Jun 22, 09
anyone interested in economics, morality, politics, or philosophy
Read in August, 2008, read count: 1
** spoiler alert **
Ayn Rand shows why she is the godmother of Libertarianism in Atlas Shrugged. While many conservatives defend their beliefs on the basis of economic efficiency--a perfectly acceptable and sensible position to me--Rand paints Libertarianism as morally superior as well in this, her magnum opus. I generally dislike fiction because the ideas can be expressed much more concisely and explicitly in a short essay or speech, but this book was worth it. I'm glad I read it.
Covering more than 1,000 pages and published in 1957, Rand traces the decline of 20th century American society as it moves from free-market capitalism to socialism and communism. She draws on her personal experience, for Rand was a Russian immigrant who lived through the negative effects of collectivism. A consistent theme throughout the book is the notion that "A is A," which is Rand's way of saying that you can not wish away or change reality by hiding from it, lying about it, or renaming it something else. People respond to incentives and those responses shape and color the world in which we all live. The politicians in the novel mirror politicians in real life in their attempts to justify, explain away, or ignore obvious truths. The truth according to Rand is that individualism and liberty are morally right. Collectivism and forced altruism are morally wrong.
This was the biggest idea that I took away from Atlas Shrugged: the people who take more than they produce, the looters, are destructive and evil. They use pity, guilt, and shame to try to get the producers to fork over the fruits of their labor. Some people believe that just by virtue of the fact that they are alive and human they deserve or are owed all the necessities of life--and more. Rand points out the often ignored fact that someone else, the "forgotten man," has to provide these things. Providing is a struggle, receiving is easy. When parasitically using the producers' own sense of goodness against them fails, the looters will turn to force (i.e., the government and its monopoly on laws and force) to take what they want. Essentially, confiscatory taxes are akin to slavery if you define slavery as working against your will for the benefit of someone else under the threat of force. You don't have a choice about whether or not you pay your taxes. They are withheld. If you evade what the government says you "owe" then you are thrown in jail. If you try to resist arrest you can be shot. Equally absurd is the notion that government bureaucrats impose often arbitrary regulations upon the producers. These people who produce nothing themselves must give "permission" to others to produce.
There is a great explanation within this novel of why the notion "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" doesn't work. At its simplest, people will exaggerate their needs and downplay or withhold their abilities, thereby reducing the total production of society. Why work hard and struggle when you don't receive the benefit? It seems obvious, but many people in the last century and even today love the collectivist idea, and tens of millions have died because of it. Those who decide how the spoils are rationed hold the power that they could not gain through exchange in a free market, and their unwillingness to relinquish this power killed people. This fact destroys any argument that collectivism is supposed to "help people."
Rand also points out that freedom and equality are incompatible. A society that attempts to enforce equality must do so at the expense of freedom and will ultimately end up with neither. When people are free to utilize their various talents, differences will inevitably arise. Curtailing these differences for equality's sake necessarily means curtailing some actors' freedoms. Even in a supposedly materialistically equal society, political power will be concentrated in a few hands, and the desire to enrich oneself at the expense of others has repeatedly proven too much to resist. The only type of equality worth enforcing is equality of opportunity under the law.
Dagny Taggart, the railroad executive and protagonist, struggles to overcome the increasingly intrusive government and collectivist ideology behind it. In the end, the parasitic nature of communism destroys society when the host or "Atlases" (the hardworking, intelligent people who produce goods and services) decide to shrug (refuse to work under the threat of force for someone else). They just quit playing. It then simultaneously becomes obvious how valuable and vital to society are these producers and how worthless and destructive are the politicians decreeing arbitrary commands.
The Atlases exit general society and hide away in a compound in Colorado called Galt's Gulch where they live out their ideals and individuals are completely free to pursue their own interests. In so doing, everyone benefits. No one receives more than they contribute, and everyone is supposedly happy. It is the idealized genuinely free market society that has yet to come into existence in human history.
Rand maintains that it is immoral to initiate force upon someone else. This is the root of her entire belief system, and she shows what happens when this idea is embraced versus when it is perverted or ignored. The secret society in Colorado flourishes, and the rest of the country decays.
I largely agree with Rand. However, she doesn't mention what she would do with the mentally or physically handicapped. I'm curious as to what she would say about them. It's possible that topic is mentioned in some of her nonfiction, such as "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology." The answers I've read on this dilemma basically hold that there is a sufficient amount of private charity to cover those truly in need or incapable of helping themselves, and this is probably the line that Rand would take.
Memorable quotes from the men with whom Dagny becomes intimate:
"It is not advisable, James, to venture unsolicited opinions. You should spare yourself the embarrassing discovery of their exact value to your listener." Francisco d"Anconia, Atlas Shrugged
"When one acts on pity against justice, it is the good whom one punishes for the sake of the evil; when one saves the guilty from suffering, it is the innocent whom one forces to suffer. There is no escape from justice, nothing can be unearned and unpaid for in the universe, neither in matter nor in spirit--and if the guilty do not pay, then the innocent have to pay it." Hank Rearden, Atlas Shrugged
"There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. The man who is wrong still retains some respect for truth, if only by accepting the responsibility of choice. But the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth in order to pretend that no choice or values exist, who is willing to sit out the course of any battle, willing to cash in on the blood of the innocent or to crawl on his belly to the guilty, who dispenses justice by condemning both the robber and the robbed to jail, who solves conflicts by ordering the thinker and the fool to meet each other halfway. In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit." - John Galt, Atlas Shrugged