Editor's note: In honor of the Republican National Convention going on in Florida right now, we decided to bring back this oldie but a goodie.
Despite the fact that we lean pretty left, one of our favorite books of all time is Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. We must've read it at least seven times, and we still find new and brilliant things in every single page.
This tends to baffle our various right-wing and libertarian friends who swear that the book is the guiding light to true freedom. We have two answers to that. The first is that we are a firm believer in self-determination, that you should get up off your tuffet and get some work done if you want to leave a mark in the world, which is a major theme of the book. The other is that most people who say they adhere to the book's principles don't really understand it. They forget that...
The downfall of society in Atlas Shrugged doesn't begin with some kind of environmental regulation or arbitrary redistribution tax. It begins at the behest of various business people who are either too inept to make a profit or are just outright thieves. When Hank Rearden develops an amazing new alloy, it's a less-talented steel manufacturer named Orren Boyle who uses bribes and trickery at every turn to attempt to undermine the accomplishment in order to control the market.
Sure, eventually this degenerates into buying legislation in order to ruin Rearden, but in the end the main culprit in that part of the story is simply an unscrupulous and less talented entrepreneur who doesn't believe in a free market, only in one where he is allowed to use any means necessary to destroy the competition no matter how beneficial Rearden's product is for the country.
With a few notable suggestions, this greed and lack of moral principles is the main driving force behind all the book's villains. To a man they desire prestige and a fortune they didn't earn, and are in fact incapable of earning, and almost exclusively they begin their destruction of civilization from the boardrooms of America. It's only when that fails to work do they begin to try and use government forces to their benefit under the guise of providing humanitarian aid.
Frankly, most of the crap that these leeches were trying to pull would've been stopped had there been a few strong regulators in place that someone could've turned to when holes in the free market economy appeared. Take for instance the destruction of the Taggart Tunnel. A minor politician insists that a coal-burning engine takes them through the tunnel, despite the fact that the fumes will almost certainly kill everyone on board.
The train is sent through anyway with all the employees of the railroad afraid of the pull the politician has. Everyone aboard is indeed killed save for a fireman, and the whole tunnel collapses when another train crashes into the stalled coal burner. The destruction of the tunnel cripples the nation's supply chain and helps exacerbate an already desperate situation.
You know what would've helped here? Some kind of state or federal official that they could've called to step in when the railroad workers were too scared to go against some petty bureaucrat because it might cost them their jobs. That's exactly the kind of things those agencies are there for. Since they don't depend on these companies for employment, or rather they depend on the companies' ability to mess up for employment, they're mostly immune to situations like this and have the clout to stop them before it becomes a tragedy.
That's not to mention the fact that the railroad supply problems mostly began when all the rail lines in the country united to control the industry, and then promptly used their power to oust an upstart who was taking their profit-share by providing excellent service. We're pretty sure that the government would've stepped in citing anti-monopoly and anti-trust laws to stop an organization like that doing something that was pretty obvious would put the entire industry in danger of failure merely for the profit of a few large corporations.
If there is a cheer in all of Atlas Shrugged, it's that money is awesome, and you know something? Money is in fact awesome. It can buy you shelter, food, fun, peace of mind and, best of all, time to do whatever you want to do. We like money, and that's why we're up to midnight every night after we finish a nine-hour shift at the day job writing articles. The art of it is fun, but the check is much, much better.
One of the things that people who cite Atlas Shrugged continuously seem to overlook, though, is that money is only a virtue if it's gotten through honest labor. If you do a hard day's work and reap a fortune, then money is the symbol of some of man's best qualities.
Again, most of your antagonists in the book are rich. Filthy, stinking rich, and all of them on the work of another. Their money is in fact a symbol of decadence because it's basically stolen. That's why protagonists like John Galt and Fransisco D'Arconia continuously say they have to destroy the current system, because the system had developed to pay these people for nothing.
What is worshipped in Atlas Shrugged isn't money, it's production. It's accomplishment. When someone makes money without those things, that person is a looter. Here's a real-world example. We just finished a three-year lease on a car, and decided to buy it. The car is worth $10,500, and we had no down payment. We thought financing wouldn't be a problem since we'd just spent three years proving that we were good for a monthly payment. The deal they gave us was $344 a month for 60 months, meaning that we're going to end up paying about double the car's worth at the end of it.
That's $10,000 that the car company made with no effort and for no real reason. To pay that amount we have to write around 500 articles. Our point? The car company didn't produce or accomplish anything to charge us $10,000 we earned and they didn't, but they're getting it anyway. It's things like that where phrases such as "Money is the root of all evil" get their origin.
Every protagonist in Atlas Shrugged is without flaw. Each one is a genius in his particular field of expertise, and each one has a rigid moral code that won't allow him to take so much as 50 cents from the till in order to buy a quick soda. They are all paragons of virtue, übermenschen without equal, and if we would just let those people steer the world, then truly we would live in a utopia.
Now, where are all those people? Where are the men and women who are gifted with genius and drive but unburdened with any unseemly characteristics? In Atlas Shrugged every good tycoon voluntarily pays his workers well, ensures that their workplace is safe, isn't a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, or ever takes advantage of his employees sexually. They do this because it guarantees a good performance and loyalty, which is true, but we've all worked a job where managers and supervisors abused their power over us unfairly for their own gain. Not all of those were bad bosses or businessmen, not even most of them, but that gray area exists.
We're not saying that there are no people out there who are basically Jesus with a briefcase full of a new operating system, we're just saying that we haven't met them and they aren't on TV. Which is why you should always remember that...
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That's all it is. It's a sci-fi novel with an agenda, but in the end it is simply a story, and that's why we enjoy it so much. We think the story is great, but let's not call it the operating manual of life.
Remember, Atlas Shrugged is a world almost totally devoid of loving families, of children, of any kind of positive religious faith, of soldiers who are anything other than hired thugs, and of any statesmen. It's a world where Eddie Willers, the only protagonist who lacks brilliance but still shows an iron loyalty and work ethic, is left to die in the desert while the rest end up ruling the world. In short, it's not the world we live in or really a world we would want to live in.
The lessons to take from Atlas Shrugged are that production is one of man's greatest gifts to mankind, to never give someone something that they don't earn or deserve, and that you should never let someone tell you a truth you know from your own cognizance is a lie. The lesson is not, "Turn over all control to private enterprise" or "The government is evil," it's to be a real, living, thinking person in all areas of your existence. Don't take our word for it, read the book yourself, and maybe you'll see that those who would use it as a lever to move the world to their benefit at the expense of yours are not necessarily its most orthodox followers after all.