

Join SFL in welcoming Stefan Molyneux, host of Freedomain Radio, who will lead the SFL Webinar Series TONIGHT at 8pm! Stefan Molyneux will discuss how to effectively deal with the most common objections to a free society, such as:

- Who will build the roads?
– Who will take care of the poor?
– How will the young be educated?
– Who will take care of the sick?
– How will national defense work?
And most important – how are we going to get there from here?

Bring your most thorny and challenging questions to the question and answer period after this funny and energetic presentation!

Wednesday, October 12 at 8pm EST

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Stefan Molyneux, MA, received his undergraduate degree in History at McGill University in Montréal Canada, and completed his Masters Degree in History at the University of Toronto. He then worked for 15 years as a software entrepreneur and executive, cofounding an Environmental Management software company, where he served as Chief Technology Officer until selling the company in 2000. He then worked in a variety of technical and marketing executive positions. In 2005, Mr. Molyneux began publishing a variety of libertarian articles, and started Freedomain Radio, which he has since grown into the largest and most popular philosophy show in the world, available at http://www.freedomainradio.com. Freedomain Radio shows have been downloaded over 35 million times over the past few years. On the show, as well as producing original material, Mr. Molyneux has interviewed a wide variety of experts in psychology, economics, politics and philosophy. He has appeared on a number of television and radio shows, as well spoken at a wide variety of libertarian conferences. His free books are available at http://www.freedomainradio.com/free.

Mr. Molyneux was the closing keynote speaker at the New Hampshire Liberty Forum in 2009, following Ron Paul and John Stossel the previous two years. He was also the keynote speaker at the Libertopia Festival in 2010, and will be the master of ceremonies and closing speaker at Libertopia 2011. He was gave speeches at the 2010 and 2011 Porcupine Freedom Festival in New Hampshire, and was the closing speaker for the Freedom Summit 2010 in Phoenix Arizona. He spoke at Liberty Fest 2 in New York in September, along with Tom Woods and Adam Kokesh.

To view all October webinars, visit our webpage here: http://studentsforliberty.org/college/webinar-program/.

The SFL Webinar Series is our way of giving you access to the ideas and mentorship in liberty year-round from wherever you are.  We hold webinars each week to put you in touch with the top mentors and scholars for liberty in the country.

Join Students For Liberty in welcoming George Selgin to discuss “Money Under Laissez Faire” on Wednesday, October 26 at 8PM Eastern Time!

Registration is required to attend each webinar but it’s fast and easy

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In this webinar George Selgin explains how monetary exchange arose as “a product of human action but not of human design,” and how in the absence of government interference market forces would favor the development of decentralized monetary systems both more efficient and more stable than the centralized and heavily-regulated systems prevailing today.

George A. Selgin is a Professor of Economics in the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington DC, and an associate editor of Econ Journal Watch. Selgin formerly taught at George Mason University, the University of Hong Kong, and West Virginia University. His books include Good Money: Birmingham Button Makers, the Royal Mint, and the Beginnings of Modern Coinage, 1775-1821 (2008); Less Than Zero: The Case for a Falling Price Level in a Growing Economy (1997); and The Theory of Free Banking (1988). Selgin’s principal research areas are monetary and banking theory, monetary history, and macroeconomics.

For more details and upcoming webinars, visit our webpage here: http://studentsforliberty.org/college/webinar-program/

Here at Students For Liberty, we like to talk about ideas.  We often ask ourselves: what can we do to help mobilize students to disseminate pro-liberty ideas among more people?  Joseph P. Overton, the late Vice President of the Mackinac Center, framed this question in terms of the Overton Window.  Overton made the argument that political change is simply a reflection of a shift in social thought, which is in itself grounded in ideas.  Therefore, structural political change will generally only have any feasibility if it is within a window of acceptable ideas.  So, how exactly do we go about shifting the Overton window?  What can we do to shift the framework of the debate around the ideas of liberty?

It’s a tough question, and to answer it, we need to draw attention to those factors that make our ideas mainstream and thus drive social change.  To do this, I will be writing a series of blog posts that attempt to highlight what we as pro-liberty students can do to create a cohesive, powerful, and long-term movement grounded in ideas dissemination.

For whatever reason, cultural expression is one area which libertarians have historically not ventured near.  Art, film, and music have famously been venues of political expression, and yet libertarians have just started to utilize this sphere of influence.

Libertarians have only just begun to embrace cultural expression as a means to express libertarian philosophy, but it is a beginning nonetheless.  Almost two years ago producer John Papola and economist Russ Roberts released the groundbreaking Hayek vs. Keynes “Fear the Boom and Bust” rap anthem.  In beautiful fashion, they were able to package otherwise dry economic ideas into a hip-hop masterpiece. (Their sequel, “Fight of the Century”, is also at least as great).  As a result of the unprecedented success of the Hayek vs. Keynes videos, Papola began a pro-liberty nonprofit organization called Emergent Order, which is dedicated to creating original media content about economics in our daily lives.

Another strong example of libertarians embracing cultural expression is Reason magazine, a widely circulated monthly print magazine put out by the Reason Foundation.  Although the magazine is political in nature, it is also just a fun magazine to read.  It features articles on sociology, culture wars, movie reviews, music, and even zombies.

And perhaps one of the most exciting forms or libertarian artistic expression is the YouTube star Remy, who regularly collaborates with Reason.tv to make music videos about a wide range of issues from a libertarian perspective. Excitingly, Remy will be opening the 2012 International Students For Liberty Conference with a performance.

It is important that we students use cultural and artistic venues to disseminate libertarian ideas.  Part of the reason is because it is a means by which we can persuade others about the ideas of liberty.  But much more importantly, we should embrace artistic expression because we are passionate advocates of liberty.  What I mean by this is that we spend our time and effort advocating our conception of liberty because we care.  We care about liberty, and we believe that freedom is a beautiful concept, enough so that we spend our youth advocating for that concept in the real world.  What is great about Reason magazine, Remy, and John Papola is that they show their love for the philosophy of liberty through their art.

So if you want to express your passion for these ideas in a new way, perhaps you should try your hand at artistic expression.  Show the world your love for freedom.

“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful … that’s what matters to me.” – Steve Jobs, 1993

Steve Jobs was a creative genius, a brilliant innovator, and a passionate leader. From the most minute personal task to education and medicine, his creations have radically changed the way the world runs.

What is perhaps most inspiring about Jobs, though, is not the benefits he has bestowed upon humanity, but his own love of life.

I recall listening to a recorded lecture by Nathaniel Branden in which he concludes that you can judge how much a person loves their own life by what they’re willing to put up with, how hard they’re willing to work, and how many times they’re willing to pick themselves up after falling down in order to achieve their values. If this is a good measure of love of one’s life, Steve Jobs is off the charts in all regards. Observe the results:

Jobs was an independent mind, one with the courage to risk his time, money, and reputation in pursuit of his own creative vision. He was a man motivated by a burning desire to achieve the best:

“We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build the Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” (1985)

He was a man who loved his work and earned an unmatched sense of joy and pride from it.  When introducing the first Macintosh in 1984, “Steve has the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on his face, obviously holding back tears as he is overwhelmed by the moment. The ovation continues for at least five minutes before he quiets the crowd down,” according to Andy Hertzfeld:

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” (2005)

Jobs was great not solely because he had the best ideas, but because he was a man of action. He was the sort of person who could take his vision of the best possible and bring it into the world. He was a man who pursued his own happiness and continually found it. Although there is great sadness in Jobs’ passing, there is much greater joy in reflecting upon his life and the inspiration one can draw from it.

One last thing. If you click over to Apple’s home page tribute and attempt to save the picture of Jobs that is displayed there, you will notice the file is named “hero.” How appropriate.