Friday, January 27, 2012

Atlas Shrugged

Last week I drove my son back to college for the spring semester.  It is a 6 1/2 hour trip each way for those who have not read my blog in the past.  During the drive, we discussed a number of topics.  I was pleasantly surprised that he is very well read, certainly more so than myself at that age.  For those of you who think that today's young men and women are all about texting, video games and everything electronic when it comes to social interaction and entertainment, perhaps you need to look past the fact that they make use of what is available to them, just as we would have done if these devices were around when we were young, and actually try to engage a young person in a meaningful conversation.  Perhaps you will also be pleasantly surprised. 

Anyway, one of the topics we broached was Ayn Rand and her philosophy of the virtue of selfishness as brilliantly depicted in her novel Atlas Shrugged.  The popularity of her writings seem to ebb and wane as a new generation comes of age.  I read her books when in my twenties and again in my forties.  Lately, the rise of Ron Paul's libertarian viewpoint and the current popularity of some high profile conservatives who quote Rand's characters when bemoaning the "welfare state" has again brought her writings into the discussions of college dorms and "individualists".

And, of course, her philosophy is enticing to the young, and those who are successful.  It glorifies individual accomplishments.  It presents a viewpoint that anything is possible if those with the talent and drive are left to their own devices, without interference from the state as represented by those who cannot do for themselves but need to leech off those who can.  It plays perfectly in to the minds of people with above average talent, above average resources, above average opportunities, and those with the bulk of life still to be lived. 

For those who have never read Ayn Rand, in a most simplistic summary, the characters of Atlas Shrugged, those with the greatest talents and ambition, remove their skills and abilities from society.  They take blue collar jobs working in the fields they love, but do not lend their ideas to these endeavors.  Manual labor only.  Perhaps this is a stretch, but sometimes I detect a bit of this thinking when I hear people declare that by taxing the rich we negate the incentive for the "job creators" of our society.  As if, if they cannot make gobs of money, they will withhold their skills and settle for only piles of money.  Curiously, in my readings of Atlas Shrugged, I don't recall money being the end game for those noble characters.  They loved their work; monetary rewards (and public recognition) were a byproduct of their efforts.  Expected, perhaps, but not the driving force behind their energy. 

In a previous blog, I mentioned the importance of pride in one's work.  The characters of Atlas Shrugged demonstrated a pride that bordered on arrogance, at least to those who didn't share as strong a sense.  If making money is the only goal of one's work, does not the actual work get lost in the process?  For those at the top of the economic ledger, is creating jobs part of their calculation when creating and running a successful business or is it only creating and maintaining a profit?  If the former, it seems hard to marry the current state of unemployment when corporate profits and investment income is soaring.  If the latter, then perhaps those who espouse the "trickle down" economic theory should at least be honest with themselves (if not the public) and admit that their character pales when compared to those of Ayn Rand's novels.

Here's a thought.  Perhaps we need a few days of "Joe Public Shrugged".  A few days without TV because all of the people behind the camera choose to shrug.  A few days without Starbucks because all of the servers decide to shrug.  A few days of trash on the sidewalk, no policemen walking the streets, no firefighters to answer the call, no newspapers delivered, no supermarkets open, no one to walk our dogs or babysit our kids, or move the masses in buses, subways, trains.  Perhaps we need to send a wake up call to the Atlases among us that there are far more of us than you and if we were to shrug in unison... well, what a day that might be.



  1. For what it's worth, Ayn Rand -- at one point in her life -- thought that the Liberals might be a good source for potential Objectivists. That was how I came to read her works, and that was the background from which I came to become -- eventually -- an Objectivist.

    Regarding the "shrugging" of Joe Public; it happens all the time -- just read any newspaper. The real Atlases, however, rarely shrug because they do love their work. You are also right about the protagonists in Atlas Shrugged; money for them is an effect, but not the cause (at least the only cause). What I like about those protagonists is that they do not apologize for their ability to make money or for their wealth. Were that the case in reality, many of our economic problems would be ancient history.

  2. If it were only about money for those at the top of the economic pyramid, they'd stop once getting somewhere near the top, and retire to a tropical island.

    I'm 25 years old and in my short time in the business world, the executives I know truly do love their work, and they feel that they truly contribute to society, providing jobs and goods and services that our country needs. It's not wrong that they're motivated by profits - it is their job, after all! If they weren't, how long could they go on providing jobs and goods and services? Not long - unless subsidized.

    They know nothing is perfect and that efficiency is important for the health of the business - but that's just how things work in the world. That's Darwinism.

    When failing corporations are able to take advantage of government favoritism in the form of bailouts or investments of taxpayer money, that's when it's unfair and the top-down policy does NOT contribute to efficiency. Sometimes it's a good thing (imagine all the jobs that would have been lost if GM went under); sometimes it's bad (Solyndra).

    The Joe Publics in the world are motivated by money just as much if not more than the executives. Do you think they pick up trash because it makes them feel good? Don't you think they would trade places with a corporate executive if given the opportunity? What's so wrong about that?

  3. Thanks for the comment. I also know many people who have worked hard providing goods and services to society while making much money for themselves. I certainly do not want to disincentivize those who are responsible for the innovations that have helped all of us; I don't want them to feel that their hard work will go unrewarded. Nor do I want people to think that they can sit back and take advantage of those who do the work, just as some of the characters in Atlas Shrugged did when they used the "heroes" to create what was needed for society to progress. I guess I am looking for a middle ground where, at least some of those Atlases take time out, not from helping society through inventions, ideas, etc, but from profitting on those improvements. Doing something for the good of all, at times, without benefitting personally anymore than the whole benefits when inovation occurs.

    As an example, if there are such people who can examine a company, improve that which needs to be changed and eliminate the policies/actions that inhibit profitability, then why can't it be done, occasionally, for free. Especially when such companies represent thousands of jobs effecting dozens of communities. No big monetary reward, just the reward of knowing that their talent, some of which was given to them through their winning the birth lottery, was used to help their fellow Americans, or even fellow humans. True Atlas behavior!

    1. It can be done for free and you often find wealthy people giving of themselves and their money for no return. The difference with Ayn Rand's philosophy and the current liberal philosophy is that for Rand, this should be voluntary and for the current liberal philosophy it should be compelled by force (force of Government with it's ability to take your resources or freedom).