Review – “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

Review – “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

“Atlas Shrugged” is a substantial book – both in physical size and intellectual import.  It can be a daunting task to undertake.  I’ve tried to read it twice in the past, but failed in both attempts.  I was unable to really engage in the story or lose myself in the narrative on either occasion.  This time was different.  I think in some cases, we chose the books that we read, and in some cases the books chose us.  Everything comes in its own time, and now was the right time for me to finally ask the question – Who is John Galt?

First published in 1957, “Atlas Shrugged” is still as relevant today as it was then.  It is, in many ways, eerily prescient to the political world that we are living in today.  It’s a book about many things – it’s about politics, it’s about relationships, it’s about Man’s quest to ascribe meaning to his life, it’s about the complex role physical relationships play in our spiritual growth, it’s about the true value of value, it’s about the compromises we sometimes make – not realizing that to compromise is really to surrender, it’s about learning that letting go is sometimes the only way to hold on to what you hold dear.

It’s about all of these things, but at its core, it’s about a woman, Dagny Taggert, and her journey towards enlightenment and freedom. She is determined to keep her family’s business, Taggert Transcontinental Railroad, alive and functioning, even as most other industries are being brought to ruin around her.  While searching for ways to keep the trains running in the face incremental socialism in the form of “the public good”, she also searches for physical and spiritual fulfillment from three very important men:  Francisco d’Anconia – a wealthy playboy and heir to the d’Anconia copper fortune; Hank Reardon – industrial tycoon and inventor of Reardon Metal – which promises to supplant the steel establishment; and John Galt – the man who wants to stop the engine of the world.  Through her relationships with these three men, Dagny strives to find that most elusive of prizes – the truth about herself.

It would be impossible for me to explore all of the theories, tenets, and beliefs that Ayn Rand puts forth in the book.  It is an entertaining read when taken just as a piece of fiction.  More importantly, however, it is the embodiment of Ayn Rand’s personal philosophy.  Far smarter people than I have spent far longer studying this text – gleaning new insights from its pages.  I don’t know that I can add anything new to those insights.  What I can do is discuss the three major themes that spoke to me the most – the things that resonated with me, and have been bouncing around like pinballs in my head since the moment I finished the book.

First is the concept that people fall in to one of three categories – Producers, Looters, or Moochers.

Producers are those that create the wealth and value in the world.  Be they industrialists, businessmen, inventors, small business owners, etc.  These are the people that invest their minds and ideas into the act of creation.  They are often called “greedy” or “heartless” – but theirs is the effort that keeps the economic engine of the country running.

Looters are those that steal and redistribute the wealth of the Producers.  Unable to produce value on their own, they instead exist as the middleman in our economy.  They derive their power from the consent of the Producers and the needs of the Moochers.  (You would not be far off to substitute “congressperson” for “Looter” in most instances…)

Moochers are those that create no value of their own – they live off of the wealth generated by the Producers.  They are the welfare state.  They are the unproductive, the lazy, the ignorant – they are the belligerent victims of the system.  They are also the key to power for the Looters – they far outnumber the Producers, and they vote to keep the redistribution of wealth flowing their way.

Does any of this sound familiar?  Does it, perhaps, sound like a country where over 50% of the population pays no income taxes?  Does it sound like a country where success and profit are demonized, and the Producers are always blamed for not paying their fair share?  This parasitic ecosystem of wealth transfer, from the Producers, through the Looters, to the Moochers, is at the root of most of the economic and social discord we have faced over the last century.

This leads me to the second large concept I took away from the book.  As I mentioned above, the Looters derive their power over the Producers by virtue of the Producers’ consent. What if the Producers refused to play the game?  Margaret Thatcher once famously said – “The problem with Socialism is that, eventually, you run out of other people’s money.” She was right.  But what if the “other people” didn’t wait for government to exhaust all of their money – what if they went out on strike instead?  What if the “other people” refused to feel guilty for their success?   In “Atlas Shrugged” that’s exactly what John Galt does.  He says it best himself:

You expect us to feel guilty of our virtues in the presence of your vices, wounds, and failures – guilty of succeeding at existence, guilty of enjoying the life that you damn, yet beg us to help you live.

Here’s the dirty little secret about Socialism – it needs Producers in order to survive.  For all of the talk from the Left about the evils of Capitalism, and greed, and profit – they rely on those profits to help fund the “hope and change” agenda.  As long as success is defined as something to be ashamed of, and the Producers consent to that system – it will perpetuate itself and consume more of more of the productivity in this country.  Once the Producers either refuse to produce, or are run out of business, the entire house of cards collapses.

That brings me to the third and final concept I took away from the book.  It is a warning for all of us. Early on in the book, Ayn Rand gives us a glimpse at the path we are on.  Eddie Willers, an old friend of Dagny Taggert, has occasion to recall an oak tree he saw on the Taggert Estate as a child:

The great oak tree had stood on a hill over the Hudson, in a lonely spot of the Taggert estate…It had stood there for hundreds of years, and he thought it would always stand there…it was a thing that nothing could change or threaten…

He then remembers a time shortly thereafter, when the old tree had been struck by lightening:

It lay broken in half, and he looked into its trunk as into the mouth of a black tunnel.  The trunk was only an empty shell; its heart had rotted away long ago; there was nothing inside – just a thin gray dust that was being dispersed by the whim of the faintest wind.  The living power had gone, and the shape it left had not been able to stand without it.

That oak tree is our country, and Eddie’s perception of it in the beginning is what so many choose to believe today – we are strong, we are forever, and nothing can ever change us.  That is not the case.  The subtle call of Socialism has been rotting the heart of the tree away for decades.  Taking from each man according to his abilities, and giving each man according to his needs has been extinguishing the living power that is the essence of America.

We have to remember the core of who we are – individuals, each with our own worth and value – not members of a collective.  To choose between subsuming our own happiness to the “greater good” or being labeled “selfish and evil” is a false choice.  Left unchecked, the devaluation of Man and his mind, will surely lead to our downfall.  Regardless of what our politicians believe, or what they say; we are NOT too big to fail – no one is.  If we lose the center – if we lose the core of this country – we are just a rotted husk, waiting for the lightning strike to reveal us for the shell of what we once were.

This book had a profound impact on me – not only for what I learned, but also for what I confirmed.  I saw so many of the things that I believe echoed in the words on those pages.  To see them there, to read them in another’s prose, served only to buttress my convictions. We are all children, in many ways, just like Eddie was when he first saw the tree.  We chose to see our freedoms and our liberty as a strong oak – immune to the elements – immovable and everlasting.  But that is not the case.  Without constant care, and the occasional watering, that tree WILL die, and we will be left with no protection from the hot sun of Tyranny.

I was left with as many questions as answers when I finished this book.  Will we be able to forestall the fate suffered by the America of “Atlas Shrugged”?  Will we find the fortitude to value those that produce above those that loot?  Will we be able to make the hard the decisions and find leaders willing to lead, not just placate the voting masses?

All of these are important questions, but perhaps the most important question of all is also the most simple – and it was right there from the start.  Who is John Galt?  I hope we all find the answer.

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