'Atlas Shrugged' – 50 years later
When Ayn Rand finished writing "Atlas Shrugged" 50 years ago this month, she set off an intellectual shock wave that is still felt today. It's credited for helping to halt the communist tide and ushering in the currents of capitalism. Many readers say it transformed their lives. A 1991 poll rated it the second-most influential book (after the Bible) for Americans.Skip to next paragraph
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At one level, "Atlas Shrugged" is a steamy soap opera fused into a page- turning political thriller. At nearly 1,200 pages, it has to be. But the epic account of capitalist heroes versus collectivist villains is merely the vehicle for Ms. Rand's philosophical ideal: "man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."
In addition to founding her own philosophical system, objectivism, Rand is honored as the modern fountainhead of laissez-faire capitalism, and as an impassioned, uncompromising, and unapologetic proponent of reason, liberty, individualism, and rational self-interest.
There is much to commend, and much to condemn, in "Atlas Shrugged." Its object – to restore man to his rightful place in a free society – is wholesome. But its ethical basis – an inversion of the Christian values that predicate authentic capitalism – poisons its teachings.
Rand articulates like no other writer the evils of totalitarianism, interventionism, corporate welfarism, and the socialist mindset. "Atlas Shrugged" describes in wretched detail how collective "we" thinking and middle-of-the-road interventionism leads a nation down a road to serfdom. No one has written more persuasively about property rights, honest money (a gold-backed dollar), and the right of an individual to safeguard his wealth and property from the agents of coercion ("taxation is theft"). And long before Gordon Gekko, icon of the movie "Wall Street," she made greed seem good.
I applaud her effort to counter the negative image of big business as robber barons. Her entrepreneurs are high-minded, principled achievers who relish the competitive edge and have the creative genius to invent exciting new products, manage businesses efficiently, and produce great symphonies without cutting corners. Such actions are often highly risky and financially dangerous and are often met with derision at first. Rand rightly points out that these enterprising leaders are a major cause of economic progress. History is full of examples of "men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision." In the novel, protagonist Hank Reardon defends his philosophy before a court: "I refuse to apologize for my ability – I refuse to apologize for my success – I refuse to apologize for my money."
But there's a dark side to Rand's teachings. Her defense of greed and selfishness, her diatribes against religion and charitable sacrificing for others who are less fortunate, and her criticism of the Judeo- Christian virtues under the guise of rational Objectivism have tarnished her advocacy of unfettered capitalism. Still, Rand's extreme canard is a brilliant invention that serves as an essential counterpoint in the battle of ideas.
The Atlas characters are exceptionally memorable. They are the unabashed "immovable movers" of the world who think of nothing but their own business and making money. "... I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of them all – that I was a man who made money," says copper titan Francisco d'Anconia. But these men are regarded as ruthless, greedy, single-minded individualists. They are men (except for Dagny Taggart, who could be confused for a man) who always talk shop and give scant attention to their family. In fact, no children appear in Rand's magnum opus.
Her chief protagonist, John Galt, is an uncompromising superman. He is the proverbial Atlas who holds the world on his shoulders. He has invented a fantastic motor, yet is so frustrated with state authority that he withdraws his talents – hence the title, "Atlas Shrugged" – and spends the next dozen years working as a manual laborer for Taggart International.
Mr. Galt somehow succeeds in getting the world's top capitalists to go on strike and, in many cases, strike back at an increasingly oppressive collectivist government. Rand's plot violates a key tenet of business existence, which is to constantly work within the system to find ways to make money. Real-world entrepreneurs are compromisers and dealmakers, not true believers. They wouldn't give a hoot for Galt.