Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Limitations and Insights of Atlas Shrugged

"Atlas Shrugged"
by Ayn Rand

I knew about Ayn Rand a long time ago, and I read "The Virtue of Selfishness" in high school. I wasn't too impressed with it, and Objectivism seemed a fringe movement, so I didn't make an effort to read her more famous works. Two things changed my position. The first was reading an article in which the author criticized Rand's followers for misreading her (he was completely wrong, it turns out). The second was the discovery that Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan are both big fans of Ayn Rand. If major public figures are influenced by her thought, I wanted to know more about it.
So I read "Atlas Shrugged," her largest and most famous novel. The first thing you would notice about this book, whether you read it or not, is that it is extraordinarily long. It is estimated at 645,000 words. By comparison, "Les Miserables" is only 531,000 words. "War and Peace" is 587,000. The Old Testament is 593,000, almost ten percent shorter than "Atlas Shrugged." This is a really, really long book. You would have to think it would take a lot of ego to write a book longer than Victor Hugo or Leo Tolstoy. Or God. Surveys have shown this book to be one of the most influential in modern America, which astounds me because I have a hard time believing that that many people have read it. Did they really plough through all 1100 pages of this book? Or did they just read a summary and say they were influenced by it?

Maybe Rand just has a lot to say? There is a lot of stuff in this book, I admit: things happen, action progress, the plot unfolds. But I'm pretty sure she could have written the book in 500 pages and still covered the plot comfortably. Most of the extra verbiage is taken up by long monologues. I understand that she is trying to expound a philosophy, and that is obviously easier to do when people just say what they think rather than having the reader infer it from the action. In fact, she does both; the action reinforces the speeches, and vice versa. But the speeches are like lectures. In any work of fiction, people don't talk like they do in real life; I understand that. They talk longer and more coherently than real people do, and their listeners listen longer and more patiently than real people. Even so, Rand had stretched this exception well past the breaking point. I don't even have to sit and listen to the self-righteous people in the novel pontificate for 15 or 20 minutes at a time, and I still want them to shut up. I can't imagine how the characters in the story would behave, but I'm sure they wouldn't just sit there and take it (and agree, most of the time).

When I first started the novel, I was impressed with its attention to detail and its characterization. It has more literary merit than I had expected; some scenes are quite good. By the end, I had been disillusioned by the lack of anything resembling complex characters. There are exactly two kinds of characters in the book. One is the intelligent, driven hero who knows what he wants and goes after it. The other is the incompetent, whining person who keeps repeating "it wasn't my fault; there was nothing I could do." There are no highly motivated, honest, but stupid people who try and fail, and no highly intelligent people at all who disagree with individualism. Again, in the service of a polemical novel, I can understand the value of these omissions, but they do detract from its literary value -- not to mention the pleasure one gets from reading it.

Ayn Rand is to be credited for considering the impact of her ideas beyond the merely economic realm. If you haven't read it, you might think this is just a book about government interference in the economy, but that is only a corollary to the central theme of people doing what's best for themselves. For Rand, it isn't just an observation that people are self-interested; it is a moral code. The heroes have to wrestle with government forces that interfere with their work, but equally with their own desire to do something -- anything -- for the sake of anyone else. Rand believes in love, but only to the extent that two people happen to admire each other. At one point, a character says, "I love you as I love my work," and proceeds to expand upon how his love for the woman and the job are close parallels, as though this were the way to her heart. (It is, in the book, but I doubt it would work anywhere outside of it -- probably not even with Rand herself.) Any other reason for love besides self-interest is irrational and must be discarded.

Rand's philosophy is therefore very broad, but it is not very deep. Her characters talk a lot about rights and responsibilities; "I have no right to ask you," for instance, or "he knew he had to do it." It's not clear where these rights are supposed to come from, however. Sometimes it seems as though the absolute devotion to self-interest means that everyone has a responsibility to say exactly what he means, but at other times a mysterious sort of merit is required before one is allowed to speak about some things. Sometimes characters are honest because they gain from it, but at other times they are honest because it is the right thing to do. One gets the feeling that Rand thinks she has a fully-developed, comprehensive system, but I doubt it would withstand a routine consistency check on the part of a graduate student looking for a dissertation topic.

Whittaker Chambers wrote a contemporary review of "Atlas Shrugged" in which he condemned it: "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber — go!'" It is a bit unfair to take this sentence out of the context of the complete review (which is, on the whole, excellent, and can be read online at Even so, and even though I am a great admirer of Whittaker Chambers, I think he was wrong on this point. It is possible that a full and thorough examination of all the implications of the ideas in "Atlas Shrugged" might lead one to this conclusion, but it is certainly not the case that Rand herself would have sanctioned any such message, nor would any of the characters in the book. It is a book about leaving people alone, after all. One wonders what would happen to the incompetent in such a world; I can certainly understand that people might be left to die. But I can't see how the philosophy or any of its immediate implications could lead to genocide.

Chambers admitted that he shared certain of Rand's antipathies but saw little relation between their philosophies because of Rand's thoroughgoing materialism. And while I agree with him, I don't think it's a good idea to dismiss Rand entirely, because "Atlas Shrugged" does include some important truths -- truths that are rarely acknowledged, let alone celebrated, in public discourse. The most obvious is that running a business is a real job that requires talent. Politicians often talk as though CEO's milch massive salaries in exchange for doing no real work. While I wouldn't want to assume that every CEO is effective or earns his salary, Rand's perspective is closer to the real truth. It is not trivial to manage a team of employees, much less a massive corporation. It is meaningless to distinguish management from those who do "real work," because management is real work -- very different from technical tasks, of course, but still requiring a great deal of skill.

On a related note, Rand takes on the notion that businesses have plenty of money and can absorb arbitrary government exactions without skipping a beat.  In the real world, the enormous profits that sometime materialize are balanced by risks, poor decisions, and losses at other times.  The same people who are quick to levy windfall profits taxes are also the first to criticize businesses that make poor decisions that result in great losses, as though management could make a small profit consistently if only it weren't so greedy.  Rand sets up realistic scenarios in which relatively small government exactions lead to future business problems and thus to more calls for government intervention to fix what businessmen have messed up.  (It isn't realistic that her scenario end in economic collapse, of course, but the mechanism is credible.)  This is highly relevant in our own time, when many people believe they can raise the minimum wage indefinitely or impose new regulatory burdens with impunity because, after all, businesses have plenty of money and won't adjust their behaviour to account for marginal changes.
Another valuable lesson of "Atlas Shrugged" is that it is a myth to assume that government officials are disinterested players in economic decisions. Even the best set of laws and regulations is open to wide interpretation, and the more the government regulates, the more difficult it is to make meaningful rules. In questionable cases, decisions will be made based not on general economic benefit but on individual gain. A bureaucrat is a person, after all, with his own interests and goals. Just because he might not have a financial stake in a particular decision doesn't mean there aren't other things he can get out of it. And, since every government decision benefits some and hurts others, the interested parties become supplicants to the bureaucrat, willing to trade whatever currency he demands to get their way. A major part of "Atlas Shrugged" consists of showing that government regulation results, not in greater equality or better performance, but in a new "aristocracy of pull" -- people who are not good at making things, but are good at trading favours. At a time when Democratic Party donors have benefited from major government "investments" while those opposed to the government find themselves targeted by the IRS and the Justice Department, it is especially important to remember that removing the economic incentive from private individuals to the government does not remove individual greed; it only transfers it from citizens to government officials, with predictable results.

Chambers criticizes Rand's in-your-face use of the dollar sign as the symbol of her protagonist's community.  The dollar sign means materialism, and surely there is little more confrontational than asserting that materialism is the root of a philosophy.  In this, however, Chambers misses the point.  We think of the dollar sign as a symbol of materialism, but what it represents to Rand is freedom -- the freedom to earn money by selling goods and services, as well as the freedom to acquire things by trading away money.  People don't do something for nothing, at least not very often; even humanitarians, if they are not already independently wealthy, have to make a living.  The question is, will they be free to do what they want, or will the government dictate what they must do?  Will exchange be voluntary, or forced?  This is the essence of the debate over a free economy, not greed vs. altruism, and Rand is very effective in marking it.

The last point that strikes me about "Atlas Shrugged" is how characters become increasingly afraid to take decisions as the government's influence expands. Characters who are acting on their own behalf are free to act and live with the consequences, good or bad. When the government is in charge and companies have to be run by following rules rather than by seeking profit, every action is a potential excuse to blame someone for failing to adhere to the rules, regardless of whether the result of the action is success or failure. While our economy as a whole is nowhere near this point, I'm afraid that a mass of laws, prosecutorial discretion, and erratic court decisions are increasingly putting people in a position where taking decisive action is more dangerous than not acting. Helping a distressed animal can get you in trouble; a company that finds a potentially dangerous defect in its product has incentive to pretend it doesn't know, because it opens itself up for lawsuits prior to its discovery of the defect (because of strict liability laws). There are so many laws and rules that even a Supreme Court justice has declared that it is difficult to know what is legal or illegal in advance. This is not the result of a bad law or three or three hundred, but an inevitable consequence of trying to regulate everything. And when anything can be illegal, the government can find some reason to prosecute you. Your only hope is to avoid doing anything too conspicuous, and not to annoy anyone in the government who might be in a position to hurt you.

I am sceptical of Rand's philosophy as a whole, and her morality is repugnant in some ways.  "Atlas Shrugged," however, remains a valuable book that opens up some economic truths that many people would otherwise never hear about.

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