'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
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Rand, of course, knows this. And that's OK, because "Atlas Shrugged" is about philosophy, not business. In her world, there are two kinds of people: those who serve and satisfy themselves only and those who believe that they should strive to serve and satisfy others. She calls the latter "altruists."Skip to next paragraph
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Rand is truly revolutionary because she makes the first serious attempt to protest against altruism. She rejects the heart over the mind and faith beyond reason. Indeed, she denies the existence of any god or higher being, or any other authority over one's own mind. For her, the highest form of happiness is fulfilling one's own dreams, not someone else's – or the public's.
Galt crystallizes the Randian motto: "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." No sacrifice, no altruism, no feelings, just pure egotistical selfishness, which Rand declares to be supreme logic and reason.
This philosophy transcends politics and economics into romance. The novel's sex scenes are narcissistic, mechanical, and violent. Are the lessons of her book any way to run a marriage, a family, a business, a charity, or a community?
To be sure, Rand makes a key point about altruism. A philosophy of sacrificing for others can lead to a political system that mandates sacrificing for others. That, Rand shows with frightening clarity, leads to a dysfunctional society of deadbeats and bleeding-heart do-gooders (Rand calls them "looters") who are corrupted by benefits and unearned income, and constantly tax the productive citizens to pay for their pet philanthropic missions. According to Rand, they are "anti-life."
But is the only alternative to embrace the opposite, Rand's philosophy of extreme self-centeredness? Must we accept her materialist metaphysics in which, as Whittaker Chambers wrote in 1957, "Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world"?
No, there is another choice. If society is to survive and prosper, citizens must find a balance between the two extremes of self-interest and public interest.
Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, may have found that Aristotelian mean in his "system of natural liberty." Mr. Smith and Rand agree on the universal benefits of a free, capitalistic society. But Smith rejects Rand's vision of selfish independence. He asserts two driving forces behind man's actions.
In "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," he identifies the first as "sympathy" or "benevolence" toward others in society. In his later work, "The Wealth of Nations," he focuses on the second – self-interest – which he defines as the right to pursue one's own business. Both, he argues, are essential to achieve "universal opulence."
Smith's self-interest never reaches the Randian selfishness that ignores the interest of others. In Smith's mind, an individual's goals cannot be fully achieved in business unless he appeals to the needs of others. This insight was beautifully stated two centuries later by free-market champion Ludwig von Mises. In his book, "The Anti-Capitalist Mentality," he writes: "Wealth can be acquired only by serving the consumers."
Smith's theme echoes his Christian heritage, particularly the Golden rule, "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" (Matt. 7:12). Perhaps a true capitalist spirit can best be summed up in the commandment, "Love thy neighbour as thyself" (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39). Smith and Mr. von Mises would undoubtedly agree with this creed, but the heroes of "Atlas Shrugged" – and their creator – would agree with only half.
Today's most successful libertarian CEOs, such as John Mackey of Whole Foods Markets and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, have adopted the authentic spirit of capitalism that is more in keeping with Smith than Rand.
Theirs is a "stakeholder" philosophy that works within the system to fulfill the needs of customers, employees, shareholders, the community, and themselves. Their balanced business model of self- interest and public interest shows how the marketplace can grow globally in harmony with the interests of workers, capitalists, and the community – and can even displace bad government.
The golden rule is the correct solution in business and life. But would we have recognized this Aristotelian mean without sampling Rand's anthem, or for that matter, the other extreme of Marxism-Leninism? As Benjamin Franklin said, "By the collision of different sentiments, sparks of truth are struck out, and political light is obtained."
John Galt – it's time to come home and go to work.
• Mark Skousen has taught economics at Columbia University and is the author of the new book, "The Big Three in Economics."