Atlas Shrugged comes to the Screen
by Tom Donelson on April 6, 2011 at 3:29 PM
Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged comes to the big screen. Ayn Rand foresaw the evolution of the 1950’s liberalism along with the welfare state and that evolution included many of the bigger corporations as they become addicted to depending upon government as opposed to depending upon their own skills. The book featured Dagny Taggert, a Randian woman; a woman who cares about making money and turning a profit. Whereas her brother, James Taggert, considers making a profit an end to means, the means being a “good citizen of the country and world”; Dagny believes that making profit and running a successful railroad is a common good all by itself.
By the time Atlas Shrugged was published, Rand was a celebrity in her own right and like George Orwell, a prophet in her own right. Orwell in his book 1984 foresaw a totalitarian future and accurately showed the true nature of communism as it really was not how it was envisioned. Rand accurately described a future that is not far from reality today. Economist Stephen Moore observed, “Many of us who know Rand's work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that "Atlas Shrugged" parodied in 1957, when this 1,000-page novel was first published and became an instant hit.”
A refugee from Soviet Russia, Rand had no illusion about the nature of communism and understood destructiveness of socialism upon wealth development in a society. As Stephen Moore noted, “For the uninitiated, the moral of the story is simply this: Politicians invariably respond to crises -- that in most cases they themselves created -- by spawning new government programs, laws and regulations. These, in turn, generate more havoc and poverty, which inspires the politicians to create more programs . . . and the downward spiral repeats itself until the productive sectors of the economy collapse under the collective weight of taxes and other burdens imposed in the name of fairness, equality and do-goodism.”
Throughout the book, the America economy is sinking upon its weight of bureaucracy, redistributionist policies and various government regulations enacted. Many of the bills in the book enacted have innocent sounding names like the “Anti-Greed Act” or the “Equalization of Opportunity Act.” This occurs currently as various laws today have innocent sounding name like the recent $700 billion "Emergency Economic Stabilization Act" or the "Auto Industry Financing and Restructuring Act," which is the auto bailout bill. Barack Obama signed in the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan”, the stimulus plan recently enacted. There is also the “Employee Freedom Act”, a law that will eliminate secret ballots for workers in the work place. In Rand’s world, laws are passed to “reduce cut throat competition” with the goal of reducing bankruptcies, and then there are the various attempts to equalized resources among companies. In Atlas Shrugged, As Stephen Moore observed, "The current economic strategy is right out of Atlas Shrugged: The more incompetent you are in business, the more handouts the politicians will bestow on you."
The main character behind organizing a strike of the brightest and best industrialists is the mysterious John Galt. Throughout the book, people ask, “Who is John Galt?” a phrase that adopted a meaning of its own. No one was ever sure if John Galt really exists but we do find out that in a meeting at an Auto plant, a young engineer tells a gathering that he will stop the engine of society. Galt doesn’t make his appearance until nearly three quarters through the book, but we are introduced to many characters, a philosophy student who becomes a pirate, a playboy who appears to be squandering his family fortune, a philosophy professor who works at menial jobs and many executives who simply disappear. As the book progresses; the economy declines with job losses and massive starvation on the horizon.
Another aspect is the Science Institute, but there is very little science involved. Science conducted is often politically motivated and this was shown when the Institute declares Reardon's new metal unsafe at first simply because it competed with the established steel company. There are similarities with the present debate on global warming as many government grants go to those scientists who support the idea that global warming is a man made phenomena and will destroy the planet in short order. MIT scientist Richard Lindizen has written about this politicization of science when he wrote, “Scientist who dissent from the alarmism have seen their grant funds disappear, their work derided and themselves libeled as industry stooges, scientific hacks or worse. Consequently, lies about climate change gain credence even when they fly in the face of the science that supposedly is their basis.”
Atlas Shrugged commemorates the entrepreneur and celebrates the wealth creator; most importantly the human intellect. It is the human mind that's create the ideas that turn into wealth and throughout Atlas Shrugged, the freedom of the human mind is what is at stake. Rand views the intellect and reason as primary and views the welfare state as an attack on the human intellect as those who use the mind to create wealth and in Rand’s mind, create the opportunity that creates wealth.
In the late 50’s, Rand had her own disagreements with Bill Buckley and other conservatives, much of it centering on her hostility to religion. In his National Review article on Atlas Shrugged, Whitaker Chambers observed, “Thus, Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world.” Chambers viewed Rand Objectivism as a secular version of Marxism and the Randian heroes are part of their own master race. Chambers review essentially wrote Rand and her Objectivism philosophy out of the conservative movement and yet, Chambers admitted, “Since a great many of us dislike much that Miss Rand dislikes, quite as heartily as she does, many incline to take her at her word.” Chambers noted that Rand, “In the name of free enterprise, therefore, she plumps for a technocratic elite (I find no more inclusive word than technocratic to bracket the industrial-financial-engineering caste she seems to have in mind). When she calls "productive achievement" man's noblest activity," she means, almost exclusively, technological achievement, supervised by such a managerial political bureau. She might object that she means much, much more; and we can freely entertain her objections.”
Chambers brought a more ideological social conservative ideal to the movement for he never fully trusted or loved the more libertarian movement side of the conservative movement. While others on the NR staff worshipped Ludwig von Mises, a leading free market libertarian thinker- Chambers didn’t envy capitalism nor found Von Mises appealing. His review of Ayn Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged showed his own ambivalent attitude on capitalism. Chambers feared that Rand’s vision of a “technological elite” smacked of a totalitarian future that he just escaped from.
As he wrote on Rand’s atheisms, "Randian Man, like the Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world…His tragic fate becomes, without God, more tragic and much lonelier….From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber—go.'" For many conservatives and libertarians, Ayn Rand was a defender of freedom but Chambers felt Rand’s atheistic view undermined her vision of liberty, for without a belief in God, man will find new gods- like Marxism.
While Chambers and Buckley essentially denied Rand entrance within the conservative movement, others are more forgiving but not blind to Rand’s philosophical weakness. Economist Mark Skousen noted, "Rand articulates like no other writer the evils of totalitarianism, interventionism, corporate welfarism, and the socialist mindset. Atlas Shrugged describes in wretched detail how collective 'we' thinking and middle-of-the-road interventionism leads a nation down a road to serfdom. No one has written more persuasively about property rights, honest money (a gold-backed dollar), and the right of an individual to safeguard his wealth and property from the agents of coercion ('taxation is theft'). And long before Gordon Gekko, icon of the movie "Wall Street," she made greed seem good."
Skousen added that Rand rightly points out that these enterprising leaders are a major cause of economic progress. History is full of examples of "men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision." Presently we are witnessing a war on entrepreneurs and investors. Obama's own economic vision has very little room for the entrepreneurs and we are witnessing business leaders essentially begging the government for aid. The auto industry is near bankruptcy and in exchange for aid; the government will eventually force them to build green cars. There will be a price for government aid and that price is their business will be run by Washington; not by the market.
Ayn Rand’s characters appeal not to the heart but to reason but it is a reason under no authority other than the individual. Rand characters are heroic and good looking; the sex scenes are narcissistic and essentially stale in the book. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand heroes are classic beauties and forever talking businesses while ignoring family. There are no children present anywhere and no evidence that anyone even had children. Rand makes selfishness a virtue and not a vice. Skousen states, “Rand is truly revolutionary because she makes the first serious attempt to protest against altruism. She rejects the heart over the mind and faith beyond reason. Indeed, she denies the existence of any god or higher being, or any other authority over one's own mind. For her, the highest form of happiness is fulfilling one's own dreams, not someone else's – or the public's.” Rand considers altruism and charity a weakness and not a strength to be admired.
This is her undoing along with her hostility to Christianity. Skousen observed, “Her defense of greed and selfishness, her diatribes against religion and charitable sacrificing for others who are less fortunate, and her criticism of the Judeo- Christian virtues under the guise of rational Objectivism have tarnished her advocacy of unfettered capitalism. Still, Rand's extreme canard is a brilliant invention that serves as an essential counterpoint in the battle of ideas.”
Reading Adam Smith provides that answer, for while Smith wrote on the benefits of a free market state, he does not accept selfish independence of Rand’s world. As Skousen states, “In 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments,' he identifies the first as 'sympathy' or 'benevolence' toward others in society. In his later work, 'The Wealth of Nations,' he focuses on the second – self-interest – which he defines as the right to pursue one's own business. Both, he argues, are essential to achieve 'universal opulence.' Smith's self-interest never reaches the Randian selfishness that ignores the interest of others. In Smith's mind, an individual's goals cannot be fully achieved in business unless he appeals to the needs of others.”
A capitalist goal is to serve the consumers and often a capitalist sacrifices early income to preserve capital for future development. As one Kansas City businessman told an interviewer that he lived by golden rule, “do unto others as you wish they do unto you.” Or as the bible states, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39) Adam Smith would agree with the later but Ayn Rand only, “love thyself.”
Skousen observed, “Today's most successful libertarian CEOs, such as John Mackey of Whole Foods Markets and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, have adopted the authentic spirit of capitalism that is more in keeping with Smith than Rand. Theirs is a 'stakeholder' philosophy that works within the system to fulfill the needs of customers, employees, shareholders, the community, and themselves.” The golden rule forms an important basis of free market economics.
If Whitaker Chambers viewed Ayn Rand’s superheroes similar to the super race of Nazis, it is Randian opponents who are the fascists as they developed a collectivist society with an element of corporatism. They are willing to do anything to save their own position and sacrifice a nation to preserve their own privileges. Certainly as Jonah Goldberg noted in his book Liberal Fascism, there were sympathy for Mussolini among many of the early New Dealers and Hugh Johnson, the head of the National Recovery Industrial Act, had a portrait of Mussolini in his room. Rand saw the future and it was not pretty or can we say; it is not pretty? Rand tells of artists, writers and movie stars who decry the system that makes their success possible and she certainly understood the artist mindset as many of our Hollywood set, writers and artists are forever protesting free market economies while making millions from it.
Atlas Shrugged's strength and why it still sells in the millions is that it hits a nerve. In a world in which collectivism is once again raising its head and the attempt to overturn the Reagan era to create a more socialistic state, Rand tells a story of opposition to that vision. Even with her weakness in her own ideas, she does understand the basic lesson; Freedom matters. Will the movie match the message of the book?