Thursday, August 16, 2012

Atlas Shrugged

by Ayn Rand

There is a 50/50 chance that Mitt Romney will be elected president this November which is a reflection of how divided our nation remains at this point in time.  In an attempt to increase his appeal with the so-called Conservative Base of the Republican Party and tip the scales away from President Obama, he selected Congressman Paul Ryan, a young, dynamic, Tea Party favorite to be his running mate.  Mitt Romney’s biggest problem with his fellow Republicans is that he governed the Commonwealth of Massachusetts the way a “Blue Dog” Democrat might, after all, Obamacare is Romneycare’s disowned child.  In order to prove that he now thinks his own highly successful program was a terrible mistake, Governor Romney invited a bona fide conservative to go on the Great American Road Trip with him.  Vice presidents, historically, have been akin to window display mannequins at urban department stores:  they are designed to entice voters who might otherwise sit an election out.  (A notable exception was Dick Cheney, but that’s a topic for another day.)  As a pre-emptive strike, Governor Romney stated that he, and not Congressman Ryan, will be setting the agenda;  and that, if elected, Vice President Ryan will do as he is told.  In other words, no worries about him “going rogue”.

By now, we pretty much know who Joe Biden is, so no surprises there, although he does sometimes surprise his boss.  Paul Ryan, on the other hand, while not the wild card that Sarah Palin was four years ago, is still somewhat unknown and therefore requires a closer look.  One of the best ways to gain insight into a person is to ask him or her what his or her favorite book is.  Required reading in Congressman Ryan’s office is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, an immensely popular novel (published in 1957) about a dystopian America where the big, mean, government has crushed the entrepreneurial spirit of the pioneering free market capitalists who made this country great.  Out of despair, these free market capitalists have gone into self-imposed exile in their own private state where they wait for the big, mean, government to beg them to come back and Save the Country.  Meanwhile, the earnest corporate executives who depended on these excellent entrepreneurs in order to keep their corporations running felt as if they were whipping dead horses (bureaucrats) and being forced to feed the lazy, unwashed masses.

Dagny Taggart, the heroine of Atlas Shrugged, is woman way ahead of her time:  an unmarried, but extremely beautiful (in a no-nonsense way), executive whose sole goal is the economic success of her family’s railroad.  Unfortunately, her boss (who is also her brother) is an incompetent twit who makes bad economic decisions at every possible opportunity, leaving Dagny to swim upstream in her quest for profitability.  Even worse than her worthless brother is the blood-sucking and coercive government which takes the hard-earned profits of her hard work to support people who are too lazy to get jobs and feed themselves.  And then, suddenly, the men who do and make the things which create the profits that the government steals disappear, mysteriously.  No entrepreneurs, no profits, no internal revenue. 
With the economy in cardiac arrest, Dagny and a very attractive steel executive named Hank Reardon take to the roads to solve the mystery of the disappearing rain-makers.  During their travels, they fall in love and this allows Ayn Rand to discourse on her feelings about sex.  Reardon’s wife is a controlling shrew who prevents him from realizing his potential (in every way).  Before he and Dagny move beyond a platonic relationship, they both must come to recognize that their superior qualities as people will justify their physical union (which will be as amazing as they are).  Ms. Rand was no prude and neither was she religious, so the fact that Hank Reardon was married was not an issue because he went through an elaborate searching of his conscience which enabled him to see that being with Dagny was in his own self-interest and was therefore The Right Decision.  

Ayn Rand (nee Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and lived through the Bolshevik Revolution which destroyed her father’s business and caused the family to flee to Crimea.  One benefit of the Revolution was that women were allowed to attend university.  After returning from exile, Ms. Rand studied literature, philosophy, and cinema at Petrograd State University.  In 1925, she obtained a visa to travel to the United States and immediately fell in love with the Manhattan skyline.  In order to remain in the US, Ms. Rand traveled to Chicago to stay with relatives, who happened to own a movie theater.  Ms Rand passed many hours watching movies and, apparently, was bitten by the movie bug because she next traveled to Hollywood, California, to become a screenwriter.  

Ayn Rand enjoyed some success as a screenwriter but it was her novel The Fountainhead which catapulted her into the limelight.  It is in this book that her notion of “individualism” versus “collectivism” begins to take form.  Ayn Rand believed that the individual was much more important than the community, but that a community of fully realized individuals, operating out of the purest of motives, would make an ideal society.  If everyone feeds and takes care of himself, without taking from his neighbor, the role of government is simply to make sure that everyone is minding his own business while not being invaded by tyrants.

With Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s evolving political philosophy emerged with more clarity.  In 1962, she wrote:

 Objectivism  holds that:
  1. Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
  2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
  3. Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
  4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church. (Copyright 1962 by Times-Mirror Co.)
Taking this at face value, I can only conclude that Ayn Rand believed that humans, if they put their minds to it, could be the excellent and moral individuals that Objectivism requires.  She wasn’t clear about how we would get there or what we would do with those who would not or could not evolve (which leaves me with an uneasy feeling).  As a political philosophy, it makes good fiction.  As the basis for a running a country, it is a house of cards which, when scattered by the prevailing winds, could easily serve the needs of those with the will to power and the means to seize it.  (Perhaps Congressman Ryan should read War and Peace or Generations of Winter?)

In Atlas Shrugged, a popular phrase, “Who is John Galt?” is another way of saying “who cares?”  John Galt, it turns out, is the brilliant engineer who discovered a way to create a motor using static electricity in the air to produce electric current.  His employer, representing the Communist or collectivist mentality, decided that everyone in the company should benefit from Galt’s innovation, so Galt quit in disgust, leaving his prototype behind him, with no instructions.  John Galt, recognizing that the country’s ills stemmed from a government that espoused Karl Marx’s famous slogan: “ From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” organized a strike on the part of the makers and doers in society, leaving the mooching masses and bureaucrats to fend for themselves.  Feds with Big Guns wanted to put a stop to this and they almost succeeded in making a martyr of John Galt, but Dagny Taggart saved the day.  Apparently, Ayn Rand viewed the government of her adopted country as two steps away from Bolshevik-style communism, but given her personal history, this is completely understandable.

So here we are, 55 years after Ayn Rand published Atlas Shrugged, with a troubled nation still leading an even more troubled world.  Sea levels are rising, deserts are expanding, populations are exploding, and rogue nations are working overtime to develop their own arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.  Meanwhile, our own fragile government is crippled by partisan warfare which serves only the needs of the political power brokers (i.e., the political party organizations, corporate lobbyists, and the richest one percent of the population who will be damned if they will pay another dollar in taxes).  Nobody in Washington wants to say the dreaded “T-word” lest he or she be branded a “Tax-and-Spend Liberal”; instead, a frightening number of our esteemed representatives in Congress and the Senate are busy planning the funeral of the United States of America which they believe will be killed by malignant budget deficits (not to mention our huge debt to China for funding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq).  It all sounds pretty hopeless.  Except it isn’t.  Unless we allow political forces to divide and conquer us by discouraging us.  

Political parties do their best to create simple and appealing messages so that we don’t have to think too hard, and this is the real problem facing our nation.  If we love our country, then our duty is to become informed:  to read everything, especially the writings of people who challenge us; to question what candidates tell us; to hold them accountable for the impacts of their agendas and belief systems.  Lots of people are going to tell you what to think and believe across the next many weeks, but only you can decide whom to vote for.  Decide carefully because, believe it or not, as long as enough of us show up at the polls, every vote counts.

Copyright 2012 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved