60 Years of Atlas Shrugged: Celebrating Property Rights and the Spirit of the Individual

BY VAL MULLERatlas shrugged

Today, October 10, marks 60 years since Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was published. For those of you who haven’t read it–it is, after all, a lengthy tome–we wanted to highlight some of the freedom aspects we love about the novel.

Having grown up in Russia, Rand saw her father lose his successful business to government thuggery. Under a government that disrespected property rights, Rand and her family faced the possibility of starving to death. As a result, property rights is a value reflected in her works. When property gets taken over by governments that the societies in her work degenerate.

In the novel, the railroad industry crashes when a combination of over-regulation, cronyism, and other government meddling cause the entire system to malfunction. In her work, government regulation essentially means the loss of private property rights. With the collective ownership that follows, no one truly bears the consequence of a decision. Instead of going out of business or losing a job, politicians can always ask “the rich” to pay a little more of “their fair share” i.e., raise taxes to pay for incompetent decisions–until everyone suffers the consequence in a very literal way.

I don’t have to look far for example of the failures of collectivism. Where I teach, we have laptop carts, each with a set of laptops that can be borrowed for a class period. When these carts belonged to the entire school, they were returned at the end of the day in–we’ll call it “less than desirable” condition. Cords were everywhere, laptops were in the wrong slots (or missing), doors were jammed open. Since no one truly owned the carts, there was no incentive to keep them in any kind of working order. And if anyone asked, it was easy to blame the last person who had the cart–someone “in another department.” In the anonymity of the whole school, it was easy to shirk responsibility and abuse the collectively-operated equipment.

But this year, we switched to department-specific carts. So if I borrow the cart first thing Monday morning, I make sure it’s in tip-top shape before passing it to the next teacher on the schedule. After all, the other teachers are all in my department now. They are my friends and colleagues–not some anonymous “others”–and I feel accountable to them. This is the closest thing my school has come to enforcing private property rights, but it goes a long way in demonstrating how it works. The closer I come to possessing ownership over something, the more I care to take care of it. If that laptop cart were mine to keep in my classroom exclusively for the entire year, you can bet I’d take even more care of it, knowing that I (and my students) would benefit from its good condition and that my efforts in keeping it neat would not be undermined by an irresponsible and faceless colleague I barely know.

Closely related to the physical implications of property rights is the mental confidence built when one has control over one’s own home, business, and actions. In Atlas Shrugged, the “good guys” are pushed to their limit in suffering abuse from the government. Changing regulations make it impossible for businesses to find a stable plan for producing goods and providing jobs. And in the end, well-intentioned (in some cases, anyway) government regulation removes economic consequences, leading the country to make decisions that business owners would never make if they had control of their own businesses. Crop failure and energy shortages occur, and in a country once as wealthy as America is now, people fear starving or freezing over the winter.

And what it all comes down to is power. In Rand’s work, government outreach for power is seen as theft. Those elected to power have not done anything to earn it other than engage in demagoguery and promises to redistribute other people’s tax money in a way advantageous to a particular voting group. Elected officials are not inventors. They are not engineers. They are not enlightened philosophers. The more their policies fail, the more their constituents rely on them to “fix” what is broken, and the more likely they are to be reelected. Rand recognizes the ultimate paradox and hypocrisy of our system: that to improve one’s chances of being re-elected, one must be inefficient. After all, if someone could come in and solve all of our problems in one term, he (or she) would essentially be making his own job obsolete. Who would go through all the effort of running a campaign and fundraising only to eliminate one’s own job? The types of people who would and could have no interest in doing so.

And really, the heart of Rand’s novel gets to the heart of Freedom Forge Press’s beliefs. Rand believed that, allowed to be free of government’s chains, humans would be free to live to the best of their abilities. Living with the shackles of government, people are encouraged to stifle their flames of individuality and live meaningless lives, or lives that fall far short of each individual’s potential. At Freedom Forge Press, we believe each individual should be free to live, question, and work as he or she chooses, free of government overreach. We understand that freedom means responsibility and believe, like Rand, that limited government means the imposition of other types of regulations, such as economic ones, that help us make the best decisions for ourselves and for everyone we touch.

We found this concise explanation of John Galt’s speech, if you haven’t read the novel or want a refresher course. His speech truly outlines Rand’s beliefs. The heart of his speech gets down to our tagline here at FFP: celebrating the spirit of the individual. In the first part of the speech, Galt argues that humans must be free to live and think for themselves. And when it comes down to it, the crux of what we must be allowed to do is think. Man must be free to know, to think, to say that A is A.

Contrast this, for instance, with Orwell’s hyperbolic 1984, in which unfortunate protagonist Winston is forced to say–then truly believe–that two plus two equals five. The point Orwell makes here goes hand-in-hand with Rand’s argument through the John Galt speech. Abraham Lincoln said, “Let people know the facts, and the country will be safe.” Men are men when they can think for themselves and be allowed to know the truth and to use reason and facts to question those in power.

When ignorance takes over and reason is replaced with what Rand calls mysticism, things fall apart. Mysticism, in a nutshell, is the belief that we must deny our own desires for the “common good,” that we must make sacrifices for someone else, that no one can truly be happy indulging in their own lives, that we must deny the use of reason to defer power to others. In our modern lives, this could be seen as voting away our own tax dollars for bloated government programs because we think it’s the moral thing to do. It could mean overlooking one party’s failures because we believe they are the better choice in a two-party system. It could mean believing one particular set of facts while ignoring another contradictory set simply because it fits in with what those in charge want us to believe. If alive today, Ayn Rand might fear for the future of our country. Bipartisanship seems by design to have removed our ability to use reason.

In Atlas Shrugged, the “good guys” are the producers. They are the thinkers, the ones ready to work hard and make personal sacrifices for their own success and achievement. While their hard work does positively impact others, in the form of advanced medicine, amazing and economical metals, and the like, they did not set out to do things for others. They set out to fulfill their own dreams. And this is why those in power detest them.

In the end, they are tired of being chained by the government. They know the secret that we haven’t quite figured out yet: our inefficient system will only stay in place as long as we keep feeding it. In some ways, John Galt’s speech is just as revolutionary as Tom Joad’s realizations in The Grapes of Wrath: when a system is broken, we cannot keep feeding it. We must let it break and start anew. This is why, at the end of the novel, Rand’s producers decide to boycott society in general. They remove themselves from society. They are the last talent left in the mindless world they inhabit, and without them the politicians have no power. Without their hard work, no one has anything extra to sacrifice for others. Without them, the “mystic” beliefs of the politicians cannot stand.

Like Thoreau and Gandhi, Rand pushes us toward a type of civil disobedience. Once they reach a certain point, laws seem to be merely a civilized way of stealing from some–or all. We like Rand’s work because it makes us question our role in society. We have been trained to be polite, as Rand points out, trained to believe that sacrifice and selflessness makes it okay for a government to steal much of our hard-earned money and create programs we have never heard of and never benefit from.

We have been trained to believe that anyone questioning the system is dangerous. It was once thought to be dangerous when women wanted to vote. It was once thought to be dangerous when someone thought “separate but equal” wasn’t equal after all. Ayn Rand pushes us to think beyond our complacency, really to use reason to question our place in the world. Perhaps the next revolution will be one of enlightenment, allowing each of us to live a life of reason and personal morality guided by true consequences and led by the truly enlightened, the thinkers, the inventors, the producers.