“The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” said Thomas Jefferson. Erne Lewis does a terrific job of adapting this theme to 21st-century America in his new novel, An Act of Self-Defense.
Like Atlas Shrugged, his story is set in an immediate future where the economy is collapsing, and more so than in Atlas, personal freedoms are vanishing. Unemployment is at 20 percent and all communications are recorded and tracked by the NSA. RFID badges are worn by all federal employees and will soon be required for all citizens. A small group of patriots takes matters into their own hands, and the action is fast and furious.
Lewis draws the correct battle lines of our time: not left versus right but libertarian versus fascist. The f-word correctly describes anyone on the left or right who would use government power to suppress personal or economic freedom while leaving nominal ownership in private hands. The novel’s villains are of both stripes, some of them decent people who entered politics with good intentions but became corrupted. That leaves libertarians as the only consistent defenders of what Ludwig von Mises called the “Free and Prosperous Commonwealth” founded on the rule of law, particularly respect for property rights.
I had to wonder, when reading his portrayals of atrocities committed by government agents: How much of this is fiction? Can they do such things? Are they close? Have they already? The Patriot Act is law, so the atrocities seem disturbingly plausible.
Lewis’s patriots aren’t aiming at a complete reboot of the federal system, but something much more modest: term limits. It was a bit of a stretch for me to imagine people risking their lives for this goal or that achieving it would make a revolutionary difference. The basic problem would remain: that the attempt of the framers of the Constitution to limit the power of the federal government has failed. As long as so much loot and so much power are concentrated in Washington, the flies will be drawn to the honey.
The parallels between this tale and Atlas Shrugged are good news and bad news for author Lewis. The movie has heightened interest in Rand’s magnum opus, and he might catch some of that wave. But Rand was a master of theme, plot, characterization, and just plain English composition. Any first novel is bound to fall at least somewhat short of that high standard. For example, at one point he informs us that “the suspense was unbearable” rather than letting readers draw that conclusion from the action.
With Rand’s high standard in mind, I give this book four stars, which is high praise from me. I would give him five for developing his plot. He advances the story a little in one scene, then leaves the reader in suspense as he moves to another scene. This book kept me up late, and I had to finish its 300 pages in just two sittings.
The plot is convincing. Lewis knows what he’s talking about when it comes to communications, computer networking, and military installations. The victories scored by his small band of patriots are amazing but realistic – no deus ex machina here.
Perhaps a Movie?
And what a movie this would make! John Aglioloro has shown the way with his low-budget production of Atlas Shrugged. He will no doubt have his hands full producing the next two parts, but maybe some other producer might be inspired to take up An Act of Self-Defense.
Like Rand, Lewis gives us heroes who are inspirational and yet of this world. They are intelligent, fun-loving, and dedicated to their cause. If there’s anything the young people are starving for these days, it’s heroes such as these.
Tuck this book with you on a long plane ride or to the beach. You’ll zip through it and if you’re like me you may want to give it another more careful read.
[Editor's note: this review first appeared in the Freeman on May 2 2011]