Wednesday, October 10, 2007

An Homage To A Great American Philosopher

Regular readers of this miniscule corner of the mighty blogosphere know of my fondness for the works of Ayn Rand; although born in Russia, if there was anyone who understood the American ideal, it was Ayn.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of her crowning achievement, Atlas Shrugged - a fictional work of philosophy unequaled in the half-century since. Despite Rand's awkward prose and tendency towards ninety-page monologues, it stands as an intellectual masterpiece.

Rand did not just say "greed is good", she said selfishness is moral, and necessary. So very un-PC! Yet the only way to understand it is to "read it all" - all 1,100+ pages of it. Still selling over 150,000 copies a year, it is perhaps even more relevant today then when first published back in 1957.

In today's WSJ (subscriber only, alas), David Kelly writes of Rand's novel, and her capitalist heroes:

....the deeper reasons why the novel has proved so enduringly popular have to do with Rand's moral defense of business and capitalism. Rejecting the centuries-old, and still conventional, piety that production and trade are just "materialistic," she eloquently portrayed the spiritual heart of wealth creation through the lives of the characters now well known to many millions of readers. Hank Rearden, the innovator resented and opposed by the others in his field...struggled for 10 years to perfect a revolutionary metal alloy that he hoped would make him a great deal of money. Dagny Taggart is a gifted and courageous woman who leads a campaign -- not to defend France from England on the battlefield, like Joan of Arc -- but to manage a transcontinental railroad and, against impossible odds, to build a new branch line critical for the survival of her corporation. Francisco d'Anconia, the enormously talented heir to an international copper company, poses as an idle, worthless playboy to cover up his secret operations -- not to rescue people from the French Revolution, like the Scarlet Pimpernel -- but to rescue industrialists from exploitation by ruthless Washington kleptocrats.

Economists have known for a long time that profits are an external measure of the value created by business enterprise. Rand portrayed the process of creating value from the inside, in the heroes' vision and courage, their rational exuberance in meeting the challenges of production.
Her point was stated by one of the minor characters of "Atlas," a musical composer: "Whether it's a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same source: from an inviolate capacity to see through one's own eyes. . . . That shining vision which they talk about as belonging to the authors of symphonies and novels -- what do they think is the driving faculty of men who discovered how to use oil, how to run a mine, how to build an electric motor?

The central action of "Atlas" is the strike of the producers, their withdrawal from a society that depends on them to sustain itself and yet denounces them as morally inferior. Very well, says their leader, John Galt, we will not burden you further with what you see as our immoral and exploitative actions. The strike is of course a literary device; Rand herself described it as "a fantastic premise." But it has a real and vital implication.While it is true enough that free production and exchange serve "the public interest" (if that phrase has any real meaning), Rand argues that capitalism cannot be defended primarily on that ground. Capitalism is inherently a system of individualism, a system that regards every individual as an end in himself. That includes the right to live for himself, a right that does not depend on benefits to others, not even the mutual benefits that occur in trade.

This is the lesson that most people in business have yet to learn from "Atlas," no matter how much they may love its portrayal of the passion and the glory possible in business enterprise.

At a crucial point in the novel, the industrialist Hank Rearden is on trial for violating an arbitrary economic regulation. Instead of apologizing for his pursuit of profit or seeking mercy on the basis of philanthropy, he says, "I work for nothing but my own profit -- which I make by selling a product they need to men who are willing and able to buy it. I do not produce it for their benefit at the expense of mine, and they do not buy it for my benefit at the expense of theirs; I do not sacrifice my interests to them nor do they sacrifice theirs to me; we deal as equals by mutual consent to mutual advantage -- and I am proud of every penny that I have earned in this manner…"

We will know the lesson of "Atlas Shrugged" has been learned when business people, facing accusers in Congress or the media, stand up like Rearden for their right to produce and trade freely, when they take pride in their profits and stop apologizing for creating wealth.

I have been waiting my whole life for a Bill Gates, a Rupert Murdoch to stand in front of the nonproductive politicians of Congress (Rand's villians in Atlas Shrugged) and give Rearden's speech, or Galt's. In Rand's novel, opposition collapses (as well as most of the world) before the one man who dares to speak the truth freely, with no shame or guilt.

Does Rand's hero exist today? The increasingly socialistic bent of the leaders of our ruling parties would be defenseless before him; he would expose their scam. In Rand's novel, most people support the confiscatory policies of the government, thinking they may benefit by the soaking of the rich. Sure, they mouth inanities about "helping the poor", but it is really about helping themselves, as well.

In Atlas Shrugged, this way of thinking essentially destroys the technological ccomplishments of 20th century man, and reduces advanced civilizations to rubble. How sick would Rand be, today, at seeing her dark fictional prophecies come to life?

Oh, to think how she would spit at Hillary...!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

DIDN'T SHE WRITE A BOOK ABOUT SELFISHNESS?

I liked The Fountainhead better myself

iconoclast said...

iconoclast said...
Nothing like the myth of the rugged individualist to counteract the myth of Marxism. Don't you get it? Your religous fanatacism is as bad as the next. Yes religious fanatacism, because that's what all of you are - fundamentalists, zealots - whether Marxist or capitalist. You pretend that your brand is more realistic, more in tune, more transcendental than the next. In the end, your pathetic attempts to create a fairytale reality is the same as every other and the fact that you can't enjoy your wealth without coming here to defend yourself. Rand would be so proud.