Published over fifty years ago, Rand's book was at first received cooly by critics and public alike. Her editor, humorist Bennet Cerf, asked her to trim the 1200 page leviathan. Rand replied, "Would you edit the Bible?"
Arrogant? Perhaps, but arrogance is often just poorly-received competence, and Atlas Shrugged is a perfect example thereof. No, people do not speak like this; Rand's characters do not so much dialogue as speechify. Indeed, John Galt's sixty page radio address near the end of the book may be the longest speech ever written or given, but it wields great power and unimpeachable authority. It is a must read, even if you cannot slog through the entire book.
Atlas Shrugged is an important book and feels especially apropos in the current political climate, where statists wearing liberal sheep's clothing are attempting to fundamentally change the American (and thus, the world) economy. Obama is often compared to FDR, both for his rhetoric and agenda. It can be safely said that the uber-nanny state Obama is attempting to impose upon us got its start as Social Security back in the 1930s, a program originally intended to help the widows and fatherless, but which has expanded (as all federal programs do) into a nationwide retirement program. And it has become the single most expensive item in the budget and is poised to bankrupt the economy, just as cradle-to-grave socialism is threatening western Europe, which is currently turning away from its destructive tenets.
Obama's healthcare "reform" has now morphed into another 1984-style double speak term: "healthcare insurance reform," and will grant the federal government unprecedented control over one third of the U.S. economy. It will be run like all government agencies, with massive bureaucracies, powerful and intractable federal employee unions, unimaginable waste, and a cut-throat competitive edge that will destroy private competition. Who competes with Medicare? No one. Who offers flood insurance in Louisiana apres Katrina? Only FEMA.
Despite its challenging length, Atlas Shrugged is a simple story. Rand's "Objectivist" philosophy divides people into three classes:
- Producers: those farsighted individuals who see a need, create a product, sell it on the open market, and reap a reward;
- Looters: those who choose not to create, but who seek to take the rewards of creation from the producers, by force, if necessary; and
- Moochers: those who use guilt and need as levers to pry profit from producers instead of producing anything themselves.
In Rand's alternate America (this is actually a science fiction novel, due to the presence of futuristic metal alloys and unprecedented energy-producing machines), producers -- tired of the ingratitude of a public that reaps the rewards of the producer's industry and effort -- decide to go on strike. (Indeed, The Strike was the working title of the book.) When the world's economy predictably comes to a grinding halt, it is left to the producers to remake the world in their image: where a man can, through his effort alone, envision, create, and profit from his labors without anyone making demands upon him.
What enrages critics of the book is that it so forcefully rails against what has become a fundamental tenet of modern capitalism: the "duty" of producers to "give back." Bill Gates has used the term; every industrial magnate has. They "give back" because they have been "lucky" and therefore the unspoken implication is that their wealth or prosperity or even their positive self-esteem is unearned. They must "disgorge their profits" for the "benefit of all." Come on, you know you've said this yourself as you write the check to the United Way.
Rand does not condemn charity; she condemns the charitable obligation imposed on producers by looters and moochers. Only producers produce; looters and moochers do not employ producers -- they rob them. The government, whose only Constitutional imperative is to protect us from foreign intervention and maintain a civil society at home, has, in Rand's philosophy, no right whatsoever to steal from producers and give to those who cannot or will not produce. Producers, by the very nature of their life's work, do an immense amount of good for the world: they invent new things, employ people to manufacture them, pay dividends to investors, provide consumers with time-saving and life-improving products, and raise the standard of living of the entire world. Society should be grateful for these people instead of condemning them or taking from them at the point of a gun (the tax code).
What do looters and moochers produce? Nothing, save bureaucracies dedicated to taking from producers and distributing to non-producers. Rand said it well in the book in a conversation between an industrialist (Hank Reardon) and a high-seas pirate (Ragnar Danneskjold):
"I'm after a man whom I want to destroy," [said Danneskjold]. "He died many centuries ago, but until the last of him is wiped out of men's minds, we will not have a decent world to live in."
Reardon looked at him blankly, not understanding.
"He was a man who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Well, I'm the man who robs the poor and gives to the rich -- or, to be exact, the man who robs the thieving poor and gives back to the productive rich."
"What in blazes do you mean?"
"If you remember the stories you've read about me in the newspaper, before they stopped printing them, you know that I have never robbed a private ship and have never taken any private property. Nor have I ever robbed a military vessel -- because the purpose of a military fleet is to protect from violence the citizens who paid for it, which is the proper function of a government. But I have seized every loot-carrier that came within range of my guns, every government relief ship, subsidy ship, loan ship, gift ship, every vessel with a cargo of goods taken by force from some men for the unpaid, unearned benefit of others. I seized the boats that sailed under the flag of the idea which I am fighting: the idea that need is a sacred idol requiring human sacrifices -- that all of us must live with our work, our hopes, our plans, our efforts at the mercy of the moment when that knife will descend upon us -- and that the extent of our ability is the extent of our danger, so that success will bring our heads down on the block, while failure will give us the right to pull the cord. This is the horror which Robin Hood immortalized as an ideal of righteousness. It is said that he fought against the looting rulers and returned the loot to those who had been robbed, but that is not the meaning of the legend which has survived. He is remembered, not as a champion of property, but as a champion of need, not as a defender of the robbed, but as a provider of the poor. He is held to be the first man who assumed a halo of virtue by practicing charity with wealth which he did not own, by giving away goods which he had not produced, by making others pay for the luxury of his pity. He is the man who became the symbol of the idea that need, not achievement, is the source of rights, that we don't have to produce, only to want, that the earned does not belong to us, but the unearned does. He became a justification for every mediocrity who, unable to make his own living, has demanded the power to dispose of the property of his betters, by proclaiming his willingness to devote his life to his inferiors at the price of robbing his superiors. It is this foulest of creatures -- the double parasite who lives on the sores of the poor and the blood of the rich -- whom men have come to regard as a moral ideal. And this has brought us to a world where the more a man produces, the closer he comes to the loss of all his rights, until, if his ability is great enough, he becomes a rightless creature delivered as prey to any claimant -- while in order to be placed above rights, above principles, above morality, placed where anything is permitted to him, even plunder and murder, all a man has to do is to be in need. Do you wonder why the world is collapsing around us? That is what I am fighting, Mr. Reardon. Until men learn that of all human symbols, Robin Hood is the most immoral and the most contemptible, there will be no justice on earth and no way for mankind to survive."
Incendiary? Yes. Incorrect? No.
Now, lest I be misunderstood as just another greedy rich guy, I will say that I make an average living. I still get out of bed every day and I struggle to pay my bills. But unlike many, I do not blame others for my lack of wealth. I revel in their prosperity and work hard for my own. I do not begrudge the rich their riches. They employ me; no beggar ever gave me a job. And when I engage in charity, it is not only because I see a need, but because I wish to give. I receive a benefit in the transaction, a feeling of goodness, of rightness. The other's need is secondary. But above all, I give because I choose to, not because I am forced to.
Ayn Rand was prescient. One of Obama's campaign promises was to disallow the charitable tax deduction. This in itself is in line with Objectivist philosophy: the government should not reward (or punish) people for charitable giving. Giving should be its own reward. But the consequence of denial of this tax deduction will be that people will give less and the government, seeing increasing need everywhere, will do what it has always done: it will impose upon us a "charitable tax" in order to satisfy the perceived need. So charitable giving will no longer be voluntary but a requirement. After all, we're all in this together, aren't we? Mark my words.
I close with John Galt's famous words:
"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."
If you are shocked by this statement and believe it is heartless and cruel and selfish, then you have not yet read Atlas Shrugged. You should, before it is banned by the State.
Who is John Galt? I am.