Is Greed Good? - Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged Review
Are self-interest and the common good always diametrically opposed? Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (AS) screams ‘no!’ In fact, Rand makes the case that the public benefit comes only by swathes of productive individuals pursuing ‘greedy’ objectives. Whilst an alloy of fiction and philosophy, AS is certainly no wolf in Sheep’s clothing. It is a philosophical expedition sold in book shops as fiction. Rand has always been polarising, her essay ‘the virtue of selfishness’ leaves no room for guessing why. At a high-level the takeaway is clear, those who regulate and seek to control the terms of transactions between individuals are the ‘looters,’ whilst the greediest of the profit-driven are the heroes. Let’s take a look. (Below is a trailer for the movie - definitely would recommend)
Summary: The work appears to be set shortly around the early 1950’s in an economic landscape dominated by a few greedy, industrious men. Slowly, these industrial titans vanish and the ensuing economic chaos, made worse by fundamentally corrupt big-government policy, leads the entire country, and the Transcontinental rail business of the female protagonist, Dagny Taggart, to ruins. In the final stages of the novel we see the root of the chaos, John Galt, explain why he sequestered these men & took them to his capitalistic nirvana. John Galt’s monologue is Rand’s Sermon on the mount, the impetus of the work, a total devotion to Rand’s own objectivism.
Overview: Since Rand’s work is so polarising, reviewing the reviewers actually provides plenty of interesting material, so I’ll try to address their reviews, first with reference to criticism of manner, then of matter, whilst providing some spin on my own.
The book is more than 1000 pages long in fine print, and imbued all the way through with characters who are thinly veiled representatives of opponents or proponents objectivism. It’s certainly a tough read in sections, I often caught myself mumbling “Jesus christ Ayn we get the point!”
“Great chunks of the book are given over to philosophical rants (one particularly egregious radio broadcast clocks in at just under 100 pages). There are countless tedious repetitions of ideas, phrases and situations.” – Sam Jordison, The Guardian
I can certainly sympathise with Sam’s spirit, however a long section is only gratuitous if you’re reading a book to say you’ve read it. Rand’s work stands in naked contrast to modern stories which are little more than video games on pages, pumped full of sex, violence and gore. The ‘particularly egregious’ monologue itself is not an unnecessary digression from an obscure character in an otherwise compelling book, it is the book.
In truth, John Galt’s ascension to the moral Mt Olympus over 60 pages is perhaps the crudest tribute possible to depths of objectivism. There would be more honour and justice in a 600 page soliloquy, as to reduce a complete philosophical framework to a length which slightly frustrates latte sipping hipsters is the best that Rand, or anyone could do.
A rather amusing ululation, if only for it’s repetition, is that the industrious characters are good-looking, whilst the ‘looters,’ an all-encompassing term to describe Government bureaucrats and those who retard economic liberty, are a snivelling and altogether lurid lot. In fairness, this observation is also not untrue. From the tough, rugged physique of Hank Reardan to the Dark, toned features of Francisco D’Anconia, Rand makes no bones about depicting her protagonists as the ilk of Greek-gods. Whilst there may be a slight statistical issue in that all of the main protagonists are drop-dead gorgeous, Rand is only exacerbating real phenomena & the three rules of engagement between the sexes.
Guys who get shit done are attractive
Guys who take risks are attractive
Guys who do both are unstoppable
Natural selection and the animal kingdom make it obvious that the fairer sex enjoy the safety of competence and intrigue of controlled risk. It is not uncommon for a slew of females to attend to a single male deemed fit enough to provide both. Women would always be attracted to the characters of Rearden and D’Anconio, who are strong, principled and supremely pragmatic, the only question for Rand is whether to sprinkle in a little bit of lust. And why not?
(Hank & Dagny - Movie)
If anything, Rand throws real life simps a bone by restricting three alpha males to the pursuit of one female of a similar age. Had Rand turned back the clock and left Dagny as an exuberant youth wise beyond her years, sequestered by the carnal desires of three seasoned warriors, there would be no honest objections from the female audience, if anything, it would turn the heat up.
(Movie Depiction of Dagny Taggart)
Gary Marshall’s romantic comedy ‘Pretty Woman,’ was so successful because it appealed to the raw elements of female attraction. Gere’s character (Edward Lewis) was handsome, rich and boasted a refined set of income-delivering hard skills. In truth, the looks were only a bonus. Julia Roberts (Vivian Ward) was in her own league in objective, aesthetic beauty. There was no male counterpart who could hold a candle. But no objections are to Gere because his looks were not the draw in the movie, it was his puissance. This is the oldest story there is. Women are on the front cover of both men’s and women’s magazines because women are simply more beautiful than men, however Edward Lewis can compete and seize the attention of Ward not because he’s a smooth talker with great hair, but because he is in control of his surroundings. He could handle anything except the way in which he feels about Julia, which is the most indecision that female audience can handle. Any more dithering and Edward Lewis would of been benched with the rest of the ‘coulda shoulda woulda-beens.’
(Julia Roberts & Richard Gere - Pretty Woman)
To really hammer this home, at the time of filming Richard Gere was 40 & Julia Roberts 22, and it remains one of the most perfectly natural looking movies ever made. This is life.
Women love James Bond for much the same reason. They drooled over Christian Grey in 50 shades.
Competence and an appetite for risk is already a lethal combination, so Rand lathering Galt, Rearden & D’antonia with sexy features is simply a literary echo a of tale that’s as old the human species.
With respect to Dagny, a criticism levelled is the following “she is beautiful instead of handsome and enjoys being near-raped by whomsoever appears to have the greatest earning potential.” – Sam Jordison
As you can guess there are a few things to unpack in a statement like that. The first, is that if you read the book, you understand that Dagny doesn’t do anything against her own will. A pillar of Objectivism is that the individual should pursue their own happiness, and that coercion, not pre-marital sex, is the great sin. Why would Rand allow the female centre-piece of the story, defined by her rugged & pious devotion to the trademarks of objectivism, be “near-raped?”
She is a strong female protagonist, not in the bitchy, unnecessarily scornful conception of female strength, but truly strong.
I would argue, the ‘looters’ are unattractive substantially because they take no-risks & are proficient at achieving the exact opposite of their intentions. Even if they had symmetrical features, a Roman jawline and broad shoulders, the intent to take-risks is the ultimate element of attraction. There is very little that is attractive about a group of individuals who employ coercion and dirty tricks for their own benefit. Even more un-attractive, is when they are unable to accomplish it.
In truth making Rand’s heroes’ reasonably handsome is, if anything, making AS more real than fictional.
You can bet with great confidence should you pick up a review of Atlas Shrugged from a great number of secular-sympathising magazines, that the tone will take a similar tenor to the following
“Rand's world is a place of black and white morality, good and bad people and absolutely no shades of grey. Consequently, none of the characters or storylines are at all believable.”
“In this fiction everything, everybody, is either all good or all bad, without any of those intermediate shades which, in life, complicate reality and perplex the eye that seeks to probe it truly.” - Sam Jordison, The Guardian
The observation in and of itself is not entirely untrue. The purpose of Rand’s philosophy is to provide a framework in which morality & values can be clear-cut. Logically, you can see why a moral smorgasboard like the moral relativism plaguing the west today leads to real-world chaos & anarchy. Whilst there are certainly aggravating and mitigating factors, the criminal justice system is entirely reliant on an objective set of values. Murder is bad, always.
Rand’s characters, are simply vehicles through which she expresses the nature and nuances of objectivism. Although Rand does little to conceal what her position is, she has no obligation to form complex characters for complexity’s sake. Rigid characters are often more intriguing than the malleable & mercurial. There are few things more enthralling than a building standing resolute amidst a slow-motion explosion. We watch tapes of Michael Jordan against an understrength Milwaukee Bucks, for the same reason we watch Usain Bolt at the Olympics. There is something essentially captivating about supreme competence.
If you have already come to the conclusion that the novel is only the vehicle for Rand to gasbag about objectivism, then you cannot reasonably expect the author to deliver her judgement amidst obscure circumstances and nebulous moral conclusions. It appears that there is an expectation of the modern critic for characters to oscillate in a purgatory of self-loathing, eventually to come out the other side a transformed stoic ready to take on the next great challenge. Sometimes, we would like to see that character take on the world for the whole book.
Rand’s Objectivist solution is certainly not palatable, especially amongst those who’s worldview is predicated upon deifing moral abstractions like ‘equality, justice, love.’ There is certainly room for these mores in Rand’s moral cosmos they just can’t be substituted for truth. Rand’s set of principles don’t hinge entirely on greed and egoism, but a devout observance of reality. The quality of inter-personal interactions is entirely reliant on the participants’ observance of the truth, where the best testing ground is of course, the marketplace.
Whilst a great philosopher may contend that we cannot know for certain that an engine within the motorcycle doesn’t exist, we can certainly establish whether it serves the purpose of driving the wheels and creating motion. Even if we assume that there is very little we can truly ascertain, we are ultimately too reliant on shallow conceptions and paper-thin assumptions because they keep us alive. If the brakes fail or the engine ceases there are physical consequences. The brake exists as it should, or it does not. The point at which it cannot prevent the motion of the wheels relegates it to the sum total of the parts which remain in it. Scrap metal. The good news, is that in the market, there are consequences for deception and decline. Where products and things don’t serve the purpose for which they are designed or advertised, there is an immediate feedback mechanism in the object’s price and value.
What Rand is doing, in my opinion, is trying to reduce the role of the human in society to it’s bare essence. Under Rand’s conception of human interaction, of contract and mutual consent, where capitalism is the means by which rationality can transform ideas into tangible products, there can only be two types of people; Producers/traders and looters. If you accept that there is no moral basis for the exertion of force on individuals operating on consent, then there is very little left to debate.
The Public Intellectual
A slew of professors and part-time intellectuals are sequentially and comprehensively intellectually despatched throughout the entirety of AS. Their constant retreat to cries of the ‘public good’ despite the city crumbling around them is a reflection of the demise of the Soviet Union from which Rand came. Ayn’s criticism of the public intellectual is not unique to her nor her time. Friedrich Hayek illuminates “Why intellectuals drift towards socialism” and Thomas Sowell’s work “Intellectuals and Society” draws very similar conclusions.
To paraphrase Sowell, a perpetual feedback loop exists in a properly functioning market. An individual who builds a device & is unable to sell it on the basis that it is too expensive, of poor quality, unattractive, or a combination of the three, bares the consequences. If an engineer designs a bridge and it collapses, he and his business suffer immensely through legal, replacement, reputational & future business costs, not to mention the possibility of incarceration.
In a fluid and unrestricted market There is almost immediate feedback for individuals and entrepreneurs can buy and sell according to their own needs and desires. Those who wish to make a profit must convince someone to value their own cash less than the product which they are to buy.
It is almost impossible to pin the same level of responsibility on someone whose product is an idea. An eternally fulminating economist urging increases to the the minimum wage faces no consequence when the hidden hand of the market leaves the lowest skilled & most impoverished out of work.
That intellectual cannot be blamed for lobbying a Government to increase the percentage of GDP that is distributed as foreign aid. It seems to them that the idea is precisely as good as the intent behind it. How could one argue with the desire to help elevate millions from below-subsistence level poverty in remote countries of the world? If the foreign aid Is syphoned off to the tyrannical dictator so that he may purchase more weapons for a people’s militia, that is a simple an issue of execution, not of purpose is it not?
It is only in markets devoid of natural supply-demand dynamics where means & intent can be divorced from effect. It is in this regard that Ayn’s religious observance of ‘A is A’ is inextricably linked to the ‘virtue of greed.’
“Virtue of Greed.”
The underlying logic, & Rand’s actual premise is that there is no possible greed involved in two consensual contracting parties in the first place. It is very difficult to make a sound argument that greed can exist in a frictionless market comprised only of consensual contracts contracts. In fact, it is far easier to make the case that greed can only truly exist in a market where there is the threat of force or coercion i.e. Government Directive (10-289) in Atlas Shrugged.
Whilst it is often retorted that the clearly deformed Government policy within the novel is only a straw man, it is yet another example of Rand’s ability to deduce the essence of an idea or objective to morally unambiguous terms. Even the most devout mentee of big government would view the role of the State in the America of Atlas Shrugged as both immoral and inept. The beauty of Rand’s work is that the ‘looters’ are consistently pursuing objectives which render them indistinguishable from that which they detest. That in real life the minimum wage, rent control and & anti-discrimination legislation achieve exactly the opposite of their purpose, among a great many other things, provides the factual basis for Rand to drive the point home in AS. James Taggart’s almost out-of-body experience at the climax of the book is perhaps the purist example.
It is therefor unsurprising that many of Rand’s critics will assume that Rand is deifying ‘Greed’ at the expense of all other values.
“To reject that Christ is to embark on dangerous waters indeed. For to justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil. For one thing, it is gratuitous to advise any human being to look out for himself. You can be sure that he will. It is far more difficult to persuade him to help his neighbor to build a dam or to defend a town or to give food he has accumulated to the victims of a famine” – Gore Vidal
Gore doesn’t understand the rules of the game. Capitalism works because one can only look out for themselves by providing others with a good or service more valuable at the point in time than the currency with which they are departing. In order for a trade to occur, each party must value the item or service they are acquiring more than that which is relinquished, otherwise there would be no sense in it happening at all. One cannot become rich without at least for a moment enriching the lives of others. The beautiful thing about the transaction is that both individuals can only pursue their own advantage & greedy impulses by allowing another party to do the same.
Perhaps the epithet should be “There’s nothing more ethical than two parties in a contract being greedy at the same time.”
The essence of Vidal’s view and many of the Marxist persuasion lies in believing capitalism to be zero-sum game, that the acquisition of wealth and prosperity can come only at the expense of someone else’s. At the root of this misconception is assuming all wealth was not created but endowed. In retort, Thomas Sowell is correct to remind us that the human race was born into poverty. Poverty is the rule, not the exception. Any quest to establish the cause of poverty is an utterly fruitless task and thus the answer is always to make the pie bigger, not cut it more evenly.
Rand’s position is not that an individual shouldn’t help their neighbour, it is simply to re-evaluate the senselessness of placing empty altruism at the pinnacle of all ethics. Futher, it is even morally bankrupt and irrational to force someone to help another individual. You cannot rob Peter to pay Paul. If you derived great pleasure from helping others, you should pursue it. End of story. So Rand’s beef is not with foregoing, but with sacrificing for others. The distinction lies in her evaluation of the underlying principles behind what makes a sacrifice, a sacrifice.
Should you place the health of another individual above your own, to assist that individual, even for free, is not a sacrifice. To die for another individual, if it should provide you greater utility than not dying, is not a sacrifice. These are exchanges, a simple extension of the market mechanism.
The notion of the sacrifice in and of itself is not something to be detested, it is that the act of sacrifice has been so hollowed out by an ethic so devoid of reason that it has become symbolic of something counter-productive. It has been stripped of meaning. Therefore if you accept Rand’s definition, you cannot argue with the thesis.
“It is far more difficult to persuade him to help his neighbour to build a dam or to defend a town…”
This argument is the drunk-uncle of the famous “but without Government who would build the roads?”
Vidal asserts than an individual without the compulsion of the Government, or the drive of selflessness wouldn’t defend their own town or property is at best case a stretch.
Even the most selfish individual recognises that without the dam his own property is at risk. In fact, perhaps the most selfish individual would be the most studious in the upkeep and maintenance of the project. When several individuals hold beneficial financial interests in the viability of the dam, it is even safer. Vidal assumes that in the absence of charity and state coercion, dams, roads & public utilities would not only remain figments of the imagination, but once built, could not possibly be maintained.
If anything, it is far more likely that when individuals don’t act in their own interest, roads & dams would not only remain unkept, but also unbuilt. Roads in which no one has beneficial interest in building or preserving serve no people at all in the first place, and to require under the full force of that state law-abiding individuals take time out of their day or money out of their own pocket to execute such a project, is by Rand’s standard & basic logic, obscene. This is of course before you bring in cost & efficiency as any kind of barometer. An individual or conglomerate which has a financial interest in a utility open to a great number of people, if truly pursuing their own interest, will be very careful and diligent in the execution of the project.
The greediest man, who wishes to extract the largest possible number of tolls on a bridge will ensure that it lasts for as long possible, for it serves him no benefit, in time or money, for the bridge to collapse. This is of course only the financial consideration, this is not even including the reputational or legal liability incurred.
Vidal, not one to waste the climax of an accusation, slips in an absolute cracker of a strawman, “…give food he has accumulated to the victims of a famine.” As previously mentioned, if the individual believes that the survival of the victims of the town provides him with more utility than he would receive by keeping the food he has accumulated, then in pursuing his own happiness he would relinquish the food in exchange for his own utility.
It is also far more likely that a famine would altogether be avoided in the first place when individuals and entrepreneurs are free to forecast without Government interference, and when ruthlessly pursuing their own interest. It’s no coincidence that the Holodomor occurred in 1932-33 Ukraine and not in the United States. It was only In 1929–30, Ukrainian peasants were induced to transfer land and livestock to state-owned farms, on which they would work as day-labourers for payment in kind. Barely three years later and up to 12 million Ukrainians died from starvation.
The price of produce incorporates the potential risk of a damaged or failed crop. It is also in times of great shortages that entrepreneurs see the greatest potential returns. One only has to look now at the gluttony of hand sanitiser and face masks to understand that individuals acting in their own interest move far more swiftly than when they act for someone else.
It is also the case that an individual reliant on the stability of an economy, or an extended customer base will ruthlessly pursue the health and wellbeing of his fellow men. If there are no individuals to buy the products, no money can be made. This is of course before one considers the possibility of the marketing benefits of helping the needy. This is the virtue of greed. Whilst crisis are inevitable, their damage and duration is often contingent upon the extent to which resources are misdirected in solving the problem.
If one takes Rand’s philosophy to it’s exodus, any transaction not borne from mutually beneficial interest, is not only inefficient, but morally wrong. The slow disintegration of American society in Atlas Shrugged brought about by destructive Government policy is Rand’s articulation of the ‘death of a thousand cuts’ that follows in a society where trades occur by force & fear.
A is A
Rand draws upon the fundamentals of logic in Galt’s mammoth speech. There is a great deal to which Rand’s economic philosophy, even if not expressed directly, is contingent upon this principle.
Whilst there are an infinite number of possible interpretations for a phenomenon, the extent to which any of these perspectives are actually useful, is in the first place reliant on the interpretation not leading causally to our own death or injury. Whilst a philosopher may in fact argue that one cannot in fact be certain of anything, there are rules and behaviours which have ensured our own survival and prosperity which cannot be ignored. These rules are in as far as we can tell, the truth.
The philosophical beauty of capitalism, is that the process of buying ang selling is an incredibly efficient means of establishing that the characteristics proclaimed to be unique to thing or a product, are in fact so.
In watching an interview where Rand was asked on whether it is moral to provide charity, it appeared that for once, she was unsure of herself. She described it as a ‘marginal issue,’ and one which she would devote little time to. I would simply offer her the suggestion that her own economic impulses should simply be extended to bridge this void.
The provision of charity, when given without force or coercion is a transaction just like any other. Although no tangible good or service is provided in return for the charity, at that point in time, the satisfaction given is more valuable in subjective terms than the items being relinquished. Charity relies on the presumption that the provision of goods or services will somehow improve your own life, it is not predicated exclusively on the recipient. If one were to relinquish a first edition of Atlas Shrugged, which by many accounts could be worth thousands of dollars, for nothing, it is still a transaction, and when entered into by consenting individuals just as valid. The price is of no relevance in determining the morality or otherwise of a transaction.
With respect to the provision of charity, an exchange has taken place which could not have occurred without the voluntary consent of both parties. Further, this is only when considering gratification as the objective, this does not consider that charity could be provided on purely economic grounds.
Suppose a beggar has taken residence outside a previously busy row of shops and the decline in foot traffic had been driving down sales. A business owner may offer to put the beggar up in a hotel forever, if he believed that the accompanying rise in retail trade would more than offset the hotel costs.
Conflicts: Galt vs Rearden
One question I have been struggling to resolve is that whether Hank Rearden and John Galt can be two fruits from the same tree. Galt’s paralysis at the first instance of rapine, & subsequent recession into the darkness, is disheartening. He became ‘the destroyer,’ sequestering productive men and luring them to his free-market Nirvanna, an area of mountainous colarado ruled only by consent and productivity. The destroyer is certainly a rather ironic title for a fighter of the looters. Galt was of the view, that to continue to produce under the auspices of insane, synthetic market restrictions only strengthens the ‘looters,’ in effect re-affirming a catastrophic feedback loop, which could only end in the destruction of civil society as we know it.
Rearden on the other hand, refused to bow-out. He stood and fought with everything at his disposal until his revolutionary steel factory was burned and workers shot.
Can they both be right?
My gut reaction is no. The fundamental structure of the free-market hinges almost entirely on the conception of private property. This Gordian Knot cannot be unloosed. If nothing is owned, who can buy & sell? Rearden personified this principle far better than Galt. He demonstrated that private property was worth protecting.
An impregnable tenant of objectivism, is that morality isn’t relative to the situation or context, but what is good is always so, & cannot be anything other than good. A is always A. Rapine is always deserving of censure and rebuke. It doesn’t accumulate to a critical mass like water vapour in a cloud. Hank fought the looters at every point possible with whatever means he had available. Galt, Rand’s ubermensch, recused himself from the fracas in it’s entirety after the first hint of conflict.
Very few people throughout history & literature have lead a revolution by voluntarily rescinding themselves from the debate or the argument, however there are a litany of individuals who have been exiled and then returned with the full weight of the people behind them. Voluntary recession is no substitute for forced exile. Napoleon Bonaparte springs immediately to mind.
Whilst Galt worked tirelessly to bring about the destruction of the ‘looters,’ his climactic soliloquy resonated with ordinary people in a way that 12 years of stealthy operating and sleuthing couldn’t. He became Hank Rearden. Hank had already delivered a stunning expose of Rand’s philosophy much earlier in the book whilst on public trial for refusing to comply with Government orders. The exaltation of Galt in the final stages of the book at the expense of the valour and honour of Rearden is, in my estimation, a misapplication of Rand’s own philosophy. The value scale is in reverse.
Dagny is the method of valuing the male hero in the story. Her powerful, feminine energy latches only onto a male of suitable ethical standing. The masculine objects of her desire then embody Rand’s ideal men with increasing degrees.
She begins with Hank, then moves onto heir extraordinaire Francisco, & finally to Galt. However, on analysis each male is more destructive & less confrontational. Frank stands & fights from the outset, refusing to sign & comply with Government orders, Francisco literally explodes the worlds only reliable copper supply whilst in hiding, & Galt brings New York & The Nation to an almost Sodom-like state through persuasion and evasion. I feel that each step is closer to the ‘destroyer’ than the ‘builder.’
Whilst John Galt’s monologue is certainly the great story of the book, it could have just as easily come from Rearden.
Hence my major beef with Ayn Rand. Dagny picked the wrong guy