Over the past year, I’ve been reading and reviewing Ayn Rand’s massive paean to capitalism, Atlas Shrugged. If you’re not familiar with the novel, it depicts a world where corporate CEOs and one-percenters are the selfless heroes upon which our society depends, and basically everyone else — journalists, legislators, government employees, the poor — are the villains trying to drag the rich down out of spite, when we should be kissing their rings in gratitude that they allow us to exist.
Rand’s protagonists are Dagny Taggart, heir to a transcontinental railroad empire, and Hank Rearden, the head of a steel company who’s invented a revolutionary new alloy which he’s modestly named Rearden Metal. Together, they battle against evil government bureaucrats and parasitic socialists to hold civilization together, while all the while powerful industrialists are mysteriously disappearing, leaving behind only the cryptic phrase “Who is John Galt?”
Atlas Shrugged is a work of fiction, but as far as many prominent conservatives are concerned, it’s sacred scripture. Alan Greenspan was a member of Rand’s inner circle, and opposed regulation of financial markets because he believed her dictum that the greed of businessmen was always the public’s best protection. Paul Ryan said that he required his campaign staffers to read the book, while Glenn Beck has announced grandiose plans to build his own real-life “Galt’s Gulch,” the hidden refuge where the book’s capitalist heroes go to watch civilization collapse without them.
Reading Atlas Shrugged is like entering into a strange mirror universe where everything we thought we knew about economics and morality is turned upside down. I’ve already learned some valuable lessons from it.
1. All evil people are unattractive; all good and trustworthy people are handsome.
The first and most important we learn from Atlas Shrugged is that you can tell good and bad people apart at a glance. All the villains — the “looters,” in Rand’s terminology — are rotund, fleshy and sweaty, with receding hairlines, sagging jowls and floppy limbs, while her millionaire industrialist heroes are portraits of steely determination, with sharp chins and angular features like people in a Cubist painting. Nearly all of them are conspicuously Aryan. Here’s a typical example, the steel magnate Hank Rearden:
The glare cut a moment’s wedge across his eyes, which had the color and quality of pale blue ice — then across the black web of the metal column and the ash-blond strands of his hair — then across the belt of his trenchcoat and the pockets where he held his hands. His body was tall and gaunt; he had always been too tall for those around him. His face was cut by prominent cheekbones and by a few sharp lines; they were not the lines of age, he had always had them; this had made him look old at twenty, and young now, at forty-five.
2. The mark of a great businessman is that he sneers at the idea of public safety.
When we meet Dagny Taggart, Rand’s heroic railroad baron, she’s traveling on a cross-country train which gets stuck at a stoplight that may or may not be broken. When the crew frets that they should wait until they’re sure it’s safe, Dagny pulls rank and orders them to drive through the red light. This, in Rand’s world, is the mark of a heroic and decisive capitalist, rather than the kind of person who in the real world would soon be the subject of headlines like “22 Dead in Train Collision Caused by Executive Who Didn’t Want to Be Late For Meeting.”
Dagny makes the decision to rebuild a critical line of the railroad using a new alloy, the aforementioned Rearden Metal, which has never been used in a major industrial project. You might think that before committing to build hundreds of miles of track through mountainous terrain, you’d want to have, say, pilot projects, or feasibility studies. But Dagny brushes those concerns aside; she just knows Rearden Metal is good because she feels it in her gut: “When I see things,” she explains, “I see them.”
And once that line is rebuilt, Dagny’s plan for its maiden voyage involves driving the train at dangerously high speed through towns and populated areas:
“The first train will… run non-stop to Wyatt Junction, Colorado, traveling at an average speed of one hundred miles per hour.” …
“But shouldn’t you cut the speed below normal rather than … Miss Taggart, don’t you have any consideration whatever for public opinion?”
“But I do. If it weren’t for public opinion, an average speed of sixty-five miles per hour would have been quite sufficient.”
The book points out that mayors and safety regulators have to be bribed or threatened to allow this, which is perfectly OK in Rand’s morality. When a reporter asks Dagny what protection people will have if the line is no good, she snaps: “Don’t ride on it.” (Ask the people of Lac-Megantic how much good that did them.)
3. Bad guys get their way through democracy; good guys get their way through violence.
The way the villains of Atlas Shrugged accomplish their evil plan is … voting for it. One of the major plot elements of part I is a law called the Equalization of Opportunity Bill, which forces large companies to break themselves up, similarly to the way AT&T was split into the Baby Bells. It’s passed by a majority of Congress, and Rand never implies that there’s anything improper in the vote or that any dirty tricks were pulled. But because it forces her wealthy capitalist heroes to spin off some of their businesses, it’s self-evident that this is the worst thing in the world and could only have been conceived of by evil socialists who hate success.
Compare this to another of Rand’s protagonists, Dagny Taggart’s heroic ancestor Nathaniel Taggart. We’re told that he built a transcontinental railroad system almost single-handedly, which is why Dagny all but venerates him. We’re also told that he murdered a state legislator who was going to pass a law that would have stopped him from completing his track, and threw a government official down three flights of stairs for offering him a loan. In the world of Atlas Shrugged, these are noble and heroic acts.
Then there’s another of Rand’s heroes, the oil baron Ellis Wyatt. When the government passes new regulations on rail shipping that will harm his business, Wyatt retaliates by spitefully blowing up his oil fields, much like Saddam Hussein’s retreating army did to Kuwait in the first Gulf War. In real life, that act of sabotage smothered much of the Middle East beneath clouds of choking, toxic black smoke for months, poisoning the air and water. But as far as Rand sees it, no vengeance is too harsh for people who commit the terrible crime of interfering with the right of the rich to make more money.
4. The government has never invented anything or done any good for anyone.
In Rand’s world, all good things come from private industry. Everyone who works for the government or takes government money is either a bumbling incompetent or a leech who steals credit for the work of others. At one point, the villainous bureaucrats of the “State Science Institute” try to sabotage Rand’s hero Hank Rearden by spreading malicious rumors about his new alloy:
“If you consider that for thirteen years this Institute has had a department of metallurgical research, which has cost over twenty million dollars and has produced nothing but a new silver polish and a new anti-corrosive preparation, which, I believe, is not so good as the old ones — you can imagine what the public reaction will be if some private individual comes out with a product that revolutionizes the entire science of metallurgy and proves to be sensationally successful!”
Of course, in the real world, only minor trifles, like radar, space flight, nuclear power, GPS, computers, and the Internet were brought about by government research.
5. Violent jealousy and degradation are signs of true love.
Dagny’s first lover, the mining heir Francisco d’Anconia, treats her like a possession: he drags her around by an arm, and once, when she makes a joke he doesn’t like, he slaps her so hard it bloodies her lip. The first time they have sex, he doesn’t ask for consent, but throws her down and does what he wants: “She knew that fear was useless, that he would do what he wished, that the decision was his.”
Later on, Dagny has an affair with Hank Rearden (who’s married to someone else at the time, but this is the sort of minor consideration that doesn’t hold back Randian supermen). The first time they sleep together, it leaves Dagny bruised and bloody, and the morning after, Hank rants at her that he holds her in contempt and thinks of her as no better than a whore. Almost as soon as their relationship begins, he demands to know how many other men she’s slept with and who they were. When she won’t answer, he seizes her and twists her arm, trying to hurt her enough to force her to tell him.
Believe it or not, none of this is meant to make us judge these characters negatively, because in Rand’s world, violent jealousy is romantic and abuse is sexy. She believed that women were meant to be subservient to men — in fact, she says that “the most feminine of all aspects” is “the look of being chained” — and that a woman being the dominant partner in a relationship was “metaphysically inappropriate” and would warp and destroy her fragile lady-mind.
6. All natural resources are limitless.
If you pay close attention to Atlas Shrugged, you’ll learn that there will always be more land to homestead, more trees to cut, more coal to mine, more fossil fuels to drill. There’s never a need for conservation, recycling, or that dreaded word, “sustainability.” All environmental laws, just like all safety regulations, are invented by government bureaucrats explicitly for the purpose of punishing and destroying successful businessmen.
One of the heroes of part I is the tycoon Ellis Wyatt, who’s invented an unspecified new technology that allows him to reopen oil wells thought to be tapped out, unlocking what Rand calls an “unlimited supply” of oil. Obviously, accepting that natural resources are finite would force Rand’s followers to confront hard questions about equitable distribution, which is why she waves the problem away with a sweep of her hand.
This trend reaches its climax near the end of part I, when Dagny and Hank find, in the ruins of an abandoned factory, the prototype of a new kind of motor that runs on “atmospheric static electricity” and can produce limitless energy for free. Rand sees nothing implausible about this, because in her philosophy, human ingenuity can overcome any problem, up to and including the laws of thermodynamics, if only the government would get out of the way and let them do it.
7. Pollution and advertisements are beautiful; pristine wilderness is ugly and useless.
Rand is enamored of fossil fuels, and at one point, she describes New York City as cradled in “sacred fires” from the smokestacks and heavy industrial plants that surround it. It never seems to occur to her that soot and smog cause anything other than pretty sunsets, and no one in Atlas Shrugged gets asthma, much less lung cancer.
By contrast, Rand informs us that pristine natural habitat is worthless unless it’s plastered with ads, as we see in a scene where Hank and Dagny go on a road trip together:
Uncoiling from among the curves of Wisconsin’s hills, the highway was the only evidence of human labor, a precarious bridge stretched across a sea of brush, weeds and trees. The sea rolled softly, in sprays of yellow and orange, with a few red jets shooting up on the hillsides, with pools of remnant green in the hollows, under a pure blue sky.
… “What I’d like to see,” said Rearden, “is a billboard.”
8. Crime doesn’t exist, even in areas of extreme poverty.
In the world of Atlas Shrugged, the only kind of violence that anyone ever worries about is government thugs stealing the wealth of the heroic capitalists at gunpoint to redistribute it to the undeserving masses. There’s no burglary, no muggings, no bread riots, no street crime of any kind. This is true even though the world is spiraling down a vortex of poverty and economic depression. And even though the wealthy, productive elite are mysteriously disappearing one by one, none of Rand’s protagonists ever worry about their personal safety.
Apparently, in Rand’s view, poor people will peacefully sit and starve when they lose their jobs. And that’s a good thing for her, because accepting that crime exists might lead to dangerous, heretical ideas — like that maybe the government should pay for education and job training, because this might be cheaper and more beneficial in the long run than spending ever more money on police and prisons.
9. The only thing that matters in life is how good you are at making money.
In a scene from part I, the copper baron Francisco d’Anconia explains to Dagny why rich people are more valuable than poor people:
“Dagny, there’s nothing of any importance in life — except how well you do your work. Nothing. Only that. Whatever else you are, will come from that. It’s the only measure of human value. All the codes of ethics they’ll try to ram down your throat are just so much paper money put out by swindlers to fleece people of their virtues. The code of competence is the only system of morality that’s on a gold standard.”
You’ll note that this speech makes no exceptions for work whose product is actively harmful to others. If you burn coal that chokes neighboring cities in toxic smog, if you sell unhealthful food that increases obesity and diabetes, if you sell guns and fight every attempt to pass laws that would restrict who could buy them, if you paint houses with lead and insulate pipes in asbestos — relax, you’re off the hook! None of this matters in the slightest in Rand’s eyes. Are you good at your job? Do you make money from it? That’s the only thing anyone should ever care about.
10. Smoking is good for you.
Almost all of Rand’s heroes smoke, and not just for pleasure. In one minor scene, a cigarette vendor tells Dagny that smoking is heroic, even rationally obligatory:
“I like cigarettes, Miss Taggart. I like to think of fire held in a man’s hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips … When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind — and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression.”
It’s no coincidence that Atlas Shrugged expresses these views. Ayn Rand herself was a heavy smoker, and she often asserted that she was the most rational person alive; therefore, she believed, her preferences were the correct preferences which everyone else should emulate. Beginning from this premise, she worked backward to explain why everything she did was an inevitable consequence of her philosophy. As part of this, she decided that she smoked tobacco not because she’d become addicted to it, but because it’s right for rational people to smoke while they think.
In case you were wondering, Rand did indeed contract lung cancer later in life, and had an operation to remove one lung. But even though she eventually came to accept the danger of smoking, she never communicated this to her followers or recanted her earlier support of it. As in other things, her attitude was that people deserve whatever they get.