I recently finished Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
. At almost the same time, I finished Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
. Atlas Shrugged
is long, serious, and tries to explain the meaning of life. Adams’ book is short, funny, and also attempts to explain the meaning of life. Rand’s philosophy is Objectivism. Adams’ answer is Forty-Two. Of the two philosophies, Forty-Two makes much more sense.
I find it hard to criticize a book so beloved of so many conservatives—both Clarence Thomas (one of my favorite political figures) and Larry Elder, among others, love the book. But after reading it, I can’t come to any other conclusion. Whittaker Chambers famously censured the book in the pages of National Review. My only complaint is that he went too easy on it.
The plot, while not the main focus of the book, makes absolutely no sense. (Spoiler warning: don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens). The book focuses on the adventures of Dagny Taggert, controller of a transcontinental railroad, and Hank Reardon, an inventor and steel factor director. There are other characters too: Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian d’Anconia (that name is intended to be completely serious), Ragnar Danneskjöld (again, this name is presented with a straight face), Hugh Akston, Midas Mulligan (yep, this name is not a joke either), and John Galt. Don’t worry about keeping all these characters straight—they are all wholly identical, callous, selfish, self-reliant technocrats. And of course, the heroes are attractive, while the villains are the opposite.
Dagny and Reardon both struggle to keep their businesses above water as the socialist government imposes increasingly greater restrictions on business. John Galt goes around spiriting off the world’s capable men to a hidden valley in Colorado as a protest against the totalitarian government. For some reason, he picks Dagny and Reardon to be the last people to join him, so they are faced with a lack of capable men, which hampers their ability to run their businesses. Eventually, (I’m leaving out a lot, but it’s not really that important), Galt achieves his role of complete societal breakdown, and he and his Objectivist friends stay snugly in their utopian valley as the world collapses outside. As the story ends, John Galt (who is a messianic figure) traces over the fallen world the sign of the dollar.
Heartwarming story there, isn’t it? By the way, all this is spread out over about 1200 pages. The events in the story take place over about three years, and it felt as though it took at least that long to read the book.
Fortunately for Rand, the book is not intended to be an entertaining read, but rather an explanation of the correct way of living. (Basically, it is the Objectivist bible, and Rand is the cult’s prophet). It preaches a doctrine of self-reliance, selfishness, and logic. By living life rationally, Rand claims, men can find true happiness on earth. The truly evil people are those who attempt to subvert man’s true selfish instincts by preaching altruism or socialism.
The portrayal of these “moochers” and “looters” is one of the weakest points in Rand’s book. In real life, socialism is attractive simply because it sounds wonderful. When I read one of Michael Moore’s books, I find myself thinking, against everything that I know is true, that he just might have the answers. Socialism doesn’t work, but it always seems as though it represents the end of mankind’s suffering and deprivations. Socialists always make their philosophy sound good—that is the reason it subverts so many.
Rand’s socialists bear no resemblance to their real-life counterparts. Their defense of socialism is unbelievably weak. Nearly every argument between adherents of the two philosophies goes something like this: the socialist spouts the collectivist argument, the capitalist fixes him with a contemptuous stare, and the socialist breaks down and screams that its not his fault. The debates in the book don’t go a whole lot deeper than that.
Lame socialists or not, Rand does make some reasonable attacks on collectivism. However, her philosophy isn’t much better. It displays a misunderstanding of human nature as great as that seen in socialism.
Objectivism is founded on several flawed principles—that man is not a social animal, that altruism is a moral evil, that man can become truly happy while on earth, and that material wealth is the way to happiness.
The idea that man can exist only for his own self-interest and still remain a sense of morality is absurd. If one believes that the goal in life is only material gains, that man will not respect the rights of others—why would he? This form of social Darwinism means that those who are strongest climb to the top by whatever means possible. This sort of man represents the worst kind of looter.
Granted, in Rand’s book, these types of people scrupulously respect property rights, and enjoy a little tough interbusiness competition. Too bad this sort of person doesn’t exist.
The idea that man can become truly happy on earth is also completely unsupported by facts. Perhaps a very few can—but most cannot. Consider, in your own experience, how few people you know who are wholly happy. Even among those who may be have achieved a measure of happiness, consider how easily it could all be taken away; cancer, an accident, or something of that sort. Pursuing happiness on earth is almost certainly doomed to end in failure.
If these postulates are incorrect (and I can’t imagine anyone who would argue in favor of them, although I assume that such people exist), then Objectivism is false.
Even if Atlas Shrugged espouses a failed philosophy, it is not a complete waste of time—after all, it kept my interest though 1200 pages. While Objectivism and collectivism are both wholly wrong, Objectivism is much closer to the truth. However, the respect with which Ayn Rand is regarded in conservative circles baffles me. The book has some bright spots—but it’s still pretty bad.