Thoughts on Atlas Shrugged

by Virgie Thibault – Guest Contributor

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is a masterpiece of economic fiction.  I expected to read it for the sake of the scholarship offered by the Ayn Rand institute and walk away with my own ideas tweaked at most and intact at least.  What I found instead was my views being drastically changed through the fictional case-study she presented.  I found myself questioning my original views and wondering where I would fit into the novel.  Every author should seek to be as effective as Ayn Rand was in Atlas Shrugged. 

The novel was about America from the point of view of its top executives and business owners in a time when many people are spouting the philosophy, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”  To the average American in these hard economic times, that philosophy might seem like a worthwhile pursuit, but to the discerning readers of Waves of Gray, I’m sure you see the glaring horror of such a statement.  Now let me warn you that if you have said, “Why, that’s communism, that is!”  I must correct that.  It is pure socialism. 

Atlas Shrugged provided a fictional case-study of the progression of such a philosophy into a society.  The most interesting thing about the novel is that it demonstrates just how destructive that philosophy can be, not only on the economy, but also on the individual.  The only thing that I couldn’t fully agree with was the concept that pure capitalism is a corruption-free economic model. 

The story mostly follows Dagny Taggert (vice-president of Taggert Transcontinental), a woman whose passion is and always has been the running of her family’s trains.  Her brother, Jim, is the president of the company and has the most influence through the manipulation of regulations via his “man in Washington”.  While he busies himself with creating legislation to destroy the competition in the name of society’s betterment, Dagny is really the brains behind the running of the railroad.

Another closely-followed character is Hank Rearden who is the owner of Rearden Ore, Rearden Steel, and Rearden Metal.  In fact, he is the inventor of Rearden Metal, a new metal alloy that is stronger than steel, lighter than steel, and cheaper than steel.  He is very proud of his achievement, but his family (made up of a wife, his mother, and his brother) continuously spites him, despite his continued and indiscriminate charity to them. 

Between those two characters and their struggles to continue to run their companies at a profit, we are also introduced to Ellis Wyatt (inventor of a new technique to tap oil reserves and the largest producer of it in the nation), Kenneth Danagger (the owner of Danagger Diesel Motors), Lawrence Hammond (owner of Hammond Cars), Dan Conway (owner of the Phoenix-Durango Railway), and the stories of Midas Mulligan (a banking tycoon that disappeared with no explanation), John Galt (inventor of a static electricity-powered motor that disappeared after promising to stop the gears of the world), Richard Haley (great composer of music that disappeared after a well-accepted performance, Hugh Akston (a philosophy professor at Patrick Henry University who disappeared after he retired), Ragnar Danneskjöld (a pirate), and Francisco d’Anconia (the son of three generations of copper tycoons who quite methodically began to destroy his fortune). 

Through a series of legislative events in which the secondary business owners use the excuse that the largest businesses are trying to become a monopoly, the largest corporations find themselves being dangerously, and even unethically, squeezed out of their profits.  This prompts the best and brightest minds to find a secret society that follows the creed, “I swear by my life, and my love for it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”  What is most interesting about that creed is the stark degree of self-sustainability that it demands.  That does not mean that asking for help is wrong, but rather that all things should be done for your own benefit.  To help someone in their time of need is to forge a friendship, a priority, or a business reimbursement.  To ask for help is to recognize that.  For example, Rearden was asked for help by another businessman who was having trouble due to some legislation, and without the Rearden Metal to reinforce his mines, he could possibly fail if there was a collapse.  Rearden contributed a certain amount to the man despite already working at capacity.  Later, Rearden’s mother approaches him and asks him to employ his brother.  Rearden immediately refuses, because his brother has no practical experience, and he would be paying him for nothing.  His mother says that to do so would be to help someone less fortunate, but Rearden still refuses.  The difference, as Francisco d’Anconia said, is that one wants to make money and the other simply wants to have money.  In this model, ingenuity and competence and efficiency are rewarded, whereas, in the social model, it is punished. 

Of course, what she writes is a bit of a slippery slope model for socialism, and the society that was set up for the people that left, projected further, may fall to the reverse issues.  Whereas the hard workers, creative, smart, and talented were harmed by the pure social model, the less-capable and less-fortunate could be harmed by the pure capital model.  Instead, I argue for a common-sense model. 

First and foremost, reinstitute Philosophy and English in schools to the degree that it was taught pre-1950’s.  Then, allow companies to freely make money and only regulate the distribution of said funds to ensure fairness.  Perhaps unions need to be inhibited and globalization needs to be curtailed via incentives to stay and penalties to go.  There are many things that we can do, but we must avoid inhibiting production or decreasing funding for valuable research. 

Now, before I finish, I feel a need to warn you that Atlas Shrugged is 1069 pages long, and though it may start slow, it is a delightful read.  I hope that some of you will consider reading it.  The audiobook version is very well done as well.  This is a stimulating read for anyone who has made up their mind on an economic policy, but I challenge you to ask yourself the following:  Which character do you best associate yourself with?  Has the story made you question any of your views?  Has it made you change any of your views?  An open mind will be imperative to the reading of this novel, but by all means, enjoy and think outside of the box.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Atlas Shrugged

  1. I read Atlas Shrugged about a year ago and would have found its economic viewpoint to be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that in the background our economy, built by Randians, was crashing down around us and almost collapsed.

    First, I’ll give Rand credit for a couple of things, most notably that she gave Dagny a strong sense of her own sexuality. As a society, we still haven’t come to grips with female sexuality and for Rand to have done so in the 1950s deserves praise. I also enjoyed the manner in which she eschewed religion. And I think she might have created a good novel if she didn’t step away from the novel so often to give lectures.

    As an economic theory, however, this book teaches nothing. Rand creates a fictional utopia the same way Bellamy did with socialism in Looking Backward. One of your questions at the end of your post demonstrates my point. You ask which character readers most associate themselves with. Who on earth would choose anyone from the “bad guys” side? Rand makes them all ugly, awful people. Meanwhile, Hank, Dagny et al., are made to be good looking and brimming with sinewy strength and confidence. Similarly, you suggest unions should be inhibited and I’m assuming that’s partly based on her portrayal of them. But Rand just makes them bad. She doesn’t explain why this is so. She simply portrays union members as lazy people who think they deserve a slice of the pie they didn’t help bake.

    Also, did you notice the line where she says that Reardon paid a higher wage than his competitors? It’s easy to miss because it’s made rather in passing, but it’s extremely important. In our post-USSR world, it’s easy to forget how communism and socialism came into being. They weren’t trumpeted by wealthy people talking philosophy in their leisure time, but by workers who were exploited by a wage competition system that kept them all barely at subsistence level, and some even lower. Rand is engaging is some sleight of hand here because she sets up one of the heroes, Reardon, in a way that is contrary to the norm, which helps bolster her unsupported premise that unions have no legitimate purpose. Here, I will add history to your list of topics that need to be given more emphasis in the schools.

    It’s also worth noting that Reardon would have, in real life, gotten a government patent to protect the steel it took him a decade to produce because, in real life, competitors would have simply figured out how he made it and started producing it themselves. (This happened with Polartec.)

    Indeed, just as Rand creates a false utopia of selfishness as among the greatest of human attributes (foreshadowing the “greed is good” speech in “Wall Street”), she creates a strawman of socialism/liberalism or whatever unnamed ism she opposes. I certainly can’t be the voice of all liberals, but I’ve never read or heard or thought of the sorts of things Rand tries to give life, and opposition, to. Much more common is an FDR-style (even TR) opposition that capitalism serves a lot of purposes, but that it has its ugly side which, once revealed, can cause substantial and widespread damage. Many liberals also believe that there are some areas of life that shouldn’t be driven by a profit motive, like whether your grandmother or mine freezes to death in the winter because she can’t pay her heating bill. Oddly enough, no one in Atlas Shrugged is old or sick, and I recall only one small child in the whole book. And, really, the legislative initiatives in the book have to do with rearranging power among the powerful and it doesn’t take long for us to learn that the “bad guy” captains of industry aren’t any less interested in themselves than are Rand’s heroes.

    You’re right that innovation and research ought always to be encouraged. But a lot of very important innovation and research has been born of government efforts, which in turn support private industry. This costs each of us a few dollars but brings immense benefits and, for some, immense profits.

    There are a million other things I could say but your post encourages people to read the book and too many comments here would just be spoilers. I’ll close with this thought: If an unregulated market worked the way Rand plays it out, I’d probably go along, but there’s too much history of cheating, exploitation and a lack of accountability to make it credible. As I said at the outset, I was reading this book as our economy was on the verge of collapse. Too much of that economy was premised on Rand’s fiction without any sense that it was, in fact, fiction.

    Thank you for the post. It was most interesting to read and respond to.

  2. P.S., Virgie, I hope you continue to contribute to this site. I, for one, appreciate your perspective and would like to read more.

  3. Thanks Cady,

    You made a lot of interesting points that resolve some of my personal curiosities. For example, as simple as it may seem, I couldn’t reconcile the perfect society she created with the total crash on the outside. I agree that we need to remember that it is just a story, and a highly exaggerated one at that, but I still believe, in light of what you said in your reply, that the key is to recognize that a blend of the systems may be the best way.

    Your praise is greatly appreciated,

    Virgie Thibault

  4. Let me be honest from the outset and admit that I have not yet read the book. However, between these posts and some additional reading about both Ayn Rand and the story itself, I am most intrigued. There’s no getting around the fact that Rand, having grown up in Russia and being directly affected by the Communist movement, wrote this as a personal response to her experiences. I wonder if an American writer could have possibly injected the characters and plot with the same level of conviction.

    Concerning the argument about what economic system works best? I’m not sure it’s possible to find an answer as long as humans are running them. Ideally, for me, it’s the free market system. But we’ve already addressed the issue of corruption and greed, which leave us far short of that ideal. But we sure don’t want the government running the whole show. Private enterprise and competition will usually ensure a more efficient and effective delivery of goods and services, although some regulation is necessary just to keep everyone honest.

    For lack of a perfect solution, our current arrangement is likelly the best we’ll do for now. The Rolling Stones may have some relevance here: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.”

  5. Cady – I can see that your comments are sincere and reasoned. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, of course, that Ayn’s fiction presents a caricature of both capitalism and socialism. Her purpose was specifically to show the best and worst qualities of each, respectively. As you pointed out, Bellamy did the same with Looking Backward.

    Both authors attempted to show what they believe to be the logical end of carrying out a chosen worldview consistently and fully, and both did so convincingly. What each author’s story omitted, of course, was the potential problems encountered in the system they espoused, and the positive qualities of some of those who practice the system they despised. But that’s the nature of caricature fiction, or arguing from the extreme.

    Pure capitalism, as Rand describes, trusts full in the mind of mankind … as Dagny was advised by John Galt (??, from memory), “if you’re making a decision and find a conflict between your mind and your heart, follow your mind.”

    Pure socialism trusts fully in the heart of mankind. Neither system can fully succeed because those premises are both false. We know that people do both illogical and evil things.

    You mentioned, Cady, that “Rand creates a false utopia of selfishness as among the greatest of human attributes.” True. Capitalistic philosophy does that.

    Socialism likewise creates a false utopia of selflessness as among the greatest attributes.

    You see, both of those are attributes that can work in a society. If we all lived entirely for our own personal gain, society would be healthy. If we all lived entirely for others’ welfare, society would be healthy.

    Neither is possible, though. Our minds and our hearts fail us repeatedly.

    There really is no solution to this. All we can do is pick the best of the two (in reality, these are the only two poles, and any other system is an imperfect variation of them) according to our experiences, values, and perceptions. To me, Rand’s capitalism (or something very similar) seems the best choice. I can fully appreciate and respect those who purely see things the other way around.

    What I have trouble respecting or appreciating is anyone that believes on or the other is actually achievable. Indeed, I believe the best ideal for us to pursue is the one that seems the most closely achievable.

    I’m perplexed, however, by your statement that you “enjoyed the manner in which she eschewed religion.” I can only assume that you enjoyed that because (a) You believe religion has no bearing upon economics, or (b) you believe religion itself is to be eschewed [for whatever reason].

    “Religion,” however, is a system that recognizes, explains, accounts for, and provides a long-term solution to the problem with both Rand and Bellamy. Some religions, most notably Christianity and Judaism, explain why mankind can’t achieve pure socialism nor pure capitalism, viz., why mankind’s heart and mind will both fail at times. These religions also provide a future hope for a day when these problems will no longer exist and a short-term hope for how to minimize these defects.

    The failure of both socialism and of capitalism — of both the heart and mind of man — is something we can all acknowledge, I think. If we want an answer, we have nowhere to look but outside ourselves.


  6. I’m not sure I completed my thoughts adequately. John Galt doesn’t and can’t exist. That’s where Rand’s system breaks down. Galt is right that contradictions don’t exist. He’s right that if everyone lived a purely rational life, the world would be ‘perfect’ (if you’ll forgive the term).

    But living out pure reason requires perfect knowledge of everything. Not only is it not possible to know everything, it’s not even possible to always know every knowable thing that you need to know to make a decision or take an action at the time it needs to be made or taken.

    Rand/Galt is also correct that very bad decisions/actions are made when the heart trumps the mind.

    Rand’s/Galt’s system ignores the fact that not everyone has equal capacity for reason. Easy examples are the mentally retarded and the senile.

    Pure servitude could create a healthy society, too, if pure servitude were possible, and if it were offered volitionally. But liberalism/socialism realizes that pure servitude is as unachievable as pure reason. This is why it normally degrades into communism with force and controls.

    Again, this is why we need to pursue is the system that seems most likely attainable, realize its deficiencies, and account for them by allowing elements of the other into our lives. Reason as the ideal, with self-sacrifice and servitude as elements of our lives (within reason :-)), seems to me the most attainable.

    Additionally, this is why I trust in a God who knows more than I, whom I believe has a perfect mind and perfect heart and is willing and able to lead me to make decisions and take actions more ultimately perfect than I could have reasoned, or felt, on my own. He is the resolution of the apparent contradictions that creep in whenever we try to live entirely by the mind or the heart.


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