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.