By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Scott Brick
Atlas Shrugged is a master piece of philosophy and absurdest idealism. Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957; it was Ayn Rand’s fourth and last novel. It is also an entertaining contribution to the world of fiction.
It is a tale of supernatural human beings that rise to the top of a capitalist pyramid and choose to use their acquired power to humble the post-industrial world. These extraordinary characters believe self-interest makes the world turn and anything that interferes with self-interest impedes growth and prosperity. They believe government is subverting capitalism by overtaxing business entrepreneurs, socializing free enterprise, and interfering with an inherent right of mankind to be free and unfettered; i.e. the heroes and heroine of Atlas Shrugged believe self-interest is the fuel of self-determination and capitalism’s success.
Like all idealists, Rand stretches the truth of reality. It is not that Rand did not see many truths of inappropriate and destructive government interference in capitalism. The growth of lobbyists and their fungal coexistence with capitalism is clearly forewarned in “Atlas Shrugged”.
The negative consequence of government restrictions on free trade, and favored tax policy for established industries are easily identified in any era of history and in every type of government, from communist, to socialist, to capitalist.
Rand created the character of James Taggart to exemplify the muddle headedness of “helpful Hannahs” that think they know best for others by legislating equality, creating excuses for incompetence, and supporting social causes that have unintended negative consequences.
However, one cannot help but see the frowning face of Enron’s Ken Lay and visage of Ponzi-schemer Bernie Madoff to see the absurdity of Rand’s idealistic vision of capitalist self interest.
Without deliberative government legislation and constitutional checks and balances self-interest murders progress, prosperity, and civilization.
The enemy is not government. The enemy is ignorance of human nature. Humans naturally seek money, power, and prestige. Humankind is good and evil. Thomas Hobbes understood and outlined it in “Leviathan” in 1651.
Capitalism, like all “ism-s”, needs to be constrained by rule of law. Constraints are necessary for government just as they are for individuals and businesses. Inevitably, mistakes are made by government because they, like businesses, are human constructs. The difficulty is understanding what government can or should do to improve rather than impede equal opportunity and progress in human society.
“Atlas Shrugged” is an absurdist tale because it creates fictional beings, like Philosopher Kings, that are unlikely to exist in reality because they are superhuman.
This critique is not to diminish Rand’s contribution to philosophy and literature but like all sociological treatises or scientific discoveries, mankind has not found a theory that explains everything. Rand has written an enlightening point of view that continues to feed mankind’s quest for perfection; however, individuals, governments, and society are not there yet; and may never be.