Warning: Contains Spoilers
If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater the effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders–what would you tell him to do?
I … don’t know. What … could he do? What would you tell him?
This quote sums up a lot of the story of Atlas Shrugged. Should the capitalists, entrepreneurs and innovators work hard to create their best work, knowing the government will tax them to support those who do not work, or are not as productive. Or should they shrug, and refuse to work for a society that steals their output from them?
This conflict runs through the book, as we follow the protagonist Dagny Taggart fighting to maintain her railroad, in the face of increasing challenges from the government. Around her, fellow business leaders are giving up and abandoning or destroying their enterprises, after feeling too much pain from what they are being forced to do or to give. As I read the book, and saw how plausible the situations were, I initially sympathised with these leaders who “shrugged”, and can see the rationale of giving up as stronger than of fighting, knowing there is no chance of success, but only prolonging this existence.
However, their choice is easier than it first sounds, as these most successful capitalists are offered a way out: a chance to leave the country and join a capitalist’s paradise, hidden from the rest of the world, where they are free to only do things for money, and be under no compulsion to give to others, or have their work taken from them. While this seems to fulfill many of their dreams, we do not see what happens to the average man, or woman, after they make their choice to abandon their job and have no means of living; we can only imagine it does not end so well for them. Indeed, these elite capitalists are waiting for the world order to utterly collapse, at great cost, before they will re-join society and re-build it in their way.
This is the frustration of Rand’s philosophy. Her objectivity, is such a self-centered view of the world, that these business leaders are happy to go and live in their enclave, where they can be happy and safe from the world, but the common man is given no chance or choice. There appears no sympathy or care for what happens to them; and similarly it is clear that if any of the successful people should run out of money, either through inability or ill health, there would be no expectation of anyone to care for, or to help them. Her conclusion is entirely rational, based on her atheist world view, the lack of humanity is disturbing.
So, while her view of the world in favour of freedom and capitalism fits my outlook well, when she takes it to this brutal conclusion it becomes much more unappealing to me. I would recommend reading this book, as it is enjoyable and has many interesting thoughts about the world, but would take her philosophy with caution.