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A Positive Atlas Shrugged Review Ayn Rand Would Hate

September 23, 2011

I finally did it.  I finally read Atlas Shrugged.

It’s one of the most read books of all time, and one of the most controversial.  That said, I’m not entirely sure most of the people holding the “Going Galt” signs, or those ridiculing them for doing so, have actually read Ayn Rand’s novel.  And if they have, they haven’t gotten much past the myth of “greed is good.”

But I can’t really blame them since the thing is over a thousand friggin pages long.  And don’t bother trying to cheat by just watching the movie either.  I thought it was a little thin before I read the book, but it so completely missed the mark that now I think it’s just a steaming pile.

So, on with the review:

Atlas Shrugged made me feel alternately inspired and revolted.  It really is an opus to human capacity and achievement.  Reading its pages makes one want to conquer the world, makes you want to go out and produce something Amazing!  Being a producer is where it’s at!  In Ayn Rand’s world there are three, and only three, kinds of people: Producers, Moochers, and Looters.  The names seem fairly self-explanatory, but there is an easily missed depth to the terms.  And it is the missed depth that caused my intermittent revulsion.

First, the inspiration.  In Atlas Shrugged, Producers are captains of industry.  They’re all brilliant, fair, and driven.  One can be a Producer whether you were born into it, as was Dagny Taggert, or you built it from scratch, as did Hank Rearden. A Producer produces, and is proud of it.  At first, the way Rand wrote these characters seemed either devoid of reality, or at the very least bad Gordon Geckko wannabes.  But as I kept reading, the depth of these characters’ feelings for their steel and railroads became clear to me.  It’s the same feeling I get when I pick tomatoes or carrots from my garden.  After a season of toil it’s a genuinely fulfilling and uplifting moment to see the literal fruit of my labor.  It’s achievement.  It’s production of useful things.  It lifts man’s spirit, his righteous self-esteem.  It’s beautiful and inspiring.

The story line in Atlas Shrugged is quite clear – Producers are the good guys, Looters are the bad guys.  But that leaves everyone else as a Moocher, and that just seems too…harsh, too simplistic.  The idea that if you’re not a captain of industry, a genius of production, then you’re nothing but a moocher is one that I cannot stomach.  Fortunately, it’s an idea that Rand isn’t proposing, though sometimes it’s hard to tell.  I noted previously that Rand’s Producers are all amazing leaders not only of companies, but of entire industries.  They are the best of the best.  And if that’s the requirement for entry, then Producer is a most exclusive club.  But a deeper reading of Atlas reveals that membership in the Producer fraternity is open to anyone willing to work hard and use their mind.  For instance, in the beginning pages of the book there’s a rail worker we’re introduced to only briefly because he whistles a tune that strikes rail road genius Dagny Taggert’s imagination.  He hardly seems to fit the mold of Master of Industry, yet later on there he is living productively with John Galt’s other genius strikers.  The lesson is that it matters not what your station is, how smart or talented or privileged you are.  All that matters is your work and your mind, and your willingness to use your mind to produce things of value.

Perhaps a larger source of consternation for me while reading Atlas Shrugged was the seemingly endless bashing of “sacrifice”.  As a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, it is anathema to me to think that sacrifice is not in fact a virtue.  However, Rand’s abhorrence of “sacrifice” (I put it in quotes in order to remind us that it’s a certain perverted type of sacrifice she hates) is motivated by the recognition that self-sacrifice can merely be a means for others, the Moochers & Looters, to control you and gain power.  A real world example of this is the current publicized debates regarding Social Security.  Some of the greatest minds of the last half century, Nobel Prize winning minds from both political parties, have called it a Ponzi scheme, yet when a Republican presidential frontrunner says it on the campaign trail he is immediately and loudly denounced and vilified.  Why?  Because Social Security is nearing critical mass and he might actually be in a position to significantly alter it.  Actually that’s not true.  The powers that be are afraid that America will wake up to what Social Security really is, and they’re terrified at what that could mean for this program.  So they vilify, they try to use guilt to shut down the discussion.  They create the mindset that even the tiniest hint of changing Social Security means you are heartless, compassionless, devoid of love of fellow-man.   And the moment you allow sacrifice=help the elderly=Social Security to be the only equation that matters is the moment “sacrifice” ceases to be a virtue.

In an interview she gave years ago, Ayn Rand said, “Communism is based on altruism.  Every dictatorship is based on altruism.”  Looking at the preceding example of attempts at Social Security reform, I can understand her point.  Altruism, sacrifice of self, allows others to use your own guilt to make you stop using your mind.  You may have other ideas, even better ideas, but the guilt of sacrifice makes you self censor, makes you give in without a struggle.  And those who would have power over you much prefer it come with little struggle.

Now, lest we think Rand has taken her point too far, I would argue that she doesn’t hate sacrifice at all.  At least not true sacrifice, not really.  She hates religion because she thinks it teaches you should get nothing in return for sacrifice, otherwise it’s not a true sacrifice.  Even getting joy from helping your neighbor devalues your gift.  Therefore, the only true sacrifice is one in which a thing of value is traded for something of zero value.  The natural result of this is a world of zero.  And that is what the world in Atlas Shrugged became.  Virtue, production, accomplishment were hated, and when John Galt hastened the inevitable end of this philosophy by taking away the producers, the world was left with nothing.  Which is exactly what their moral system valued.

But Rand doesn’t think real sacrifice must necessarily lead to zero.  No, only the trading of value for non value leads to zero.  Only expecting nothing in return for charity destroys its virtue.  Add joy back to the transaction and suddenly you have fair trade again, and, I would argue, a trade which increases total net output.  For example, in the interview previously mentioned, Rand was asked about her artist husband.  Artists aren’t known for their riches, so the interviewer asked her if she would support him if he needed it, and if so wouldn’t that offend her philosophy.  She said she wasn’t supporting him, but if he needed it, she would do it and it wouldn’t be contrary to her beliefs because, “it is not a sacrifice because I take selfish pleasure in it.”  So Rand isn’t really arguing against sacrifice after all, she’s arguing against the kind of debasing self-esteem killing “sacrifice” that requires you to devalue yourself even when you’re doing good.

Ayn Rand might not have known it, and were she alive today would likely disagree with me vehemently, but in Atlas Shrugged she made a profound argument for religion.  For it is my faith that says the joy one gets by helping another, the righteous pride that true charity evokes in the human spirit, that is the richest of all earthly things.  And for that, I’m glad I made it through the 1,069 pages of Atlas Shrugged.

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