Ayn Rand and Socialized Medicine

One of the most powerful arguments against socialized medicine, emotionally and intellectually, lies in a book you may have forgotten to consult: Ayn Rand's first novel, We the Living.

In an essay I wrote a few months ago, I raised a rhetorical question in response to the huge increase in sales of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Yes, there was a gratifying surge in the sales of Rand’s magnum opus. But why?

Given the no-holds-barred assault on free-market capitalism and individual rights, why the unprecedented boost in sales of a 52-year-old thousand-page novel, but no corresponding boost in Rand’s equally relevant and highly persuasive non-fiction?

Here’s how I answered my own rhetorical question:

“One evening back in the mid-60s, when my husband and I were Ayn Rand’s lawyers [and] the three of us took a break from business ... Rand drew a fascinating distinction about the impact that ... fiction, as opposed to nonfiction, has on readers. ‘Reading non-fiction,’ she told us, ‘is mainly an intellectual exercise whereas fiction involves the reader in a personal experience. It’s the difference between reading a technical manual on flying a jet airplane as opposed to experiencing the actual sensation of hurtling through space in one. The manual may be educational, even stimulating, but the plane ride is happening to you.’” (Emphasis Rand’s.)

I’m convinced that Rand was right. That the surge in sales of Atlas was to a large extent a remarkable example of readers — perhaps whole new generations of them — responding in a personal way to government intervention that was increasing at an alarming rate in the first few months of Obama’s presidency.

But how, you may be wondering, does Ayn Rand’s fiction/nonfiction distinction relate to the raging controversy in town hall confrontations all over America on the issue of socialized medicine?

I’ll make a prediction: Anyone who takes the time to fully grasp Rand’s fiction/non-fiction distinction will discover that he has armed himself with a powerful ideological tool with which to persuade other people, including politicians, about what’s wrong with government-managed or controlled health care.

You wouldn’t be reading this article if you weren’t already concerned about the issue. So yes, a lot of us are writing essays or letters-to-the-editor or signing petitions. But what I’m suggesting is that you also put into play G. K. Chesterton’s famous maxim that fiction is one of the most potent means of addressing the public.

No, this time I’m not beating the drums for Atlas Shrugged.

The Ayn Rand novel so powerfully written that it causes the reader to “personally experience” the horrors of bureaucrat-controlled health care is her first novel, We the Living.

Whether or not you’ve ever read We the Living — first published in 1936 — I urge you to read (or re-read) it now. Better yet, read the book and view the restored English-subtitled Italian-made movie of the same name. (For detailed information on the movie version and when the new DVD will be available, see wethelivingmovie.com.)

From the Italian movie adaptation of We the Living (for more information, see the Atlasphere's interview with producer Duncan Scott)

When my husband, Henry Mark Holzer, and I first represented Ayn Rand, we were under the mis-impression that the only movie based on a Rand novel was The Fountainhead. It was only after our professional relationship had deepened into personal friendship that she told us about a 1942 pirated two-part version of We the Living made in then-fascist Italy.

With its hard-hitting anticommunist theme, Noi Vivi ("We the Living") and Addio, Kira ("Goodby, Kira") was shown in two consecutive parts and enjoyed an extremely successful theatrical run. After the war, Ayn was given a print of the bootleg film, courtesy of one of its stars, Rossano Brazzi.

Then she told us that Noi Vivi was a much better film than The Fountainhead!

But Ayn had lost the print, and the film had completely vanished. When my husband and I offered to track it down, Ayn, while not optimistic about our success after the passage of so many years, gave us her blessing. Initial queries to official Italian agencies led nowhere, so Hank and I concentrated on unofficial sources.

It took us three years before we hit pay-dirt. In 1968, we flew to Rome and met with some businessmen who owned dozens of vintage Italian films. On their list was Noi Vivi and Addio, Kira. Best of all, the technical quality of what they had — the original nitrate negatives — was excellent. After we arranged to have a set of duplicate negatives made on safety film, we called Ayn to relay the good news.

Back in New York, Hank and I, with filmmaker Duncan Scott, screened the film as Ayn gave us scene by scene input on what should be edited or cut. Hank, Duncan and I were in total agreement with her suggestions and made one of our own that Ayn, in turn, agreed to: In lieu of dubbing the newly resurrected We the Living, the film would be subtitled in English.

Hank, Duncan, and I co-produced the film, Duncan and I wrote the subtitled script. We the Living premiered at Colorado’s Telluride Film Festival in 1986, and it was released to rave reviews in theaters throughout the U.S., Canada, and overseas.

Now, as Obama, backed by a Democrat-controlled Congress, pushes hard for socialized medicine — the legislation having been engineered by the far-left Nancy Pelosi — I can’t help replaying what Ayn told me that night in her living room....

“If a novel is well done,” she said all those years ago, “the reader feels the dramatized events of the story on his own skin, so to speak. He is impelled to rage against some injustice. To root for characters he cannot help identifying with.” (Emphasis Rand’s.)

Even though We the Living’s basic theme — its philosophical message — is much broader than socialized medicine, its plot revolves in a crucial way around the compulsory “administration” of healthcare, doctors, and even the dispensing of medicine, by bureaucrats mired in corruption, favoritism, envy, revenge, power lust. It can become an acquired taste, the lust for power to decide whether a person lives or dies.

I was so immersed in the production, editing, and subtitling stages of the film version of We the Living for so long that it has a stronger grip on my emotions than the novel.

I cannot think of the book without seeing Italy’s leading star and brilliantly evocative actress Alida Valli as the protagonist. I cannot view the film with dry eyes. Without my sense of outrage flying off the charts.

But whether you see the movie or read the novel, I challenge any fair-minded (and unrepressed) person to keep from identifying with and rooting for the uncompromising idealistic heroine. To stop yourself from raging against the ruined lives of three individuals torn by impossible conflicts and enmeshed in a heart-wrenching love triangle. To deny that you feel on your own skin the wanton, ruthless — and yes, careless — destruction of innocents whose only “sin” is the desire to live their own lives; to shape their own destiny.

In the Foreword to the 1959 Random House hardcover republication of We the Living, Ayn Rand wrote that her novel is “...about Man against the State. Its basic theme is the sanctity of human life — using the word ‘sanctity’ not in a mystical sense, but in the sense of ‘supreme values.’”

But in that same Foreword, Rand issued this “warning”: “...[D]o not be misled by those who might tell you that We the Living is ‘dated’ or no longer relevant to the present, since it deals with Soviet Russia in the nineteen-twenties....” As someone who was born in Russia and educated from the age of twelve under the Soviets, Rand tells us, she knew — without yet fully knowing why — that, in the words of a minor character, Irina Duneav, “There’s your life.... [I]t’s something so precious and rare, so beautiful, that it’s like a sacred treasure. Now it’s over, and it doesn’t make any difference to anyone ... that treasure of mine....”

Ayn Rand was a child at the time. Even so, she was smart enough to grasp what was under assault when the Communists took over her country. In the Random House Foreword, as Rand reflects upon her character Irina and “the sacred treasure” that is one’s life, one can almost feel the vehemence in Ayn Rand’s words:

[T]his is the issue at the base of all dictatorships, all collectivist theories and all human evils. I could not understand how any man could be so brutalized as to claim the right to dispose of the lives of others, nor how any man could be so lacking in self-esteem as to grant to others the right to dispose of his life.” (Emphasis Rand’s.)

So if you rise to my challenge — or if you choose to heed Ayn Rand’s warning — or if you’re curious about whether the fiction/non-fiction distinction Rand once called to my attention and I’ve just called to yours has validity — or you just want to find out for yourself whether or not We the Living is dated, pick up her novel. Watch the movie. Think of imaginative ways to maximize the sheer impact of Ayn Rand’s remarkable work of fiction by spreading the word.

What have you got to lose?

A rhetorical question. You know the answer.

Erika Holzer’s vigilante suspense thriller Eye for an Eye was a Paramount feature film directed by John Schlesinger and starring Kiefer Sutherland and Sally Field. For more about her other books, fiction and non-fiction, and her most recent book, Ayn Rand: My Fiction-Writing Teacher, see www.ErikaHolzer.com.

16 comments from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
We The Living is my favorite Rand book. I have always felt the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, but you (she) have put it into words perfectly.
I own the film on VHS and it is magnificent.

Two superb actors. I thought it followed the book faithfully. Sad to say, but it appears that half the people in America want freedom, and apparently the other half want to be taken care of by whom I humorously call "Omama."
Thank you for the helpful reminder about Ayn Rand's first novel! I had forgotten that it was so relevant to the encroaching socialism we are experiencing today. I'm overdue to watch the movie again as well. I will make sure that we publish something on the Atlasphere about the release of the DVD, once Duncan tells us it has been released.

Joshua Zader, Owner
The Atlasphere
I love that you shared personal reflections on Ayn Rand and her conversations on fiction vs. non-fiction. (One of my fave Rand books is the oft-over looked The Art of Fiction.)

However, great leaps of imagination are required to equate the universal health care pitch of the Obama administration to the evil, oppressive government in We The Living, which allowed absolutely no individual choice or rights.

I understand the passion and the principle but it's a huge, unfair stretch.
Brilliantly done as usual. But I have to agree with Ayn Rand in her assesment of this society; There isn't enough intellect running around to fill a thimble. Don't think so? Just take a drive in a car and see what goes on with the traffic. Idiots. Our schools are breeding a bunch of automatons. They are not taught to think,only to react. Atlas Schrugged IS coming alive and it is not a pretty picture. The population has increased severly since the fifties.

As a Friend of mine is fond of saying; "What do we do now Spike?"
I own the book and the movie. Read and watched them, and am changed because because of them. What person in their right mind would give their lives over to the state willingly?
I recently read We The Living for the umpteenth time since I was 17 and it's message is as relevant today as Atlas Shrugged.

While Atlas takes us through the slow degradation of America, Living lands us right in the middle of Communist-controlled Russia with citizens staring in disbelief at what has become of their beloved nation - and yet still disbelieving that things can get worse.

I see us approaching a We the Living-type America and I am afraid for my country and all Americans, even the ones who think their leading us down the right path. They will find out...eventually. But by then it will be too late for the rest of us who want to protect our sacred treasure, our life.
Thank you for reminding me of We the Living. I read it decades ago and I see it is time for another read. I had no idea there was a movie.

It is so amazing how Ayn Rand was so prophetic, and so sad that she was right on. Are there enough rational, clear thinking people left in the U.S. to steer us away from the abyss? I fear not, but hope I am wrong for the sake of the future generations ,including my children and grandchildren.
Erika, Its been several years since I read (listened to) We the Living. When the question is framed the way you frame it the answer is self evident. Unfortunately I don't see it as a black and white issue. As a trial lawyer I am familiar with years of fighting "tort reform," one way we have been successful has been to "lobby" certain Democratic congressmen. On the other side we know that we are fighting insurance companies and "Big Pharma" who are "lobbying" ceratin other Republican congressmen. Put simply, should negligent doctors have to compensate patients they neglegently injure? Most people would say, yes, of course they should. When you interject that almost all of our so called government officials have been corrupted by one side or the other its almost impossible to clearly define the issues in so simple a form.

Shouldn't the question be revised to Is there a way to have the health insurance companies compete fairly with one another and their clients without the protection and backing of a corrupted congress? Of course, Government intervention is evil but isn't it empowered by our "winking" at the corrupting influence of "lobbyists" and so called campign funding? Americans ought to be able to buy health insurance or any other good or service without government in the background manipulating the market for their corruptors and "business" needs to stop corrupting politicians to gain an unfair competitive advantage. In this issue both sides have dirty hands. Unless we can eliminate the corruption no matter which side wins the health care argument - it wont be the consumer and it won't be capitalism - it will be the side that can write the biggest check to the politicians!
I saw the movie with friends the eighties in a university cinema in Brisbane. For 30 minutes after the finish we could not talk about it because each of us was still fully engaged with what we had experienced.

Without any doubt the most powerful movie experience ever.
The only production to even approach that level of impact was 'Les Miserables" from Victor Hugo.

I sincerely thank you for rescuing it .

And anyone who cannot see the parallels between that movie and the present , well what do I say,"Comprachicos" comes to mind.
It is curiously the one book of Rand's fiction that I did not read. I had an old beat-up copy and it kept falling apart. I shall attack it again. Having lived with Socialized Medicine here for 41 years I have come to my own understanding of it. Where you and your husband part of Rand's "Collective?" Did you know Greenspan? I read parts of a book he wrote about his economics, and noted that he gave considerable credit to Rand's influece on him. Obama is clearly evil in intent. He may not survive his first term. I believe there is a marvelous Irony in what is happening in America. I believe it portends the denouement and death of socialism, regardless of whether Obama succeeds on not.
We the Living is a great novel. The society it reveals is so depressing and so horrible that it is difficult to immerse oneself in that society. Yet, the socialists among us are doing their best to create conditions which will dump us all into just such a society. It is incomprehensible that some people seem to think that socialism is an ideal. The experiment has been done over and over and it has always led to human misery, just as one should expect any effort to deny the individuality of people and their individual right to choose their own values and live their lives in accordance with those values would do.
I, also, love We the Living. I've read it several times and now I want to read it again.....
Wow! great article. I read WE THE LIVING when I was a young mother in my 20's never viewed the movie. I shall try to obtain it. Thank you so much, Arlene Pennington
I had read We the Living some time ago, but after reading the above piece by Erika Holzer, picked up the book again and was
again unsettled by how close we are to losing our freedoms.

Back in 1948, the Christophers warned us that would-be tyrants infiltrate education, labor management, government, and writing to insinuate their evil designs on an uneducated and unaware public. Saul Alinsky is a leader of the far left today. We are being undermined from within.

Whose deep pockets could put "Living" on the movie screen?
I can not express how glad I am for the resurgence in the popularity of Ayns works. The point of view is very much needed today.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.