During the past week, I have read at least four editorials written in praise of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist manifesto Atlas Shrugged. The occasion for the flurry of effort was the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication in October 1957.
These editorials have pointed to the influential nature of the book, which has achieved steady sales and a multigenerational fan base. These are unusual features for any novel, but they are especially rare for one that contains 1200 pages of often stilted dialog, multi-page monologues and frequent preaching of a challenging gospel.
Notwithstanding all of its challenges, the book, its message and its characters have changed lives directly and indirectly. I consider mine one of the lives that was directly altered because I chose to read the book after hearing it mentioned several times by people I respected. I was in my early thirties at the time and reasonably well established in a career as a federal government employee. I was making a very comfortable wage, had a great family life, and shared a lot of experiences with a large group of friends and colleagues.
I was not, however, terribly happy in that career. Something was missing and I was disturbed by a number of policies, procedures, and philosophies that I was supposed to support – I was, after all, a designated leader who was expected to take on increasingly expansive positions of responsibility within my organization. The path I was supposed to follow had been laid out pretty clearly.
Partially as a result of reading Atlas Shrugged, I stepped off of that path – much to the dismay of many, including family, friends and colleagues. I began spending innumerable hours doing research in dusty document rooms, looking for new insights in the library, reading technical books, and engaging in lengthy discussion on the nascent internet (which was mostly composed of bulletin boards, email lists and newsgroups at that time).
At about the same time as I read Rand’s classic, I had come across a concept for a power source that I still consider to be nearly identical in general characteristics to the one developed by John Galt before he went on strike.
The technology behind that power source was attractive, and the whole concept of choosing a career path through reason and passion appealed to me in a way that is difficult to describe. I determined that the only real path for me was to do what I could to develop that idea, the Adams Engine. I even wrote an article about the power source concept that was philosophical enough to be published by The Freeman, a publication of the Foundation for Economic Education. You can find that January 1995 article on the web under the title of The First Atomic Age: A Failure of Socialism.
Books and the people they describe have always been important to me – my first real literary addiction was a set of biographies of famous Americans that I found in my elementary school library when I was in Ms. Stafford’s fourth grade class. Soon after I began reading the first book in the series, I broke my right arm rather badly and could not do any work requiring me to write. Ms. Stafford, a woman that I will always remember, sent me to the library every day during those portions of the school day when everyone else was writing or doing math problems. I also could not go to swim practice until the cast was removed. For those reasons, I had a lot of time on my hands and I spent it devouring every single one of the biographies on the library shelves.
One of the common threads in all of those biographies was that the hero lived according to their own moral code and choices, they were not people in comfortable jobs with set rules and well-beaten career paths. Like the producers who were heros in Atlas, they did things, made things, improved things and beat their own paths through the wilderness.
Not only did Rand’s work help illustrate a very attractive way to live, it also helped to illuminate parts of my government job that made me quite uncomfortable. It showed just how destructive it could be to become a parasitic being. I knew the seductions of that way of life could include nice cars, big homes, second homes, vacations to exotic places, educational opportunities for my children and a measure of positional respect.
I wanted those things, mind you, but I wanted them as a result of producing something that people truly needed and valued. I also wanted to be able to make my own choices; I did not want to make the sacrifices of my own values that seemed to be a part of achieving full success in my organization.
A number of the recent editorials about Atlas describe it as a defense of business and capitalism and claim that its long standing popularity is a result of the way that it makes heros out of people who are often vilified – those people who are at the top of large corporations or working their way up. As I read the book, however, I saw it as something quite different – in my understanding Rand makes a clear distinction between those creative businessmen who produce value and those who are part of the parasitic section of society that live off of the work of others.
Dagny Taggert, a woman who seeks to maintain and improve the railroad that her father created is a heroine, her brother, who tries to use political influence to keep the profits coming in the face of declining markets is a villain. Not only does he allow the infrastructure to dangerously deteriorate, but he also gets rid of the very people in his inherited organization that can fix the problems. He does, however, continue to live a very prosperous life because his railroad has a protected monopoly that continues to provide substantial income – for a while – despite declining service and reliability.
Rand made clear distinctions between people who produced real things and provided valuable service and those who created junk and found ways to make others pay for it anyway. She reminded me that going along to get along was a slippery path that produced fragile things and creature comforts that could never provide true happiness.
I may be working for the government once again, but I strive to be a producing, contributing member. It helps that I am in one of the parts of government that nearly everyone – even the libertarians – agrees should an exclusive function of the federal government.
I also work hard to prevent the parasites from prospering – though my efforts are often not terribly well appreciated these days. It is pretty evident to me that there are many people in my organization that do not understand the difference between production and dependency and between what government should do and what it should not do. They have also recently demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of the difference between the moral imperative of defense and the moral abdication represented by the initiation of deadly force.
My bottom line is that I continue to choose to believe that reality matters more than perception, that people who do real work can choose how to use the fruits of their labors and that reason is the path to true understanding and happiness.