Book Review: Atlas Shrugged
A Review by Taylor Griggs
Who is John Galt? No name less well known has a greater influence on the modern world, and no idea has done more damage to our current culture than the ideas held under both the name and the question. Ayn Rand’s manus opus, Atlas Shrugged tells the story of a cadre of world shakers that removes themselves from the world of takers and makers to celebrate their own ability without regard for any other. Bond together by the vow:
"I SWEAR B Y 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." (P. 731)
These titans of industry believe themselves to be worthy of all that society can give to them and defrauded by those who take from them. In many ways, without even knowing, an electoral majority of Americans affirmed the assumptions of Rand.
Atlas Shrugged can be read as an intriguing consideration of what the present was expected to be 80 years ago. Dagny Taggart, the heroine of the novel, is both powerful and oddly limited in her place as a woman at the head of a major corporation. Rand describes Taggart as hiding her femininity under suits and yet, Rand also describes the sexuality of a woman freed from the social expectations of the 1930’s. One can sympathize with Rand’s own struggle as a woman of mind in a world that saw only a woman. Likewise, one can smile at Rand’s quaint thought that the future would be dominated by railroads. She was after all, envisioning a world from her particular moment in time.
On the other hand, to read Atlas Shrugged as merely futuristic is to miss the prescient prediction of Rand and the dangers that her ideas pose. Having reached the utopian world hidden in the mountains, Taggart is told the world faces a moral crisis, “the greatest the world has ever faced and the last. Our age is the climax of centuries of evil. We must put an end to it, once and for all, or perish — we, the men of the mind. It was our own guilt. We produced the wealth of the world — but we let our enemies write its moral code.” (p. 619) That concept of a hard working, long suffering cadre of geniuses deciding the be done with the “takers” of the world animates much of conservative media and thought. What Rand describes as “secondraters” is easily seen in the “fragile snowflakes” of social media:
“Miss Taggart, do you know the hallmark of the second-rater? Its resentment of another man’s achievement. Those touchy mediocrities who sit trembling lest someone’s work prove greater than their own.” (Dr. Robert Stadler, p. 358)
The problem is, reality does not support that view of the inequality of our world.
There are real difference in opportunity ignored by Rand and her acolytes. Since the 1970’s social mobility, both in absolute and relative terms, has stalled. (Putnam, Our Kids, p. 43) Poverty and all of its related concerns is not solely the result of an unwillingness to work and wealth and all of its related benefits is not solely the result of hard work. Even so, the danger behind Rand’s philosophy is in the creation of a society that is sure to destroy the very people who create it.
A society dedicated to the proposition that a person’s only loyalty is to self is sure to devolve into dystopian self-preservation. Anyone that has read Lord of the Flies trembles at the thought of a world without interdependence and shared values. Tragically, the very people who seem to have pushed us toward such a vision are least equipped to live within it. The thought that Donald and Ivanna Trump could survive simply on their wits or that Paul Ryan could be content in the house he built for himself is absurd. Equally absurd is the notion that the people who voted for each of them would long survive a post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max.