Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan, and the Karate Kid: Review of "Atlas Shrugged"

Why I read this book:

In the aftermath of the financial crisis (aka the Great Recession), Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged", published in 1957, became a popular read among those concerned about the increasing role of government in the handling of the crisis. The book redoubled in prominence recently with the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's Vice Presidential choice - rumor has it that Ryan makes all his staffers and interns read "Atlas Shrugged" which is said to be Ryan's favorite book.

My rating for this book:

1. "I hate you, you ruined my life"
2. "I can't believe we ever dated"
3. "It's not you, it's me"
4. "Can I call you again?"
5. "You had me at hello"

"Atlas shrugged" is not a book you will feel neutral about: you will love it, or you will hate it. As for me, it was simply completely, totally, unacceptably too long. This is one of those books that ruins your reading streak. You know the pattern: you slowly get yourself into a reading groove and feel like a productive, enriched person. Inevitably, you get overconfident and decide to tackle something deep and profound, like Tolstoy or Aristotle. Thirty pages in, you decide you have had enough and spend the next four months catching up on "Glee". "Atlas Shrugged" very nearly did that to me, and for that reason I give it a 2 rating.

The aftershocks:

"Atlas Shrugged" is both a novel and a expose for Rand's philosophy - Objectivism. Let's discuss the merits and the shortcomings of the book from both perspectives.

The novel:


The fiction form is certainly a better vehicle for conveying the moral case for individualism and free enterprise, which is ultimately Rand's goal, than Arthur Brooks' "The battle". At certain parts of the book, you will admire Dagny Taggart, the heroine, for her indomitable spirit and relentless drive. The story lends itself nicely for reminding us that earned success is to be admired and not to be ashamed of. You quickly recognize in the pages that you are reading the thoughts of a deeply intelligent, analytical mind. The central element of the plot: "What if the productive leaders of the country suddenly quit the parasitic world?" is a clever framing of the author's philosophical perspective.


The book is entirely too long. It is a total trap - the thin trappings of a "novel" such as plot, setting, and character development, are minimal and crude and serve only a fig leaf for the long, repetitive, abstract, philosophical rants. It reminds me of my Grandpa's favorite tactic - to pose a rhetorical question as an opening salvo for a 20 minute monologue on the most pressing issues of the day according to him.

Grandpa: "So, what do you think is going to happen to the Euro?"
Me: "Great question, Grandpa, I think..."
Grandpa: "Europe sucks. This country is going down the toilet as well. Everyone in DC is a terrible driver...(fast forward 20 minutes)...why aren't you married yet?"

Character development exists only so far as to create caricature representations of good and evil. Thus, Dagny Taggart is a driven and resolute executive, while her brother James Taggart is an indecisive hater of Truth and Reason, and Wesley Mouch is a slimy, corrupt politician. The dialogue between characters and description of events are equally awkward. At one point, an ex-employee of a closed-down factory describes to Dagny Taggart how the factory went out of business. At first, the exchange convincingly conveys the gradual decline that stemmed from the abandonment of capitalistic principles. Then, suddenly, the guy exclaims that a man "died..in a knife fight with somebody in a saloon, a fight over nothing in particular - such fights were beginning to happen among us all the time". The book is riddled with such sudden jumps and unrealistic portrayals of human interaction and behavior.

In this sense, reading "Atlas Shrugged" feels like you are watching "300" or "Sin City", but without the gratuitous shots of bearded men with six packs in loincloth.

Leonidas was a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism.
What I am saying is - lay off Paul Ryan, please. He is too intelligent to subjugate his minions to the torturous experience of reading this "novel" for no reason. Reading this book is a test, a right of passage - if you have the dedication and grit to complete this assignment, you can clearly be trusted with the rigors of serving the Congressman's constituency. Remember the Karate Kid? Did Ralph Macchio learn the "Crane" style in the first week of his training with Mr. Miyagi? No, first he had to learn the virtues of humbleness and patience. Then, once he established a strong moral base, he went on to defeat Kobra Kai, get the girl, and win the hearts of a generation. Wax on, wax off. Paul Ryan is simply applying the same lessons to the way he selects his staff.

(by the way, another great trick for you if you have to manage people: invite your employee into your office and ask them to close the door. Sit silently for one minute and thirty seconds, staring directly into the employee's eyes and saying nothing. After the aforementioned period of silence, slowly say: "Is there anything you want to tell me?" and watch the employee confess to taking donuts from the lounge without paying for them or admit that she's been selling documents that contain the location of our nuclear submarines to the Chinese. )

The philosophy:


It is easy to admire the idea of motive power, the resolute drive of the human mind and spirit that conquers, invents, and moves forward, and the values that result from honest competition - the purity that results from the pursuit of a goal, like an asymptote that shoots up towards Truth and Reason. You can see these qualities in masters of a craft, where even perfect adversaries have great respect and understanding for each other. Many values that Rand advocates - reason, thrift, taking no less as well as no more than you deserve - would deserve praise from people on all sides of the political spectrum.

The essence of dissecting "Atlas Shrugged" is understanding the motivations behind the ideology that deifies extreme individualism. It is difficult to digest Rand's proposition of naked self-interest when you grow up in a country that protects private property and guards against government interference in men's private affairs. In order to understand Rand's motivations, you have to consider her background and the context within which her writing took place. Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and fled to the United States at the age of 21 after the Communists came to power. A stranger in a new land, she worked for every bit of the success that she eventually found. An admirer of the United States' democratic and capitalistic principles, Rand was more familiar than most with the savagery of the Communists and the dangerous allure of the counterfeit promise of utopia. When you look at the provocative, excruciatingly simplistic view of human existence that Rand's philosophy offers as a daring declaration of rebellion against the onslaught of Communism, her convictions become much more palatable.
Basically, think of that wild-eyed, scruffy-beard dude on the metro sitting next to you who screams: "We are all going to die! Mark Levin and Sean Hannity are the only ones who get it.", and you are about to start debating the pros and cons of cable talk shows when it occurs to you that the dude's hot (lets give him the benefit of doubt) wife probably just left him. In other words, the source of his anger is not the loss of transparency in campaign contributions caused by Citizens United, but rather his shitty life and the slow accumulation of frustrations and arguments over taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, and leaving the cupboard drawers open. Suddenly, you realize that the situation calls for empathy and understanding rather than an argument. Also, you do not feel like getting stabbed today.

In a perverse way, Rand's philosophy gains your respect precisely because the limits of its appeal to our natural instincts are so obvious. It is easy to see the shortcomings of a selfish, hyper-materialistic existence; it is much more difficult  to resist the siren song of a selfless, collectivist promise. This call to our moral sense of brotherhood and equality was used as a veil for atrocities throughout history, from the French Revolutionaries to the Soviet Communists to Mao's China. It is as a stark reminder of our propensity to let our sense of morality get ahead of practical realism that Rand's vision gains its shining moment. It is a reminder of the essential conservative principles - that private property is an inviolable right and that tyranny of government has been a rule in history rather than an exception, and thus must guarded against.


Rand's philosophy is an incorrect, or rather, an incomplete, assessment of human nature. Her version of idealized human being elevates reason at the cost of total suppression and elimination of passion as a driver for human behavior.

How extreme is her case? She picks on Robin Hood as the greatest moral criminal of the common lore! After reading that, I half expected to find a blistering critique of puppies as useless moochers. Talk about a losing definition of morality! For better or for worse, human beings are fundamentally emotional creatures. Observe a hawk swooping down on a bunny. Both are simply trying to survive, yet our instinct is to chase the hawk away. Why do we feel empathy for the weak and defenseless, even if they are solely responsible for their own condition? Perhaps that instinct is a necessary adaptation that allowed our unusually frail predecessors to survive as a species.

Wolf puppies have almost no impact on the nation's GDP, but the are SO freaking cute!

Either way, we can observe that we are both rational creatures as well as passionate ones. A robust philosophy cannot ignore that both of these drivers co-exist within each of us. Ayn Rand understood and despised the ugliness of the mysticism of the Czarist Russia and the threat to individual freedom posed by Communism under the veil of the collective good. What Ayn Rand failed to consider is that passion underlies even our most rational thoughts. Thus, at the zenith of the triumph of the school of rationality and the economic boom brought on by the Industrial advances, the unchecked growth of the school of rational thought led to attitudes of racial superiority and eugenics in advanced countries. While Rand's celebration of the human drive is admirable, it is incomplete without humility and temperance in the knowledge that we are prone to stray from the path of reason - even by an unyielding belief in reason (what!?).

Ayn Rand's downfall is evident by the adaptation of her ideals by unworthy proponents who are guilty of the same flaws against which she so passionately rails. Her philosophy, a one-dimensional view of human nature, is subjugated by those who bear the same negative traits as the villains in her novel instead of people who transcend above the petty elements of human nature.

If you are seeking literature to serve as the standard for the church of individualism, let me recommend "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is a much shorter read, although the dude's writing is quite saturated. Let's just say that if it were a wine, it would be a port. If you are more into fiction, read anything by Jack London. His stories of exploration, competition, and survival first captured my imagination when I was a child. His writing offers a far more captivating case for the church of life than "Atlas Shrugged".

The end.


  1. Perhaps your most eloquent one yet. Loved it!

    I was tempted to take a jab at how long it was (were you trying to outdo Ayn Rand?), but honestly, I could read novels of your quirkiness.

  2. 300 without mostly naked dudes is my nightmare.