Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, first published 1957, 1 200 pages, ISBN 978-0452011878
“For twelve years, you have been asking: Who is John Galt? This is John Galt speaking. I am the man who loves his life. I am the man who does not sacrifice his love or his values. I am the man who has deprived you of victims and thus has destroyed your world, and if you wish to know why you are perishing – you who dread knowledge – I am the man who will now tell you.”
Published 50 years ago in 1957, Atlas Shrugged is Ayn Rand’s magnum opus. The story is simply told.
At some point in human history people have turned against themselves. They no longer aspire to do anything more than enslave the most able and catch a free ride. John Galt, the most talented man of his age, recognises where it must end and decides to rebel. Over a twelve year period he accelerates the decline of society by convincing the most ambitious and able industrialists and thinkers in America to abandon their work and go on strike. They do and society collapses leaving a world free for the endeavours of Galt and his allies.
The characters are cardboard and the voice throughout is that of Rand. But what a voice.
“Man’s mind is his basic tool of survival. Life is given to him, survival is not. His body is given to him, its sustenance is not. His mind is given to him, its content is not. To remain alive, he must act, and before he can act he must know the nature and purpose of his action. He cannot obtain his food without a knowledge of food and of the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch – or build a cyclotron – without a knowledge of his aim and of the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think.”
Character’s are given to launching into lengthy speeches. At almost 650 000 words it is a heavy read. Despite this is remains a best-seller. Many businessmen, after the fall of Enron, turned to it to remind themselves of who they are and why they do it, as society turned the name “businessman” into a curse.
The book was a product of its times. Communism was raging through Europe, South America and Asia and Africa. People’s Republics were all the rage and the most productive people became the slaves of the majority. Did Rand stop the slide? Or did she merely point out, 50 years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, that any society that kills production has a finite bank account that will eventually be overdrawn?
The world of Zimbabwe resonates with John Galt
Yet what Rand had to say resonates today. Her antagonism towards “need” trumping “ability” is well founded. Any student of contemporary Zimbabwe history would see a world that lacks everything but John Galt.
“I, who do not accept the unearned, neither in values nor in guilt, am here to ask the questions you evaded. Why is it moral to serve the happiness of others, but not your own? If enjoyment is a value, why is it moral when experienced by others, but immoral when experienced by you? If the sensation of eating a cake is a value, why is it an immoral indulgence in your stomach, but a moral goal for you to achieve in the stomach of others? Why is it immoral for you to desire, but moral for others to do so? Why is it immoral to produce a value and keep it, but moral to give it away? And if it is not moral for you to keep a value, why is it moral for others to accept it? If you are selfless and virtuous when you give it, are they not selfish and vicious when they take it? Does virtue consist of serving vice? Is the moral purpose of those who are good, self-immolation for the sake of those who are evil?”
Consider a prÃ©ci: In 2001 Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, started taking the most productive farms away from their owners and passing them on to his ministers. The reason given was that these farms had been illegally stolen by white settlers and were now being redistributed to the people. As with the appropriations performed in Atlas Shrugged the assumption was that farms would continue producing since the minds that ran them were unimportant. Agriculture collapsed and, what had once been the breadbasket of Africa, is now its basket-case.
It didn’t end there. Mugabe debased his currency, causing hyperinflation (around 11 000% at present) and is currently nationalising more businesses. In words that could have been said by Wesley Mouch, Atlas Shrug’s Economic Dictator, Zimbabwe’s Trade Minister Obert Mpofu has stated, “Once we take over a company, we retain all the staff and bring in a manager. All we do is get rid of the owner.”
Zimbabwe’s empty economy is a worthy demonstration of the world left behind once all the John Galt’s leave.
“Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think. Then is money made by the man who invents a motor at the expense of those who did not invent it? Is money made by the intelligent at the expense of the fools? By the able at the expense of the incompetent? By the ambitious at the expense of the lazy? Money is made – before it can be looted or mooched – made by the effort of every honest man, each to the extent of his ability. An honest man is one who knows that he can’t consume more than he has produced.”
South Africa too is experimenting with redistribution. Minerals and energy minister Buyelwa Sonjica has threatened De Beers, a South African diamond-mining conglomerate, with extortionate export duties unless they set up local diamond polishing capacity. There is no rational reason for De Beers to do this. According to Jonathan Oppenheimer, one of De Beer’s directors, the cost of polishing locally is $ 70 to $ 100 per carat, while it is $ 6 to $ 8 in India.
The government can offer nothing to De Beers except to withdraw their offer of violence towards the company if they comply. De Beers has made a counter-offer: if the government is serious about this then they must provide them with subsidies to make up the difference.
The recipients of subsidies are complicit in extending the range of government’s violence to other businesses as well. Government does not sell any services that business wishes to buy. If they did then no threats would be necessary; they would be trades of mutual benefit.
In order to raise the capital necessary to support De Beers, government will have to raise additional taxes from other businesses.
Government’s “need” to create jobs will see millions of rands taken from people who have the best ability to turn it to productive use and transferred to people who have nothing to offer in return but their “need” for jobs.
With examples like these the need for a book like Atlas Shrugged has never been more important.
The delusion of wealth
“Money will not purchase happiness for the man who has no concept of what he wants; money will not give him a code of values, if he’s evaded the knowledge of what to value, and it will not provide him with a purpose, if he’s evaded the choice of what to seek. Money will not buy intelligence for the fool, or admiration for the coward, or respect for the incompetent. The man who attempts to purchase the brains of his superiors to serve him, with his money replacing his judgment, ends up by becoming the victim of his inferiors. The men of intelligence desert him, but the cheats and the frauds come flocking to him, drawn by a law which he has not discovered: that no man may be smaller than his money. Is this the reason why you call it evil?”
What Rand raises is the complicity in the decay of a moral system by those who are most able. Instead of refusing to trade “need” for their ability – instead of recognising their own value – the greatest producers and thinkers voluntarily carry everyone else. They choose to be enslaved by the least capable. On a large scale this is equivalent to the United States being responsible for 60% of the budget of Mozambique because Mozambique is needy. On a micro scale it is when the youth of today are subjected to astonishing taxes to pay for the profligacy of the elderly.
“The answer you evade, the monstrous answer is: No, the takers are not evil, provided they did not earn the value you gave them. It is not immoral for them to accept it, provided they are unable to produce it, unable to deserve it, unable to give you any value in return. It is not immoral for them to enjoy it, provided they do not obtain it by right.”
Faced with this type of logic, even in today’s world, the most able vote with their feet. Europe battles to stimulate new business growth since youngsters travel to countries with lower tax-rates and settle there. The most able Zimbabweans, 3.5 million of them, have emigrated to the UK and South Africa.
The idea that the benefits experienced by the most able are “unfair” is delusional when compared to how little the average worker has contributed towards the wealth of society.
“When you work in a modern factory, you are paid, not only for your labour, but for all the productive genius which has made that factory possible: for the work of the industrialist who built it, for the work of the investor who saved the money to risk on the untried and the new, for the work of the engineer who designed the machines of which you are pushing the levers, for the work of the inventor who created the product which you spend your time on making, for the work of the scientist who discovered the laws that went into the making of that product, for the work of the philosopher who taught men how to think and whom your spend your time denouncing.”
The point that Rand made, repeatedly and explicitly, is that the most able are actually the least benefited by the extent of their innovations.
“In proportion to the mental energy he spent, the man who creates a new invention receives but a small percentage of his value in terms of material payment, no matter what fortune he makes, no matter what millions he earns. But the man who works as a janitor in the factory producing that invention, receives an enormous payment in proportion to the mental effort that his job requires of him. And the same is true of all men between, on all levels of ambition and ability. The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains. Such is the nature of the ‘competition’ between the strong and the weak of the intellect. Such is the pattern of ‘exploitation’ for which you have damned the strong.”
So what about Enron?
Since we are not honest about what constitutes ability and how that relates to reward it is not surprising that this contradiction frequently throws up horror stories like Enron or Parmalat in which the executives rob the investors who placed their faith in them. But the truth is that it effects the investors more than the employees. Investors should be more careful about who they invest in.
One of Rand’s characters, Francisco d’Anconia, is trashing his own company. No-one notices since now people take their investments on faith rather than actually studying the balance-sheet. You believe that it is a good deal and then are surprised when it falls to pieces. Consider the ultimate perversion of the US sub-prime mortgage market: ninja bonds. You don’t need a job, assets and any qualities to get a loan to purchase a home; just the need for one.
“Then you will see the rise of the double standard – the men who live by force, yet count on those who live by trade to create the value of their looted money – the men who are the hitchhikers of virtue. In a moral society, these are the criminals, and the statutes are written to protect you against them. But when a society establishes criminals-by-right and looters-by-law – men who use force to seize the wealth of disarmed victims – then money becomes its creators’ avenger. Such looters believe it safe to rob defenseless men, once they’ve passed a law to disarm them. But their loot becomes the magnet for other looters, who get it from them as they got it. Then the race goes, not to the ablest at production, but to those most ruthless at brutality. When force is the standard, the murderer wins over the pickpocket. And then that society vanishes, in a spread of ruins and slaughter.”
And then people are outraged when it all falls apart? Why? It is the ultimate realisation of the dream that a person’s need for a home is sufficient. Why shouldn’t the investors lose their money if they are that foolish?
“Do you wish to know whether that day is coming? Watch money. Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue. When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion – when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing – when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favours – when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you – when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice – you may know that your society is doomed. Money is so noble a medium that it does not compete with guns and it does not make terms with brutality. It will not permit a country to survive as half-property, half-loot.”
Ask Zimbabwe what happens when a government entrenches looting as the sole means of production.
The best within us
Rand’s message is stark. More so for those who have tail-gated their way through life. Many people are terrified of all the unearned benefits they may lose if the most able shrug that burden. And Rand’s message is astonishingly easy to understand.
“… business and earning a living and that in man which makes it possible – that is the best within us …”
And the best way to express it is to do nothing else. Part with no aspect of your intellect or ability until you are paid in equal value. Force is no substitute for value.
“Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate – do you hear me? no man may start – the use of physical force against others. To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival; to force-him to act against his own judgment, is like forcing him to act against his own sight. Whoever, to whatever purpose or extent, initiates the use of force, is a killer acting on the premise of death in a manner wider than murder: the premise of destroying man’s capacity to live.”
If you feel that force is being used to extract your abilities and virtues against your will then refuse to yield. It is possible to enslave your body but not your mind. A government or society can vote that you run your company at a loss, that you yield up your profits to them, but they cannot make you put your imagination and ability to their use. That takes your capitulation. You can be physically present but you can demand that they tell you how to deliver. If they are so certain that they are right then let them tell you what to do. Take no part in your own slavery. Do not design a better lock for your jailor.
“Only a brute, a fool or an evader can agree to exist on such terms or agree to give his fellow men a blank check on his life and his mind, to accept the belief that others have the right to dispose of his person at their whim, that the will of the majority is Omnipotent, that the physical force of muscles and numbers is a substitute for justice, reality and truth. We, the men of the mind, we who are traders, not masters or slaves, do not deal in blank checks or grant them. We do not live or work with any form of the non-objective.”
It is a simple enough strategy. Whenever others demand of me that I make available the products of my mind and receive their need in payment I simply say, “No.” There is no law they can pass and no torture that they can imagine that would make it possible to force my mind to be their tool. And I state John Galt’s oath, here and now, to my own purpose and for my own ends:
“I swear – by my life and my love of it – that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
Categories: Scroguely Works
The book, however, has many flaws and when I read it again in my twenties thought it lacking in a general sense of compassion for others. To exalt those more capable in industry over everything else is not the holy grail of humanity’s existence…
The book, however, left me with a healthy respect for the individual and ENGINEERS and I still love John Galt. 🙂
Thank you for this post.
Agreed, she has no compassion for any but the most able individualists, but then there’s more than enough whiny self-indulgence for the worst of us (on Oprah, Ricky Lake, etc.) so I’m quite happy that her work isn’t entirely balanced.
I continue to appreciate the insight you bring into the political, cultural and economic affairs of Africa. I enjoyed seeing how Galt plays out in the context of Zimbabwe.
This from http://www.scholarsandrogues.com/2007/07/13/everything-is-coming-up-capitalism/#comment-5156:
Maybe I’m wrong about what the state should be tasked with. I’ve spent a few days pondering how certain economic drivers can be made private businesses. It’s an interesting game. Perhaps I should turn it into a post?
As for what sort of person she was … no idea, but you’re certainly going to get the idea she was prickly. I think her book would be a bit easier to read if there was some warmth in it between the characters but even “love” is a commodity.
I don’t think she’s exactly right, but she’s closer to my philosophies than most. It’s a continuum, as I liked to tell my students, complete unity on the one end and complete individuality on the other. Neither end is completely possible or desirable.
Those of us who are able and want to express ourselves in our own way without being beholden to too many others are going to find ourselves on the side that features people like Ayn Rand. Even if we don’t agree with them entirely 😉
Wonderful post. Well thought out and presented. Thank you very much for the inspiration.