Saturday, February 2, 2008

Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
February 1, 2008

“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.”

I just finished reading Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, all one thousand one hundred and sixty eight pages of it. It was quite an experience.

Ayn Rand has a very strong and comprehensive philosophy that describes the perfect man and how he operates in an industrial society, and this book exemplifies her philosophy through its characters and their actions. These characters fall into three categories, set in American industry in the 1940s and 1950s. There are the competent industrialists, who build factories, face problems, and solve every problem with their own brains and initiative. Then there are the rest of the industrialists, who build factories, try to run them, and blame all their failures on someone else. (I called them the whiners as I was reading the book.) And finally, there are the government officials, who think the only way to solve problems is to institute more regulations and controls—generally to the pleasure of the incompetents and the horror of the competent industrialists.

The book portrays the changes in American industrial society as the three factions play out their roles. Over time the government exerts increasing control, the industrialists are increasingly frustrated and forced to react, and the population begins to suffer.

Well that’s the story, but Atlas Shrugged is really about the characters, their philosophies and anxieties, and how they gradually come around to the “right” (Ayn Rand’s) way of thinking about their roles in society. A key character is Dagny Taggart, who runs the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad with her brother James. Dagny overcomes all obstacles—many of them put in place by government edicts—to keep the railroad running. She faces a dilemma: As she overcomes the obstacles, her success helps society, which gives more power to the government, and the government can then install more obstacles. It comes down to a values trade-off between government altruism (supporting the needy) and corporate selfishness (rewarding the successful).

I will hold off getting any deeper into Ayn Rand’s philosophy, since the philosophy and story line unfold together through the dialogs and thinking of the characters. I found these character developments to be quite tedious at first, but as I gradually grew into Ayn Rand’s world, I learned to enjoy it. (I have to admit, though, that I had some trouble making it through a sixty-one page speech near the end of the book, in which the entire philosophy was laid out in detail.) Following is a randomly selected excerpt (p. 144):

“Moving aimlessly through the crowd, Dagny wondered why she had accepted the invitation to this party. The answer astonished her: it was because she had wanted to see Hank Rearden. Watching him in the crowd, she realized the contrast for the first time. The faces of the others looked like aggregates of interchangeable features, every face oozing to blend into the anonymity of resembling all, and all looking as if they were melting. Rearden’s face, with the sharp planes, the pale blue eyes, the ash-blond hair, had the firmness of ice; the uncompromising clarity of its lines made it look, among the others, as if he were moving through a fog, hit by a ray of light.”

Needless to say, Rearden is one of the good guys, the men with strong goals and the ability to achieve them. The rest of the book is like this passage. No action takes place without detailed introspective analysis by the characters involved.

Atlas Shrugged was sometimes difficult to read, and it strongly espouses philosophies that only a Libertarian might be comfortable with (and they tried but couldn’t get along with Ayn Rand). The book challenged all of my existing thoughts about industry and politics, giving me a lot to ponder. It was well worth reading.

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