Atlas Shrugged is Boring and Silly

9 Jan

By Thomas Ultican 1/9/2023

Preparing to fly roundtrip from San Diego to Philadelphia, I pulled Atlas Shrugged from my bookshelf for reading material. I had originally purchased the book for five cents at a Point Loma garage sale in the 1990s but never got around to reading it. While flying, I read about 200 pages of the 1,084 page paperback version. The original published hard cover version was 1,164 pages. For the next few months, I completed the book by reading six pages a day while eating breakfast.

Libertarian politicians Paul Ryan, Ron Johnson and Rand Paul claim Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek and writer-philosopher Ayn Rand as their guiding lights. In 2012, Politico reported, “…, to bring new staffers up to speed, Ryan gives them copies of Hayek’s classic ‘Road to Serfdom’ and Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ — books he says inspires his political philosophy.” Hayek and Rand both subscribed to classical liberalism which means they believed in a political philosophy committed to limited government, the rule of law, individual liberties, and free markets with particular emphasis on property rights.

This knowledge was my underlying motive for reading Atlas Shrugged. I wanted to see for myself who Ayn Rand was and what she was teaching? What was so appealing to these Republican politicians?

Atlas Shrugged got a Chilly Reception

The book is quite odd. It is a romance, a mystery, a pirate story and a science fiction novel all rolled into one. The setting is a factious version of the United States. The endless descriptions of everything the characters were feeling and seeing became quite tedious but reading six pages a day made it readable – barely.

However, I did find the central character of the book, Dagny Taggart, a delight. Dagny is the granddaughter of Nat Taggart the founder of Taggart Continental the largest railroad in America. Dagny’s scumbag brother James becomes the CEO of the railroad but as COO, Dagny is the brilliant leader solving problems and making the trains run on time. She’s a force of nature that intimidates her brother.

Dagny’s three big love affairs are the backbone of the story. Her first lover is Francisco d’Anconia who is the heir to the world’s largest copper mining company out of Argentina. The second affair is with the married steel magnet Henry Reardon the inventor of Reardon steel which is lighter and more durable than conventional steel. Her final great love is John Galt the inventor of an engine that converts static electricity from the air into energy. Dagny never seems concerned about becoming pregnant and doesn’t. In this depiction of dystopian America, Galt is the instigator of an illegal strike by the “men of the mind.”

In the book, these “men of the mind” are continually being attacked by the “moochers” who loot their good works. The book’s title was originally “The Strike”, however the published title Atlas Shrugged came from the text where Francisco d’Anconia asks Henry Reardon what Atlas should do if “the greater [the Titan’s] effort, the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders”. With Reardon unable to answer, d’Anconia gives his own advice: “shrug”. (Atlas Shrugged Pages 131-132)

Rand scholar Mimi Reisel Gladstein wrote about the reaction to Atlas Shrugged. She observed, “Reviewers seemed to vie with each other in a contest to devise the cleverest put-downs; one called it ‘execrable claptrap’, while another said it showed ‘remorseless hectoring and prolixity.”’ The Time magazines review in October 1957 asked,

“Is it a novel? Is it a nightmare? Is it Superman – in the comic strip or the Nietzschean version?

In a delightful take down in the National Review, the man detested by the left for his testimony against Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, scathingly observed,

“Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.”

 “Atlas Shrugged can be called a novel only by devaluing the term.”

Chambers was even less kind when judging Rand’s philosophy stating,

“The Message is the thing. It is, in sum, a forthright philosophic materialism. Upperclassmen might incline to sniff and say that the author has, with vast effort, contrived a simple materialist system, one, intellectually, at about the stage of the oxcart, though without mastering the principle of the wheel.”

Ayn Rand and Associates

Ayn Rand is her pen name. She was born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, to a bourgeois Jewish family in Petrograd, Russia (St. Petersburg today), on 2 February, 1905. She was 12 years old when Lenin and his communist revolution took power which led to great suffering in her immediate family. She was a history major at Petrograd University graduating in 1924. The next year, with her mother’s help, Alissa was able to secure permission to leave Russia and never looked back. 

While working for Cecil B. DeMille in Hollywood, she met actor Frank O’Connor. They were married in 1929 and remained so until he died in 1979. Professionally she was Ayn Rand but to family and friends she was Mrs. Alisa O’Connor. Alisa says Ayn is inspired by a not named Finnish writer and described Rand as an abbreviation of Rosenbaum.

In 1951, she and Frank moved to New York City where they developed an interesting group of friends. Among them were Janet Gaynor, art historian Mary Sures, economists Allen Greenspan, and Ludwig Von Mises.

Austrian economists Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek promoted the classical liberal view of capitalism which attracted Charles Koch. Von Mises was one of the few critics that praised Atlas Shrugged. He declared,

“You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.

“If this is arrogance, as some of your critics observed, it still is the truth that had to be said in the age of the Welfare State.”

Rand’s Message

The whole point of the book is presenting Ayn Rand’s philosophy – Objectivism. It is her creation and the hokum ideological prism through which she viewed the world. It led her in 1964 to declare The Virtue of Selfishness.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims,

“Whereas Rand’s ideas and mode of presentation make Rand popular with many non-academics, they lead to the opposite outcome with academics. She developed some of her views in response to questions from her readers, but seldom took the time to defend them against possible objections or to reconcile them with the views expressed in her novels. Her philosophical essays lack the self-critical, detailed style of analytic philosophy, or any serious attempt to consider possible objections to her views. Her polemical style, often contemptuous tone, and the dogmatism and cult-like behavior of many of her fans also suggest that her work is not worth taking seriously.”

In Atlas Shrugged, it is a struggle between “looters” and the heroic elites who are the root of value creation. The “looters” are proponents of high taxation, big labor, government ownership, government spending, government planning, regulation, and redistribution while her moral paragons are creators from which all economic benefit emanates. The elites are superior beings who should be acknowledged and allowed to run their businesses without interference. It is the ultimate view of laissez-faire capitalism.

In a fascinating 1964 interview with Playboy Magazine, Rand makes some statements that reveal how ridiculous her philosophical views were.

“To begin with, man does not possess any instincts.”

“I believe that taxation should be voluntary…”

“My position is fully consistent. Not only the post office, but streets, roads, and above all, schools, should all be privately owned and privately run. I advocate the separation of state and economics.”

“The disasters of the modern world, including the destruction of capitalism, were caused by the altruist-collectivist philosophy. It is altruism that men should reject.”

In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt uses his scientific genius to hijack the nationwide broadcast addressing the mounting disaster in the country. In his three hour speech which covers more than sixty pages of text in the book, Rand lays out her philosophy. Here are a few quotes,

“There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” (Page 978)

“The doctrine that ‘human rights’ are superior to ‘property rights’ simply means that some human beings have the right to make property out of others; since the competent have nothing to gain from the incompetent, it means the right of the incompetent to own their betters and to use them as productive cattle. Whoever regards this as human and right, has not right to the title of ‘human.’” (Page 986)

“The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except the material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.” (Page 989)

“I swear – by my life and my love of it – that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” (Page 993)

An Observation

Growing up on a ranch in Idaho, I had a grandfather who was an immigrant from Scotland and a staunch Republican. For years, he was a big fan of Senator William Borah and his brother was a fanatical anti-New Dealer. If it were not for the anti-labor stance of the Republicans, I could have been one myself. So what happened in the 1950s that has made this party so anti-common man and pro-elites?

I think it was the right’s embrace of the Austrian economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises along with the sophomoric philosophy of Ayn Rand; hard to see much daylight between their ideas and fascism. Unfortunately, it is an ideology embraced today by too many of America’s political leaders on the right.

2 Responses to “Atlas Shrugged is Boring and Silly”

  1. Jon Awbrey January 9, 2023 at 11:14 pm #

    You gotta watch the movie version of Fountainhead — it’s as camp as camp gets.

    Like

  2. janicekb49 January 10, 2023 at 7:14 am #

    I read the book one summer many years ago and was amazed by the materialism, selfishness and superficiality of the characters

    Like

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