ON AYN RAND'S ATLAS SHRUGGED
Donald R. Burleson, Ph.D.
Copyright (c) 2010 by Donald R. Burleson.
This review may be reproduced provided original authorship is expressly acknowledged.
Click here to go to the Site Map.
Make no mistake-- Ayn Rand's stunningly brilliant novel Atlas Shrugged is a life-changing book,
even for those of us who approached it essentially already in considerable agreement with the author's
world-view. Atlas Shrugged is arguably the best polemical novel ever written, for precisely the reason
that any polemical novel ever appears: it addresses fundamental questions. But more-- Ayn Rand's masterpiece
addresses the fundamental questions of human existence, and does so in a manner more profoundly
incisive, for my money, than anything else ever written.
What are the fundamental questions of human existence? Well, to answer that question the way one gathers
the incomparable Ayn Rand would answer it, one needs to see the world through an uncompromisingly Objectivist
lens. The pertinent questions, in brief: What is the nature of individual human responsibility? How are the material
means of life on Planet Earth to be possessed, by earning and deserving them or by plundering them?
As is well known, Ayn Rand comes solidly down on the side of possession by earning, by work, by the
free exchange of value for value, unimpeded by the meddling of governmental looters and wealth-redistributing
thugs and bandits. Ayn died in 1982, and one only wishes she had lived to witness the advent of the Barack Obama
administration and its perversely-inclined Congress, a phenomenon she foresaw in an eerily prophetic manner.
She actually wrote, in 1957: "I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don't exist. That this
book has been written-- and published-- is my proof that they do."
Much has been written over the years to the effect that Ayn's view of economic life is heartless, indifferent
to the poor and needy. The myth behind such assessments is of course that government is capable of
improving the lives of the poor by ransacking the coffers of the wealthy and moving the money around.
If readers of Atlas Shrugged learn nothing else from the novel, they should learn that such wrong-headed
(if sometimes, perhaps, well-intended) meddling simply doesn't work in the long run. Atlas Shrugged
is a consummate vision of what is wrong with such schemes, a vision of a world initially in the hands of
brilliant and productive people--like the amazing Dagny Taggart, one of the great women in literature--
who run things like clockwork, a world then meddled into inefficiency, then nightmare and horror,
by the specious belief (or pretended belief), on the part of political figures, that they can improve on things
by reining in the very people who are making things work-- essentially declaring war on the human mind.
In reality, of course, those who champion wealth-redistribution schemes view themselves, in practice,
as immune to the effects of their own social agenda; they will remain privileged and wealthy
(theirs a wealth not earned but extorted from the taxpayer) while they dissolve and reapportion the
earned fortunes of others. (One thinks of the elite Communist Party high-members of the old Soviet Union,
with their plush homes and automobiles, in the midst of a wretched poverty they created for everyone else.)
Atlas Shrugged deals with these issues not only with unrelieved frankness but with imagination
and style. When the productive leaders of the country, led by the legendary John Galt, go on strike,
Galt reminds us, in his three-hour radio address (a tour-de-force unequalled in literature), that this
is a different kind of strike. Usually those on strike make demands, but the striking John Galt and
Francisco D'Anconia and Hank Reardon and others do not make demands, they grant them, saying, in effect:
here, since you think you don't need us, we're simply going to step out of the picture and give you
the sort of world you have always thought you wanted; the only world you can have without us. This
delectable twist on the old idea of a strike, in Ayn Rand's able hands, imparts unforgettable lessons
with a brutally just irony that sticks in the mind forever.
When Hank Rearden, inventor of a "Rearden metal" having the capacity to revolutionize industry,
is put on trial for violating governmental orders as to how much of the metal he can make or sell,
his defense is a masterpiece of logic and right-headedness: "I refuse to accept as guilt the fact
that I am able to do it better than most people-- the fact that my work is of greater value
than the work of my neighbors and that more men are willing to pay me. I refuse to apologize for
my ability-- I refuse to apologize for my success-- I refuse to apologize for my money." As to the
eternal claim that the "profit motive" for such a person as Rearden is an evil bringing harm to "the
public," Rearden is clear on the point: "The public may curtail my profits any time it wishes--
by refusing to buy my product." It is significant that in drawing such a character, Ayn Rand has
shown Rearden to be not some sneaking money-grabber who has grown rich illicitly on the blood and tissue
of others whom he has manipulated, but a genius who has earned every penny of his fortune to the
detriment of no one, unless one thinks of lesser minds' inability to keep up, as "detriment."
Indeed Ayn Rand, in the persona of Hank Rearden, provides us with a classic statement about the
nature and sources of true wealth: "If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans,
I would choose-- because it contains all the others-- the fact that they were the people who created
phrase 'to make money.' No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always
thought of wealth as a static quantity-- to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted, or obtained
as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created. The words 'to make
money' hold the essence of human morality." This statement should be tacked up on everyone's wall
as a reminder of the simple but elusive fact that wealth is not necessarily a signpost of evil, but
usually an indication that somewhere, in some way, a creative human mind has been at work.
But of course the real watershed of Ayn Rand's thought comes, in this novel, with the magnificent
radio address of John Galt, the inventor of a free-energy motor that operates by ambient static
electricity. Galt's speech is a monument to sanity and intelligence. He frames it in terms of
morality-- not, for the atheist Ayn Rand or her characters, a morality based on religious faith, but
a morality based on reason, beyond which there is no appeal. Galt's morality is not the skulking
morality of the political weasel, but the morality of the working human being-- not the morality of
the political thief and the undeserving moocher, but the morality of responsibility. He taunts his
tormenters: "[I]t is immoral to live by your own effort, but moral to live by the effort of others--
it is immoral to consume your own product but moral to consume the product of others-- it is immoral
to earn, but moral to mooch-- it is the parasites who are the moral justification for the existence
of the producers, but the existence of the parasites is an end in itself-- it is evil to profit by
achievement, but good to profit by sacrifice-- it is evil to create your own happiness, but good to
enjoy it at the price of the blood of others." In an age when illegal immigrants expect and demand
the earned benefits of working citizens, an age when profit is thought automatically evil and the
"public good" a matter of destroying that profit, we hear you, Ayn Rand. Indeed Ayn's novel tackles
a philosophical problem in this regard that has never been otherwise examined, let alone resolved:
the problem that when it is thought proper to steal a productive person's work (through taxes) to
benefit "the public," the term "the public" is apparently taken to denote everyone but the productive
person whose work is thus pilfered. Evidently the expectation is that people of ability and industry
are expected, then, to work essentially for free, but this is the stuff of totalitarianism, and Ayn
knew it, and spent a lifetime railing against it. John Galt asks: "Who pays for the orgy?" In an age
when taxpayer-funded "bail-outs" are shoveled into the coffers of incompetent companies as a reward
for their incompetence, an age when companies not smart enough to operate well are protected from
honest competition with companies that do operate intelligently, John Galt's question is vital.
"Do you wonder what is wrong with the world?" he asks. "You are now seeing the climax of the creed
of the uncaused and the unearned." In an age when the United States government honestly appears to
believe that real wealth is created not by human intelligence and honest work, but by printing
enough paper money to "cover" problems created by government to begin with, John Galt's questions
need to be asked more desperately than ever, and his answers need to be understood.
Very often in the course of Galt's address, Ayn Rand's style soars even beyond its usual heights,
as when Galt exclaims that "power-lust is a weed that grows only in the vacant lots of an
abandoned mind." This is addressed to those whom he calls "random little thugs of the moment," and
he informs them that "you're incompetent to run your own life, but competent to run the lives of others."
All of this, in the modern age, sounds so familiar, so applicable, that one grows giddy thinking of it.
The novel has opened with the oft-repeated question "Who is John Galt?" and that same figure provides
the answer: "Do you want to know who is John Galt? I am the first man of ability who refused
to regard it as guilt."
These are not idle notions. I recall, some years ago, a movement among educationist "liberals"
(the word belies its etymological sources, in such an application), to the effect that no school
child should be given an A for his or her effort, unless all children automatically get A's; the
idea was, it must be evil to reward someone for effort, or to fail to reward someone for lack of it.
We must all be treated alike, whether we are producers or not, and indeed productiveness is highly suspect.
If any more perverted lesson could be imparted to a child, I fail to see what it might be. (One hopes
that such egalitarian education-theory-freaks do not do us the disservice of replicating their DNA.)
This is precisely the sort of conceptual monstrousness Ayn Rand has set out to uproot.
In Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand never uses such terms as "left-wing," "right-wing," "liberal," or
"conservative." Perhaps even half a century ago she perceived that the whole concept of a linear
left-to-right political spectrum is a simplistic way of looking at socioeconomic thought, and she
would probably all the more think so if she could hear some of the terms being bandied about in the
current age, terms like "corporate socialism," suggesting that "free" enterprise may actually sometimes
be the product not of independent, capable human work, but the product of governmental currying of favor.
Rand's truly great last novel draws only one critical distinction: between earning and looting.
Atlas Shrugged has taken on the task, in short, of figuring out how the world works, and has
found it out: it works through the fecundity of human intelligence unimpeded by the dead hand of government.
To those political leeches who would run the world from the "resources" of bottomless stupidity and
would defeat those who really have functioning minds, John Galt memorably says: "Get the hell out of my way!"
Which is the only thing government is really well-equipped, but quite often unwilling, to do.
Read this novel. And read it again. And take it to heart. Remember Dagny Taggart; you need to
know her. Remember Hank Rearden; his is a mind to admire. Remember John Galt; he is ourselves,
when we are at our best. And his lesson is: we need never not be at our best.