Justin Li

Atlas Shrugged


Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?

No, says the man in Washington; it belongs to the poor. No, says the man in the Vatican; it belongs to God. No, says the man in Moscow; it belongs to everyone.

I rejected those answers.

  • Andrew Ryan, founder of the city of Rapture

The above quote is from BioShock, a first person shooter where the player stumbles upon the ruins of Rapture. The setting of the game borrows heavily from Ayn Rand's philosophy (as the similarity between the names Andrew Ryan and Ayn Rand suggests), especially from the philosophy espoused in her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. I myself finished the book last week, after my friend Faye prompted me to read one chapter. It was the original book I wanted to read of Rand's, before its unavailability from the library forced me to read The Fountainhead instead. I thought I would start my conversation with Faye by writing this post.

The basic premise of Atlas Shrugged asks one question: what if all the innovators of the world disappeared? Their choice to do so is rational in the setting of the book: the government (and the world in general) has evolved to the point where the work of any innovator is taken from them unfairly. As protest against this policy, the innovators collectively disappear, to show the world what will happen if they refuse to continue contributing their work without appropriate payment. As a consequence of their refusal to work, to "sanction the victim", the world collapses with no one producing anything of value. This is the meaning of the novel's title - those who carry civilization forward, the Atlas' of the world, becomes apathetic to those they are carrying. This is also why the novel was originally titled "The Strike".

Describing the precise moral dilemma that the book presents is difficult. I think the conflict reduces down to these two principles, both commonly accepted morals, which Rand suggests is in conflict:

  1. Men are brothers in life, and must take care of each other. We must ensure that each person is treated fairly, and those more fortunate must contribute to help those less so.
  2. Men are their own masters, and we must create our own destiny. No one else is in charge of our happiness, and we must work to maximize the value and desirability of our future.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand sets these two morals in opposition. Within the novel, the government puts the needs of the majority over the right of the individual. To ensure that everyone in society is treated fairly, that those who have not risen to the top are given chances to do so, the government routinely limits the output of industries and commandeers its goods for those in need, with the force of the law at its side.

The problem is not that the able - and therefore the rich - are giving money to the poor, but that the poor are not giving value back. Ask yourself this question: if you are required, by law, to give money to pan-handlers who have nothing to offer you in return, would you? If you answered no, consider that this is exactly what taxes and social welfare amounts to. The novel exaggerates this to dystopian degrees, but the scenarios are qualitatively equivalent.

In protest against this philosophy of free-loading, the heroes of Atlas Shrugged retreat from the world to their own isolated village, where the rule of the land is laissez-faire capitalism. Everyone must earn their own living, and trade occurs because both parties want something the other has - in other words, if one person gives another money, it is because the second person has something the first wants. There is no government in the conventional sense: instead of taxes required by law, money is given voluntarily to protect the personal rights of individuals, including their right to property and right to physical well-being. That is the sole function of the government; there is no social welfare, and public utilities such as roads and water are privately owned, its existence prompted by its need. It is the rational self-interest which drives the exchange of money, not the law and its implied threat of physical force.

Rand's novel goes on to show that, without the productive capabilities of the heroes, the outside world collapses. The welfare state cannot help the poor, as there is nothing of value left to give to them. The government attempts to force the producers to return through torture but the producers, showing their willingness to die for the cause, proves that there is no way to force a person to think. The end of the novel suggests that the world has collapsed sufficiently for the producers to reemerge, to establish a society based on their own morals.

For me, the story raises the following questions, which I will address in turn:

  1. Are the two principles mentioned above necessarily in conflict? Is the adherence to the first necessarily destructive?
  2. In The Fountainhead, Rand suggests that a man's work (that is, his happiness) should be his only moral, other people's opinions of it be damned. And yet, here our heroes change their behavior because of other people. Are these two messages in conflict, or can they be reconciled?
  3. Most importantly, how practical is the philosophy that Rand proposes? How should we evaluate its merits?

To answer the first question, I will first ask whether the first principle is necessarily destructive. I argue that, although it maybe not always cause the dystopia painted in the novel, it definitely does is not the most constructive of principles. Consider a decision theoretic viewpoint: if you can give your money to two people, one who will give you something in return and one who won't, rationality dictates that you should give the money to the person who will give you value; otherwise, you will incur an opportunity cost. The reason for this is that trade is not a zero-sum game. This comes directly from Adam Smith: the cost of each person manufacturing what they need is higher than specializing then trading, and therefore both people come out ahead by trading. In contrast, the second give-and-take scenario is zero-sum: what you give away is exactly what the other person receives. Therefore, although not necessarily destructive, the principle of giving is also not the most valuable one to follow.

This answer to the second part of the question also suggests an answer to the first. If we take our happiness to be our only moral, then the extra cost of giving to others compared to trading implies that we are not as valuable as we could be. Since giving reduces our productive capability in the long run, these two principles, if standing by themselves, are directly in conflict.

Here I need to make side notes to address two issues: that of people who absolutely need aid, and that emotion and/or friendship in the world described above.

First, the treatment of people who need aid. Some might object that there are two categories of the poor: those intentionally lazy who pan-handle because they don't want to work, and those truly incapable of work and therefore depends on the welfare of others to survive. Surely the latter group deserve help from people more able than them. That may be, but consider the implication of such a dichotomy. A careful reading of the above suggests that the measure of a person is always measured by their ability to produce (their value), not their ability to consume (their need). Saying someone depends on the generosity of other people implies they have nothing to trade. To put it crudely, someone who can only survive with the help of others is someone who has no worth as an individual, who cannot create anything of value at all. Surely the idea that some people are worthless is crueler than the idea that we must all act in rational self-interest. In fact, such a moral presupposes that everyone has something to offer, something of value to trade; this is the optimism inherent in the philosophy.

Second, the nature of friendship and love. In taking a utilitarian view of human relationships, it might be argued that non-material aspects of life are left out, such as friendship and love. Love is not about a person's value and what one can gain from it; it is precisely about ignoring personal flaws. Rand offers this answer in Atlas Shrugged, as said by the minor villain Lillian Rearden:

"If you loved your brother, you'd give him a job he didn't deserve, precisely because he didn't deserve it - that would be true love and kindness and brotherhood. Else what's love for? If a man deserves a job, there's no virtue in giving it to him. Virtue is the giving of the undeserved."

Is this the reason people love one another, because they do not deserve it? This ultimately reduces to the same pessimistic outlook by those who claim some people need alms, but I will offer another argument. Love and friendship may not be about the material/productive value of a person, but it is definitely about personal happiness. The suffering of an unappreciated friendship and of an unrequited love is obvious, and this stems from love and friendship also being trades: both people gain more from interacting with each other than from being alone. In the realm of relationships, this is the value that each person is offering.

The second question above compares the philosophy of The Fountainhead with that of Atlas Shrugged. Rand, speaking through Roark at his second trial, gives this description of the ideal man:

"[The egotist] is not concerned with [others] in any primary matter. Not in his aim, not in his motive, not in his thinking, not in his desires, not in the source of his energy... Independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value. What a man is and makes of himself; not what he has or hasn't done for others."

The heroes of Atlas Shrugged are all Howard Roarks of their professions. Rand, in an early note for Atlas Shrugged, writes, "In The Fountainhead... the theme was Roark - not Roark's relation to the world. Now it will be the relation." Each of the innovators embody the same philosophy expounded by Roark, and yet their main act - to withdraw from the world - is driven solely by the action of others. Although this seems to directly conflict with Roark's morals, the differences are explainable.

The main source of this divergence is that Roark and the heroes of Atlas Shrugged lived in very different worlds. While both societies disapprove of the character's rugged individualism, there was no government directive against Roark's work in The Fountainhead. Roark could design buildings to the fullest of his ability, while Dagny, Rearden, and others were prohibited from producing by laws which limited their output. In other parts of the speech quoted above, Roark said, "We are approaching a world in which I cannot permit myself to live." That Roark did not withdraw from the world is therefore a matter of degree - he, like Dagny, believed that society can still be saved from collectivism. The implication is that should Roark find himself in "a world in which [he] cannot permit [him]self to live", he would have followed Galt's lead to go on strike.

Further more, one's refusal to carry the world is not the same as a rejection of one's work. While hiding from the government, all the innovators continue producing - their village is powered by the inventions of its resident engineers and entertained by the work of its artists. This is part of the message of Atlas Shrugged and echoes the philosophy of The Fountainhead, that the producers of the world can continue to produce without the looters, while the looters cannot live without the producers.

Finally, despite Roark's society being in a better state than Galt's, Roark himself briefly retreated from it - preferring to take the laborer's job of a quarry worker over letting others butcher his buildings. He returned when he found a client who appreciates his work, as Galt does when the world learns to appreciate his.

The meaning of Roark's life, as he explained to Wynand, is his work. True to his word, his work does not depend on others in any meaningful way, not in an obligation to support looters, nor to deliberately destroy them. In a world where his is actively prevented from producing - and therefore making his life meaningless - withdrawing from that world may be the only choice consistent with his philosophy.

The final question, perhaps the most important one, asks for an evaluation of the philosophy of Atlas Shrugged. Rand's ideal society Galt's Gulch, the village the heroes retreat to, where there is minimal government, each individual works to his fullest capacity, and there is an abundance of resources to be exploited. Although Rand would be horrified by this comparison, the above description evokes another ideal society: Thomas More's Utopia.

In many ways, More's Utopia is the polar opposite of Rand's ideal: there is no personal property, people request goods as they need them, slavery is pervasive (owned by the state), atheists are despised, and women hold a notably lower role than men. But the ultimate goal of both societies is the same: everyone knows their role in society (be it assigned or self-discovered) and works to their capacity. Utopia - which went on to inspire Marxism and communism - has obvious flaws: greedy dictates that some will request more goods than they need, which leads to a race until all state owned property is taken. The flaws of Rand's Galt's Gulch is less obvious.

Consider the equivalent of greed in Galt's Gulch. Since everyone is driven by rational self-interest, and since there is no government to provide social welfare, anyone who refuses to work will have no means to support themselves. Their rationality, therefore, requires them to produce value for trade, the cheapest and only method to acquire all the amenities for living. Because nothing is free, simply greed will not lead to the society's downfall.

There are, however, other forms of greed and sloth. Recall that property rights are maintained by essentially a privatized police force. What if the difference in wealth is large enough such that is it more profitable to rob than to produce? Even with the premise that everyone can produce value, that value may vary greatly between individuals; free capitalism means this variance will result in great economic inequity. When gaining wealth by force is quicker than trading what value one has, society quickly breaks down without the trust and freedom trade requires. Together with the always precarious assumption of general human rationality, Galt's Gulch will not survive for much longer than Utopia.

Both More's and Rand's ideal world can only be sustained by ignoring crucial parts of human nature. Both societies might survive if done in small scale, where everyone involved trusts everyone else completely. There are two ironies in this conclusion for Rand. First, just as the looters cannot force the innovators to produce ideas, the innovators cannot force the looters to be rational or to value property rights as much as they do. Second, and more insultingly, Rand believes in an objective reality, that things are what they are and that individuals are not to create their own reality but to perceive the true one. That Rand believes in the possibility of a society like Galt's Gulch is perhaps the grossest violation of this tenet of her philosophy.

What conclusions can we draw from Atlas Shrugged? As a continuation of The Fountainhead and as a work to demonstrate the relationship between innovators and the world, Atlas Shrugged achieves its purpose beautifully. As Rand's magnum opus, it deserves the attention is has received. Sadly, as a philosophical guide for future societies, there are still flaws to be resolved before Rand's ideal could be realized.

Post Script 1: Atlas Shrugged and the Bible

I think there is an insightful analogy of Atlas Shrugged an objectivist bible of sorts. This works in three senses:

A key difference, however, is that the Bible offers only faith as the proof of its correctness, while Atlas Shrugged (and objectivism) promotes reason - a standard with which objectivism itself could be judged. At least in theory; see Post Script 3.

Post Script 2: On Style

Between The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, I thought the former was better written. In Atlas Shrugged Rand gives away too much of people's thoughts - often punctuating their speech and/or the narration. By making her character's motivations explicit, their actions lose some of the power in demonstrating what they think. In fact, in earlier drafts of The Fountainhead, Rand had written, "Don't dialog thoughts - narrate them". Perhaps because I have selectively reread The Fountainhead multiple times, there were also sections of Atlas Shrugged where the descriptions and/or the characters' actions were predictable.

There is, however, something I thought Rand did superbly: she managed create, in a novel set in "modern" times, the elements of a fantasy. In particular, the three "princes" of the world - Francisco D'Anconia, Ragnar Danneskjold, and John Galt - have an air of breathlessness about them, like the ancient heroes who fantasy protagonists discover are still alive (Zedd of Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series - not coincidentally heavily philosophical and based on Rand's work - comes to mind, but many characters from the Dragon Raja series more closely approximates this). This made their eventual appearance highly anticipated and enjoyable.

Post Script 3: The Ayn Rand Cult

In Why People Believe Weird Things, Mike Shermer talks about an unlikely cult: objectivism. Being believers in reason, the higher echelons of this movement (those closest to Rand personally) somehow developed a creed which upholds that, among other statements:

A friend of mine, after learning that I enjoyed The Fountainhead, joked that I pronounce Ann Arbor as "Ayn Arbor". I replied that I liker her philosophy, not her person.