December 31, 2008


I never wrote a post when I finished Atlas Shrugged again, but this passage from Wizbang reminded me to blog it out:

While I obviously don't believe in exploiting the poor or the undereducated, I seriously have to wonder about a society that provides multiple safety nets for those who won't (or in the case of the mentally or physically challenged, can't) take risks and make sacrifices, yet treats ambitious, hard-working, self-sacrificing individuals as undeserving, or spoiled, or worse -- evil villains.

Unfortunately we still have a handful of robber-barons in the contemporary guise of crooked CEO's who reward themselves lavishly while building houses of straw. When those houses come tumbling down, the white collar professional, who loves his family just as much as the blue collar worker, who worries about his mortgage and car payments and retirement just as much as the blue collar worker, and who probably pays a lot more in taxes than the blue collar worker, ends up hurting just as much as the blue collar worker. Maybe some people think that seeing the white collar man suffer is payback or "justice" for the plight of manual laborers, but it isn't.

The part about the robber-baron CEOs reminded me of a blog post I saw right before I re-read Atlas and which stuck in my head the whole time I was reading:

Oh, how I wish I could be Dagny Taggart.

Oh, how I long for an enclave like Galt's Gulch.

It all sounds perfect. Utopia.

And it is.

But life isn't perfect and there is no utopia. There are only a few people who lead major corporations with the dedication and pride that the industry leaders in Atlas Shrugged demonstrated. Hank Rearden is my fucking hero. Seriously. If corporate heads were like him, I'd be [all for deregulation, too].

But they're not. For the most part they are slimy assholes who don't give a shit about their product. They don't value hard work, they run from it. The greed that they have is not the same kind of greed that is prevalent in AS.

I kept that post and its comments in my mind the whole time I was reading. The premises behind it have gnawed at me for months. And here's what I have to say about it.

I know a Hank Reardon. He is a man who risked everything to start a company that had an iffy chance for success. He continues to risk. And now that his company has done well, he gets emails and letters all day long about how greedy and selfish he is. His product should be cheaper, it should be made for the masses, it's not fair that some people can't afford it. How dare you set your price at a point above what I can pay? Oh, and by the way, your product is foolish and I wouldn't want one anyway. But make it cheaper, you bastard.

It makes me sick that he is beset by looters all day long, looters who don't stop for a moment to think about how hard he had to work to build the company in the first place and who couldn't care less if his company loses money during these hard economic times.

Norman Borlaug is a Hank Reardon. Everyone on Heroes of Capitalism is a Hank Reardon. You know that movie about the windshield wipers guy? He's a Hank Reardon. Anyone who's ever risked anything is a Hank Reardon.

Remember those train conductors in the book who stopped their trains in the middle of the night and walked away? They were Hank Reardons too. You don't have to have money and fame to be a Hank Reardon; most of the people in this world who take the risks and stand on their principles will be people we have never heard of.

Yes, some CEOs have made a real mess of things. But to dismiss the message and theme of Atlas Shrugged outright because not everyone in this world is Hank Reardon is foolish. What that blog post forgets is that Ayn Rand did in fact understand human nature; the majority of the citizens of the US in Atlas Shrugged were like James Taggart. There were bad CEOs and "slimy assholes" in the book, just like there are James Taggarts in real life.

To dismiss the book because there are more James Taggarts than Hank Reardons is to completely miss the point, in my opinion. It's like throwing the Bible out the window because there's only one Jesus in it. Well, he was perfect and we aren't all like him, so what's the point of this Bible book anyway? No one suggests we should roll our eyes at the Bible because Jesus is too perfect.

And no, I am not one of those Objectivist loonies who thinks Atlas Shrugged is the Bible. But I do indeed think that Hank Reardon is a character to be emulated, and the message of the book invigorates and rejuvenates me every time I re-read it. I think that dismissing the book because of its idealism is sad. When I read the book, I want to work harder to become more like its main characters, not reject it because it's too perfect.

The fact that Hank Reardons are rare in this world is the point of the book. There were only a few of them, but once they shrugged, the whole system fell to pieces. A company won't last long if it has an empty suit at the wheel, or at least it wouldn't if we actually lived in a free market. James Taggart would've failed on his own; it was the government regulation that kept him in business. The idea that "If corporate heads were like [Reardon], I'd be [all for deregulation, too]" is backwards because regulation and corruption went hand in hand in Atlas Shrugged. The Wesley Mouches of the world are the ones who gain power from regulation, not the Hank Reardons. As to the real world, it was the stupid government-imposed lending rules that caused our current bailout problem, and the piling on of government "solutions." The same thing happened with the New Deal: government meddling prolonged the economic agony. If we followed the Reardonesque idea of lending to people whose word meant a damn and who could pay the money back, we wouldn't have the mess we have. Sadly, it doesn't matter how many Reardons there are, if it's the Wesley Mouches who control the markets.

Regardless, it's enough for me to know that there is a handful of Hank Reardons out there. Our country and our system depends on them. And I refuse to lump them in with the bad CEOs and declare them all greedy thieves.

Anyway, to paraphrase one of my favorite SNL characters, Atlas Shrugged is a great book and if you don't like it, then I suggest you eat a bowl of hair because you are a dummy.


Posted by Sarah at December 31, 2008 09:06 AM | TrackBack

"regulation and corruption went hand in hand"...some related thoughts at my post new-age earmarks.

Posted by: david foster at December 31, 2008 09:32 AM

ok, i don't feel picked on. :) but i do have lots to say.


Posted by: Sis B at December 31, 2008 09:42 AM

hear hear. The book got waaay preachy from time to time, but all in all I really liked it. The Fountainhead may have more re=read value for me, though.

A thought without a context to go into, "Who isn't John Galt?"

Posted by: annie at December 31, 2008 01:25 PM

A tour de force! I can't wait to see your reaction to For the New Intellectual. If Atlas Shrugged is about utopia (literally, a nonplace), then FTNI is about the men turning our world into a dystopia: the Attilas and Witch Doctors.

James Taggart is the forgotten persyn of Atlas. (I originally wrote "man," but he only biologically counts as one.) He is not capitalism gone wrong; he is not a capitalist at all.

To dismiss the book because there are more James Taggarts than Hank Reardons is to completely miss the point

Taggart wanted to be a zero. A million zeros still add up to zero, less than one - the one man who stopped the motor of the world. This exemplifies Rand's belief in the impotence of evil. GM's CEO is no omnipotent fat cat; he's just a beggar in a suit.

The trouble is that "zero" and "one" only describe the moral worth of these people. A million zeros are also a million bodies, a million voters, a mob demanding their "rights" to this and that from the Atlases. I haven't read Atlas in over a decade, but as I recall, Rand barely touched on the barbaric depths that zero-worshippers can descend to. Even Idiocracy doesn't dare to venture into that territory. The Khmer Rouge murdered the Atlases of Cambodia, crippling that land for generations. Would John Galt survive the killing fields?

The Atlases will always be outnumbered. Ron Merrill wrote:

... only a small minority of the human species can be expected to break loose from the system of dominance-submission relationships. There will always be people who live for power, and always the vast majority of people will choose to submit to them. That does not mean that these people *like* being oppressed; but for them, anything is better than being totally free and having to make their own decisions.

You are not like those people. Knowing that men and women like you exist, that the ideal is real, is a first step. But what's the second? What can the Atlases do in the face of the reality of Idiocracy? Ron Merrill outlines a plan in "From the Embers of Objectivism."

Posted by: Amritas at December 31, 2008 02:58 PM


A thought without a context to go into, "Who isn't John Galt?"

Too many people, sadly. People just aren't wired that way:

Why is everybody so irrational? ...

Every human culture considers it normal for people to be very strongly concerned with other people's opinions--what Ayn Rand called "social metaphysics."

In fact, this obsession with peer opinion is the basic means of social organization and control in every human society; in primitive cultures, it is the only means ...

Every human culture is based on dominance-submission hierarchies, and considers it normal for people to seek power. Some cultures, including very primitive tribes as well as the early United States, disapprove of power-seeking and establish mechanisms to suppress it. But all cultures exhibit power-seeking, and all take it for granted that it is part of human nature.

All these behavior patterns are universal. Thousands of distinct human cultures have been studied, and phenomena such as the identification of altruism with morality are found in all of them without exception. Western cultures, Eastern cultures; advanced cultures, primitive cultures; industrial cultures, farming cultures, hunter-gatherer cultures; from the decadent aristocrats of Heian-era Japan to jungle headhunters, these norms are universal. They cannot represent some intellectual mistake or moral error made by a certain group of people. They cannot be the outcome of some freak of history in a certain area. We can account for them only on the assumption that they are part of human nature; that they are wired into the human brain.

A more upbeat question might be, "Who could be John Galt?" Or "Who could be Hank Rearden?" Hank was only a step away from Atlantis. How many Hanks will dare to cross over?

Posted by: Amritas at December 31, 2008 03:14 PM