Bryan Caplan  

Who Wrote It?

Hard Heads, Soft Hearts... Kotlikoff Anecdote...

Here's a great quote from one of my two favorite novels:

The thought that soothed Rostopchin was not a new one. Since the world began and men have killed one another, no one has committed such an idea without consoling himself with the same idea. And that idea is le bien publique, the hypothetical welfare of other people.

Clue: The author is a great Russian philosopher-novelist.

I would be very tempted to guess Ayn Rand, but the real answer is: Leo Tolstoy, in War and Peace.

If you like either Atlas Shrugged or War and Peace, you should definitely read both. The structure is eerily similar: Characters begin in a world not so different from our own, but gradually see their societies fall to pieces. The main difference is that Rand depicts the disintegration as an avoidable consequence of bad ideas, while Tolstoy makes it nigh inevitable.

If Rand had written War and Peace, she would probably have blamed the invasion of Russia on the ideology of appeasement that let Napoleon get as far as he did. If Tolstoy had written Atlas Shrugged, John Galt would be suffering from the delusion that but for him the men of the mind would not be on strike.

Ultimately I like Rand's masterpiece a little more than Tolstoy's. AS is more original, better-plotted, and more of a page-turner. W&P, in contrast, is amazing for the breadth and depth of its characterization, for its overwhelming perceptiveness. Tolstoy brings to life virtually every kind of person you will ever meet. If you prefer to contemplate people as they might and ought to be, Rand's got the edge. If you'd rather contemplate people as they really are, however, the prize clearly goes to Tolstoy.

Fortunately, anyone with a couple hundred free hours can read both.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Scott Scheule writes:

But if Tolstoy had written Atlas Shrugged, the style would have been far less purple, preachy, and wooden.

I'd also recommend Anna Karenina.

RSVP'd for the Szasz event. Will see you there.

T.R. Elliott writes:

Oh please. Ayn Rand was a second rate melodramatic novelist. They're almost unreadable.

Bob Knaus writes:

Granted Rand is not in the same league as Tolstoy. Fortunately, Brian teaches economics and not literature.

Does anyone here know why Atlas Shrugged is/was on the reading list for high school students? I don't know if this is the case anymore, but I remember going into bookstores and seeing it on the same rack of inexpensive student editions as Moby Dick and 1984 and The Scarlet Letter and so on.

Seems a bit of an outlier to me but there must have been a reason?

T.R. Elliott writes:

Here's my read on the interest in Ayn Rand. Through analogy. I had a friend who was totally into Tom Robbins. Gave me a copy to read. I was probably 30 at the time. I couldn't finish it. I found it juvenile and boring. Then I came across someone who wrote that Tom Robbins is one of those writers who is only of interest if you happened to be reading him when you were a young pot smoking college kid. His writing style then takes, and you never lose interest in it. Otherwise, if you pick him up later, you find it appalling. I think the same goes for Ayn Rand. If you are first exposed to her as a young confused kid who is just starting to think about ideas like property, human rights, political economy, etc, then Ayn's melodramatic style and flat characterization seems to take. She should have just written an essay and spared us the pain. But then again, many people like her. Go figure.

I finished Fountainhead when I read it but only through brute force. It was that bad. And I'm sorry, but the basic idea of Atlas Shrugged is just so outlandish. All the poor intellectuals--the Atlases of the world--going on strike because they can't have it their way. It's such a juvenile simplistic view of the world. Of course, Tolstoy also had some simplistic views as well. But at least he could write fiction. Ayn Rand couldn't--in my opinion.

nn writes:

If I had to depend on Rand I would never have learned market economics. Her books were unreadable in college, they're unreadable now. You want pulp? Best to read Superman and Amazing Stories.

To hear Rand and Tolstoy mentioned in the same paragraph saddens me, because it lowers my view of any non-technical opinions in this blog. And it troubles me that so many people I like are weirdly impressed by her writing.

And didn't Von Mises call Rand a "stupid little girl?"

Tony writes:

The quote rings so true. Of course it could be said about a rich Republican (or libertarian) who says they need a tax-cut because it will make a more efficient free-market for everyone.

And didn't you just recently get all up in Krugman's face because he cares more about the motivations of evil companies than the actual results that would affect the rest of the world?

Please stop trying to have your libertarianism both ways, as moral desert and as consequentialist ideal.

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