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Friday, April 23, 2010

Reading List: Atlas Shrugged

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Dutton, [1957, 1992] 2005. ISBN 978-0-525-94892-6.
There is nothing I could possibly add by way of commentary on this novel, a classic of twentieth century popular fiction, one of the most discussed books of the epoch, and, more than fifty years after publication, still (at this writing) in the top two hundred books by sales rank at Amazon.com. Instead, I will confine my remarks to my own reactions upon reading this work for the third time and how it speaks to events of the present day.

I first read Atlas Shrugged in the summer of that most eventful year, 1968. I enjoyed it immensely, finding it not just a gripping story, but also, as Rand intended, a thorough (and in some ways, too thorough) exposition of her philosophy as glimpsed in The Fountainhead, which I'd read a few years earlier. I took it as an allegorical story about the pernicious effects and ultimate consequences of collectivism and the elevation of altruism over self-interest and need above earned rewards, but viewed the world in which it was set and the events which occurred there much as I did those of Orwell's 1984 and Heinlein's If This Goes On—: a cautionary tale showing the end point of trends visible in the contemporary world. But the world of Atlas Shrugged, like those of Orwell and Heinlein, seemed very remote from that of 1968—we were going to the Moon, and my expectations for the future were more along the lines of 2001 than Rand's dingy and decaying world. Also, it was 1968, for Heaven's sake, and I perceived the upheavals of the time (with a degree of naïveté and wrongheadedness I find breathtaking at this remove) as a sovereign antidote to the concentration of power and oppression of the individual, which would set things aright long before productive people began to heed Galt's call to shed the burden of supporting their sworn enemies.

My next traverse through Atlas Shrugged was a little before 1980. The seventies had taken a lot of the gloss off the bright and shiny 1968 vision of the future, and having run a small business for the latter part of that sorry decade, the encroachment of ever-rising taxes, regulation, and outright obstruction by governments at all levels was very much on my mind, which, along with the monetary and financial crises created by those policies plus a rising swamp of mysticism, pseudoscience, and the ascendant anti-human pagan cult of environmentalism, made it entirely plausible to me that the U.S. might tip over into the kind of accelerating decline described in the middle part of the novel. This second reading of the book left me with a very different impression than the first. This time I could see, from my own personal experience and in the daily news, precisely the kind of events foreseen in the story. It was no longer a cautionary tale but instead a kind of hitch-hiker's guide to the road to serfdom. Curiously, this reading the book caused me to shrug off the funk of demoralisation and discouragement and throw myself back into the entrepreneurial fray. I believed that the failure of collectivism was so self-evident that a turning point was at hand, and the landslide election of Reagan shortly thereafter appeared to bear this out. The U.S. was committed to a policy of lower taxes, rolling back regulations, standing up to aggressive collectivist regimes around the world, and opening the High Frontier with economical, frequent, and routine access to space (remember that?). While it was hardly the men of the mind returning from Galt's Gulch, it was good enough for me, and I decided to make the best of it and contribute what I could to what I perceived as the turnaround. As a footnote, it's entirely possible that if I hadn't reread Atlas Shrugged around this time, I would have given up on entrepreneurship and gone back to work for the Man—so in a way, this book was in the causal tree which led to Autodesk and AutoCAD. In any case, although working myself to exhaustion and observing the sapping of resources by looters and moochers after Autodesk's initial public stock offering in 1985, I still felt myself surfing on a wave of unbounded opportunity and remained unreceptive to Galt's pitch in 1987. In 1994? Well….

What with the eruption of the most recent financial crisis, the veer toward the hard left in the United States, and increasing talk of productive people opting to “go Galt”, I decided it was time for another pass through Atlas Shrugged, so I started reading it for the third time in early April 2010 and finished it in a little over two weeks, including some marathon sessions where I just didn't want to put it down, even though I knew the characters, principal events, and the ending perfectly well. What was different, and strikingly so, from the last read three decades ago, was how astonishingly prescient this book, published in 1957, was about events unfolding in the world today. As I noted above, in 1968 I viewed it as a dystopia set in an unspecified future. By 1980, many of the trends described in the book were clearly in place, but few of their ultimate dire consequences had become evident. In 2010, however, the novel is almost like reading a paraphrase of the history of the last quarter century. “Temporary crises”, “states of emergency”, “pragmatic responses”, calls to “sacrifice for the common good” and to “share the wealth” which seemed implausible then are the topics of speeches by present day politicians and news headlines. Further, the infiltration of academia and the news media by collectivists, their undermining the language and (in the guise of “postmodernism”) the foundations of rational thought and objective reality, which were entirely beneath the radar (at least to me) as late as 1980, are laid out here as clear as daylight, with the simultaneously pompous and vaporous prattling of soi-disant intellectuals which doubtless made the educated laugh when the book first appeared now having become commonplace in the classrooms of top tier universities and journals of what purport to be the humanities and social sciences. What once seemed a fantastic nightmare painted on a grand romantic canvas is in the process of becoming a shiveringly accurate prophecy.

So, where are we now? Well (if you'll allow me to use the word) objectively, I found the splice between our real-life past and present to be around the start of chapter 5 of part II, “Account Overdrawn”. This is about 500 pages into the hardback edition of 1168 pages, or around 40%. Obviously, this is the crudest of estimates—many things occur before that point which haven't yet in the real world and many afterward have already come to pass. Yet still, it's striking: who would have imagined piracy on the high seas to be a headline topic in the twenty-first century? On this reading I was also particularly struck by chapter 8 of part III, “The Egoist” (immediately following Galt's speech), which directly addresses a question I expect will soon intrude into the public consciousness: the legitimacy or lack thereof of nominally democratic governments. This is something I first wrote about in 1988, but never expected to actually see come onto the agenda. A recent Rasmussen poll, however, finds that just 21% of voters in the United States now believe that their federal government has the “consent of the governed”. At the same time, more than 40% of U.S. tax filers pay no federal income tax at all, and more than a majority receive more in federal benefits than they pay in taxes. The top 10% of taxpayers (by Adjusted Gross Income) pay more than 70% of all personal income taxes collected. This makes it increasingly evident that the government, if not already, runs the risk of becoming a racket in which the non-taxpaying majority use the coercive power of the state to shake down a shrinking taxpaying minority. This is precisely the vicious cycle which reaches its endpoint in this chapter, where the government loses all legitimacy in the eyes of not only its victims, but even its beneficiaries and participants. I forecast that should this trend continue (and that's the way to bet), within two years we will see crowds of people in the U.S. holding signs demanding “By what right?”.

In summary, I very much enjoyed revisiting this classic; given that it was the third time through and I don't consider myself to have changed all that much in the many years since the first time, this didn't come as a surprise. What I wasn't expecting was how differently the story is perceived based on events in the real world up to the time it's read. From the current perspective, it is eerily prophetic. It would be amusing to go back and read reviews at the time of its publication to see how many anticipated that happening. The ultimate lesson of Atlas Shrugged is that the looters subsist only by the sanction of their victims and through the product of their minds, which cannot be coerced. This is an eternal truth, which is why this novel, which states it so clearly, endures.

The link above is to the hardbound “Centennial Edition”. There are trade paperback, mass market paperback, and Kindle editions available as well. I'd avoid the mass market paperback, as the type is small and the spines of books this thick tend to disintegrate as you read them. At current Amazon prices, the hardcover isn't all that much more than the trade paperback and will be more durable if you plan to keep it around or pass it on to others. I haven't seen the Kindle transfer; if it's well done, it would be marvellous, as any print edition of this book is more than a handful.

Posted at April 23, 2010 00:09