Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

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I never got around to reading Ayn Rand in college when everybody else did, but I was going away for a week on business, and wanted something long but compact to read, so I picked this up in paperback form at the used bookstore. Her basic thesis of Objectivism is that reason and egoism should be the principles upon which society is based. In particular, capitalism is the ultimate economic system because rational self-interest will cause great things to happen. Rand also has a view of the world where there are great heroic humans that we should not hold back. From the Ayn Rand Institute webpage, “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

Atlas Shrugged is a morality tale, expounding the dire consequences that would occur if we went down the road of communism rather than capitalism (the book was written in 1957, so this was a relevant question). I think she takes things to too extreme a level, but her ideas are interesting. And I can definitely see why many nerds take up the banner of Objectivism so enthusiastically in college. Early on, she captures the feeling of being surrounded by people who don’t get you, who prattle on endlessly about meaningless topics, which is a feeling that nerds are all too familiar with when trapped in parties with people talking about fashion and the like.

She also makes a pretty compelling case to me of the result of truly following the concept of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” She talks about the inevitable race to the bottom that would occur if such a philosophy were truly put into place as each person tries to outneed the next, and the corruption that would be endemic to such a system. Not a bad description of what happened in the Soviet Union, from what little I know. She also emphasizes the total disincentive for people of ability to work under such a system. In fact, the whole book is a novelistic exploration of what happens when the heroic producers go on strike against such an unjust system.

All in all, I think she makes a lot of good points, especially given the era in which she was writing. The novel definitely drags in places (1000+ pages), especially where she inserts multiple page soliloquys about the horrors of a communistic system and how it holds the true heroic producers in shackles. In fact, I skipped the final 50-page long speech by John Galt, because I just couldn’t take it by that point. But it was worth reading, and I have to admit that my personal philosophy has a lot of similar elements to objectivism. And the novel was persuasive enough that even though I think she goes too far, I spent some time thinking about what she had to say and trying to figure out why I thought she was too extreme. And a book that makes me think is always a good thing.