This article was published in the Winter 1995-96 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
Atlas Shrugged
by Ayn Rand
first copyright 1957
Signet, 1084 pages
by Richard Hammer

 (to table of contents of FNF archives)

This past summer I read Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's magnum opus, for the second time. This is perhaps the most influential book in the libertarian movement, and I wanted to experience it again, since twenty years of living and learning had passed since my first reading.

I really enjoyed it. Perhaps this delight was permitted by my certainty at the outset that I disagreed with Ayn Rand in significant ways and was not likely to be convinced. Nonetheless, since I wanted to read her book, she was pre-forgiven. And I was free to enjoy.

Perhaps because I knew the overall plot I noticed subtlety which escaped my first reading. I found it a work with masterfully interwoven plot and carefully executed character development.

Readers already familiar with Rand will know that she was an opinionated lady with a definite philosophy, which she expressed in her novels. While I do not agree with her philosophy I do agree with most of her conclusions. The ideal society toward which she drove seems compatible to me.

I suspect that Rand felt vulnerable, uncertain in her philosophy. For evidence I offer Rand's obstinate rigidity and quickness to discard anyone who disagreed. Someone who feels secure, I contend, can take challenges without losing her cool. For other evidence I offer the 57-page length John Galt's famous speech. Someone once said that you do not have an idea unless you can express it on a piece of paper no bigger than a matchbook cover. That someone was not Ayn Rand.

For both heroes and villains, Rand treats her readers to insightful exploration of the characters' motives and thought processes. Often she seems to be right on target, with damning exposure of weakness and spite in those who whine for state action. But I doubt that she is entirely accurate in these speculations. I too spend a lot of time trying to figure out what, if anything, goes on in the heads of leftists. And I find Thomas Sowell's theory, that statists believe that mankind can be coerced to near perfection, which he presents in A Conflict of Visions, to be generally more believable, as well as more kind.

Rand was correct, I believe, in the ratio of men to women in her cast of characters committed to a free society. Heroine Dagny Taggart attended a dinner meeting on her first evening in Galt's Gulch. Ten people were there and she was the only woman. Sadly this disproportion seems common.

Of course I evaluated the novel in light of the project we have undertaken in FNF. Unfortunately Ayn Rand does not offer much help here. Atlas Shrugged shows the evils of statism, and the plot shows one farfetched method of rebelling against the state. But I find almost nothing in it to help us, we who have already decided to work toward formation of a free society. I am not sure that the hero, John Galt, had any clear idea of how to confront and limit state power, except to go hide.

As the novel ends we are left at a supposedly hopeful juncture: Galt and the good guys are preparing to move back into a chaotic world which has been impoverished by their abdication and which supposedly will welcome them and their philosophy back with open arms. But, I wonder, how long will that last? What will Galt's response be the first time that some city council claims power over "their city's resources," by which they mean someone else's property?

We have a few hints to answer this. Galt, much to my surprise, turns out to be a sniveling statist. In his speech he says:

"The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others ... "
(page 987.)
Now, from my position as one who has spent the past few years questioning the limits of privatization, and testing every assumption of necessity of state action, Galt seems hasty in his willingness to give so much power to government. Galt probably has not encountered the arguments and examples which tell that human society can exist quite successfully without surrendering, as he suggests, all these powers to the state.

So Rand's answer to my question about how the heroes will meet usurpations evidently lies in her faith in the biggest government in the land. Galt and the good guys evidently plan to entrust some Janet Reno the Second with a terrible swift sword, which she can swing from Washington, D.C.

Further evidence that Rand wants a centralized state can be found on the next-to-last page of the book. Judge Narragansett, jurist for the good guys, planned a new clause for the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade ..." (page1083.)

Certainly I agree with the spirit of that clause. And I may one day join the good Judge in believing that protection of such a right can come only from a central government. But, before I argue for any given size of government, I want to understand and discard the best arguments for other sizes, both bigger and smaller. I have not yet settled on a size for which I am prepared to argue because, as I encounter arguments for smaller sizes, those arguments almost always win, in my mind.

Of course we in FNF do need to concern ourselves with finding an answer to the question which I used above to try to trip Galt how will we meet usurpations. Limited government may be the answer, at least for starters.

Rand's paradigm for achieving liberty in Atlas Shrugged seems like the usual paradigm: conflict between two states with one state overpowering or succeeding the other, with the loser brought to unconditional surrender. But I am not convinced that this is necessary.

Surely there must be other paradigms. Perhaps we can strike a deal with them. Also, I keep thinking that there must be some way that liberty can be planted like a seed, that it can grow outward, colonizing with a new and robust species of contract.

Finally, at this point before closing, I want to address a statement to Ayn Rand. "Great story, Ayn. If you are in heaven (which, even though A is A, would be hell for you) I hope you can hear this. Thank you. We are indebted to you."

And, last but not least, I want to say something to the protagonist in this tale, silent and forgotten, Atlas. "Okay Atlas, you've shown us that you can shrug. Neat trick, as far as it goes. But do you know any others? Can you use your massive strength to secure your rights?" D

(to table of contents of FNF archives)   (to top of page)