At long last, after several months, I have finished reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. While reading The Fountainhead back in high school, I fell in love with Rand’s school of philosophical thought, Objectivism. I always meant to follow up by reading Atlas Shrugged but between college, startups, and the myriad other distractions in my life I just never quite made time for the 1,000+ page novel. Finally, at long last, I have accomplished this task and it was interesting to read it 14 years after I read The Fountainhead – my perspective has changed a lot since then!
Rand’s advocacy of free market capitalism certainly resonates very strongly with me. I’m not anti-government but I do believe that the government has a pretty focused role to play in the maintenance and advancement of society. Capitalism is an efficient system for fostering innovation, advancing ideas that are worthwhile and discarding those that aren’t. The capital and where it flows provides an intrinsic metric of success, incenting businesses to evolve, streamline, and innovate.
When the government gets too involved not only does it lead to wonky results due to decision-making by people with little business experience, it also mucks up the entire capitalist system, blurring the incentives and obfuscating the metrics of success – further compounding the wonky results (I have blogged before about such wonky results.). I’m glad to have read this book now, after 11 years as an entrepreneur and business executive, as the government meddling in business affairs (e.g. the Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Rule and Directive 10-289) evoked much more significant responses in me than they would have back when I was a student!
That said, in this book Rand argues for an extremely laissez-faire, almost anarchist, form of capitalism, which I do not support. The government does have a role to play in business and that is to set the rules of the system in which the market operates. These rules include fair laws and equitable taxes with frequent review and update. After that, businesses should be left free to optimize their operations around those rules.
I also bought into Rand’s theme of Sanction of the Victim, the willingness of the successful to suffer at the hands of the “evil” (In this novel, “evil” is done by mooches and looters who have no capacity to achieve in and of their own right.), feeling guilty for the “sin” of their achievement. This corresponds with Transactional Analysis, specifically with the playing of games. It is easy to blame the “evil” person/company/country/organization but it takes two or more actors to play a game and they all are equally complicit in the result.
Rand’s “rational egoism” or “ethical selfishness” still resonates with me in many ways but not nearly as much as it did in high school. If “self” is extended to represent collective units such as “family” or “company,” I think this position is a good operating principle. However it must not be followed myopically and it must not be considered absolute. Part of what makes us human is that we have the capacity for love and human empathy, not just for maximizing self interest 24/7/365.
Rand’s philosophy really falls apart, though, on her premise that rationality is every human being’s highest virtue. Here I disagree completely. Human beings are inherently irrational creatures although we spend an enormous amount of time and energy rationalizing irrational decisions we have already made – consciously or subconsciously. Several times in the novel characters are derided for sharing their feelings or instincts. This is flat-out wrong. We can either ignore / suppress our emotions or we can embrace them, even capitalize on them.
Again, our capacity to feel is a critical element of the human experience and, without it, life is less rich, less meaningful. This shows in Rand’s characters who never seem to know joy. She writes that they are joyful when they achieve something great but it isn’t very convincing. The moments of greatest joy in my life have been almost entirely irrational and they have involved people, not achievements. By condemning irrationality, Rand really misses the boat.
Because of the dogged focus on rationality, the characters in Atlas Shrugged simply aren’t believable. Or, even if one believes that humans like them might exist, it is hard to identify with them. There is some dialogue, of course, but the book feels like one preachy monologue after another. Because of this inability to write “human” characters and because of her insistent commitment to rationality, I wonder what Ayn Rand was like – and I suspect that she repressed a significant amount of her own feelings.
More practically, Atlas Shrugged is too long. The story could have been told in 1/3 the pages and without sacrificing any character development (since, as described above, the characters weren’t really developed). A prime example is Galt’s radio address, which really is the expression of Rand’s philosophy packaged up into one monologue – and what a monologue! After three hours of reading, of Galt repeating himself over and over again, of rhetorical questions and allegories, I finally finished his address. There was a lot of great stuff in there but it was way too long – if it had been a real radio address, he would have bored his audience to tears and no one would have followed. In Atlas Shrugged, however, people around the country are inspired by this message – once again exhibiting Rand’s inability to grasp how humans really work.
I’m really glad to have read the book and I would recommend it for others as well. My reaction is very mixed: the businessman in me loves it while the human in me rolls his eyes at it. The fact that it evokes such strong and mixed reactions is a good thing and I’m sure I will have many lively conversations about the book. I just wish that Rand would have understood the latter reaction and found a way to reconcile her philosophy with it.