A Review of the Other Half of Atlas Shrugged

Many social and physical planners in decades and centuries past have imagined what the world would be like if certain wrongs were righted, inequities were rectified, and “moral problems” were done away with.  The conclusions they reached became some of the most monstrous examples of human fallibility.  Since selfishness and division had negative impacts on society, Communism attempted to eliminate profit, religion, and individualism.  It also unintentionally eliminated motivation, innovation, and economic growth.  Communism failed because it failed to consider the complexity of human social and economic behavior.

In America, building restrictions and stagnation created a permanent underclass that had trouble finding affordable housing.  Planners saw this as an opportunity to experiment with urban renewal schemes that put these struggling people into cheap multi-story dorm-like buildings in the middle of cheaply landscaped parks.  This was supposed to be the humane solution.  Of course, it destroyed entire cities from within by demolishing the diverse urban fabric of the working city and replacing it with uniformity.  Uniformity works in the suburbs and out in the country, where everyone is very similar.  Uniformity built into a racially, culturally, and economically diverse central city is a recipe for disaster and decline.  It has taken many decades of re-urbanizing our greatest cities to save them.  Those that never tried (Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis) have never recovered.

Ayn Rand considered herself the antithesis of these planners, violently opposing the concept that good can come from an individual working to make life better for others.  Yet, she seems to have walked into the same trap with her vision of a socialistic world carried to it logical conclusion in Atlas Shrugged.  I already posted a half-way-through review, and after finishing the longest book I’ve ever read, I have concluded that the first half is the only part worth reading.  Nothing of good substance comes from the last 500 pages.  Sure, the reader gets to meet the mysterious John Galt, but for a reader with any sense of reality, Rand’s dream world concludes in a very anticlimactic fashion.

Of course, we all know what is going to happen.  Eventually, all of the people with ability (which Rand seems to think can fill a very small town) will quit and the “moochers” will waste away and die from ineptitude and starvation.  Then, when everything stops and all the looters (including children, the elderly, the disabled; anyone not able to be completely self-sufficient) are dead, “They the Living” will rebuild from scratch.  Rand suggests that this is what the “moochers” want anyway.  They want to die.  Their moral code despises responsibility, self-sufficiency, and wealth for the sake of wealth. Rand equates these qualities to life, and anything else, any sense of compassion or other-centeredness, must be wishes for death. 

I have stronger words to refer to this philosophy of life and death, but I’ll just play it safe and call it ridiculous.  At its center, Rand’s view of life is a direct attack on our most popular and deeply-held religious moral codes, particularly Christianity.  In religious ideals, those that form the foundation of almost every successful culture in the past 3,000 years, looking outside oneself to something larger and more powerful is the path to not only a satisfying current life but a fulfilling eternal existence, and death occurs only for those who cannot bring themselves to effectively respect the existence of something more powerful than themselves. Rand turns this moral code on its head and emphatically denies that life is granted to those who do not see themselves as the originators of their own lives.  Of course, once Rand’s heroes stop breathing in this life, there is no Motivation or Impetus to transition them to a next life.  They die with expected finality, without hope of something more.  Now, whose moral code ultimately leads to death?

Like the Communists and American planners, Rand made a fundamental and deeply arrogant error in her thought process when determining the course of her story: she assumed that the way that things ought to be (in her mind, at least) was the same as the way things actually are.  She despised social thinking and charity, because she came from a background where those virtues were taken to a disastrous extreme.  So, instead of considering that life and economies and societies are complex and exist as a hodgepodge of coexisting opposing virtues, she came to the conclusion that anything remotely resembling her communist upbringing must be the opposite of what a fulfilling life is.  She put up the clean, uniform walls and gardens of her philosophical slum and expected them to create order and life.  The end of her story affirms that philosophy, but that is the advantage of an author: she could create her own reality, whether it reflected real life or not.

In real reality, people and economies are much more complicated than Rand assumed.  I have serious doubts that most die-hard Randians are avowed atheists, but she leaves no room to be both an individualist and a believer.  In her cut-and-dry philosophy, you are either a capitalist or a death-yearning mystic.  You cannot be both, not even a little bit.  Agnostics are not welcome to Rand’s elite club.  This goes beyond religion as well.  If you pay a dime to feed your helpless child or dying mother, it is the same as giving charity to starving individuals in an undeveloped country: it is a form of bleeding yourself to death.  If you love your wife even when she is not providing you with endless pleasure, you are no different than that infinitely evil classical character, Robin Hood, who stole forcefully from the wealthy to give to the poor.

Any regular person (Rand’s “moochers”) with common sense and open eyes will see that both individualism and collectivism can and must exist together and in balance for society to survive and prosper.  Individualism brings innovation and democracy from stagnation and dictatorship, but collectivism creates the conditions for individualism to prosper.  Dictatorships and monopolies don’t fall because one individual protests and dissents, but only when a mass of individuals act with a common purpose. Rand’s selfish heroes should have learned this lesson as they collectively withdrew from society.  The war that established this country as independent was anything but an individualistic venture.  Individualists from all over the new country drew together for a common purpose, put aside many of their own high ambitions, and fought to create the conditions for this country to become the bastion of capitalism that it is. Rand seemed to have forgotten that little piece of history.

Rand’s biggest dream, and misconception, was about the source of success of her heroes. Rand knew very little about how economies innovate and technologies develop, which is obvious from her glorification of Rearden’s metal and Galt’s engine.  In the story, these are two of the most important inventions of all time, with the potential to change life and economies in ways that we could not even imagine.  Rearden’s metal was ten times lighter and many more times stronger than the best steel available at the time, and Galt’s engine converted static energy into kinetic energy, making it a source of unlimited power.  These innovations were light years ahead of even anything we have today, and both were developed in complete isolation.  If Rand had done any amount of research into the real game-changing inventions in our world’s history, she would know that innovation comes gradually and culminates from many conversations, interactions, and diverse ideas originating from dense and lively cities.  This is how current ideas produce new ideas. Rand, in her arrogance, thought, instead, that other people’s ideas were worthless.

I enjoy fiction, especially those written by authors who have mastered the art of storytelling. Rand was a supreme storyteller, and the mystery that she developed around Galt’s motor was far and away the best part of the story.  But once she began foreshadowing that Galt invented the motor and let the reader in on more information about Galt, the story was effectively over.  The only substance that remained was Rand’s philosophy and terrible misjudgment of human motivation and character.  She strongly believed everything she put down on paper, which is an admirable thing, but she completely ruined the spirit of fiction by making the cardinal mistake of any fiction author: she took herself too seriously.  There was no openness to criticism in Rand’s assertion that people are either like her or, instead, death-wishers. 

Rand’s bedrock belief in her own philosophy inevitably brought the story to a final culmination of intellectual battle between the “producers” and the “moochers.”  Just as the leader of the “moochers” was about to broadcast a propaganda-laced pep rally over the radio, John Galt hacked into the signal and made his own passionate speech meant to open the public’s eyes to what was really going on as the country was on its last legs.  I can imagine that this was intended to be Rand’s magnum opus, her final arguments, her most effective message to win over a skeptical but open audience.  Instead, I think it effectively buried her as the prognosticator of a fringe way of thinking that is just not inspiring or interesting (or real) enough to take seriously.  Galt’s three-hour speech, the climax of Rand’s most important work, took me four days to get through, not just because it had no relation to reality; not just because it was like reading a chest-puffed rant by the likes of Donald Trump; not just because it did not serve to clarify anything that had already been said; but because it was simply, mind-numbingly boring.