My finishing purge of Atlas Shrugged is to discuss the flaws in her political and social reasoning, as opposed to merely talking about why the book is a disaster artistically. (And it is a disaster artistically, as close to objectively awful as a book gets.)
Ayn Rand, in Atlas Shrugged and elsewhere, isn’t just proposing a form of laissez-faire capitalism. She is proposing a system of ethics in which selfishness and greed are the dominant – maybe even sole – principles. To many people, this is absolutely terrifying, and Atlas Shrugged does a very good job of exposing the reason that’s terrifying, even though Rand doesn’t seem to notice it.
Her characters are almost uniformly intensely selfish creatures. (I would argue that they are more selfish than they are greedy.) As a result, they often do things that normal humans would consider loathsome, but the novel presents their awfulness and evil as heroic resistance against nebulous, poorly imagined and usually unstated existential threats.
The ideal example of this is Hank Rearden. He is introduced returning home from work. He’s had a great day, having seen a major project come to fruition. The problem is that, months earlier, he had promised his family to be there that evening for a dinner party. His wife, brother, and mother are pretty upset at him because they had invited other guests to meet Hank, and he didn’t arrive until after they’d gone.
Hanks inner monologue makes it incredibly clear that Hank doesn’t care about his family. He is constantly thinking, What about ME! He is hardly ever home, he ignores his family obligations, and when he bothers to it is with obvious dissatisfaction. He virtually brags that he doesn’t know or care about what they do with their time.
Somehow, ignoring your family and your willfully ignoring the character of their lives is heroic; and despite him utterly ignoring them, he is put upon when they ignore him. Later on, Hank will go on to start an affair. When his wife finds out, Hank says that he’ll “keep his promise” to his wife, while also insisting that he will continue his affair. In addition to being absolutely horrific, it’s hypocritical. Eventually he will divorce his wife, but then he’ll bribe officials so she gets nothing at all, because he is, in fact, a highly selfish man and when he wants something the law of the land, and all those promises he made, mean nothing at all.
Eventually, Hank will realize that his selfishness is the only thing important to him, causing him to kick his family out on the streets to die of famine or violence while he and some of his favorite employees travel to a safe place.
Is it all selfish? Absolutely. It is also terrible. While I grant that the Rearden family situation was messed up, Hank behaved atrociously throughout, blaming them for the same sins he committed (and, indeed, initiated), being two-faced to his wife in saying that he’ll stay married to her because he made a promise, but continuing in his affair even though that means he is breaking that same promise, and eventually all but murdering his mother, brother, and ex-wife because he’s decided that they don’t deserve to live. He completely avoids the extent to which he is morally and legally culpable for their position.
Because Rand is engaging in wish-fulfillment in the novel, all the superior capitalists recognize each other as if they possessed telepathy. And once a capitalist recognized another capitalist, they would treat them as a perfect, wonderful human being, go out of their way to help them, and defer to their areas of expertise without question. But the real world doesn’t work like that.
So, again, to take Hank Rearden, this is a person who is willing to betray his family to literal starvation and death. Who could honestly imagine that he would be an honest broker in a business deal? I would think, “No one.” And even in the novel, he is not.
Repeatedly, Hank Rearden defies the values of laissez-faire capitalism to his convenience. When factories are shut down, he bribes officials to open them. He has no issue breaking into closed factories and stealing potentially valuable items out of those factories. He gives sweetheart deals to people he likes, breaking contracts with others to do it. All of these are violations of the principles of laissez-faire economics: when a factory closes down, it still belongs to the owner. Sweetheart deals strike at the very heart of open trade that is the core of laissez-faire. And contracts are the basis of laissez-faire society; to break them is to break their fundamental law that contracts must be honored.
Which is, to be fair, a highly accurate reflection of what a self-absorbed, highly selfish person would do, right? The chaos of his personal life is mimicked in his cronyism and thefts in his professional life. In the wish-fulfillment of the novel, this never becomes a problem. If the superior capitalists who star in the novel were to treat each other the same way that they treated other businesses that didn’t have the protection of the plot, the idea that they could run a society would be absurd. They’d be so busy stealing and breaking contracts (things they do constantly with “bad” people) to give their favorites sweetheart deals that they’d quickly understand the importance of laws regulating business.
So, instead, while accurately depicting the awful selfishness of Hank Rearden most of the time, his virtual telepathic union with the other heroes of the book, and their exceptional, non-competition with each other in their capitalist utopia, is a stark deviation from the way Hank normally behaves.
In an actual society, a group of people like Hank Rearden would swiftly destroy each other. Each would not only look to their own interests to the exclusion of everything else, they would cheat and steal from each other (as Hank did when opening closed factories belonging to other people, and stealing technology from a closed factory).
Nearly every superior capitalist industrialist hero in Atlas Shrugged does the same thing. They say that unbridled self-interest will remove crime from society, but these exemplars of unbridled self-interests are all hypocrites. They talk about how non-initiation of violence is a key principle, but they kill people, destroy factories, engage in massive fraud and industrial sabotage, etc. Most of this violence isn’t even perpetrated against the pseudo-communist government, but against other superior capitalists, like Hank Rearden. While it is true that the pseudo-communist government had a hand in shutting down Hank’s business, a lot of damage was done by the superior capitalist Francisco d’Anaconia, who actively and consistently sabotaged the supply of raw materials that Hank needed to keep his business open. The violence of the superior capitalists was indiscriminate, even targeting children.
When one of the superior capitalists, John Galt, is the leader of the cabal of capitalists that are destroying the American economy. At one point, he is offered a job to regulate the national economy, and is offered sweeping powers to do so, he refuses. The leader of the opposition brings in a pile of letters from literally starving children asking Galt to organize the economy to save them. Galt says that he won’t because the government helped to run Hank Rearden out of business. This literally ignores the role that Galt, himself, played in destroying Hank’s business by starving it of raw materials!
While this is also poor writing, because it fails to acknowledge Galt’s actions in destroying Hank’s business, it shows the kind of people these are: even when offered proof that their actions are harming innocent people – people who have not once initiated any violence on them, and against whom no claim of prior violence can be made – they are more concerned with one person’s closed business than the most innocent of victims of their plan to destroy the US economy. They are literally child-murderers, and we are supposed to accept this position as not just necessary but highly ethical . . . ?
With any kind of internal consistency, Galt is going to carry that attitude with him his entire life: a murderous sense of wounded self-entitlement where slights against his preferred cadre and himself are met with unimaginable and collective brutality. As will Hank Rearden, with a similarly grotesque sense of wounded self-entitlement – the man cast his family out to die because of his injured pride is unlikely to show mercy to anyone that injures his ego.
If this is an accurate depiction of absolute selfish pursuit of individual self-interest, and I believe it is, who would want to live in this society? As their personalities are described, trifles are turned into motive for homicide, even genocide.
We do have a word for that kind of government: tyranny. When the people in elite positions of authority feel it is morally and legally justified to commit mass murder and genocide, and the world is structured in such a way that they have nearly unlimited, unchecked authority to pursue their homicidal agendas, that kind of government is a tyranny.
At the end of the novel, there is a scene where all the superior capitalists are planning for the world ahead – they have plunged America into darkness, famine and war stalk the lands outside their fortress abode, and they’re cheerfully making plans for how they’re going to fix things once the people outside come begging for help, and are willing to do whatever the superior capitalists say. There is no sense of solemnity at the crimes they have committed, or even that they are crimes. Even their friends who they left behind to die (ah, poor Eddie Villers) aren’t given a moment’s thought. The superior capitalists in Rand’s vision are wholly untroubled by the holocaust they’ve visited on the world.
During this bucolic scene, the line that got me the most was a judge “fixing” the Constitution by inserting an amendment saying that the government won’t abridge the rights to business in any way whatsoever. That is the world she acknowledges will exist: where one man can just change the Constitution with a stroke of his pen. There is no need, or desire, to consult the people who will live under this law. One man’s unchecked authority, after murderous purges, is all the reason they need.