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Atlas Shrugged

I’m currently reading the classic Ayn Rand novel “Atlas Shrugged”. Actually I am listening to the audiobook version of it because I don’t have enough time to read over 1000 pages of the conventional book. If you don’t know, this book is a classic and often cited as a source of the modern libertarian political/economic viewpoint. You might know from previous blog entries that I aren’t a great fan of libertarianism so you might be wondering why would I choose to read this book.

Actually there are several answers to this question. First, you should understand your enemy and what better way to do that than read the text which a lot of their ideas originate in. Second, I agree with a significant part of libertarian thought so again I want to know more about one of its major sources. And finally, the book itself is a classic and is probably worth reading for its literary merits irrespective of the validity of the underlying philosophy.

As I said, the book is huge, about the same size as “War and Peace” and I am currently only about a third of the way through the total 55 hours of the audiobook, but I would like to report on my thoughts so far.

First, the story is well written and is in no way a chore to listen to it. It is the type of story which you want to return to and maybe that’s why Rand’s thoughts have had as much influence as they have in comparison to other philosophies which might not have been presented through a popular medium like a novel.

Secondly, the author is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful person. Whether the book really counts as a treatise on economics, politics or philosophy is debatable, but it certainly has more deep meaning that most similar works. I do like the symbolism and metaphor in particular because it isn’t so obscure that you miss it. This is not the sort of book that you need a doctorate in English literature to appreciate!

Finally, in some ways I feel cheated. I feel cheated in the same way as I do when I watch a movie or read a book which is contrived in a way to move the plot in a particular direction, or elicit a particular false emotion response, or to artificially make a particular point.

I know that the characters in this book aren’t supposed to be realistic (at least according to many commentators). They are symbolic of various groups and worldviews in society and the characters are designed to present these ideas and allow them to interact. But I don’t think that is an excuse. Making the characters one dimensional and stereotyped just means the ideas they symbolise are similarly simplified. It allows Rand to present what is really a straw man argument against her opponents. It’s like the discussion isn’t being presented fairly and I think the book loses a lot of its value as a result.

Also the book was published over 50 years ago so there are some anachronisms which detract slightly from the experience. The word “gay” is used a lot for its original meaning (happy) but the reader can’t help but continually recall its modern meaning! There are other things too: smoking being portrayed as cool for example – or is this a libertarian point about freedom? Maybe.

Rand has offered a simplified version of the philosophy presented in the book like this…

Metaphysics: Objective Reality. Reality exists as an objective absolute – facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

Epistemology: Reason. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

Ethics: Self-interest. Man is an end in himself. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

Politics: Capitalism. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

There’s a lot to like in this philosophy. In fact the first two points match my own ideas very closely. But I’m not so enthusiastic about the other two. I certainly totally disagree about laissez-faire capitalism being the ideal system, even though I’m sure Rand thinks that point naturally flows from the others.

On the first point. I know there is no way that we can prove that there is an underlying reality that we can perceive but I think it is pointless to live on the basis of anything else. If anyone out there thinks that reality depends on your perspective then step off the top floor of a tall building and see if you can overcome gravity with the power of positive thought!

On the second point. The problem here is defining the word “reason”, but if has a meaning like a combination of logic and empiricism then I am happy with that. At least we cannot establish facts through faith or through myth, that is certain.

The third point is a bit more difficult. I think Rand’s primary point here was anti-collectivist or anti-Communist rather than total adherence to individualism, greed, and self-interest. Or maybe not. By asking the reader to accept this point she makes her next point about capitalism so much easier to support. But few people would agree that it is highly moral to only care about yourself no matter how it affects others.

Finally there is the key point, the point which Rand is really all about and the one that her disciples love so much: that pure capitalism is the best system of economics. If total self-interest is the highest form of morality as she suggests them maybe she’s right. But even then I don’t think it works in practice and never will, because of one point. This idea is always supported through statement like this: “…pursuit of his own rational self-interest…” Note the use of the word “rational”. The problem is that people are not rational and probably never will be.

People seek short term benefits and ignore the long term. A company will pursue its own self interest by taking all the fish from the ocean even though they know the company will fail when there are no more fish. A company will burn dirty coal even though they know it will eventually cause serious harm to themselves through global warming. An individual will buy cigarettes even though the evidence overwhelmingly shows they are deadly.

Enlightened self interest might work in theory: the CEO of the fishing company should see that the fish will run out and limit what his company takes. But than a rival company will come in and take the fish instead because that is in their self-interest. The fact is that it has been well established in philosophy and psychology that individual competition often does not give the best result for anyone. Surely Rand, if she really was a philosopher, should have known this. Her philosophy doesn’t work in theory and judging by the way the world is currently being exploited now, it doesn’t work in practice either.

I think it’s interesting that the title of the book can be seen in two different ways depending on which meaning of the word “shrug” you use. The intended meaning was Atlas (from Greek mythology), the supporter of the whole Earth (symbolising Rand’s entrepreneur and industrialist heroes) shrugs so he is no longer supporting the world. But my interpretation would be this: he shrugs because he is uncertain. He sees this story as being of extremely doubtful truth and he really doesn’t care about the world.

Maybe Atlas was never really supporting the world at all. Maybe it supported him.

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