It’s fitting that my birthday is surrounded by two reviews of books by Ayn Rand. Rand is an author I greatly respect, despite her tendency to be verbose. Yes, Atlas Shrugged breaks the 1,000 – page mark. I won’t even try to summarize all that happens in this novel. The film series being released as a trilogy is a good way to become familiar with the plot, but the films cannot do justice to the original.
The book is Rand’s imagination extending policies of collectivism and examining how they could impact our economy and society. Told largely through the eyes of Dagny Taggart, the book follows the struggle of industrialists like Dagny as they try to keep their businesses running efficiently and productively despite increasing government regulations.
But it’s not just about government versus individual. It’s about two groups of people who represent two different philosophies, which Rand treats as moral codes. One is the looters /moochers, represented people like the appropriately-named Wesley Mouch. These are people who either have no talent of their own or no care to develop a talent, and who resent or fear the rise of talent in others. These are politicians who gain power by making social connections and then creating and imposing arbitrary rules designed to harm productive members of society while allowing loopholes for anyone who wishes to grovel. The looters take money from those who produce and essentially destroy it. They do not care whether they better their own position in life so long as they better their relative position in life, destroying others before succumbing to their own flawed policies.
The second group are the individualists. These are the people who recognize that an objective reality exists, and they work under the normal rules of the universe, ignoring (or succeeding in spite of) the irrational regulations imposed by man. The individualists do not care what others think. They have enough self-esteem to recognize greatness in themselves and others. They do not fear those who are better or stronger than they; the individualists embrace the greatness of others. All individualists in the book are producers of some sort, and they recognize that a positive side effect of greatness is that everyone benefits.
Rand creates her story as a mystery, opening with the phrase “Who is John Galt?” This phrase embodies everything Dagny hates, as people use the phrase as a shrug–a question that means, “why ask why?” or “what can one do about it?” To Dagny, this is the worst attitude. Embodying Rand’s philosophy, Dagny understands that to be truly human, one must have a goal and work toward achieving that goal. A person without a goal is a person without purpose–and therefore, not a true human being. The individualists understand that their visions are worthwhile enterprises. They are uncomfortable at parties, as they can feel their time literally wasting. They work hard all the time–their brains are almost always calculating how to better their business endeavors–and though they do not resent working all the time, they expect to be rewarded appropriately (assuming their endeavors succeed).
The premise, without giving too much away, is that the great thinkers decide to go on strike. They are led by (you may have guessed) a man named John Galt, who began the strike and convinces other great thinkers that the only way to fix the world and the world’s destructive policies is to stop giving in to them. By performing greatness under the weight of oppressive and unjust policies, the thinkers are essentially giving their consent, allowing a corrupt system to continue. Dagny is the last of the great thinkers to resist this idea, as she cannot believe that the world is full of people who are maliciously trying to bring her down. Through Dagny, the reader experiences Rand’s beliefs about humankind: that the general population craves leadership and likes being directed how to think, and the looters/moochers of the world use this to their advantage, creating policy by suspending logic and reason and stirring people into irrational frenzies that allow subtle (and not-so-subtle) policies to be passed that restrict freedom and destroy achievement.
Although the book is an obvious exaggeration, there are passages you’ll read slowly and then feel your grip on the book’s spine tightening as you’ll recognize the snippet of a conversation, or experience deja vu, recollecting a news story or other bit of policy that seems to resonate stupid decisions made in our very own world. You should also experience a dissonance of feelings for the more noble characters: they struggle to keep what we consider to be valiant efforts, but the point Rand is making–that they should stop helping the looters helps themselves to other people’s talents–gets you to question the characters’ premise as well as your own beliefs and assumptions about society. You’ll likely go about your day asking whether you are actually giving your consent to stupidity from time to time, allowing ineffective or even malicious policies to thrive against your talents.
This is one of those books that should be on your bucket list, one of those books that can change your perception of the world–and I would suggest reading it sooner rather than later.