Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

AtlasShruggedAtlas Shrugged
By Ayn Rand

This is a difficult book to sum up. I have 89 pages of single-spaced, typed notes, made over the course of nine-weeks of reading. The one real strength to this book is that it makes me think. It presents a lot of ideas and a lot of arguments and it was the rare conversation in the last two months that did not involve the phrase, “that makes me think of how, in Atlas Shrugged, …”

In live-blogging our process through this book, Anna and I had a lot of thoughts.

Part I: Non-Contradiction
I.      The Theme
II.     The Chain
III.    The Top and the Bottom
IV.    The Immovable Movers
V.     The Climax of the D’Anconias
(extra bit: first impressions)
VI.    The Non-Commercial
VII.  The Exploiters and the Exploited
(extra bit: VII. The Exploiters and the Exploited)
VIII. The John Galt Line
(extra bit: Atlas Shrugged theme)
IX.    The Sacred and the Profane
X.      Wyatt’s Torch
(extra bit: Kurt Vonnegut short stories)

Part II: Either-Or
I.       The Man Who Belonged on Earth
II.     The Aristocracy of Pull
III.    White Blackmail
(extra bit: Atlas Shrugged in the news)
IV.    The Sanction of the Victim
(extra bit from President Obama)
(extra bit on John Galt)
(extra bit on Greek Mythology)
V.      Account Overdrawn
VI.    Miracle Metal
VII.  The Moratorium on Brains
VIII. By Our Love
IX.    The Face Without Pain or Fear or Guilt
(extra musings)
X.     The Sign of the Dollar

Part III: A is A
I.      Atlantis
II.    The Utopia of Greed
III.   Anti-Greed
IV.   Anti-Life
V.    Their Brothers’ Keepers
VI.   The Concerto of Deliverance
VII.  “This is John Galt Speaking”
VIII. The Egoist
IX.    The Generator
X.      In the Name of the Best Within Us

It would make a really fabulous book club book or the subject of a college seminar.

That said, it is also a book in desperate need of an editor to smooth out some of the rough patches and it showcases a conflict between two sets of irrational idiots: spoiled children on one side and vengeful true-believers on the other side. For the most part, I didn’t like or respect any of the characters. Both sides would come out with statements, some of which I agreed with, most of which I disagreed with, but would then back them up with the wrong arguments.

The spoiled children say that nothing is certain and thus nothing matters and thus you should obey the government.*

The vengeful true-believers say that they will sacrifice everything they hold dear in order to make sure the bad guys suffer. It is more important to them that other people get nothing than it is that they themselves get something.**

I spent a lot of time thinking about what the correct arguments would be.***

In this book, Rand defines an extremely simplified worldview in which there are producers who never mooch and moochers who never produce. She proposes a morality in which everything must be earned and anything can be earned.

To the first part, I say that “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

To the second part, I say that my love can neither be demanded as the moochers say nor bought like the producers say, but can only be given.

I agree with the Objectivists that you should take personal responsibility for your own actions and desires, and that there’s a certain virtue in selfishness.**** I disagree heartily with their premise that you owe nothing (either blame or praise) to the culture that you are born into nor bear any responsibility for the people around you. The Objectivists need to accept Rand/Galt’s own statement that you cannot have your cake and eat it too. You cannot have a large country and a small government. If you want a small government, you have to accept the price of living in a small country. If you want the benefits of a large country, you have to accept the price of having a large government.

And for all that I can sometimes sympathize with the troubles that terrorists and perpetrators of genocide are protesting with their actions, I will never consider their actions to be logical, rational, appropriate, or in any way the acts of heroes. The fact that John Galt is intentionally and knowingly destroying the world so that he can conquer the ashes left behind automatically makes him a monster and a villain.

* There’s two logical disconnects here. First, not being certain does not lead to nothing mattering. And even if it did, it is answered by my favorite koan:
“If nothing you do matters,
then the only thing that matters
is what you do.”

The second logical disconnect of their argument is that if nothing matters then there’s no reason to follow orders.

** This is a mind-boggling concept for me, who was raised with the phrase: “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face,” i.e. don’t hurt yourself just to hurt someone else.

If there’s a situation in which I can either raise the quality of life for everyone or lower the quality of life for everyone, then I’ll do what’s best for me and not make my decision based on what I think some other people deserve or don’t deserve. Punishing someone else is not more important than benefiting myself.  This is the kind of selfishness that I already live by and am perfectly happy with.

I find it mind-boggling that some people would rather suffer to make other people suffer, but it does happen, notably in discussions of copyright law/infringement.
There are musicians who would rather sell a hundred records while ensuring that no one gets free access to their music, than sell a thousand records while a second thousand are given away free.


*** For the most part, everyone make these arguments about how things should work because that would benefit them. When you’re trying to convince someone else to do something, you should really structure your arguments about how doing whatever it is benefits the person you are trying to convince. Dagny Taggert is no more convincing when she says she should be able to run her train however she wants because she wants money than Jim Taggert is when he says he should get whatever the hell he wants just because. All it would take is for Dagny to go just one step further in her argument and explain how her making a profit is to the benefit of her workers and a demonstration of the value she’s giving her passengers to make her argument at least a valid one. But none of the characters, good or bad, ever make an argument to someone who disagrees with them or takes part in any rational form of debate with the goal of convincing someone. No one believes that anyone can be convinced.

Many of the characters I am supposed to sympathize with (but don’t) think: Rational people already believe what I believe, while anyone who disagrees is irrational and can’t be convinced so there’s no point in trying. This same argument came up in the discussion that one Objectivist delivered in a podcast, even. She wouldn’t discuss criticisms of John Galt’s philosophy because they were clearly all irrational and it was pointless to even acknowledge them. To which I respond with one of my favorite professors sayings (when our seminar discussions got a bit too heated): “Rational people can disagree.” (Objectivists do not appear to believe this is true.)

**** I remember vividly coming to the realization that there is virtue in a certain level of selfishness. I was in standing around in a video rental store (and doesn’t that date me) with a group of high school friends trying to figure out what to rent. For a really long time, we were going around in circles saying, “I don’t know, what do you want to watch?” until I finally picked a movie and declared that I wanted to watch this one. I can’t remember what movie it was, but I do remember that I didn’t feel particularly strongly one way or the other about the movie. I just wanted to reach a decision and I would have felt perfectly fine if someone else had said that they didn’t want to watch that movie, as long as they proposed an alternative. In the event, I think the others were just grateful that someone had declared a preference so we could move on.

8 comments on “Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

  1. Ben says:

    This is fantastic! I have greatly enjoyed it!

  2. Mary says:

    Way to show how the text makes things too black and white by pushing characters into categories that represent binary opposites rather than depicting human beings with unique memories, emotions, life circumstances, and personalities. Ayn Rand may consider herself to be an objectivist, but I see some one who does not come close to recreating reality. Those who read and agree with her turn into Don Quixotes who are duped into following her outdated utopian philosophy which in no way relates to the realities we now face. I totally agree with your point that aside from being selfish, we have a responsibility to others, and suffering to make others suffer is not only counterproductive, it is wrong.

    • Rebecca says:

      Thanks! Rand really manages to miss a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle issues in the world through her “objectivist” perspective. I find it somewhat disturbing that so many other people allow themselves to be blinded to the happy middle ground between her two unpleasant extremes.

        • Rebecca says:

          This is actually a good example of my point. Because I think grey is important, Ayn Rand apparently believes that I don’t think black and white exist. Because I think compromise is often beneficial, she apparently thinks I believe it is beneficial in all circumstances. She doesn’t appear to understand the grey area (as it were) between something always being applicable and never being applicable.

          Between killing someone and not killing someone, no, there is no reasonable compromise.* But between the extremes of spoiling a child by giving them everything they ask for and neglecting a child by giving them nothing at all, lies all of the possibilities of good parenting.

          I think I can best sum up this argument with the quote: “Moderation in all things, including moderation itself.”

          My argument for acknowledging that people have both good and evil within them is to cultivate an understanding that a virtuous act does not negate a sin and a sinful act does not negate a virtue. You don’t have to deny the existence of part of a person in order to make a judgement about them. Hitler and bin Laden each had a handful of virtues, and I don’t need to blind myself to the existence those virtues in order to judge the men as sinful. Gandhi and Thomas Jefferson each had a handful of sins, and I don’t need to blind myself to the existence of those sins in order to judge the men as virtuous.

          * Rand also appears to be saying that a wrong action based on good intentions is not a wrong action. Or perhaps that a person is not to be blamed or held accountable for unintended consequences. Am I misinterpreting that? If not, my response is that there is a difference between a reason and an excuse. You can have a reason, perfectly valid, for doing something that does not excuse you for doing it. Killing someone by accident rather than by intent, makes the charge manslaughter instead of murder, but does not make the person any less dead or yourself any less the cause.

  3. Rebecca says:

    Another awesome link looking at different philosophical takes on charity, with Ayn Rand being the notable outlier:

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