Wednesday 1 April 2009

An Atlas moment?

10 April 2009 Note: check updated results here!

Lots of chatter on the libertarian blogs about whether we're in an Atlas moment, how sales of Atlas Shrugged are peaking, and how folks finally might be coming round to rejecting the moochers and embracing their inner Galt.

Here's some fun, courtesy of Google Insights.

"Ayn Rand" versus "Karl Marx"

The two lines show us search trends over the last 12 months on the terms "Ayn Rand" (red) and "Karl Marx" (blue). Scales are normalized as a proportion of all searches, with 100 being the largest number of searches. Marx is by far the more popular search term.

Where are folks most interested in each? Well, Google's Search Insight tells us that too. Maps below show search intensity on Karl Marx (in blue) and on Ayn Rand (in red).

So, in lots of the developing world, we're seeing lots of searches on Marx and very little on Rand. Rand only registers in the Philippines. In the US, Rand beats Marx by a small margin; same in India. In Canada, Marx beats Rand; same in Norway and New Zealand and ... pretty much every country that makes the top ten in searches on Ayn Rand. The green bars show searches for "Atlas Shrugged". Only in the US and India do searches on Rand beat searches on Marx.

Search Insights is powerful enough for us to drill down onto country-specific searches. So, we find in Canada, that Rand beat Marx from mid June 08 through August 08, but Marx wins just about the rest of the time. This one shocked me: the proportion by which Marx beat Rand in Ontario matched that in Alberta. Only in British Columbia, Canada's "loonie left coast", did Rand beat Marx. In Manitoba, ancestral home of Barbara Branden, Rand didn't show up at all.

We can drill down even further. Marx beats Rand by a larger majority in Edmonton than in Calgary; Edmonton is the seat of government and sometimes is disparaged as Redmonton. Turns out it's just a matter of degree.

In book sales, Atlas beats Das Kapital. The paperback edition of Atlas is currently #29 in Books at Amazon; Capital is at #5,213. I'd love to know what the rank movement is since a year ago, but I don't know how to access historical Amazon data. Sales of both certainly seem to be up, but I can't compare trends without a decent handle on base rate sales from a year or two ago.

So, Randians, be a bit careful about calling this a Randian moment. Economic crisis seems to intensify interest in alternatives at both poles, at least as evidenced by Google search trends. You can, of course, object that maybe all the searches on Marx are to find out just how Marxist Obama really is: it's Objectivists doing the searches. There certainly are a lot of searches on Marx + Obama, but I can't evaluate the searchers' normative assessments of any such link. I've tried adding a few disambiguating terms like evil or bad to add to the searches; doesn't seem to affect much. If you can think of better ways of disambiguating, I'd love to see the results!

Other fun searches: Capitalism and Communism are about neck and neck in the search races, with very collinear time series: massively parallel movements since November. And "Objectivism" doesn't garner enough searches to much show up anywhere, at least not in comparison with either capitalism, communism or socialism.

HT: Many thanks to Hal Varian for telling me about Google Search Insights! It's pretty awesome.


  1. I suggest Purchases of books constitute "putting one's money where one's mouth is", whereas a Google search is an enormously more a casual investigation.

    Though Rand has hardly had time to reverse the Worldwide, anti-life morality of altruism, the sales of her books clearly represent a sea change in the number of minds who are starting to doubt the status quo.

  2. I also suggest comparing Searches for Das Kapital with those for Atlas Shrugged. Recently Atlas receives five times as many searches.

    More than anything, this information indicates how open to interpretation such Google Insight data can be!

  3. I just had a conversation with an Indian economist yesterday and she was shocked to hear how Atlas Shrugs is interpreted in America. I suspect there are cultural differences in how Rand's works are interpreted in India that might explain its surprising popularity there.

    I have asked her to provide more details, but she seemed very surprised that I considered Ayn Rand to be the antithesis of Marx.

  4. Richard: try the following. Karl Marx + Communist Manifesto + Das Kapital + Das Capital + Marxism vs Ayn Rand + Ann Rand + Atlas Shrugged + The Fountainhead + Objectivism.

    It's entirely unclear to me that Das Kapital is a fair search. One, the spelling is going to throw off a lot of folks. Two, it's not nearly as fun a read as Atlas. Three, it's arguable that The Communist Manifesto is far more relevant a comparison than is Das Kapital. Perhaps Das Kapital versus "Virtue of Selfishness" and "communist manifesto" versus "atlas shrugged" would be a fairer lineup.

  5. Searches may indicate an interest, but they don't indicate whether the interest was positive, negative, or neutral. Doing an internet search on Marx doesn't necessarily mean the person is open to Marx's ideas. He might be doing the research in order to better refute Marx. Sure, he could order a copy of Das Kapital, but why spend money on something he already detests when all he wants is a pull quote that he can denounce?

    A person who buys a book, though, is making a commitment to engage with the ideas in the book. Even if he's hostile to the ideas, he will have to grapple with them and run the risk of being won over. That risk isn't there for the internet researcher.

  6. What matters is what the thought leaders are reading and thinking. Seems most have one of Keynes' books under their pillows.

  7. Keynes is really trouncing Ayn Rand.

    Of course, people are looking up Keynes so much because they keep hearing that Keynesian stimulus can't possible work.

  8. Ardsgaine: You're of course right on the sign of the searches. For this to bias results though it would have to be the case that folks on one side are very prone to researching both sides while folks on the other aren't. So, if all the Randians did lots of searches on Keynes but no Keynesians did searches on Rand. I suppose that's possible and something that I can't easily really control for. Could try adding terms like "refutation" on both sides to see if that's what folks are looking for.

    Buying versus searching: I can believe that buying a book suggests a greater interest; I can't believe that buying the book necessarily opens up the reader to a greater chance of being converted over than reading a website.

    I'd really like to see the time path on Amazon for Atlas versus the more popular Marxist tracts.

  9. Would Objectivists do lots of searches on Ayn Rand? Would Keynesians do lots of searches on Keynes? It seems to me that both would already have reference works on the person whose views they subscribe to, and wouldn't need to research them on the internet. My guess is that most of the searches are being done by people who are neither Objectivists, nor Keynesians, nor Marxists. They're doing the searches to learn more about a person whom they've heard about in the news, discussions, or perhaps in their classrooms.
    An internet search, though, yields a very shallow understanding of a philosopher's ideas, even if the person lands on a site devoted to propounding the philosopher's ideas. If the person is neutral or hostile, it's unlikely that he will stay on the site and grapple with the philosopher's ideas for any length of time. Generally speaking, people don't read books online. It's a strain on the eyes, and there's too much other stuff on their computer screen competing for their attention. If a person purchases a book, though, and sits down and reads it all the way through, that opens him up to being won over. That's why it is significant that people are buying copies of Atlas Shrugged.

  10. I think the current leftist preference is for state socialism not communism, at least in the developed world.

    If you haven't read it yet, the book 'Liberal Fascism' is a real eye opener. Very enlightening.

  11. If Capital was a novel it'd be awesome popular.

    Sadly most readers get scared off by the density of volume 1, and read books about Capital instead before they get to the juiciness of volume 3.

  12. I suggest Purchases of books constitute "putting one's money where one's mouth is", whereas a Google search is an enormously more a casual investigation.

  13. Ridiculous, as an earlier poster pointed out Marx and Rand do not have diametrically opposed views.

    I suggest that the searches for Rands work are high because there are a large group of people who are trying to blame social policy for a financial crisis, there are also people erudite enough to know that Greenspan was a student of Rand and they probably want to know, WTF he was thinking?

    Search's for Marx are low because people on the other side don't think that Marxism is going to solve a financial crisis, and they are probably correct.

    How can you possibly have a world wide financial crisis happening basically everywhere and yet many very different social policies in different countries. It's ridiculous, countries experiencing a financial crisis all obviously have something in common.

  14. I search Marx more than Rand and I'm an Objectivist. This is mainly because all of my Canadian coursework in political economy or labour studies requires me to write on Marx. I'm also more familiar with Rand, so I might search "Objectivism," "The Sanction of the Victim," or a specific essay or topic within the