Atlas Shrugged, my conclusion

27 Sep

I finished the book a few days ago and have been delaying writing this post ever since. It’s a lot to think over, and to be honest I’m afraid to criticize parts of it for what people might say.

When I first started reading the book I was not all that interested, though by the end I was unable to sleep until I finished it. There were a couple of things that really resonated with me:

  • A is A, there is an objective reality indifferent to our needs, wants, and wishes. I’ve written a few posts in the past detailing my frustration with people, politicians, and pastors who don’t seem to understand this fact. Throughout the book I wanted to strangle the people who shouted at Dagny (one of the main characters) to just “fix it.” “How do you suppose I do that?” “I don’t know! Just do it! It’s you’re job!” I am reminded of the story of King Canute who stood on the shore and commanded the tide not to come in.
  • Rand’s view on original sin and morality. I’m attracted to her morality of reason, though I’m not sure I fully comprehend it yet. (It’s buried in a 3 hour long speech by John Galt towards the end of the book. I understand how the argument is constructed, it’s just that there is so much to take in, I’m having to read it over and over again to digest it). What really struck me was the portion talking about the abomination that is “original sin”:

“A sin without volition (choice) is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If a man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral. To hold, as a man’s sin, a fact not open to his choice is a mockery of morality. To hold a man’s nature as his sin is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of justice. To hold him guilty in a matter where no innocence exists is a mockery of reason. To destroy morality, nature, justice, and reason by means of a single concept is a feat of evil hardly to be matched. Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but has a ‘tendency’ to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.”

I resent how the mystics (read religious) try and make everything pleasurable a sin. Happiness is a sin. Your existence is a sin. Your very nature and the tools you need to survive are sins.

“They have cut man in two, setting one half against the other. they have taught him that his body and his consciousness are two enemies engaged in deadly conflict, two antagonists of opposite natures, contradictory claims, incompatible needs, that to benefit one is to injure the other, that his soul belongs to a supernatural realm, that his body is an evil prison holding it in bondage to this earth – and that the good is to defeat his body, to undermine it by years of patient struggle, digging his way to that glorious jail-break which leads into the freedom of the grave.”

The part of Rand’s objectivist morality that I’m struggling with is where altruism fits in. Rand makes it pretty clear in the book that sacrifice to your detriment is evil, yet is altruism a forml sacrifice?

“If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve a career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor’s child and let your own die, it is. If you give money to help a friend, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to a worthless stranger, it is. If you give your friend a sum of money you can afford, it is not a sacrifice; if you give him money at the cost of your own discomfort, it is only a partial virtue [read as evil]…if you give him money at the cost of disaster to yourself – that is the greatest of the virtues [evils] you can practice.

What about the human instinct to help your fellow man? Is that just a false construct resulting from a twisted morality? The part that I get hung up on is the term “worthless stranger”. It’s ok to help a friend, but not a “worthless” stranger. What’s the difference between a stranger and a “worthless” stranger? What’s the difference between a stranger and a friend? Knowledge and approval of the other person? Is it wrong to give money to charity? If you can afford it, I think not, if you can’t, then it is wrong. There is a part in the book where Dagny, the multimillionaire railroad tycoon, finds a bum hitching a ride on her train. The conductor is about to throw him off the train and into the desert (where the bum will most likely die) but Dagny stops him and invites the bum in for dinner. That was a form of charity. Dagny could afford it, she didn’t know the man, he was a stranger, and by all accounts “worthless”, whatever that means.

This book also impacted my views in 2 other ares: The rich, and taxes. To be honest, before I read this book I hated the rich. I resented them. They have something I don’t. They are able to do things I can’t. I viewed their wealth as some kind of evidence for their immorality. They must have done something evil to get all that money, that or they just inherited it without effort. In light of this book I’m a bit ashamed of that view, but you live and learn. I know see them not as evil, but people who are enjoying the rewards of their effort. They are something to look up to and emulate. Well, some of them. One of the things I noticed in the book is that all the rich people where honest, honorable, hardworking, intelligent people. If they gave you their word, they kept it. Unfortunately, in real life, these people are hard to come by. How would Rand view the dishonest businessman, the one who gains his wealth through fraud and deceit? These men certainly do exist. Would Rand just view them as another form of looter, dependent on the work of others for their survival?

Secondly, I understand and agree with another main point of the book: need does not constitute right. Just because you need something, doesn’t mean you have the right to take it. Governments need money to operate. That doesn’t mean they have the right to take it in the form of taxes. (And they do take it ultimately at the point of a gun. If you refuse to pay your taxes you go to jail. If you refuse to go to jail, men with guns show up at your house and take you there in chains) Before I saw no problem with the income tax, now I see it as a penalty for productivity, which is one of the highest goods. Before I agreed with progressive taxation, but now I’m starting to see it as way of penalizing those who do well. ( A month ago I would have slapped you if you told me I’d ever utter that sentence…)

The problem is that I don’t see a viable alternative. There are things that a community….needs….*shudder*, that taxes are the only viable means to supply them. What exactly is the role of government? “To protect the people”…though that has certain Orwellian undertones. To protect individual rights, property, and lives. Does that sound ok? Well what would that entail? A fire department, police force, and military obviously, with roads necessary for them to get around. What about a post office? What about Medicare and social security? In the book, the economy was going to hell and the government kept trying to fix it by slapping on more and more regulations, attempting to micromanage every industry. I find that kind of regulation ridiculous, but I think some regulation is necessary. When? Well when it’s necessary to protect property and lives. What do I mean by that? Well I approve of government regulated building standards, highway safety standards, sanitation standards, measurement standards, things of that nature.

What I’m really curious to know is what Rand would have thought about global warming. It is a fact of reality that we are drastically impacting the nature of our environment for the negative. A is A and no amount of wishing or political speak will change this. The problem is too massive to be handled on a business by business level, it has to be national and global. If few businesses are willing to alter their practices to help avert disaster, is it right for the government to step in and force them? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m looking at the problem the wrong way. People effect change by how they spend their money, is there a way to encourage them to spend their money in such a way that businesses will naturally change course? I don’t know.

Lastly, I wanted to address Rand’s view of higher education. In the book she repeatedly slams colleges and professors. In Atlas Shrugged colleges are where students go to be told what to think. The entire education system revolves around tearing away a child’s ability to think and reason in favor for giving him/her pre-decided upon ideas. I don’t know what college was like during Rand’s time, but having just graduated from the higher education system, I can say that’s definitely not what it was like for me. College is supposed to be where you learn how to think, not what to think, as portrayed in Rand’s book. Do colleges like the ones Rand described exist? SURE! I went to college right down the road from one, “Liberty” “University”, a place with the perfect Orwellian doublespeak name. In real life, real universities are engines of innovation, the same as the rich in Rand’s novel were engines of innovation. Universities that teach students how to think are innovators, universities that teach students what to think aren’t. (case in point: “Liberty” is not a place of innovation)

That’s pretty much all I can think to say on the topic for now. A friend suggested I check out the works of Virginia Postrel for the answers to some of my questions, so I think I’m going to do that. In the meantime I took the world’s smallest political quiz to see where I stand and got this result:

4 Responses to “Atlas Shrugged, my conclusion”

  1. Greg Christopher September 28, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    You would be right that rich people were just enjoying fruits of their hard work if there was 100% inheritance tax, no gifting to children, and the exact same educational opportunities for all.

    Unfortunately, that is not the case.

  2. Jason October 4, 2010 at 11:18 am #

    So is it your opinion that taxation is immoral, or some king of necessary evil?
    This is going to sound awfully status quo of me, but I honestly feel that taxes are the price (and a reasonable price at that) of citizenship. I disagree with the idea of taxation as penalty for anything, let alone productivity.
    We pay taxes to the government to do things for the common good. The system isn’t perfect, but by and large the government handles its end of the deal. Seriously. I’m remarkably unskeptical about this.
    I pay taxes. A lot of my income goes to taxes. And I get police and military to protect me, emergency services, roads, schools, parks, museums, and countless other things we all habitually take for granted. Good deal for me. I’m a happy taxpayer.
    As for progressive taxation, it makes sense to me that those who need a higher percentage of their income to provide for their families are taxed less than those with large amounts of disposable income.
    Ah, I’ve rattled on for long enough, and I haven’t even read Atlas Shrugged, so I could be getting all the arguments wrong (I mean, John Galt delivers a fucking three hour long speech? Jesus!). This way of thinking is just light years away from the way I see things.

  3. godlesspaladin October 4, 2010 at 5:39 pm #

    That’s a really good point. I guess I should clarify: taking money in the form of taxes from someone who does not wish to give that money is immoral, yet it is a necessary evil. It’s simply not practical to try and run a country or maintain an infrastructure by only taking money from those who wish to give it. (And I agree the benefits of a fire department, military, police force, museums, ect are great and I’d gladly pay for those things) If we only took money from those who wished to give it, how would the government know who has payed for a service like roads or not? Constant checkpoints on public roads asking to see your tax receipt? It wouldn’t work.

  4. Aristotle The Geek October 5, 2010 at 2:30 pm #

    # “How would Rand view the dishonest businessman, the one who gains his wealth through fraud and deceit?”
    This is what she thought of businessmen who, instead of competing on the market, use the government against their competitors-

    [Atlas Shrugged] was written, Rand once said, “to glorify the real kind of productive, free-enterprise businessman in a way he has never been glorified before.” But, she added, “I make mincemeat out of the kind of businessman … that runs to government for assistance, subsidies, legislation and regulation.”

    # “What exactly is the role of government?”
    Try-
    * “Man’s Rights”
    * “Collectivized ‘Rights'”
    * “The Nature of Government”

    # “The problem is that I don’t see a viable alternative…”
    You may feel that way now. But that will change, I think, once you get acquainted with the various libertarian arguments, Rand included. Obviously I don’t know how much of it you are already aware of and in agreement, or eschew.

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