Of the Modern Library Reader’s List of 100 Best Novels, Ayn (pronounced eye-n) Rand’s titles hold four of the top eight positions, with Atlas Shrugged at #1 and The Fountain Head at #2. In a survey done by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club, respondents ranked Atlas Shrugged second only to the Bible when asked what book made the biggest impact on their lives. The New York Times called Atlas Shrugged “one of the most influential books ever written.”
I recently read Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s magnum opus, having attempted it several times previously. I trudged through all 1,168-pages of this philosophically-dense novel. The book has a fascinating premise and an intriguing plot. And there are aspects of its message that will appeal to many who want to see their hard work and abilities rewarded. However, I found the book’s overall message to be highly anti-democratic, elitist, and at times, amoral (if not immoral). The book expresses distain for welfare services, for serving others without payment, and condemns the concept of the “public good.”
The basic story is about a woman named Dagny Taggart, who runs a successful railroad line, that eventually fails as a result of over-regulation and market interferance from the government, and Dagny chooses to step down as its leader. She eventually joins up with a man named John Galt, who has removed himself from society and started a libertarian utopia in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. He slowly implements a plan to convince all the men of ability, the productive class, to remove themselves from society as well, to go on strike, and join his secret group in the wilderness. Galt’s objective is to “stop the engine of the world.” Each member of the group takes on an oath not to serve others, only themselves. Eventually the outside world falls into chaos without this superior group of men (and one woman, Dagny). Finally, John Galt communicates his intentions with the public in a climactic radio broadcast, spelling out why he and the other ideal men have left them to fend for themselves. His message is essentially this: It is theft when you take what we have earned, when you regulate our activities to the point where we can’t be successful—in spite of our superior abilities—therefore, unless you do it our way, we won’t come back and save you from your own incompetence. In the end, the world welcomes the return of their rulers.
(NOTE: If you want to save yourself a lot of time, and still get the main ideas from the book, simply read John Galt’s philosophically-dense radio speech, from pages 1,009-1,069.)
Prominent conservatives such as Alan Greenspan, Milton Friedman, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Paul Ryan all count themselves among Ayn Rand’s devotees. In fact, Congressman Paul Ryan has made Atlas Shrugged required reading for his staff. Rand’s ideas have been incredibly influential, and have helped shaped the platform of today’s GOP.
In a sense, it is odd that today’s conservatives would accept Ayn Rand’s ideas (Ayn Rand, 1905-1982). Rand was an militant atheist who opposed Ronald Reagan on his antiabortion stance (she was emphatically prochoice). In 1975, she wrote, “I urge you, as emphatically as I can, not to support the candidacy of Ronald Reagan.” She was also an early opponent of the Vietnam War (hardly a position of that today’s Republican hawks would take), and said “I am an enemy of racism.” Such positions would be seen as heresy by Republicans today, who are anti-choice, frequently use religious rhetoric about their belief in God, are more hawkish than ever, prevent racism does not exist, and worship a mythical version of Ronald Reagan (while taking positions far to the right of the real Reagan).
Today’s Republican Party has skillfully aligned itself to court both the evangelical movement and big business. Yet, in many ways, the ideas of Ayn Rand draw a stark contrast between these two groups. Atlas Shrugged has great appeal for the corporate executive/business owner who is conservative but not religious. It leaves those who live solely for making money feeling like their values are the only values that matter, and that they are meant to rule. These readers will be fed with the message—over and over—that they alone should lead the world, and the the “looters” (i.e., everyone else of lesser ability) should simply serve them, the more-worthy and noble men of ability. In essence, the book glorifies “The Virtue of Selfishness” (the name of a non-fiction summary of Rand’s philosophy). Rand condemns helping anyone who has not earned it, an idea that is contrary to what a Christian—or moral—person would believe about grace, service, compassion, and honoring and protecting human life. The oath that is taken by the superior people of Rand’s story goes like this: “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.”
Where Atlas Shrugged has valid and important arguments is when Rand alludes to: maximizing freedom, the importance of rational thinking, the idea that man should not subordinate his mind to authority, the idea that government should minimize the tyranny of the majority by protecting minority rights, the value of voluntary associations of people who are hard working and responsible, and the importance of property rights. Although Rand takes many of these ideas to extremes, these are all very important ideas, and at times, she illustrates them well.
She also makes an important point when discussing irrational government regulations that get in the way of productive endeavors and self-actualization (e.g., innovative ideas, small businesses, a woman’s right to choose, etc.). Yet, Rand goes beyond the widely-accepted point that markets have great benefits and bad regulation is inefficiency and harmful. She argues for a radical libertarian approach to markets and government. This is a dangerous approach because we have been there before. We have had a world with no labor laws, no food regulations, no labor protection, limited public safety, no social security, etc. This is a horrific world where feudalism rules, and where the common man has no voice or power. This is the land of limited freedom and opportunity. And this is where Ayn Rand and today’s Republicans want to return. I suggest, that instead of going backward, let’s go Forward.
Quotes by the heroes of Atlas Shrugged:
- “We haven’t any spiritual goals or qualities. All we’re after is material things. That’s all we care for…Whatever we are, it’s we who move the world.” (pg. 87-88)
- “I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of all—that I was a man who made money.” (pg. 96)
- “There’s nothing of importance in life—except how well you do you work. Nothing. Only that…It’s the only measure of human value…Why are you and I the only ones who seem to know it?” (pg.100)
- “If you didn’t want to make money, what possible motive could you have had?” (pg.120)
- “Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue…Money is the root of all good.” (pg. 413; 415)
- “All I want is the freedom to make money…I am rich and I am proud of every penny that I own. I have made money by my own effort…I refuse to apologize for my money.” (pg. 480)
- “If I were asked to serve the interests of society apart from, above and against my own—I would refuse, I would reject it as the most contemptible evil.” (pg. 481)
- “I will remain faithful to the one commandment of my code which I have never broken: to be a man who pays his own way.” (pg. 566)
- “There are only two modes of living left to us today: to be a looter who robs disarmed victims or to be a victim who works for the benefit of his own despoilers.” (pg. 575)
- “I’m after a man I want to destroy…Robin Hood…He was the man who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Well, I’m the man who robs the poor and gives to the rich—or, to be exact, the man who robs the thieving poor and gives back to the productive rich.” (pg. 576)
- “There is one word which is forbidden in this valley [i.e., Galt’s wilderness utopia]: the word ‘give’.” (pg. 714)
- “We are on strike against those who believe that one man must exist for the sake of another.” (pg. 740)
- “You have no duty to anyone but yourself.” (pg. 802)
- “Give up and get out of the way and let those of us who can, start from scratch out of the ruins.” (pg. 916)
- “‘Public welfare’ is the welfare of those who did not earn it.” (pg. 1,050)
- “No value is higher than self-esteem.” (pg. 1,056)