Greg Camp on his third try at reading Ayn Rand’s book and why he is pleased that the copy he read came from the public library.
First published in February 2020.
William Butler Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming”, written a hundred years ago, sounds today like prophecy:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Or, what is worse, it sounds trite, the sort of political drivel language that becomes the norm when honesty is treated as fake news and honest people are declared the enemies of the nation. But as progressives in the Democratic Party are called communists, as centrists struggled with the vote to convict a criminal president, as that president permits industrial waste to be dumped into our waters while making a wasteland of our legal system, and as his militia of trolls tear down the institutions that have protected what greatness we had, I am again impressed with the precision of poetry in describing the world.
I write this as I am going through my third try, this time successful, at reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. C.S. Lewis spoke for me when he said there is not a book long enough (or a cup of tea strong enough) to suit him. It is not the 645,000 words of Rand’s magnum opus that deterred me. Instead, I twice before found the inhumanity treated as virtue in the characters leaving me with no wish to proceed. But contemporary politics demanded a reconsideration.
This was particularly the case after I had read Benjamin Wiker’s 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read, Plus Four Not to Miss and One Imposter on the principle that it is good to know what all players in the game of politics are thinking. The imposter, of course, is Atlas Shrugged, since according to Wiker, religion and the family are integral to conservatism.
If he is correct, there are few conservatives remaining — and I do not exempt evangelical preachers and their flocks from that assessment. The right wing is instead being swallowed up by the black hole of libertarianism of the Randian variety — the Objectivist type, to use her term for the ideology.
Objectivism is unsurprisingly a derivative philosophy, drawing its notions from the economic doctrines of Frédéric Bastiat and the Austrian School and its understanding of logic from Aristotle. What is unique about it comes out of Rand’s personality, reminding me of Samuel Johnson’s comment to a young writer that his manuscript was both good and original, though the good bits were not original and the original bits were not good. Except that there is little good in the thinking of Ayn Rand.
Her main character in Atlas Shrugged and author surrogate, Dagny Taggart, embodies and practices Rand’s philosophy. In Taggart’s view, one shared by the other author clones of Hank Reardon, John Galt, and Francisco D’Anconia, is that the world is composed of three categories of people: 1) the producers, the geniuses who create with their own hands and minds or the honest folk who make what they call a fair exchange; 2) the looters, the government regulators and tax collectors who plunder the work of the producers; and 3) the moochers, the various parasites who receive charity from the producers. The latter group includes members of the producers’ families — even spouses and presumably children, if anyone in Rand’s novel had any — who are not themselves out fighting in the great industrial struggle.
Taggart treats sex as a battle, one in which she oddly desires to be conquered, and evaluates relationships solely in terms of advantage and worship, rather than any sense of mutuality. For her, America at one point was the greatest of nations — the mythical past that Trump supporters dream of — and its many natural resources are the rightful property of whoever happens to possess current title to them. All the characters chuckle, rather than laugh, and in episode after episode, what is supposed to be a dialogue is presented as a monologue, something like listening to one side of a telephone conversation.
In other words, the novel is the celebration of the sociopath — though Rand would accuse me of being a collectivist for using that term. Its stance is so shocking that formulating a coherent response can be difficult. This is especially the case after the decades since Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the presidency and the rise of the new right wing that have distorted our political discourse. Too many in America accept as a given that taxes at any rate are theft, that regulation of any kind stifles productivity, and that the job of government is to get out of the way. This would be amusing — especially so when the conversation is taking place on the Internet, a technology developed in government laboratories — if it were not corroding the very concept of society.
Rand, for example, disparages the idea of worker cooperatives in factories, but she does not even admit the possibility that a business owner possesses a lot more power in contractual agreements than does any individual laborer. To characters like Taggart, owner and laborer are supposed to decide one on one what payment will be made for what work, and if they are left to themselves, this will be a fair deal. This notion is a crude reductionism of Adam Smith’s argument that prices are right when all participants in the market have complete information and complete freedom to negotiate. Rand illustrates this with characters like Eddie Willers, Taggart’s toady who always turns in an honest day’s work and meekly accepts that he is not on the exalted plain that she occupies. It would be interesting to ask Taggart to explain how great works like building and running a railroad can be performed without workers and why, then, they do not deserve a better share of the profits, but Rand never does this.
Nor does she explain how it is that the natural resources of the American continent could be privately owned. Yes, metal ore does require the genius and the initiative of someone to find it and develop it, but its presence is treated as an entitlement of whoever claims it the loudest. And even if we accept individual title to such resources, the country that Rand idealizes is itself one of the looters, as the land was owned by others before America's founders plundered it. She might argue that the aboriginal people were not using it to its full potential, but that would be to undermine her belief, expressed repeatedly throughout Atlas Shrugged, that property has no social burden. Under her doctrine, the tribes who were here first had no obligation to benefit anyone with their natural wealth, and anyone telling them otherwise is a moocher.
The Christian Bible employs the imagery of sheep with regard to its believers, and supposedly, the Republican Party accepts this book as one of their highest guides. But Atlas Shrugged is a summary of their current values, and that text promotes the snake as its model of perfection, an organism without the cerebral equipment to value anything beyond immediate and entirely personal objectives.
As with the Bible, in Rand’s novel, there are some good points made, however, and these must be addressed if we are to combat the pernicious influence that it has over the country. Anyone, for example, who has fought with a customer service agent after plowing through the list of “press this number if you want to pay more for fewer services” options on the telephone knows the frustration of dealing with employees who do not care about the work they are doing. I know from my own experience that being the person in the office with a good idea is no way to get ahead. And yes, we have the lesson of countries like Rand’s homeland of Russia to show what happens when individualism is made a crime. What we do not have is any demonstration that her principles have ever worked.
And we never will get that. Individual genius ought to be rewarded, but to ignore the benefits of society that make such brilliance possible is to be exactly the kind of parasite that Rand calls evil. If her novel had been written today, I suspect her characters would run a social media company and would wail unto the heavens about government regulation and about claims to a right of privacy on the part of the system’s users while exploiting the communications infrastructure made possible by government-funded research and by a society that is stable enough and prosperous enough to be able and willing to talk to anyone over the horizon. There will never be an Objectivist nation precisely because the people who promulgate such an ideology would not be able to find enough laborers to exploit to make their fantasyland function.
Yeats’s poem concluded by anticipating a new revelation, a rough beast that is even now slouching its way toward Bethlehem to be born. If this beast is the reptilian expression of Rand’s imagination, it is the job of good people to abort it. If I must treat with libertarians, give me Robert Heinlein, whose characters in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land offer a far more cheerful and honest version of the ideology. I am pleased by the fact that the copy of Atlas Shrugged that I read came from the public library, something that is to Objectivists an itch that they cannot scratch. Rand’s doctrines would bring such repositories of human learning and all other blessings of freedom, ingenuity, and cooperation to an end. She regards the first two of those as activities in a vacuum, while denying any value to the last. This is, to use her term for it, mooching. Her claims cannot survive analysis, and I will hold that up to her followers as long as their ideology remains the driving force of one of America’s two major parties.🔷