Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

The thought of actually reading Rand’s gargantuan tome, Atlas Shrugged, a book you could use as a cornerstone, filled me with apprehension. And while the novel resonated with me far more than expected, it is fair to wonder if someone who didn’t agree with anything Rand was trying to say – she is not subtle – might find it tough to get past the first couple of hundred pages. But by that point I was hooked on the story, which chronicles the final decade of the descent of the United States from capitalism to communism. To discuss everything noteworthy about Rand’s novel would go well beyond the scope of any brief review. For example, Rand exposes the hypocrisy and futility of communist ideology quite well, but doesn’t bother to dilute the purity of her alternative vision by explaining that its consequences are genuinely altruistic. Rand never explicitly acknowledges that encouraging people to pursue their individual self-interest, through lower taxes and limited government, enables more wealth creation and hence more prosperity for everyone. One key admonition Rand makes is of concern here, however, because it has immediate and urgent relevance to California’s citizen’s initiative political season, a fight being waged right now, that hangs in the balance.

The biggest sin of Rand’s good guys in Atlas Shrugged – the businessmen – was that these businessmen never defended themselves, much less took the offense. They practiced appeasement with the “peoples” interests, and acceded to big government regulations, apparently hoping they would be the last to be eaten.  A central point in Atlas Shrugged is that society cannot be based on rules wherein people give according to their ability, and receive according to their needs. Such a society, imagined by Karl Marx as a communist utopia, and envisioned very differently by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, collapses because people of ability either withdraw from the system or are corrupted by it. In such as society, all of the extra creative and unique value created by people of ability, if indeed the people of ability still bother to work, is confiscated by government agents, at the point of a gun, and redistributed to everyone according to their needs.

If communism adheres to Marx’s maxim, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” then the countervailing libertarian maxim might be “from each according to his needs, to each according to his ability.” The more you explore this inversion, the more you may come to like it. In Marx’s communist utopia, ability is secondary to need, since simply declaring a “need” will be sufficient to receive whatever anyone wants. Only when these essential needs are not automatically forthcoming simply because someone “needs” them, will someone work to the best of their ability, objectively exchanging value, to fulfill their needs. From each according to their needs is a premise of libertarian society, because need is the incentive that impels people to work and innovate.

Similarly, in a libertarian society, one should receive, not according to their needs, but according to their ability. When one wants to ensure they secure the essentials, much less the extras in life, they choose to work, and when they work, they receive whatever they can earn according to their ability. And their ability is measured by the contributions of their mind, their unfettered reason, their inventiveness, their innovation, applied through hard work, then offered and purchased voluntarily in the free market.

To not actively challenge government redistribution based on needs, and defend market redistribution based on abilities, is to simply try to be the last to be eaten. Because the arbitrary redistribution that ensues when government bureaucrats confiscate the wealth produced by people of extraordinary ability, and allocate it based on wherever they identify “needs,” takes away the incentive to work hard from both the givers and the recipients – it is a recipe for economic stagnation. Unchecked, it is a recipe for economic collapse. If America slides into the nightmare Rand imagines in Atlas Shrugged, it will be because businessmen didn’t stand up for these principles of capitalism that have made America the wealthiest, most creative nation in the world.

Which brings us back to California’s 2010 election season, where there are at least four initiatives attempting to gather enough signatures to make it onto the November ballot, that deserve the unqualified, unabashed, if not unlimited support of California’s business community. All of them, if enacted, would decisively shrink the size of California’s government and revitalize California’s economy. But instead of fighting for these initiatives – which ultimately, will help ensure their survival as free enterprises – California’s businesses are running for the hills. Among these worthy but spurned initiatives are two public sector union reform measures, one an Initiative Constitutional Amendment that would prohibit public sector unions from automatically deducting dues that would be used for political activities, and would curtail their ability to use money for any political activity, and another one, a statute, the Public Employee Paycheck Protection Act, that would require public sector unions to obtain a signed authorization, renewed every year, in order for them to be able to use member dues for political activity. These two initiatives are proceeding fitfully towards oblivion, thanks to virtually no support from California’s business community. Another initiative, the New Public Employees Benefits Reform Act, will right-size public sector worker pensions, where currently, many government workers retire in their early 50’s with a salary often set at 90% or more of their final year’s pay – and this initiative as well, is going nowhere. Public sector union reform and public employee pension reform, key solutions to California’s economic malaise, are not supported by businessmen or property owners.

Equally uninteresting to California’s business community is the California Jobs Initiative,” that will defer implementation of California’s 2006 “Global Warming Act.” Set to become law in 2012, California’s Global Warming Act will constitute arguably the most dramatic encroachment on private property rights and expansion of government in history. In the name of fighting “global warming,” and in a dubious and convoluted attempt to curtail anthropogenic CO2 emissions, this law will regulate where you live, the size of your yard, how far you can drive, what you can eat, how you can build your home, use energy, water, land – your entire life.  It is understandable, if not excusable, that California’s entertainment and high-tech industries endorse California’s Global Warming Act – for the most part, these industries produce nothing tangible, so they escape the impact of draconian environmental regulation. There is no similar justification for the inexplicable silence of California’s agricultural and timber and energy industries, however. Also quiescent in the face of environmentalist dictated economic stagnation are California’s private sector construction unions, who ought to have had enough with environmental extremism by now.

Ayn Rand didn’t anticipate environmental extremism, but as an excuse for confiscatory, socialist measures in the name of not only the “people,” but now the planet as well, it defines the mentality Rand decries and warns us about in Atlas Shrugged. With respect to the obvious abuse of power that ensues when labor unions take over government bureaucracies, Rand may not have explicitly anticipated our current predicament, but her examples of how government becomes its own special interest were clear enough. And once again, nothing could have been more clear in Atlas Shrugged than Rand’s indictment of the businessmen and property owners who, facing communist ideology, practiced cowardly appeasement, instead of articulating the moral worth of their lives, their work, and their ability.

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4 comments to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

  • SkippingDog

    Ayn Rand was a novelist who attempted to spin her own delusions into a philosophical school she called objectivism. In that she was no different from writers who hope to create churches and social movements with their thoughts — but they still remain only writers, not philosophers, economists, or political scientists. Rand’s followers have been misled.

  • Skycop

    Skipping….you really believe in Marx’s utopia? Get real man.

  • SkippingDog

    Skycop — You’ve presented a false choice. Recognizing the limitations of Ayn Rand’s dog breakfast of philosophical concepts does not in any way support the extreme alternative. She was an expatriot Russian novelist, nothing more. At least put some thought into your comments.

  • SWW

    Public Employee Union IS US Yakuza

    skippingdog – no words can describe how dumb you are.

    Ayn could just replace CTAS or public sector union as US Yakuza. The worst thing is this Yakuza is legal in US. The way US to solve this problem is first to make public employee union illegal (most important step), solve the pension problem by reduce pension benefits phase out pension & medicare, print money instead of raising tax to solve the deficit even though it is just same as increase taxes via manifestation of inflation.