Friday, August 07, 2009

Atlas Shrugged

I finished reading Ayn Rand's epic novel, Atlas Shrugged, last evening. The book has a well earned reputation. Many love the book, though she has a large number of critics, who, in my opinion are nitpickers, sympathetic to her villains, or cynics. The book certainly has its faults, but the merits far outbalance its weaknesses.

The book is important for a variety of reasons. Rand is known as the founder of the Objectivist philosophy—a worldview, that according to Wikipedia,

"…holds that reality exists independent of consciousness; that individual persons are in contact with this reality through sensory perception; that human beings can gain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and inductive and deductive logic; that the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness or rational self-interest; that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in pure laissez faire capitalism; and that the role of art in human life is to transform man's widest metaphysical ideas, by selective reproduction of reality, into a physical form—a work of art—that he can comprehend and to which he can respond emotionally."

As a Christian there is much we can agree upon, but as John Piper has written, "the Christian cannot follow her consistently." He writes,

"If she was right in her atheism and naturalism, then I think her system was consistent at the point of demanding only justice… But if Ayn Rand was wrong about God, if he exists, and, as St. Paul said, "made the world and everything in it . . . and is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything" (Acts 17:24f), if such a God exists (and Ayn Rand offered no argument to the contrary, only the assertion), then a radically new dimension of reality must be reckoned with and a corresponding new value should guide man's behavior."

So Rand doesn't reckon with the idea that God may exist, and bases her philosophy on a world without god. I do not believe we ought to read Rand, or Atlas Shrugged, for her philosophical ideas, but for her insights into human nature and the wickedness of collectivism. We cannot ignore it because it is central to the novel and the heroes of the novel.

The novel begins in an American culture hostile to capitalism, corporate profits, man's creative power, industrial tycoons, and the human mind. While these things are held in contempt, the virtues of the culture are "the public good," the individual's "right to a job," everyone's "fair share," "equal access," a "level playing field," and so on. It is not all that unlike America today—just more black and white. The pervading fears are of monopoly power, massive corporate profits at the expense of labor, and the corrupting influence of money. The antagonists of the book are fearful throughout the book of other's perceiving that they desire their business to be profitable. Clearly these themes are taken to extremes, but Rand does this with purpose. She aims to expose the ugliness of these beliefs by making them appear in all their naked horror.

The collectivist culture of Atlas Shrugged has led to the government intervening strongly into the economic realm. Each successive intervention leads to unintended consequences which lead the government to further intervene. The interventions begin to stack up quickly and chaos is unleashed into America's industry.

As in our own world, most people have either already embraced the dominant cultural worldview or have accepted things as they are, and tried to make the best of the situation. But in Rand's America the government has accelerated the pace of its dominance over the economy far beyond what has occurred in our real world.

Without delving too deeply into the plot of the book, or uncovering any of the mystery around the book, I hope to reveal some of Rand's genius in the book. Her primary contribution in my opinion is in understanding and demonstrating the "looter" mentality. Rand and her literary heroes refer to the antagonists as "looters" because they take without earning, and believe they have a right to the benefits of those who work, create, and give life without giving anything in return. It is the looter mindset that Rand so brilliantly exposes.

The looter's ultimate aim is to gain without exertion. The looter has no understanding that having a job requires work, and that money is made by working. The looter desires no responsibility and seeks to contribute nothing. The looter believes that money is the economic engine, not labor. The looter does not recognize that food, clothing, cars, appliances, or anything else for that matter must be produced. To the looter they just are. They take for granted the work of others. The looter does not wish to think about the consequences of their own actions, but assumes that whatever they do has no negative bearing upon the producers. They believe that their altruism makes them better than the person who runs a business to make a profit. The looter's mantra is that feeling is what is important, not profit, not money.

The looter wishes to disregard the laws of nature—that life cannot be preserved without work, without labor, without private property, without profit. The looter is a destroyer, he hates life, he hates purpose, he hates the mind, and he hates people— all despite his compassion, his feeling, his rhetoric. It is the looter and his evil worldview that drive the collectivist government, the socialist agenda, and requires controlling the national economy to ensure fairness and equality.

While I believe Rand has unique insight into the antagonists in the book, her protagonists, or heroes are much too idealistic. The primary heroes in the book are far too perfect for reality. Yet what is important is that Rand portrays her heroes in their ideal form, as she hopes we can become. But of course we are human and much weaker than Rand allows for in her objectivist philosophy. She explicitly denies and opposes the doctrine of original sin in the book.

In conclusion Rand understands the motives of the looter, the collectivist, the socialist. She understands the logical consequences of living by their code. She recognizes that left to their own devices the collectivist dream would whither on the vine. We have all witnessed the collapse of the socialist utopias around the world. There can be no doubt that Rand is right. Yet watching what is happening around us one cannot ignore that looters run our government. We are living Atlas Shrugged right now. While reading this book is exciting and one knows that things will work out in the end, it is much more difficult to be optimistic about our own time and our own world. The pace of government control has quickened to be sure, but what forces are there to stop the momentum? When will America awaken to the criminal government over us? Our government is full, full, of criminals—if you cannot recognize this, you too are part of the problem. Until the majority of Americans realize that we are governed by a lawless government, things will only continue to get worse. We must unyoke ourselves of these looters and put them in prison where they belong. I conclude with a short passage from the book that encapsulates what I believe to be one of the most important things for all of us to learn:

"The only proper purpose of a government is to protect man's rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence. A proper government is only a policeman, acting as an agent of man's self-defense, and as such, may resort to force only against those who start the use of force. The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law. But a government that initiates the employment of force against man who had forced no one the employment of armed compulsion against disarmed victims, is a nightmare infernal machine designed to annihilate morality: such a government reverses its only moral purpose and switches from the role of protector to the role of man's deadliest enemy, from the role of policeman to the role of a criminal vested with the right to the wielding of violence against victims deprived of the right of self-defense. Such a government substitutes for morality the following rule of social conduct: you may do whatever you please to your neighbor, provided your gang is bigger than his."

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