Response to 'Atlas'

[This essay was written in 2003 in response to a friend who had become an Ayn Rand fan and asked me to read "Atlas Shrugged"]

Having recently finished Atlas Shrugged, I have more than a few thoughts on the book. If you are a fan of Ayn Rand and subscribe to her worldview then you will not find much here that you agree with, but after spending almost four weeks reading every one of book's 1,084 pages – and enjoying none of them – I believe I have earned the right to say what I think about it.

While there is so much of the story and Rand's pseudo-philosophy to criticize, I must first address her actual writing style, which I can only describe as horrible. The words spoken by the characters are so incredibly stupid and so appallingly melodramatic that it is very difficult to take any of it seriously; I literally burst out laughing at many "serious" passages. The mind-numbing verbosity of every description requires the reader to wade through paragraph after paragraph of babble, vainly searching for anything to move the story forward. Every page is filled with silliness like: "He looked at her with a hint of a mocking smile, the tiniest fraction of the lips on his perfectly angular face – the face that showed, with radiant brilliance, the greatness of his soul to the few around him who loved their lives enough to recognize his perfect love of his own life – raised slightly in triumph, as his eyes communicated the depth of his suffering and of his defeat, which she knew was her greatest victory, and together their greatest joy, and as she looked back at him ... blah, blah, blah." With so much mindless filler, it takes Rand more than 1,000 pages to tell a story that Hemingway could have told in less than 100. More than anything, this book is an incredible waste of words and paper.

The introduction contains excerpts from Rand's personal journals that explain what she was going for in Atlas Shrugged: to demonstrate the relationship between "prime movers" and the rest of us. However, rather than do anything like that, she constructs a totally bizarre world in which the vast majority of people are total morons, barely capable of feeding themselves, while a very small number of elites know everything, can do anything, and are the only adults in a nation of toddlers.

This setup simply creates a straw man for Rand to blast away at, telling us that the prime movers of her fantasy world are identical to people in our own world, who are "victimized" by the unwashed masses because of their "greatness." But even Rand understood that the people of her own time were nothing like this, which is why she pulled all of her characters and situations from a mythic bygone era, relying on America's cultural memory to give them any credibility and relevance in the modern age.

The choice of characters and industries that are the focus of the book is an obvious giveaway. The main protagonists work in railroads, steel, mining, oil, etc. – the key industries of mid-to-late 19th century America, some of which (particularly railroads) had diminished greatly in importance by the time the book was published (with the exception of airplane manufacturing, no industry established after 1900 appears in the book). Also, the prime industrial protagonists – like Hank Rearden and Ellis Wyatt – are not simply founder/CEOs: they are inventors, engineers, operators, and chief executives of large private companies that they own. The story contains no professional managers (at least, none who are not who are not members of the founder's family), and, except for a couple of minor references to Taggart Transcontinental and d'Anconia Copper, no stockholders or boards of directors. The strange obsession with the gold standard (a hot button political issue in the 1890s), along with a reference by Francisco to America's greatness during a certain "century" sticks the story even more so in the 19th century.

The reason for dating the characters is obvious: besides paying homage to what Rand must see as the greatest people ever (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, etc.), it allows Rand to ignore the establishment of managerial capitalism in the early 20th century and its total dominance of big business in her own time. Managerial capitalism – created to manage the huge enterprises required for the mass production that addressed the new mass markets of the 20th century – brings a distribution of both ownership (through the public sale of stock) and of authority (through a professional managerial class, overseen by the board of directors).

There is simply no way that a lone owner/operator like Hank Rearden can gain the economies of scale needed for mass production, and there is no way that an organization incapable of mass production can establish and hold a dominant market position; that's true today, and that was true when the book was written. Rand simply ignored the realities of business to better fit the notion that entire multi-national corporations were each run by – and totally dependant on – one Great Man.

Without that disregard of the facts, of course, nothing in the book would make any sense. If the companies in the story were modern corporations, they would not have been the personal property of the Great Men who led them, but would instead belong to the stockholders, whose interests the founder/CEO would be expected to serve (and if he didn't, the board would fire him). Since we know that serving other people is a Randian sin, this would automatically create a problem if modern characters and companies were in the story. Also, no modern corporation would ever allow the entire knowledge of the company's inventions, processes, and operations to be held in a single individual, since that would leave the corporation (and its shareholders) only one resignation or accident away from total ruin; yet every company in the book was managed this way, indicating that they were all run incredibly poorly.

In fact, whenever a company owner/founder disappears, the factories left behind are taken up by his relatives, indicating that every major industrial company in America is a sole proprietorship. The entire justification for the story rests on these silly premises; otherwise, every company deserted by the Great Man who founded it would simply go on more or less unscathed. Did Hewlett-Packard survive the deaths of Bill & Dave? Sure it did, just as Sears, Wal-Mart, Cisco, AT&T, General Motors, and the many derivatives of Standard Oil survived the retirement, firing, or death of their founders. Modern companies are specifically constructed so that no one person is irreplaceable, the exact opposite of what the book holds up as the truth.

The only semi-modern industrialist who might fit Rand's model is Henry Ford, a self-made man who founded his company, invented revolutionary manufacturing processes, and made a ton of money. Ford also shunned "managers" as a type of employee, contending that such men would simply put their own career ambitions ahead of the company's welfare, and instead ruled Ford Motor Company with an iron fist. Yet the minute division of labor that Ford created turning skilled "thinking" jobs into tedious, repetitive work, removing the all-important "mind" from the workplace for not only his own employees, but for the millions who have followed them into assembly line work.

Whether this would disqualify Ford as a Great Man for Rand is an interesting question, but it's far less relevant than the fact that General Motors kicked Ford's ass big time in the 1920s and has been a bigger player ever since. How did Alfred Sloan and the guys at GM beat Ford, the entrenched market leader? By inventing managerial capitalism and creating the type of managerial hierarchy that still rules corporations today, resulting in a far more efficient company. In the process, they also buried Rand's archetype of the heroic lone industrialist for good.

Rand was either oblivious to this when writing Atlas Shrugged or chose to ignore it. Either way, the result of her choice is a bizarre one: the story is essentially of the hardships endured by a group of amazingly gifted 19th century industrialists who travel through time to the mid-20th century to destroy runaway Marxism by crushing American civilization. The fact that these industrialists are all gorgeous and are great at everything – from mining to cooking to sex – makes it all the more comical, yielding characters that are basically comic book heroes. Rand could have instead written about mutant vigilantes with superpowers (a la the X-Men) and the critical role they play in society by doing battle with evil super-villains, and it would have been just as close to the real world – and just as flimsy a premise for presenting supposed truths – as Atlas Shrugged.

It's interesting that the first major event of the book – the passage of the anti-dog-eat-dog rule by the railroad association – is lumped in with all of the bullshit regulations that Wesley Mouch and the Washington bureaucrats use to throttle big business during the rest of the story. The railroad association has nothing to do with the government – it's a trade group made up of companies and businessmen who all act out of their own self-interest. Naturally, that self-interest is best served by crushing small competitors and protecting their own markets and profits, which is what they do.

This is exactly the sort of anti-competitive behavior that government regulations are put in place to defend against, since this is precisely what established businesses do. It is therefore rather ironic that Rand would use this as an example of the bad things that happen in the absence of the "correct" economic form of laissez-faire capitalism; this is the epitome of laissez-faire capitalism in action.

I'm reminded of the saga of Preston Tucker, whose attempt to create innovative new cars in the late 1940s (when Atlas Shrugged was being written) was squashed by the big three auto makers. Laissez-faire capitalism assumes that everyone will compete fairly on the quality of their products, ignoring the fact that it is always easier for an entrenched market leader to continue winning through conspiracy rather than through innovation. By demonstrating this, Rand unintentionally makes the case for the anti-trust legislation that she so despised.

The book constantly wallows in issues of personal greatness, a title awarded for life to the protagonists as if it were a genetic condition. We are told that Dagny Taggart is great; in fact, we're supposed to believe that she's one of the greatest of them all. But why is she great? She invents nothing, she doesn't make much money, and her only claim to fame is that she operates a large and complex business that existed perfectly well without her for decades. Her only real money is inherited, so she is definitely not self-made, yet we're told she deserves every penny of the wealth she didn't create. Her only unique contribution appears to have been overseeing the construction of a new railroad line in Colorado, but since we were told she was great long before then, that's obviously not what defines her as great.

Then what does? It appears that Dagny is great because she defines herself as great, and agrees with the ideals of other people who define themselves as great. How she achieved this greatness is, of course, not addressed – she appears to have sprung into the world, like Athena from the head of Zeus, as a fully-formed repository of greatness. In descriptions of her childhood there are no teachers who taught her, no books that inspired her, no mentor who took her under his wing, and no parents who molded her. Dagny is a person who was given the best of everything her entire life and claims credit for earning all of it. Of course, this is typical for Rand – none of the protagonists appear to owe anything in their lives to anyone, despite the fact that every human being makes it through childhood by the goodwill of parents and others.

And therein lays the central flaw of Randism and the most glaring omission from her world: there are no families and no children. A parent is, by definition, someone who lives for someone other than him/her self (if they don't, their child won't live very long); a child is, by definition, a person who is given things solely because of their need (what could an infant possibly "trade" for breast milk?). Living for the sake of another person and giving away resources based on need are the ultimate sins of John Galt's creed, so it is therefore not surprising that the world of Atlas Shrugged includes no children; their mere presence would expose the absurdity of it all.

(There is one pair of children mentioned as living in Galt Gulch, but we learn nothing about them except that Dagny sees in them the same arrogant smugness that she had as a child. The children's mother explains that she and her husband moved to Galt Gulch partially because they didn't want their children taught at public schools. Even this short passage reveals that the parents had committed the sin of making choices for the sake of people other than themselves.)

As anthropologists would tell us, human beings are social animals, just like our primate ancestors. And throughout human history, in every country and culture that has ever existed, families have been the basic social form at the heart of civilization. Regardless of the number of roles a person plays in the course of his/her life, the first – and typically the longest lasting – are the roles of son/daughter and brother/sister. These are the relationships we are all born with, and for most people they bring certain responsibilities and duties to other members of the family.

But all of the Great people in Rand's world are like Rand herself: they leave home at a young age, they have little or no contact with their parents, and they have no children. This, John Galt tells us, is the ideal, and anything less is "non-life." This no doubt comes as a surprise to the vast numbers of people who derive meaning and happiness from relationships with their parents, children, and other relatives.

Marriage is completely trashed in the book. The only two marriages in the story (Hank Rearden's and Jim Taggart's) are both portrayed as hellish relationships in which one spouse is out to destroy the other, and both end badly. Rearden finds happiness only by sleeping with Dagny, who is considered great enough to make the extramarital affair not only acceptable, but completely proper. Although Ayn Rand was supposedly happily married, she was openly having an affair with a married man 20+ years younger than her while writing this book, so this is probably yet another example of Rand portraying her own life choices as the one true way that everyone should live (Rule #1: Rand is always right; Rule #2: When Rand is wrong, see rule #1). Again, the news that marriage sucks and just destroys you is news to those of us who are happily married.

The ultimate slap at family relationships is the portrayal of Hank Rearden's family life. His wife, mother, and brother are all described as sniveling leaches, constantly taking from the Great Man and giving nothing in return but abuse and whining. Of course, as Rearden becomes more "wise" over the course of the book, he learns that nobody in his family matters to him (or to anyone) and that it was stupid of him to feel any obligations to them. Rand is literally saying that families just hold back Great Men, and that a Great Man will know he is great when even his family tells him he's an asshole and that they hate his guts.

But then, that's the entire Randian method for measuring greatness. As we saw in descriptions of Dagny's childhood, her greatness was first revealed in school when people called her selfish and unbelievably arrogant. The only people who like Dagny at all, in fact, are other Great Men who themselves are labeled selfish and arrogant, which just goes to show how smart they are. It's a nice little equation: whenever someone tells you that you suck, it just proves that you're great; whenever someone tells you you're great, it just proves that they're great. Under this system, anyone under the delusion of greatness automatically achieves it, whether they deserve it or not.

Speaking of greatness, I found it incredibly amusing that the greatness of John Galt is proven by his invention of the perpetual motion motor. Because he invented said motor for a private company owned by somebody other than himself, the product of his great mind would have actually lined someone else's pocket, not his own. Galt claims that he would have made a fortune from the engine, but there is no reason to think so.

The founder/owner of Twentieth Century Motors, being a Great Man himself, would have understood that he owned all of the intellectual property of Galt's invention and was not obligated to pay him anything beyond his regular salary. Assuming that Galt documented his work to the point where other engineers at the company could duplicate it (and if he didn't, he would not have been doing his job), the self-interest of the owner would have been best served by keeping all of the profits from the motor for himself and suing the hell out of Galt if he tried to leave the company and bring the invention to a competitor. The royalties that Midas Mulligan pays to Galt for the use of his motor in Galt's Gulch rightfully belong to the owners of what remains of Twentieth Century Motors; Galt does not own the intellectual property of his creation and is using it illegally.

Naturally, Rand never says this, since it would highlight the fact that so many Great Men succeed only by exploiting the great minds of their employees, who rarely share in the profits. Again we see the reason why Rand chose characters from an earlier century who were supposedly capable of doing everything themselves: the ugly truth of unproductive businessmen exploiting productive scientists is conveniently swept under the rug.
Another fact that Rand obliterates is the origin of every railroad in 19th century America. We are told that Nat Taggart essentially built a transcontinental railroad single-handed, without government grants or anything else that wasn't pure profit-motive business. We even have the story of ol' Nat picking up the discarded tools of workers who had abandoned construction work on the Taggart Bridge when his funding dried up; from this scene we are supposed to conclude that even though Nat Taggart hired employees, he didn't need them and could have built the whole damn thing himself given enough time, such was his greatness.

However, every large railroad project of the 19th century was built on massive federal land grants, loan guarantees, military commitments, and other government subsidies; that was the only process by which a railroad was created. Again, Rand was either oblivious to this widely-known fact or chose to ignore it. One could argue that it doesn't really matter, since the book is fictional, but Rand no doubt chose a railroad as the central industry in her story because of the importance of railroads to all of the 19th century industrialists she idolizes. To describe a fictional company from the most heavily-subsidized industry in American history as the product solely of the brilliance and determination of one man is a supreme, in-your-face act of denial, and further separates the book and its characters from anything resembling reality.

While reading this book I kept thinking about the huge gap between its protagonists and the great industrialists of yore that they were modeled after. In particular I thought of Rockefeller, who must have been like a god to Rand: he came from a lower middle class family deserted by his father, he joined the workforce as an assistant clerk in a grocery store at age 16, and through a series of successes became the biggest player in Cleveland's rapidly emerging oil refining industry by age 25. He went on to make Standard Oil perhaps the biggest and most successful company in the history of the world, becoming the richest man of all time in the process. Rockefeller and his company were both targets of anti-trust legislation, attacks in the press, and general distrust among the populace.

But that's where the similarities to Rand's characters end, because Rockefeller was also a deeply religious man who saw his wealth as a higher calling and gave money to charity from his first paycheck onward (he also was happily married, had several children, and was close to his mother). Rockefeller eventually endowed the University of Chicago, funded the first major medical institute (which was partly responsible for the birth of modern medicine), and established the Rockefeller Foundation, which continues giving away his vast fortune to this day. Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Alfred Sloan, J.P. Getty, Andrew Mellon, Henry Kaiser, W.K. Kellogg, Robert Wood Johnson, Bill Hewlett, and David Packard also founded major charitable foundations that are still active; Vanderbilt, Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, and Duke are among the other major universities endowed by 19th century industrialists.

All of this giving no doubt infuriated Rand, who must have seen it as the triumph of the weak over the strong, not considering whether the same character traits that made these Great Men great also made them derive enormous satisfaction (or, cynics would say, made them attempt to relieve their guilt) by giving away their fortunes. Despite what Rand thought of herself, she was not a "producer" herself and had nothing in common with these people, so it's not surprising that she would fail to understand their generosity.

Philanthropy is not alone on Rand's bitch list, as the roster of institutions she hates is long and distinguished. She hates the colleges and universities of America, which she blames for teaching that there are no absolute truths and that shouting dogma, as Rand does, does not automatically equal truth. She hates environmentalism and contends that New York City – one of the most industrialized, least natural places in the world – is synonymous with "this earth" that she and her characters love so much; the natural world of trees, mountains, prairies, and rivers is merely an obstacle to be harvested, looted, and annihilated by Great Men in pursuit of money. She hates democracy, using several brief asides to slam the idea that the non-thinking masses should have the right to vote for politicians who set national policy, or that stockholders in a corporation and the board members they elect should have the right to set company policy. She hates the press, the watchdogs of democracy who she constantly portrays as mindless idiots because they fail to appreciate the greatness of the Great Men and constantly publish stories that glorify charity and demonize greed. And she hates everything about governments, appalled that people as insignificant as elected officials could dare to have any authority over private industry.

In short, she hates everything about the non-elite people that she holds in contempt: what they do, how they live, what they're taught, what they value, what they read, the rights they derive from their government, and the elites who are stupid enough to care about them. Over every single page, Rand spills hatred for nearly every man, woman, child, animal, and plant in the history of the world, sparing only those precious few people whose actions reveal that they share her hatred. This overwhelming hatred of humanity and the planet, John Galt tells us, is his Morality of Life and is the only path to happiness.

The logic that John Galt uses to build the case for his worldview is amazingly simplistic and is applied incorrectly. By telling us over and over that "A is A" (the equivalent of the reflexive property of geometry "a = a"), Rand is simply saying: "anything is itself." This would be fine (though irrelevant) if she stopped there, but the unspoken corollary that follows is: "since I define what everything is, everything is exactly what I say it is." For example, Rand says "the great man is great" or "the great concerto is great" (a = a), unconcerned by the fact that defining the man or the concerto as great on the left side of the equation simply makes the whole thing a value judgment; passing that unsubstantiated opinion to the right side of the equation by saying "a = a" doesn't make it logic and doesn't make it true.

I could say "the bad concerto is bad" (a = a), to which Rand would respond that I'm using flawed logic (a = !a) because the concerto has been established, by her, to be "objectively" great. This is the equivalent of Beavis and Butthead saying they like videos that are "cool" and don't like videos that "suck", which is meaningless. Or, more appropriately, this is the identical logic employed by religious fundamentalists who "prove" that their bible is the absolute word of God by declaring that it says so in their bible.

But Rand's logic errors don't stop there. After establishing what everything "is" by reflecting her opinions across the "a = a" equation, she tells us that, thus proven, these results can be applied universally. Therefore we have John Galt saying "inventing things for money is what makes me happy" (my a = my a), which is then transformed into "inventing things for money will make you happy" (my a = your a); Galt defines his own source of happiness, but you don't get to define yours, since the one source of happiness has been objectively defined by the one authority, and it applies to everyone. So we end up with egregiously flawed logic like: "John Galt does not like skiing, therefore you can not like skiing either" (Galt's non-A means it's your non-A) or "John Galt loves skiing, therefore you can't be happy unless you ski too" (Galt's A must be your A). Rand also provides no leeway for historical context, which so often defines the worldview of individuals, so we have the absolutist statement "a in 1776 = a in 2003." Ditto for places: "a in New York = a in Zimbabwe." None of this is logic, none of this can be proven true or false, and none of it is relevant to anything; it's just religious dogma.

Another great leap of logic is the attempt to link industrial "producers" like Hank Rearden with artistic "producers" like Richard Halley (the composer). While it is easy to measure the quality of a new type of steel or the profits of a company, there is no way to measure the quality of art; it's all subjective. Yet Rand groups her great industrialists and inventors with novelists, musicians, and actors, suggesting that someone who writes music is just as much a creator of wealth and indispensable to the economy as a major manufacturer.

Particularly in the endless descriptions of Halley's music, we find Rand expounding on her belief – constantly flogged in The Fountainhead – that certain art (not coincidentally, the art Rand likes) is factually, "objectively" better than everything else, and that the only people who fail to agree are idiots. This link allows Rand to group herself – a "producer" of typically self-absorbed New York pseudo-intellectualism – with industrial titans like Rockefeller and Carnegie; she even says as much in the postscript to the book, claiming that her own writing is "proof" that such heroes still exist (or ever existed).

This is nonsense. The quality of any art, including writing, has always been in the eye of the beholder, and often changes over time (thus, Van Gogh paintings go from weird curiosities to $30 million treasures, while many of his contemporaries who were popular at the time have been totally forgotten). However, art critics don't pontificate on whether or not Microsoft is a wildly profitable company – it is, according to facts that are generally not open to interpretation. That Rand judges businessmen like Rearden by the profits their companies make (that is, by their ability to capitalize on a product) but judges artists like Halley – who was a commercial failure – only in highly subjective terms (by the perceived quality of the product itself) is a clear indication of why these two groups are so different and should not be lumped together.

There is a tremendous amount of hypocrisy in Rand's worldview, which is in full display on the issue of using force. John Galt tells us several times that using force to coerce someone is bad, and is very insistent during his 60-page soapbox speech that force should only ever be used in self-defense against someone who threatens you with force (I looked for the quote but it's impossible to find in all his rantings). And yet, one of the greatest of all men is Ragnar Danneskjold, "the great thinker" who, instead of thinking, uses guns to rob unarmed ships full of food bound for starving nations, and who destroys industrial facilities that he thinks are bad. The Dread Pirate Ragnar uses force against those who do not threaten force, and he tries to change social and political policy with violence and destruction. In other words, he's a terrorist, no different from Osama Bin Laden (who is likewise considered by his disciples as something of a philosopher).

Also, at the end of the book, as the superhero industrialists storm the State Science Institute to rescue Galt from the Pit of Despair, Dagny shoots and kills a soldier who is not actually threatening her with force, using murder when it suits her purposes and not thinking twice (or even once) about it. We even have the lovely story of railroad founder Nat Taggart, said to have murdered an elected official who would not give him a permit. All of this points to a central point of Rand's worldview: it's never okay for people like you to threaten people like me with force, but it's okay for me to use force against you – to threaten, to injure, or even to kill you – if I decide that it suits my self-interest. Any suggestion of hypocrisy, of course, it explained away by the fact that Rand's people are the "betters" of the rest of us, and therefore their self-interest trumps everything.

An equally obvious form of inconsistency is the issue of self-sacrifice. We are told constantly that sacrifice is the root of evil, and during Hank Rearden's trial he tells us that he lives for his own self-interest and nothing else. Later, he risks his life (and is shot in the process) to rescue John Galt from the Pit of Despair. The disparity is neatly explained away when Rearden says that he did it for himself and not for Galt, and therefore was still operating in his own self-interest. This, of course, is idiotic, and is the type of "I did it because I wanted to" logic that can explain away any violation of the it's-so-logical-it-walks-on-water Galt creed. Again, we find that any type of behavior is rational and is accepted, but only if the Great Men do it, and do it because they just want to.

The most implausible aspect of the story is the "Utopia of Greed" that Midas Mulligan and John Galt create in Colorado. First, we have the issue that there are very few women in Galt Gulch, making female companionship for the many Great Men impossible; this does not seem to be any concern to Rand, but I think it's safe to say that any male author would have considered a small community with a male/female ratio of, say, five to one (maybe ten to one) as a town destined to explode with fights over the few available women. However, Rand paints a picture in which companionship in Galt Gulch consists solely of Great Men basking in the glow of other Great Men who are capable of appreciating their greatness, which is just silly (apparently only Dagny is allowed to have raging hormones while in the valley). We also find that these "men of the mind" who were great miners, industrialists, judges, or whatever, just happen to be experts in farming and agriculture. These men – who swear to live by their precious minds – are doing the same work as people who they consider mindless serfs in the outside, yet somehow it's okay for them to do, and is in fact just another mark of their mental greatness.

But as with any farming community, Galt Gulch must rise or fall with the weather and other uncontrollable factors, and the crop yield will vary wildly from year to year; all it takes is one pesky insect invasion to reduce the entire food supply to crap. Can Galt Gulch avoid such harsh realities? There's no reason to think so. And if, Rand forbid, food runs ever short, what happens to a community of men who will offer no help to their neighbors, who can get nothing from the outside, and who would rather die than pool their resources to make sure everyone in the community makes it? These are apparently questions not worth asking; in fact, Rand makes many vague references to men controlling the weather, suggesting that the whining people who let bad weather slow them down are just too stupid to use their minds to stop tornadoes and blizzards. But if any reality applies to these Great Men and their Utopia, something will eventually go wrong, and when it does, they won't be able to eat their gold. And even if they do survive the elements for decades to come, Galt Gulch is automatically destined for extinction because nobody who lives there is having children.

It may seem nit-picky to dwell on the shortcomings of Galt Gulch as a sustainable community, but this is absolutely critical to everything in the story: John Galt says that the Great Men do not need anyone else. In fact, every plot point and supposedly philosophical item in the book depends on this to be true. But is it? Of course not.

Consider the narrow-gauge railroad that Dagny wants to build to haul Francisco's copper. Who's actually going to level the land, lay the tracks, build the bridge across the 300-foot gorge, and do the other things that the "mindless" workers of Taggart Transcontinental used to do for her? Presumably it will be some of the other Great Men in the valley, but most of them already have jobs, and many others either couldn't do it or wouldn't want to. So who's actually going to do it? What labor supply is she going to draw from? And even if she succeeds in eventually getting the railroad built, and Francisco is able to triple his output of copper as a result, who's going to buy all that copper? Since he can't export it, the entire copper mini-industry in the valley will collapse as soon as every one of the 100 or so people in Galt Gulch has all of the copper products they could ever use. Copper production will then become non-viable and will be given up, and Dagny's railroad will stop hauling freight and go bankrupt. Presumably Dagny could move on to build another railroad to Ellis Wyatt's little oil patch, but with Galt's perpetual motion motor at work the community doesn't need much fuel, so oil would likewise be produced in amounts that far exceed demand, sending both the oil company and the railroad that serves it into bankruptcy. But would a smart banker like Midas Mulligan, after losing money on his loans to Dagny's first railroad, even float her another loan for building a second one? Considering that she has little gold of her own and no collateral (without a local real estate market there would be no point in foreclosing on her little shack), it's doubtful. None of this adds up, yet it must if anything in the story is to be taken seriously; these are supposedly the people who don't need anyone and can build a thriving, self-contained capitalist system in the wilderness.

When these Great Men leave Galt Gulch, we are told, they are going to go back into America and reestablish the industries, transportation systems, and economic entities needed to rebuild civilization. But how is that possible? How will the 100 or so people of Galt Gulch lay transcontinental railroad tracks, build automobile factories, create banks, pave roads, enact and enforce laws, build hospitals, and so on, on the scale of one of the largest countries on earth? It's simply impossible to do, but we are told that they will do it. How? Or, to paraphrase Hank Rearden when he has his epiphany on the subjugation of the Great Men: What are they counting on?

The answer is obvious: They are counting on a large, educated work force that will work for whatever industries they choose to create. They are counting on tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers to supply food for everyone. They are counting on a police force, military, and justice system that will protect their private property. They are counting on mass markets of consumers with spending money to purchase their products and services. They are counting on all those little people to keep producing children and do the heavy lifting of parenting to supply future generations of workers, farmers, soldiers, and consumers. Without the cooperation of these people, the Great Men of Galt Gulch will simply have to shoot it out with the armed gangs for every scrap of food or plot of arable land. The Great Men NEED those little people for their own survival, and are counting on their existence, their availability, and their obedience; otherwise, they're doomed.

Anyone who doesn't think so should answer this question: could Dagny Taggart, starting by herself with nothing but a loan from Midas Mulligan's gold vault, go to Afghanistan today and build railroads throughout that country? The prospect seems rather dubious. Despite her greatness, her attitude, and her ego, Dagny would be at the whims of the warlords and armed gangs that control the country. Her gold would be stolen from her on day one, and she would probably be kidnapped, raped, and held for ransom. Even if she were able to hire an armed gang of her own, building and running her railroad would require workers who had skills that do not exist in Afghanistan, not to mention a tremendous amount of steel and other resources. And even if she were able to somehow get the railroad built, it would be pointless if there were no paying passengers and shippers, and Afghanistan is completely devoid of those. Sound impossible? Of course it is, yet Rand tells us that after the United States degenerates into the same chaotic misery that Afghanistan enjoys today, the Great Men will venture forth and restore America's greatness single-handedly. It's impossible, yet Rand requires it to be true for anything in the story to mean anything.

All of this reminded me of a conversation I once had with [colleague], who explained to me how venture capital actually works. It typically starts with a employee pension fund, like the one for public school teachers in the LA Unified School District. Together, these teachers accrue millions of dollars in pension funds set aside by the district. This money is controlled by a pension fund manager, who invests a large portion of the money in conservative securities, such as Treasury bonds, but also sets aside 10-15% for high risk/high gain investments. This is the money that goes into venture capital funds, which in turn are controlled by the VC firm's managing partners. These partners look for entrepreneurs and early stage companies to invest in, hoping to get a huge return on each investment. These entrepreneurs and companies use the money to hire employees, build products and services, and sell them to customers. Money flows back up the investment chain when the company is bought or when it trades its stock on a public stock exchange. Acquisitions require companies that are willing and able to spend money to expand their operations. Taking a company public requires bankers to underwrite the IPO, mutual funds to purchase the shares from the underwriter, and individual investors to buy whatever shares the mutual funds do not pick up. Every person involved in this process – the teachers, the fund manager, the managing partners, the entrepreneur, the employees, the customers, the management of acquiring companies, the bankers, the mutual fund managers, and the individual investors – is critical, and if any one of them does not do his part, the entire process fails.

We're seeing this now [2003] in the Silicon Valley: VC firms are not investing in entrepreneurs, customers are not buying new products, companies are not acquiring startups, banks are not underwriting IPOs, mutual funds are not buying them, and individual investors are keeping their money out of risky stocks. Even though the teachers are still accruing those pensions at the source of the process, and entrepreneurs are still eager to use that money to chase after new opportunities, the two groups cannot make it happen by themselves. And yet, when Rand looks at this equation she sees only one actor: the entrepreneur. He's the one, she says, who creates all of the wealth for everyone, and if he decides to withdraw his participation, everything crumbles. This simple-minded view of the process denigrates the contribution of all of the other parties, who are equally indispensable.

About the only real moment in the story is the event that triggers John Galt's epic quest to crush civilization: the imposing of a Marxist management structure on the Twentieth Century Motors factory. The flashback descriptions of this event – told both from the perspective of the daughter of the company founder and of a random factory worker – are quite interesting and are the only worthwhile things in the book. As somebody with first hand knowledge of the Bolshevik revolution and its effects on Russian society, Rand actually knows what she's talking about here and thankfully gets her narrative style out of the way long enough to say it. But to cast Marxism as the culmination of a centuries-long process of mindless masses usurping power from the elites who deserve to rule over them – basically, as the ultimate achievement of Christian values – is a real stretch. Still, this could have been an interesting thesis if Rand actually chose to pursue it, but she didn't, opting instead to continue pummeling the reader with ideology about the importance of Great Men and her conviction that Marxism/communism crushes all greatness in men by taking away their motivations to produce.

Was Rand right about that? Definitely not. It's ironic that in the very year Atlas Shrugged was published the Soviet Union stunned the world by launching Sputnik into orbit, a tremendous feat of scientific accomplishment. It was Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, sent into orbit by a product of the minds of Soviet rocket scientists, who was the first man in space rather than the American astronauts, who were powered by the best minds of NASA, Raytheon, McDonnell-Douglas, and Northrop. And it was Soviet aeronautical engineers who, in the 1960s, built the first supersonic transport airplane, creating technology that rivaled the Concorde (made by French and British engineers); a comparable American supersonic transport project, built by Boeing, was a failure. This obviously does not disprove the notion that communism, as practiced in the Soviet Union, had a perverse effect on worker productivity (it clearly did). However, the success of the Soviet space and aeronautics programs does disprove the absolutist notion that Great Men cannot possibly produce great inventions in such a country. Whether they were motivated by patriotism, fear, a desire for status, or simply desperation to keep their children fed, Soviet scientists working without a profit motive often out-performed their American counterparts.

Speaking of productive communists, I could not help chuckling at Rand's barbs at the "Oriental" masses that she considers weak and stupid. Today, China is the most powerful center of manufacturing in the world, and is responsible for so much of the industrial production that Rand values. In fact, silicon wafer fabrication – the source of all those microchips that power everything from computers to microwaves to cell phones – will soon become an industry that only exists in China and Taiwan. It is a delicious irony that Rand's vision of the perfect society – with no democracy, no environmental protections, little organized religion, and the cowed masses serving their industrial overlords by cranking out the latest technology in enormous factories – is best represented today by Communist China.

One foreign policy issue of Rand's time that she was certainly reacting to was the Marshall Plan, symbolized by the shiploads of relief supplies bound for Europe seized by The Dread Pirate Ragnar. Rand undoubtedly condemned the Marshall Plan as a self-destructive act of altruism that rewarded Europeans for destroying their continent with war at the expense of the American taxpayers who did not destroy theirs. Although that would be the easy conclusion (and Rand certainly loves easy answers), it would also be totally wrong.

After World War I, America and its allies did what victors in war had always done: they extracted reparations from the defeated nations and left them to their own fates. However, it's safe to say that this strategy backfired, with a defeated and desperate Germany turning to the Nazis and setting the stage for a far bigger and bloodier World War II. The economic carnage of Europe in the 1920s also contributed to the Great Depression in America, as the market for American exports was flattened. By saving Western Europe from starvation and economic collapse after World War II, the United States successfully avoided a repeat of the war cycle and kept the weakened European countries from falling to the Soviets. In the process, America also expanded markets for its exports, setting the stage for the economic boom in the years that followed. It also fostered European stability that continues to this day. The Marshall Plan was very much an act of American self-interest, but it was a long-term self-interest that required far-sightedness and an appreciation for the importance of allies and trading partners to our own long-term prosperity. Rand didn't understand this, so she just blindly condemned it.

A more recent example of the fault in Rand's assumptions can be found on the cover of [March 2003] Business Week: the Linux operating system. Like any software, Linux is the result of productive minds, since no amount of muscle power or thoughtless labor can write computer code to do useful things (indeed, it may be the form of artistic or industrial production that requires the fewest muscle movements). But Linux is the result of productive minds that created it specifically because there was no profit motive and because the results of their work would be given away for no cost. When Linus Torvalds came up with the idea for Linux as a student more than a decade ago, it could be said that he was acting out of self-interest because he simply wanted a version of Unix that he could run on an affordable personal computer (this was a time when Unix workstations cost $30,000). But Torvalds didn't do it for money, and neither do the thousands of open source programmers who continue to improve Linux. Adam Smith devotees would have us believe that only capitalism allows the best and brightest people to create the most useful, highest quality products, but Linux could never have been made by a commercial company; no investor would have backed it, no enterprise could have hired and paid all of those engineers, and no profit-driven company would have freely published its source code for customers and competitors alike. The very things that make Linux the darling of the technology world – and, many would argue, superior to commercial products from giants such as Microsoft, Sun, IBM, HP, and Apple – are the things that make its existence impossible in a purely profit-driven capitalist system. The success of Linux does not mean that profit motive is not an important motivator for software engineers, but it does prove that other motivations have the potential to be just as important (if not more so).

The best comedic moment of Atlas Shrugged (besides the ridiculous final rescue scene) is the one in which The Dread Pirate Ragnar jumps out from behind a tree, bar of gold in hand, to confront Hank Rearden and announce that his goal in life is to kill Robin Hood in all of his earthly forms. He explains that Robin Hood was, in fact, a defender of those whose private property had been stolen by an evil, over-taxing government and that he was therefore an okay guy, but that the caricature of a guy who steals from the rich to give to the poor is so offensive that the peace-loving philosopher embarked on his jihad. I couldn't help thinking of another legendary figure who The Dread Pirate Ragnar was also talking about, but who he didn't name: Santa Claus. Since ol' Saint Nick is a symbol of generosity, of compassion, and of lavishing goodies on stupid children who are not great enough (or productive enough) to deserve them, he definitely joins Robin Hood as an arch villain in the Ayn Rand worldview. But then, having her heroes attacking such a cherished cultural figure would doubtless turn some people off her "philosophy," so I can understand why Rand chickened out on outing Santa as a force of evil, death, and destruction in the world.

The more I thought about Santa's unspoken indictment, however, the more I realized that it is actually the other popular Christmas figure that The Dread Pirate Ragnar, John Galt, Dagny Taggart, and Ayn Rand are all ganging up on: Jesus of Nazareth. Every evil that Atlas Shrugged attacks – charity, compassion, mystical beliefs, and especially self-sacrifice – are the ideals preached by Jesus and glorified in the Christian bible. Consider some notable Jesus quotes:

  • "Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away."
  • "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven."
  • "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."

These attitudes are everything that Rand rages against, and in bashing Christian values as she does, Rand is calling out Jesus as the source of all evil – the single most destructive, offensive, and despicable person who ever existed. I personally don't care what anyone says about Jesus, but a lot of other folks do, which is undoubtedly why Rand attacked every ideal of Christianity without actually naming names. But by dancing around the issue and failing to name her real enemy, Rand caves in to the sensibilities of the book-buying public of the 1950s and commits an act of artistic cowardice.

For me, the ultimate moment of Atlas Shrugged – the moment that the entire book builds to and which says more about the book's real message than anything else in its 1,084 pages – comes near the end when Galt meets Mr. Thompson, the American President. Thompson has concluded that he and everyone else in his government (which appears to include no legislature) are complete morons, and that only Galt's brilliance can save the country from total anarchy. Thompson begs and pleads, he threatens and cajoles, promising that Galt can run everything as Economic Dictator for Life if Galt will only please tell him what policies should be enacted to save the world. Galt finally announces what he, the most brilliant man who ever lived, knows to be the economic and political policy change that must be enacted to stave off total disaster:

"Then start by abolishing all income taxes."

And there you have it: the single most evil force haunting our society, Rand tells us, is the income tax that "enslaves" the elites of society, without whom everyone would die horrible deaths. She hinted at this earlier in the book when The Dread Pirate Ragnar tells Rearden that he has created bank accounts in the name of all the rich folks in America into which he has deposited amounts of gold equal to the money "stolen" from the Great Men by the IRS over the previous 12 years. And yet, there is no specific justification for this sudden obsession with income taxes anywhere in the book. John Galt drones on and on for 60+ pages of his radio speech, yet fails to mention that income taxes are the root of all evil; Rand drones on and on for more than 1,000 pages and she doesn't say anything to justify this either.

It's perhaps understandable that when it comes time to discuss the actual, real, concrete economic and social policies that would create the Utopia that Rand longs for that she would be at a loss to connect her relentless dogma to anything resembling public policy, but that's no excuse for this ridiculous turn. Apparently, we're supposed to believe that all the endless droning about the eternal victimization of Great Men at the hands of the stupid, the lazy, the worthless, and the unproductive elements in every society throughout space and time is evidence that the American income tax – enacted less than 30 years before Rand started Atlas Shrugged – is the ultimate embodiment of that evil legacy, and that this is universally, "objectively" true.

This sounds so preposterous because it is. I have no doubt that Rand herself hated paying income taxes, but to suggest that the world would collapse into a lawless war zone if a great "producer" like her withheld the immensely important brilliance of her mind from society out of her principled hatred of income taxes is such a pathetic fit of self-aggrandizement that it's funny.

I readily admit that I am not as well-read as I would like to be, but I can say with complete certainty that Atlas Shrugged is the stupidest, most useless book I have ever read. Its characters are totally implausible and unlikable, its melodramatic dialogue is awful, its plot makes no sense even by its own tortured logic, and its messages – Rand's "philosophy" – are so incredibly shallow that it's hard to believe that anyone takes them seriously. There's no point in saying that Rand's worldview has no socially redeeming qualities, since that fact is obvious and the accusation would be taken by Rand as a badge of honor.

I can easily see why Rand's main fan base is teenagers, who are notoriously prone to feelings of alienation from family and peers; tend to cast their romantic relationships in overly melodramatic terms; are oblivious to the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood; and have over-inflated views of their own importance to the universe. In Rand, they have a prophet who tells them what they want to hear and satisfies their need for an all-encompassing worldview that fills in every gap of their understanding. Among adults who outgrow such things, this book is simply 1,084 pages worth of ethical blank check for any self-absorbed jerk who likes nobody, who is liked by nobody, and who desperately wants to believe that the only activities he values – the accumulation and possession of money and material goods – are the greatest form of human existence. It is, according to the mind that I choose to think with, complete garbage and I have no use for it.