'Atlas Shrugged' 50 years later
By Mark Skousen, Christian Science Monitor
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.
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
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.
Mixed lessons from Rand's heroes: 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
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
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
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."
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
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
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."
Golden rule anchors true capitalismSmith'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
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."
Copyright 2007 The Christian Science Monitor
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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: It was just about fifty years ago that
I had an opportunity to meet Ms. Rand in person. March or April of
1957 comes to mind. I was in high school, freshman year, and the
captain of our school debating team. Our debate 'coach' (who also was
the 'government' and sociology teacher at our school and in charge of
the all-school 'assemblies' from time to time) asked for suggestions
from the debate team on people to invite to speak to students in the
assemblies. The name of Ayn Rand came up; she had already written
several books (the best known being 'The Fountainhead' at that
time). Her other major work ('Atlas Shrugged') had come out a month or
two before. Or maybe it was about to be printed, I do not recall, but
there were already several reviews of it including the Monitor (which
in those days was _not_ a tabloid paper like today but a full-size
seven days per week newspaper with many thoughtful pieces each day,
considerable news, with a _much_ larger circulation. Everyone who was
anyone had a subscription to the Christian Science Monitor, including
all school and public libraries.
Well, we wrote her a letter; she agreed to come to the school and
lecture to our assembly. But there was one problem: she was going
literally everywhere, hawking her new book and we would have to agree
to get her to Ohare Airport in Chicago in time for her flight to her
next stop by 8 PM. Otherwise she would simply go on and not bother
with us; could we do that? Of course we would. The day came, she
arrived, made a very eloquent speech in her broken English (mostly
English, with a lot of Russian words mixed in.) She also had copies of
'Fountainhead' with her and she sold autographed copies of Atlas and
Fountainhead after her speech. I had an autographed hard copy of
'Atlas' until someone unknown stole it one day from me a few years ago.
I went to school in Whiting, Indiana; getting to Ohare from Whiting
was not a big deal, so Arthur Erickson, (the teacher) agreed to
take her. And Arthur asked me to go along, "we will stop and eat
dinner at Condes (a sort of elegant little place in Whiting) on the
way." It was a _much_ different Ohare in those days than now,
certainly. Well, after school we started out; we landed at the
restaurant in a few minutes and went inside. Smoking cigarettes was
a perfectly acceptable thing to do in those days, so once we went
in and were seated, Arthur and Ms. Rand immediatly lighted up; she with
her long cigarette holder, Arthur with his Viceroy and I, (since
I regarded Arthur as my example and hero) smoked a Viceroy also.
Arthur and Ms. Rand both ordered vodka-martinis with their dinner,
I think I had a coke. Underage drinking _was_ against the law. Arthur
suggested I show Ms. Rand the review of 'Atlas' which had been
in the Christian Science Monitor that same day or the day before.
It was a rather large, lengthy review -- taking almost an entire
page -- so she sat there reading it, taking occassional drags from
her cigarette holder and sipping her martini. Alternatly, she would
intently STARE at me as though she wanted to say something. Finally
she did speak up: "Such a remarkable, intelligent young man! Too
smart to believe in Gott! Do you believe in Gott?"
I do not remember what I said, but I remember Arthur was about
to die from trying to conceal his smirking behind his copy of
a paper he was reading. Hand over his mouth and bogus cough. I do
not remember much else of the trip getting her to Ohare. I do
remember her saying she lived on Riverside Drive in New York City
and two or three months later, Arthur had a summer job commitment
to do some seminar thing at Columbia University for a week, and
he came over to see my mother and she consented to me going along
with him. Although I was told strictly _do not_ go anywhere off
of this campus _without him_, I of course knew better, and the
first day we were there, I decided to try and find Ms. Rand. I
looked her up in the phone book, set out for that address on
Riverside Drive (which I was told was about a mile away so I did not
feel I was being 'too disobedient' to Arthur or my mother) but her
husband Frank O'Connor came to the door and told me she was
somewhere (I forget where) on her book promotion tour and would
be back in a couple weeks. He was very gracious also, and suggested
I check back 'around the end of July', but I did not bother. By that
time I think I had other things on my mind instead. When people are
critical of her, they should recall that she was born in Russia just
prior to the Russian Revolution and lived in Russia for several years
prior to immigrating to the USA in the 1930's. PAT]