Heroes and Libertarian Ethics in Literature, Part 2
By Sam Staley • Sunday April 15, 2012 10:14 PM PST •
With more than 25 million copies of her novels in print, and with Atlas Shrugged continuing to sell a brisk half million copies per year, Ayn Rand undoubtedly ranks as the most widely read libertarian novelist. Much of her popularity, of course, is due to her unswerving commitment to free markets and liberty. But as a novelist she has also created memorable protagonists, including Howard Roark, the uncompromising architect, Dagny Taggart, the whip-smart and ambitious railroad executive, and, of course, the mysterious and visionary John Galt, just to name a few.
But novels must be more than characters and plot lines. They must also be good stories. Good stories involve conflict. In fact, some argue that the essence of story is conflict—physical, emotional, or psychological. How that conflict manifests itself is to some extent a stylistic choice on the part of the author, and Rand has largely chosen to create the conflict around ideas. Her characters thus represent ideas, and since ideas don’t change, her characters don’t change either; they tend to be drawn sharply and uncompromising. And this approach works for promoting her ideas of individual freedom and liberty and millions of readers agree.
Rand also has been correctly criticized for having simple and two dimensional characters for the same reason. They lack the self-doubt, emotional frailties and personal growth that characterize real-life humans. So, the question becomes: How do individualism and liberty themes manifest themselves in novels that are not primarily about ideas or philosophies?
I began to discuss this point in an earlier post, contrasting Howard Roark in the Fountainhead with the protagonist in the popular young-adult novels of The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Katniss Everdeen starts out narcissistic and Randian in her outlook in life, but her character evolves over the course of the three books. Although her character is Randian in many essentials, she’s not really a libertarian. She begins the series by simply staying out of the way of the state. While her behavior is a form of civil disobedience, nothing in her character suggests that she would be opposed to Panem’s government if the right people were in charge. Her objection wasn’t so much that the state was oppressive, its powers limitless, or that individual freedom was a core value that should limit government, as simply being allowed to live her own life. This latter point is clearly grounded in a philosophical individualism, but lacks the broader view of government that would make her character libertarian (in the first book).
This perspective changes by the end of the third book Mockingjay, where it becomes clear to Everdeen that the State itself is a threat to freedom. She has to make a fateful choice about life and death, not just about her own, but about the value of human life more generally. Her world is no longer the narcissistic contractural Randian one in which she starts out the series. In short, there is no “virtue” in selfishness. (She actually could go home and live by herself, but she makes a different choice, motivated by the recognition of the tyranny that would persist if she didn’t take action at a particular climactic moment in the book.)
The benefit of the non-Randian character in fiction is that they have more layers, and the conflicts that drive the story emerge out of their own personal struggles. While the ideas of liberty are still important, those ideas tend to frame the conflict rather than drive it directly. For example, the lead character in my young-adult novel, Pirate of Panther Bay is a runaway slave who captains a pirate ship in the late 18th century Caribbean. She is on the run from the State (in this case colonial Spain) and in a constant struggle for survival. While the oppression of a colonial and slave society are ever present, Isabella never starts from a Randian worldview, in part because her character is drawn from a past with a rich cultural tradition of empathy toward close friends and family. Isabella’s world is not contractural; it’s familial.
Empathy is crucial to understanding Isabella’s character arc because it results, ultimately, in the recognition of the objective value of human life (which becomes a critical driver of the book’s plot). In short, she discovers the Natural Rights of Man through her battles on the high seas and moral dilemmas that inevitably challenge her decisions as a reluctant pirate and ship’s captain. These bonds to others, including an unlikely romance with her enemy, lead to a fundamentally libertarian conclusion. Her private relationships define her moral values and ethical conduct, and these values are under perpetual attack from the corrupt (and corrupting) power of the Spanish colonial government. (Of course, as a pirate and runaway slave, her life cannot be disentangled from the State in some form.) Isabella’s choices are complex, layered, and filled with the ambiguity of life and “lessons learned” from her experiences in her world.
The point is that the literature of liberty defines heroes in very different ways. While for many the journey to libertarianism may in fact “begin with Ayn Rand,” the stark way in which her characters are defined often obscures the ethical ambiguities of every day life. While Suzanne Collins is not a libertarian (or conservative), her character evolves in the books (not necessarily the movie) and ends up living a largely individualist lifestyle independent of the State. In my own fiction, my characters have strong familial ties and strong individualist personalities that define their actions outside the formal authority of a government or agency in ways that are grounded in an everyday rather than idealized world. All three approaches are fundamentally libertarian in their worldviews, contextualized by their stories and characters.