Monday, August 02, 2010

Reflections on Atlas Shrugged.

My friend Justin wrote a great post about his thoughts on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and I thought I would take a break from my China updates to write some of my own reactions on the novel. I was too lazy to give a synopsis for those who haven't read it, but there is one on the wiki page, and Justin gives some background as well.

I'm glad that I read Fountainhead first. I loved that book, not only because it gave me a profound new appreciation for architecture, but because it introduced me to a writer who worships self-sufficiency and individualism. In that respect, it was an overture to Atlas Shrugged; it was a "light version" of the more challenging magnum opus. All the heroes in Atlas Shrugged are models of Howard Roark in Fountainhead, in that they operate their lives by their own rational intellect and depend on nothing else to live, even if it brings them at odds with society. Rand implies that John Galt is the ideal man and Dagny Taggart the ideal woman, and I can definitely see why. (Ah, Dagny Taggart. What a woman! The brains behind a massive transcontinental railroad, brilliant and beautiful to boot. New-wave feminist I am not, but the book was a major celebration of girl power, which energized me more than I'd like to admit.)

There are some points that Rand gets right. For example, there are several sections of the book stressing how all industries are connected. You take out one industrial powerhouse, and all the small enterprises leading up to it are wiped out in turn. Affecting one section of the economy will affect many, and the unintended consequences can be great and often unexpected. True.

Another point which underlines Rand's distrust of government, is her observation that politicians often use flowery words in the spirit of altruism in order to pass legislation that is first and foremost for the benefit of themselves and special parties, and only slightly for the actual public interest. Rand strikes that warning home with the likes of James Taggart and all those honey-talking Washington men.

It's interesting, I finished Atlas Shrugged just as I was starting to read Mao Zedong's biography (by Jonathan Spence, a Chinese historian who makes books on Chinese history quick and enjoyable, if you can imagine that). As to be expected, Mao's ideal world of communism resembles closely the dystopia of the book. Ayn Rand herself, being an advocate of pure laissez-faire, pure capitalism (in her life she wore a dollar sign pinned to her shirt), was vehemently against any kind of ideology in which the state systematically interferes with the economy and society, i.e. communism, fascism, socialism.

Rand's theme is "ethical egoism". Individualism reigns. Her ideal world is a state of traders, where to gain something of value one must produce and return something of equal value. To get, one must create. Because people are free to act in their own self-interest, the incentive is to produce more in order to get more.

Mao's ideal world was one of the community, where nobody else is less important than yourself. If you create more than you neighbor, you must give to your neighbor. Here, the incentive is to produce as little as possible, and when a society is based on that kind of incentive, it will come to a standstill. Marx's famous line "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" is anathema to Rand. John Galt rejected society as soon as he saw that it was operating by that standard.

Rand stresses selfishness. Marx stresses selflessness. Reading about both camps side-by-side was an interesting thought-experience, and, putting aside whether or not I agreed with what I read, I appreciated the challenge of being forced to think about the Rand's theoretical world.

However, my appreciation stops there. The number one reason why the philosophy of Atlas Shrugged cannot be applied to real life is because the world of the book is not the world that we know. The characters and situations are purposefully exaggerated to prove a point, and because of that, their reactions to events cannot be generalized to include human beings. When ardent objectivists try to shed practical light on the theories of the book, they are making the false assumption that we have pure John Galts and pure Wesley Mouches in this world. Extreme characters necessitate extreme plot points that would be overkill in real life.

Rand creates a world with a handful of creative, productive geniuses, and the rest are weak-willed, incompetent freeloaders. There is no such divide in real life, nor is there a direct correlation between needy and incapable. To suggest that people achieve success purely by their own work, ability, and ideas is just hooey. It's easy to pin success on handfuls of prominent individuals, but in actuality, wealth is made possible collectively, even though the benefits are often spread unequally. One way of seeing this is in the way empowering the poor builds markets, which are necessary for producers to do what they do. The big people do need the little people.

I just cannot accept an author who denounces emotion in favor of total rational selfishness in every aspect of life. People feel. People are connected. No matter how much they value rational thinking, people cannot and do not act in a vacuum.

I will give Ayn Rand one thing though: she can write an engaging novel. Sure, the writing was melodramatic at times, and the plot was mostly predictable, and the torture machine bit prompted a slap on the forehead (although I suppose that a dystopian novel based on a purely intellectual hell needs some physical threats too, to round things out a bit). But to all those liberals with sour grapes who instinctively avoid Rand just because of her political and economic views (and her conservative, libertarian followers), I say: Read the thing with not a grain of salt but a bag of it, and enjoy it along the way.

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