Jeff Pantages: 'Atlas Shrugged’: Its appeal still endures

At the corner of 36th Avenue and the New Seward Highway, before the election you could see a bunch of campaign signs and one question. Who is John Galt?

The reference was, of course, to the question posed in Ayn Rand's epic novel "Atlas Shrugged." The book was written in 1957 and yet sold more than 400,000 copies last year alone.

I read it probably 30 years ago. It is a powerful fictional story that has turned many readers on to the ideas of liberty and the virtue of capitalism. In many ways it foreshadows our ongoing debates about the role and size of government. Rand grew up in Soviet Russia under Stalin. That nightmare steeled her will as a proponent of individual freedom and an opponent of an overbearing government.

Conservatives (libertarians, for sure) love the book. Liberals hate it. If you want to put the main thread of the story into today's political discourse, think makers and takers. What if the makers got fed up and just decided not to work anymore, in fact just disappeared? What would happen if Atlas refused to hold up the world?

Recent Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is a fan of the book and apparently encourages all his staff to read it. This has got him into a bit of hot water, since Ayn Rand was an atheist and founded a moral philosophy known as objectivism that rejects altruism. Both are political no-no's. Ryan rejects these aspects of Rand, but opponents tried to paint him as selfish and uncaring.

What I liked about the book was its emphasis on the dignity of work. Do a good job whatever the task. Take pride in your work. That holds whether you are a wealthy industrialist, a budding entrepreneur or someone flipping hamburgers. Make the best hamburgers you can.

The TV show "Dirty Jobs" describes itself as an "unscripted celebration of hard work and skilled labor." Producer and narrator Mike Rowe has argued for a "national conversation" about the way American society treats some crucial career paths like "pig farmers, electricians, plumbers, bridge painters, jam makers, blacksmiths, brewers, coal miners, carpenters, crab fishermen, and oil drillers." He argues that nowadays it seems any job that doesn't require a four-year college degree is thought of as a "vocational consolation prize" that "parents and teachers actively discourage kids from pursuing."

I think he's right. Nothing burns me up more than people who look down their noses at certain occupations. There is dignity in working and earning your keep. Growing up I recall that being known as a good provider was high praise. It was never about income or the nature of your job, just that you pulled your own weight and saw to the needs of your family.

Many young adults can make a good living as a carpenter, mechanic, welder, or in many other skilled occupations. Society needs these services. Given the $20,000 annual price tag for a public university and $40,000 for a private school, these professions can make a great deal of economic sense. Why do we steer kids away?

Fans of "Atlas Shrugged" see many other aspects of the book played out in the real world as well -- the increasing role of the government, the rise of a dependency culture, intrusive regulations, the "equality debate," the 1 percent, the 47 percent and lobbyists running wild in Washington.

Should Rand's fictional "Preservation of Livelihood Law," the "Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog-Rule," the "Equalization of Opportunity Bill," or the "Fair Share Law" seem fanciful when we have an "Affordable Care Act" that makes health care more expensive, or a "Fair Pay Act" that does little to improve pay for anyone but lawyers?

"Atlas Shrugged" has been made into a three-part movie and part two is out in theaters now. It's pretty good, though film critics seem unimpressed. The book is better, but it comes in at 1,100 pages. For a shorter, but similar look at how insane an equality-obsessed society can become, try Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron." It's devastating.

Jeff Pantages is an investment adviser. He lives in Anchorage.