(Originally published May 27, 2009)
After hearing a lot this year from my LD friends about Ayn Rand and the impact of her Objectivist philosophy on American attitudes, I thought it was time to tackle “Atlas Shrugged.” I had heard that Rand was a major proponent of libertarian thought and free-market economics…as well as a staunch atheist. And what better time than summer to grapple with complex philosophical issues? 😉
The plot of “Atlas Shrugged” is extremely complicated, but I’ll do my best to condense it. (Those of you who have read the book know that I’m leaving out Francisco d’Anconia, Ragnar Danneskjold, Jim Taggart, and a slew of other characters…because they’re really more peripheral figures.)
(Note: this review does contain some spoilers)
In a nutshell, the book follows Dagny Taggart, a self-made woman who works for the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, serving as the vice-president in charge of operations. Wealthy industrialist and steel tycoon Hank Rearden has recently developed an alloy three times lighter than steel for one-half of the cost. This alloy, “Rearden Metal,” is a logical choice for use on the Taggart Transcontinental. It seems like a “no-brainer.”
The government sees Rearden’s production as a threat to the stability and livelihood of the US steel industry – thus actions must be taken to curtail the spread of Rearden Metal before it causes catastrophic damage to the economy. Result: the death of capitalism as we know it. The government rapidly proceeds to implement a series of nationwide directives that transform a free market into a planned economy. Riots and starvation soon follow as the much-hated “Big Businesses” collapse, leaving millions of Americans bankrupt and without hope for the future.
As everything seems to crumble around her, Dagny travels to the West in the hopes of salvaging as much of Taggart Transcontinental as possible. An unexpected plane crash brings her in contact with an enigmatic figure known as “John Galt” and his community of economic freedom.
Galt has established an economic utopia (known as Atlantis), seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The symbol of the community: the dollar sign ($), representing capitalism and free enterprise. Their utopia is a bastion of resistance against the Marxist forces engulfing the nation and depriving it of prosperity. After seeing how far America has declined, Atlantis is like a breath of fresh air. Galt eventually returns to civilization to spread the message of economic freedom and prosperity…but I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the ending.
Sounds good, right? Don’t we all agree that the government should pretty much stay out of the economy?
On its first face, Rand’s philosophy seems extremely appealing. And “Atlas Shrugged” can certainly be read as nothing more than a treatise on the role of government in the economy. But there is far, far more to “Atlas Shrugged” than merely economics.
Consider the following dialogue:
“She glanced up suddenly. ‘Dagny, how did you do it? How did you manage to remain unmangled?’
‘By holding to just one rule.’
‘To place nothing – *nothing* – above the verdict of my own mind.’
‘You’ve taken some terrible beatings…maybe worse than I did…worse than any of us…What held you through it?’
‘The knowledge that my life is the highest of values, too high to give up without a fight.'” (Ayn Rand, “Atlas Shrugged”, page 891)
And later on in the conversation…
“‘Cherryl, listen to me carefully: that feeling – with everything which it requires and implies – is the highest, noblest, and only good on earth.'” (Ibid., 891)
LDers take note: Rand’s highest value is that of human life – and more specifically, freedom of opportunity within that life.
Still sounds good? Examine John Galt’s “oath” which all members of his utopia are required to take:
“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” (Ibid., 739)
If warning bells are going off in your mind right now…there’s a reason for that. Rand completely repudiates all forms of altruism or self-sacrifice:
“The justification of sacrifice, that your morality propounds, is more corrupt than the corruption it purports to justify. The motive of your sacrifice, it tells you, should be love – the love you ought to feel for every man. A morality that professes the belief that the values of the spirit are more precious than matter, a morality that teaches you to scorn a [prostitute] who gives her body indiscriminately to all men – this same morality demands that you surrender your soul to promiscuous love for all comers.” (Ibid., 1032)
Here is where Rand’s philosophy completely deviates from Biblical Christian morality. There is no concept of “agape” love in Rand’s secularist universe – no concept of loving others because we are commanded to do so. Our Christian beliefs do NOT teach us to “scorn” anyone, no matter how vile a sinner. We are commanded to love – because Christ first loved us. We love the sinner, while hating the sin.
Rand starts from the assumption that “there is no God,” and rationalizes an individual-centered solution from that assumption. Her philosophy is, in many ways, a method of bringing order and reason to a society without assuming the existence of an independent moral code. (Existentialism, anyone? There are some similarities)
And that’s probably the most fundamental flaw in Rand’s logic.
Rand believes that there are ultimately no values outside the determination of the individual, and that happiness – expanded to mean freedom of economic opportunity – is the supreme goal of man’s existence:
“Accept the fact that the achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness – not pain or mindless self-indulgence – is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values.” (Ibid., 1059)
Assume for a moment that Rand is correct – that there are no morals other than those we make for ourselves. How could we answer the question of slavery? Whose freedom of opportunity is more important – the slave’s, or the owner’s? There is no independent way of justifying the abolition of slavery under Rand’s philosophy, nor is there a way of justifying its continued existence. When it comes to sticky moral questions such as this one, Rand’s philosophy falls short.
As is clear from the above passages, Rand’s philosophy is very focused on the individual – and on the individual’s pursuit of happiness. But what happens when two individuals’ “happiness” comes into conflict? If sociopathic killers and serial rapists take pleasure in their actions, who can ultimately judge whether their rights – or their victims’ rights – are more important? Without an independent code of morality, there is no practical application of Rand’s mindset.
Rand outright rejects the notion of an independent moral system, however:
“Damnation is the start of your morality, destruction is its purpose, means and end. Your code [society’s moral code] begins by damning man as evil, then demands that he practice a good which it defines as impossible for him to practice…The name of this monstrous absurdity is Original Sin.” (Ibid., page 1025)
But the question she doesn’t answer: where did this moral code originate? It ISN’T in our best interests to think of ourselves as sinful and fallen creatures…which begs the question…why do we have this image of ourselves?
In the opening pages of “Mere Christianity” C.S. Lewis explains that humans have an innate conception of right and wrong:
“Everyone has heard people quarrelling…they say things like this: ‘How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?’ ‘That’s my seat, I was there first.’ ‘Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm.’ ‘Why should you shove in first?’ ‘Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine.’ ‘Come on, you promised.'” (C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity, page 1)
He goes on to explain that “the man who makes [these remarks] is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about.” (Ibid., 1)
God’s moral law is written on our hearts. We know we’ve transgressed that law. As humans, we have an innate understanding of our sinfulness and need for salvation…which is generally termed our “conscience.” It IS impossible for us to be perfectly good – which is why we need salvation in the first place.
To be fair, there is a great deal of appeal to Rand’s philosophy. It’s extremely simple: do what works for you and brings you happiness, and let that be the supreme goal and purpose of your life. Reject all notions of original sin – be happy and free!
But the most important question: is she RIGHT?
Winston Churchill once said, “However beautiful the strategy, one must occasionally look at the results.” Does selfishness really breed success and happiness? The historical record speaks for itself.
Rand justifies her claims as an alternative to Marxism’s “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” By creating a vivid portrait of an economically dystopian America, she hopes to encourage readers to espouse her philosophy. However, she doesn’t consider the reasons behind the failures of Marxism…and especially not the biggest reason.
When government leaders and officials are placed in charge of the economy, they immediately start operating on the principle of what will benefit THEM the most. They are adopting Rand’s mindset – placing their happiness above all other values. Thus the failures of Marxism are not due to a belief in the importance of sacrifice, but rather due to a self-centered mindset of greed.
Communism sounds like a great idea. The problems come with its implementation – and because of the sinful, selfish desires of those in power. Sacrifice is not the problem – selfishness is.
So is “Atlas Shrugged” worth reading? At more than 1100 pages long, it’s certainly no beach read. However, it is extremely well written, and oddly compelling, making it a difficult book to put down. Anyone interested in addressing and combating an increasingly pervasive humanist philosophy will be well served by understanding Rand’s ideas. “Atlas Shrugged” is both an epic economic adventure story and a linchpin of libertarian thought.
(Readers may wish to be aware that there are several adult situations throughout the book, as well as some language. Recommended for mature readers only.)
A well-written, thought-provoking meditation on human existence and values.