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A Review of Atlas Shrugged

The unreal world of Ayn Rand

by Janet Jordan

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, is a thousand-page economics thesis in the form of a novel. It is the book that informed the thinking of Alan Greenspan, Ron Paul (who named his son after the author), and many other free market theorists, who have tried their best to re-form their world on the lines she recommended. Since their efforts have succeeded in re-forming our economy to a remarkable extent, it seems good to understand why they wanted to follow her advice. What was the attraction?

The world is not better now that it has been re-formed. Did they just not understand, or was she wrong?

My initial impression of Ayn Rand’s world was that it was quite bleak. It always seems to be winter, and the heroes (we can call them the “Real People”) always have to slog their way through mudflats of opposition.

It makes sense the Real People would feel outnumbered, because mostly the world is made up of the other kind of people — we can call them “You People.” You People are losers. You People only ever think about how to winkle money away from Real People, the ones who have earned it through their rigorous and honest thinking and their hard work.

Real People, on the other hand, are amazing. They run successful companies and they are responsible for every aspect of the success: getting together the capital, figuring out the organization, securing board members, managers, and laborers, running day-to-day operations, and creating the scientific breakthroughs for new products. Just imagine Henry Reardon, toiling over his workbench for day after lonely day, inventing a new metal in moments snatched from the heavy responsibility of running a modern metalworks.

In fact, you will have to imagine him, because there’s no counterpart in the real world; no one does more than one or at most two of these tasks; a corporation is successful to the extent that it can bring different specialists together. But if you can manage to imagine a person like that, you can sympathize with the deep respect that Ayn Rand (and her followers) have for Real People.

Real People are able to look the truth in the eye and say what they see, regardless of what it might mean to them personally. Thus, they look more attractive than You People, who never say anything direct but only hint at things. When someone points out the obvious implication of their hints, You People get defensive: “I never said that!”

There is a germ of a truth here: it is, I would agree, more attractive to say honestly what you see. I would look up to people who did that. Here is what I would expect such people to say today, in 2012: “If we continue to degrade the environment, pretty soon we won’t have a world left to live in, let alone make a profit in. So we’d better not degrade the environment. We’ll need a carbon cap, also taxes on carbon; a stronger Clean Air Act . . .” That would be an unflinching statement of the truth, regardless of what it meant to them personally.

Somehow we don’t see this happening, though. Either today’s titans of industry are not Real People, or honest clear speech was never a characteristic of Real People. It’s hard to know.

You People, on the other hand, mostly bend your efforts towards being out of the room when decisions are made. Someone wants the train to go through the tunnel, even though it’s pretty clear everyone in the train will suffocate if they try it, so You People make sure the messenger boy gets stuck with making the decision. The train starts out and stops halfway through. It doesn’t matter though, because immediately afterwards, You People send in another train carrying explosives, and end up blowing up both trains and collapsing the tunnel as well; so there’s no one around to be blamed after all.

So this is the business behavior of Real People. They have personal lives as well — better personal lives than You People. As you can imagine, they don’t care about the conventions You People set up; they express their love; they have a lot of sex. You can hear their thoughts as all this goes on: It’s wonderful to be a Real Person — there is such a lot of Joy.

Actually, you have to take the Joy on faith, since it doesn’t seem very joyful as described. There is nobody around except the two lovers — after all, there are so very few Real People — so they seem isolated and lonely, in spite of having each other. They seem to slap each other around a lot, too. But that’s OK. Dagny the Railway Executive treasures the sting on her cheek; it was put there by a Real Person. (You might not recognize this Joy as the happiness it is, but then, you’re probably just one of You People, so what do you know.)

The heart of the book, the message, is expressed in a long monologue by John Galt, the mysterious person behind the gradual withdrawal of the Real People. He says that man’s mind is the essential characteristic of the man, he has to use it or die, just as a fish has to swim or die. Man’s mind seeks whatever causes him to thrive. If you deny that strong and sure impulse (for instance, if you agree to pay your income taxes), you are choosing death over life. Productive work is mankind’s happiness.

Once again, there is a germ of truth in the thought. If everyone in a nation were productively engaged, all doing work of their choice, using their minds and being successful, that would be a pretty picture. The nation would thrive along with the people. We might not need many rules and regulations in that case, no re-distribution of income, and possibly not much government either.

Back in the real world, though, the problem is not that people don’t want to work. It’s that the only work that thrives nowadays is the work of running a corporation, a mature corporation, one that you inherited. That’s the kind of work you have to find. Mature corporations are good at cutting back on the jobs they offer (that’s “efficiency”), so you won’t find a good job there unless you are the owner or the CEO.

Sometimes You People try to found new companies, and those do provide jobs for ordinary people like yourselves, but start-ups tend not to thrive, since the new corporations are squeezed out by the big ones with the deep pockets.

Inside the corporation, the owner has feudal powers over the employees; that’s how capitalism works. Traditionally, the owner takes 50% of the value provided by the worker, before any of it is passed on to him in the form of wages. (Incidentally, Barbara Ehrenreich spent a couple of months working low-wage jobs and discovered there were no jobs for brainless people; all required, and got, a full measure of mental activity from their occupants.) As big corporations get bigger, and new opportunities fewer, the worker has less and less to say about what his-or-her pay will be, and the check gets smaller, no matter how much diligence and talent the worker brings to the job. That’s just capitalism.

Re-distributive taxes, such as they are (they are not a big part of our budget), try to compensate for this dynamic. They do not represent the mooching of the brainless loser off the successful producer. They are an effort to bring some measure of fairness into a system rigged against the worker.

The idea of the tax-free society has come back full force today. It is featured in Thrive and other new-age films. It’s attractive: if the economy is set up right, it shouldn’t be such a big deal to keep it going; it shouldn’t take an army of regulators and police. But the lesson of the 1930’s and now again in the early 21st century is that the system is not set up right. Fixing it will be hard; capitalism is a system where the winners have not only most of the money, but most of the political power as well. Until we do get it right, we will need something, like re-distributive taxes, to correct for the harmful effects of capitalism.

So John Galt explains to You People why the Real People are gradually withdrawing (he doesn’t say where they are going, but it’s to Galt’s Gulch), and that’s the last anyone sees of him or the rest of the Real People. You People try to compensate for a bad system by creating a police state (there’s a grain of truth in that one too), but due to general incompetence, you end up blowing up your own cities and all other built environment as well. It’s back to horse-drawn carriages for You People.

For the Real People, though, there’s a Real Solution: socialism. Ms. Rand doesn’t call it by that name but consider:

  • In Galt’s Gulch, there is a local currency in effect. Money from the outside world is not accepted.
  • Everyone provides a service; no one asks for more than token payments. The economy insists on those tokens (because gifts are frowned upon), but anyone can afford them. So everyone does what they love best, and everyone receives freely what they need. In other words — “From each according to ability; to each according to need.” The Communist slogan.
  • In Galt’s Gulch, people do not have a job, but rather a packet of jobs. A person might be a tobacco farmer and, on the side, an inventor, or a philosopher or an entrepreneur. This is the combination recommended by Parecon (participatory economics), a socialist alternative theory.
  • In this economy of plenty, nobody has to work more than four hours a day. This is because: a) the work is productive and well planned (no waste); and b) people are paid fairly, even those whose work is the of mothering a family. Again, just like Parecon.


No taxes, of course.

It’s funny how similar people’s ideas of utopia turn out to be, whether they come from the right or the left. Galt’s Gulch is like the socialist utopia in Looking Backward (Edward Bellamy), and like the Communist ideal. The primary difference seems to be how utopia is created. In Rand’s novel, the best people, the aristocracy, simply leave and create their own place. In other theories, the utopia evolves out of our current population of You People, stubborn and misguided as they can be. For instance, Communism requires a period of dictatorship — “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” The US apparently requires a prolonged period of battle with tactics like baiting and badmouthing the other side, and beggaring whole sections of the economy if possible. So there’s no argument about what the ideal society will look like; the whole problem lies in how to get there.

It’s a lot easier in Rand’s proposal; the capitalism that allowed the inequality to take place is simply left behind. No Taxes works fine in that case. Back in the real world, we have a ways to go before we create utopia, and we can’t begin with No Taxes.

Someone should send Alan Greenspan a critique of this book, either from the literary standpoint (how did he mistake the characters in Atlas Shrugged for actual real people?) or from an economic standpoint (how did Rand miss the vacuuming up of resources away from real people, delivering them up to the rich?). Maybe the final lesson of the book is the need for more required English courses.

Little steps, but necessary.

And we can’t go back to TV after utopia arrives.

Janet Jordan is a resident of Thurston County with ties to the Green Party.

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