Thursday, August 01, 2013

Thoughts on Atlas Shrugged

I don't think I'm going to do this as a book review. I'd say the book is well enough known that I don't have to describe the plot in detail.

Lately, the kind of blogs and YouTube channels I follow often speak of "Going Galt", which I knew came from Atlas Shrugged. Recently, I was walking down a street with a few companions. We passed a car with a bumper sticker advertising a popular Presidential/Vice Presidential candidate from the last couple selection cycles. One companion said those stickers cause him to want to smash windows out of the car. (He obviously does not; that would be vandalism.) I commented that those stickers cause me to want to "Go Galt", and remove my productive capacity and tax paying from the economy, and leave those people to the world they think they value. I guess I understood the point to Atlas Shrugged before I read it, except once I "Go Galt", I don't have a reentry plan.

I started getting into Atlas Shrugged this year (a few weeks after the incident in the previous paragraph). I'd heard of Ayn Rand more than a decade ago, and read many quotes and summaries of her works. Earlier this year. I was trolling Netflix, and found "The Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged". It was an interesting documentary, so I watched the first part of the movie and bought the book.

This summer, I saw part II of the movie and finally started reading the book.

The writing isn't bad. For the most part, as a libertarian, I don't have a problem with most of her philosophy. Obviously, thinking people aren't likely to agree on every point, and so Rand and I don't, but I enjoy quite a bit of her view of the world.

The sex scenes in her book, at first, made me wonder if Ayn Rand ever actually had sex herself, or if she had normal people sex. The dialog when Hank Reardon and Dagny Taggart first scored was my first clue. All that talk about sex being animalistic.

I know Rand was an atheist. I know from a Christian standpoint, some people have kind of a pious dislike for the concept of sex, at least externally. Nobody knows what they think on the inside, or what they're hiding, because it seems the people who project the strictest image almost always end up hiding the biggest perversions. I'm not sure how the atheist "piety" against sex fits in, but when sex comes up in the book, it often seemed to be considered animalistic in the minds of the characters.

As I reached the end of the book, I think the animalistic part of sex she writes of may have been a stab at the dualistic nature man is forced to take by the world's thinking. (This, I believe, fits both Rand's atheistic worldview and my Christian worldview). By the time John Galt bangs Dagny in the railroad tunnel, it's never mentioned. Part of Hank Reardon's break was recognizing that the only power his wife and her world had on him was him submitting to their values. Once he stopped caring what they thought of him, he was free.

I'm trying to decide how to describe the characters. They're not entirely flat or two dimensional, but I will say they all seem to converge on a few points. Any time somebody delivers a monologue or speech, it's the same voice. It doesn't matter if the monologue is delivered by Reardon, d'Anconia, the pirate Ragnar, or John Galt, it is the same voice. The speeches by the parasites and looters suffer from the same uniformity. But this is probably what happens when a philosopher uses fiction to communicate a message.

Everybody also seems to converge into the same stoicness when confronted. d'Anconia always stoically defers to Reardon, as does Ragnar, no matter how much abuse is heaped upon him. I'd love to think a man so dedicated to delivering me from a "Plato's Cave" would be so dedicated to my attempts to defend the cave.

The book wasn't too dated, except for newspapers, trains, and long distance phone lines. Other than that, it's not so much set in time. The movies seem to have worked around this seamlessly; where people have BlackBerries and instead of newspapers, they're watching Faux News. The second movie has text at the beginning explaining that economic reasons caused a resurgence of rail travel. This probably should have been in the first movie, which left some people wondering how rail travel was important enough in our time to justify this movie.

Also, the privately owned companies aren't quite as common now. There wouldn't be a "Reardon Steel"; it would probably be a subsidiary or AT&T or Monsanto or something. I'm not sure how the "Equalization of Opportunity" act would work now. The book depended on all businesses being privately owned, but still having stockholders and boards.

Rand gives voice to my "Cargo Cult Riches" theory even though she doesn't call it that. The characters surrounding the disposition of the 20th Century Motor Company claim "I had everything Starnes did, and I should have been able to succeed!" Yeah, everything but knowing what to do with it, and knowing how to run a successful business.

Rand raises an interesting point on page 737, where the philosophy professor, Hugh Akston, asks "What is wrong with a philosopher running a diner?" Indeed. Also, earlier in the book, the doctor from the "State Science Institute" seems to believe that the great scientific minds should be sequestered away in his government, non-profit center. He implies it's wrong for great minds to work on commercial products.

I think this mentality that if a man is truly great at something, he should only work in a certain field is bullshit. What is wrong with a philosopher running a diner? I don't see anything. Imagine being able to go in for a cup of coffee and a discussion with a great mind, without having to go to college. What is wrong with an engineer or scientist working on a results based commercial product that will ultimately drive the economy? We seem to have turned professors into some kind of priesthood, where you must go to the temple in order to obtain their knowledge. This is wrong.

Besides, this whole "hyper specialization" thing is wrong. In some cases, sure a man may need to hyper focus on a narrow topic, but not all. What's wrong with having a broad base of knowledge? I don't believe in a single-discipline approach to life. I'm committed to learning outside of my field. I've studied theology, philosophy, economics, history, weather. I prefer a multi-disciplinary approach to live and work.

I didn't make a note in the book or highlight the passage, but I saw some Orwell pop up in the form of "freedom is slavery". I have no idea if it was a hat tip to Orwell. I don't even know if Ayn Rand read his book.

The looter (liberal) mindset seemed accurate enough. They keep passing regulations and taking control over the economy, while it falls apart farther with each new act. Then when they ask Dagny or John Galt what to do, and they reply "What about cutting regulation?" they reply "Oh, no, we couldn't do that! There's an emergency going on! But you have to tell us how to fix it. You can tell us how to fix it!" Idiots.

This is the kind of mentality I see all the time. "Schools are failing because there isn't enough money". "OK, here's more money. Wait, schools are still failing." "Yeah, schools are failing because there isn't enough money". At what point do you start to ask whether money is the deciding factor? The economy is in a slide because Keynesian models say there isn't enough government spending. Yet we have record levels of government spending and debt. But those who follow the Keynesian models seem to think we need more. Sure, 16 Trillion isn't enough. Would the economy work with 20 trillion in debt? (No, but they'd argue for it anyway, even though it won't work).

The book ended kind of vague. Eddie Willers was trying to start a dead train. I guess he died with it. Then the book switches back to Galt's Gulch where the main characters are planning their comeback. I figured more than halfway through the book that Eddie Willers probably deserved a spot in Galt's Gulch, but it was Ayn Rand's book and I guess she disagreed.

The biggest problem with "Going Galt" or running away is, you'll be followed. I assume by the time Galt & crew decided to come back and bring their minds and production capacity with them, the world had collapsed far enough they would get no resistance. But how long would it be before the "looters" start back up? "You have so much. You're greedy. You should sacrifice your profits because other people need things. You should give them jobs they can't do. You have plenty of jobs."

Then the cycle repeats. I have a lot of conservative and libertarian friends who talk about leaving and forming their own society. I keep reminding them that if they pull off a productive, free society, liberals will start infiltrating and bringing their values with them, and we'll be right back to square one. So while the return of Atlas might get a few generations, surely the cycle will repeat eventually. Rand didn't address that as far as I know. I'm planning to read some of her other books, so maybe she covers it somewhere else.

My own idea for "Going Galt" is far less complicated. My idea is to divorce myself from a nationality. I'll get passports from a few different nations, and spread my assets around so no one country can ruin me. Most people think expatriation is packing up their 2400 square foot house in America and relocating it somewhere else, and picking up where they leave off. I don't see it that way. Expatriation to me means having any and no nationality. I'm a citizen of me. We'll see if I ever get it pulled off or not.

As a side note, while drafting this blog post, I came across some excerpts from Ayn Rand's column in People in the early 80's before her death. She makes an interesting comment during some reference to a speed prescription, which supposedly led to her challenging Liza Minneli to a jaguar roaring contest and writing a 25,000 word extra chapter to Atlas Shrugged by biting through toilet paper:

 Because Ronald Reagan has deposed Jimmy Carter, and I predict that by 2013 my influence will be profound, and a new generation of leaders will hallow my name, and devotion to self-interest and capitalism and the free market will not be the exception but the rule, and these leaders will naturally share my disapproval of religion, my support of abortion rights, and my love of Godiva chocolates. I have to stop writing now, because I have chewed through my typewriter.

It stood out to me because this is 2013, and her book is undergoing a resurgence about this time. It has never actually been out of print. I obviously don't agree with all her opinions, but consider her an insightful philosopher nonetheless.

She's mostly a talented writer. Can you imagine how dry Atlas Shrugged would be if it were non-fiction?

You can buy it here.
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