10 Things I Discovered About Ayn Rand's Addled Brain After Reading 'Atlas Shrugged'
Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged can teach us a lot about the vaunted American ideal of pompous, adolescent selfishness. The primary message of the book can be boiled down to the general theme that all economic regulations and worker safeguards should be abolished and that rich corporate executives should be allowed to do anything they want. But even so, you may be surprised by some of the ways Rand applies this principle. Here are 10 things I've learned from diving into Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (Part 1 here).
1. World-changing inventions are created out of nothing by solitary geniuses.
At the end of Part I, Rand's heroes — industrialist superwoman Dagny Taggart and steel titan Hank Rearden — find, in the wreckage of an abandoned factory, a broken prototype of a magic perpetual-motion motor that can produce infinite energy for free. The overarching plot of Part II concerns their search for the inventor in the hopes that he can make it work.
Dagny takes the partial blueprints she found to the scientist Dr. Robert Stadler, who's both baffled and impressed:
The pages where he writes about his converter — you can see what premise he's speaking from. He arrived at some new concept of energy ... Do you know what that means? Do you realize what a feat of pure, abstract science he had to perform before he could make his motor? ... Did you say you found this in the research laboratory of a plain, commercial motor factory?
Stadler is upset that the inventor, whoever it is, never published any scientific papers about his discovery. That's because, contrary to Isaac Newton's famous quote about standing on the shoulders of giants, Ayn Rand asserts all scientific progress is individual, not collaborative. In her world, all revolutionary new inventions are the product of lone geniuses who come up with ideas in isolation and turn them into working, marketable products in a single step. There's no slow progress, no incremental improvement, no group brainstorming or peer review.
2. Coal mining would be safe if not for government regulation.
In the world of Atlas Shrugged, there's no fraud, no negligence and no businesses that cut corners to save money. The only on-the-job accidents that happen are caused by nosy, pencil-pushing government bureaucrats who prevent Rand's heroic businessmen from doing whatever they think best.
In the real world, workers in mining and other dangerous industries routinely died on the job until the creation of OSHA and other safety regulation. This is shown best by a minor character named Ken Danagger, the owner of a coal-mining company who started work at the age of 12 and worked his way up to the top. Yes, that is a claim that 12-year-olds can and should work in coal mines. Ayn Rand is all for child labor, even in highly dangerous industries that require backbreaking toil.
3. The more you love money, the more honest and moral you are.
One of Ayn Rand's strongly held philosophical beliefs is that the love of money makes people moral and honest, because "money demands ... the highest virtues, if you wish to make it or to keep it." (It's not just that greed is good; greed makes you good.)
There are several scenes in which, even when her super-capitalists are "faint with hunger," they refuse to steal food, and even when work exhausts them or fills their bodies with agonizing pain, they're never tempted to quit early or slack off, because they love money just that much. The massive corporate scandals and collapses that have happened in the real world because of unmitigated greed don't figure into this picture.
4. Slavery and colonialism never happened.
In one of Ayn Rand's patented character filibusters, in which the action comes to a halt so one of her protagonists can monologue for pages and pages, Argentinian businessman Francisco d'Anconia says that America is the greatest country in the world because it was the first one where there was no slavery.
For the first time, man's mind and money were set free, and there were no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work, and instead of swordsmen and slaves, there appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being — the self-made man — the American industrialist.
Rand's claim that there were no "fortunes by conquest" in America flies in the face of the history books (clearly written by socialists and looters), which tell us that this country was founded on land taken by force from native people and built up by slave labor. Until the Civil War, in fact, slavery was a major source of wealth in the United States, representing about 16 percent of America's GDP — or $10 trillion in today's dollars. It took a bloody and brutal war and a constitutional amendment to abolish that national original sin, and even today, the stain of racism concocted to justify this human exploitation lingers on. But because this ugly history would complicate Ayn Rand's picture of America as a nation of heroic and morally upright capitalists, we can state with confidence that none of it ever happened.
5. If you disapprove of your customers, it's OK to deceive, defraud and destroy them.
A common argument made by Rand's defenders is that it's not capitalists she's in favor of. Her heroes are honest and fair-dealing businessmen; she harshly condemns crony capitalists who seek bailouts and other favors from the government, or those who lie and string their customers along with promises they can't keep. However, one section of Part II casts doubt on that assertion.
After his speech about the non-existence of slavery in America, Francisco d'Anconia reveals that he's secretly sabotaged his own company, then intentionally spreads rumors that start a panic, all to cause a stock-market plunge and wipe out the people who invested in it. In his view, his stockholders are looters who want to parasitically profit from his effort, and because in his sole judgment they don't meet his high moral standards, he sees no problem with committing fraud to destroy them. You might think that out-and-out fraud would still be a crime even in a laissez-faire society, but Rand's heroes don't share that opinion.
6. A court can't convict you if you refuse to plead.
In the dramatic climax of Part II of Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden is charged with illegal sales by the socialist government and threatened with a long prison term. Fortunately, he's aware of Ayn Rand's dictum that evil can't win without the cooperation of good, and so, at trial, he refuses to enter a plea. This innovative legal strategy utterly confounds the judges:
The three judges looked at one another. Then their spokesman turned back to Rearden. "This is unprecedented," he said.
"It is completely irregular," said the second judge. "The law requires you to submit a plea in your own defense. Your only alternative is to state for the record that you throw yourself upon the mercy of the court."
"I do not."
"But you have to."
"Do you mean that what you expect from me is some sort of voluntary action?"
"I volunteer nothing."
If you're ever charged with a crime, try this yourself!
Just tell the judge that you refuse to plead, and he or she will be helpless before your legal genius and have no choice but to set you free. Since no criminal defendant has ever thought of this strategy before, the courts obviously will have no way to deal with it.
7. Ideological compatibility is the same as sexual compatibility.
Hank Rearden is stuck in an unhappy marriage because his wife Lillian doesn't love capitalism as much as he does. But then he meets Dagny Taggart, the railroad heiress who does love capitalism as much as he does. So, in a natural step, the two of them slide from detailed discussions of steel-delivery contracts and profit margins into a steamy extramarital affair. This is inevitable, Rand suggests, because having the same political and economic beliefs as someone else necessarily means that you'll want to have sex with them. As another character monologue explains:
The men who think that wealth comes from material resources ... think that your body creates a desire and makes a choice for you — just about in some such way as if iron ore transformed itself into railroad rails of its own volition. Love is blind, they say; sex is impervious to reason and mocks the power of all philosophers. But, in fact, a man's sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions. Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life.
In fact, like the sexists who rage about the "friend zone," Rand says that platonic love is hypocrisy. If you agree with someone else's philosophical beliefs, you're rationally obligated to try to seduce them. Alas, she never does explain why her (many) male protagonists don't take this idea to its logical conclusion and have sex with each other, rather than all of them chasing after her (comparatively few) female heroes.
8. It's wrong to give people presents for their own pleasure.
During their affair, Hank Rearden buys Dagny all kinds of exotic and expensive gifts — fur coats, jewelry, tropical plants — and explains that he wants her to own them and shut them away out of public view, because it's a waste to put beautiful things in a shop window where poor people might be able to see them:
On the evening of a blizzard, she came home to find an enormous spread of tropical flowers standing in her living room against the dark glass of windows battered by snowflakes... "I saw them in a florist's window," he told her when he came, that night. "I liked seeing them through a blizzard. But there's nothing as wasted as an object in a public window."
Hank also makes it clear to Dagny that he's giving her these gifts not for her pleasure, but for his. In Rand's peculiar philosophy, doing something just because it makes someone else happy is "altruism," which to her is the foulest of curses. Instead, if you give people presents, it should only be for your selfish enjoyment — i.e., the enjoyment of knowing that you're a wealthy, high-status person who can afford to buy extravagant gifts for your friends and loved ones, as well as the enjoyment of knowing that you've removed a beautiful object from a shop where a less-wealthy person can see it.
9. Domestic violence is morally acceptable.
When Hank Rearden's wife Lillian finds out about his affair with Dagny Taggart, she's furious at him and demands that he call it off. In response, he not only refuses, he threatens to beat her if she ever so much as speaks of it again: "Lillian," he said, in an unstressed voice that did not grant her even the honor of anger, "You are not to speak of her to me. If you ever do it again, I will answer you as I would answer a hoodlum: I will beat you up."
Again, keep in mind that this is one of the novel's heroes saying this. And the text never suggests that there's anything wrong or worthy of condemnation about making a threat like this. To the contrary, it strongly implies that Hank is fully justified in doing so, because True Capitalists are entitled to take anything they want and to crush anyone who interferes with them.
And it's not just because Hank's wife is an evil socialist that he can treat her this way, either. In another scene, when Hank thinks that Dagny is in love with someone else, he flies into such a rage that she feels certain he's about to murder her. Unbelievably, this misogynistic, homicidal jealousy is philosophically proper in Rand's view — it's the rightful response of a man who thinks that someone else might be making a move on his female "property."
10. You deserve to die.
Part II of Atlas Shrugged ends with an infamous scene in which 300 people, including men, women and children, are killed in a massive train disaster. You might think that this would be a horrible tragedy. In fact, the text portrays it as righteous justice, as Ayn Rand's omniscient narration explains that every single person on the train was guilty of some crime against capitalism and deserved what they got. Some of these unpardonable offenses include accepting a government loan to start a small business:
The man in Bedroom H, Car No. 5, was a businessman who had acquired his business, an ore mine, with the help of a government loan, under the Equalization of Opportunity Bill.
Or caring about the welfare of your own children more than the bank accounts of the rich:
The woman in Bedroom D, Car No. 10, was a mother who had put her two children to sleep in the berth above her, carefully tucking them in, protecting them from drafts and jolts; a mother whose husband held a government job enforcing directives, which she defended by saying, "I don't care, it's only the rich that they hurt. After all, I must think of my children."
The woman in Roomette 9, Car No. 12, was a housewife who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge.
If you've ever voted for politicians who passed safety regulations or accepted any kind of loan or grant money from the government or criticized the excesses of capitalism or valued your own family more than rich strangers or done any of a hundred other seemingly innocuous things, then according to Ayn Rand, you too deserve to die. The number of people who'd meet her very strict criteria for worthiness to continue living is tiny — which is precisely the point.
Atlas Shrugged teaches a black-and-white view of the world in which only a small, elite handful will be saved, while the vast majority of human beings are incorrigible sinners who deserve only death and destruction. Ayn Rand's supercapitalists will be flown to the hidden mountain retreat of Galt's Gulch to watch society collapse into anarchy and millions of people starve. That's the future that her devotees anticipate and passionately long for.