Why Atlas Shrugged Changes Lives
By Debi Ghate (Orange County Register, October 10, 2007)
When I read Atlas Shrugged, I was captivated. There were complicated romantic relationships, alliances and treachery, heroes who overcame obstacles, villains who tried to stop them, and an intriguing question that seemed to be behind it all: "Who is John Galt?" And yet, it was unlike anything I had ever read before. My response was far from unique. From CEOs to college students to celebrities, people declare that reading Ayn Rand's novel has a life-changing effect. Why?
Through her story and characters, Ayn Rand turns conventional thinking on its head. Which businessman would you expect to be a hero: the publicly spirited CEO, James Taggart, who calls for corporations to give back to the community and fights for business to be regulated in the name of the public good--or the wealthy entrepreneur, Hank Rearden, who proudly seeks to generate as much profit as possible, the public interest be damned? James Taggart, right? Not in Ayn Rand's world.
Her heroes are ambitious capitalists unapologetically pursuing money and success. There is Hank Rearden, the industrialist who creates a new metal that is stronger, safer and cheaper than anything else on the market. There is Dagny Taggart, the executive who risks everything on her own judgment in order to build a great railroad. Both want to make as much profit as possible by perfecting their products. In today's world, as in Atlas, such people are criticized as "selfish" and "greedy." In today's world, as in Atlas, antitrust lawsuits and controls to rein in their greed are brought against such people. But in Ayn Rand's world, when the capitalists are faced with these attacks, we see these people as persecuted victims, not wrongdoers.
When the novel's heroes learn that they should not feel guilt in the face of irrational demands--even if the demands come from your mother who is nagging you to give your shiftless brother a job he does not deserve--we learn it too. When they learn to stand up for the right to their own lives and happiness, the public interest be damned--and even if this means you will be denounced by your family, colleagues and the public for refusing to sacrifice yourself--we learn it too. When the novel's heroes refuse to be sacrificial lambs, we come to agree with their reasons.
And so as readers, sometimes against our previous beliefs, we side with her heroes and want to see them overcome their opponents. After Hank Rearden invests millions and his very soul into creating Rearden Metal, a product that could revolutionize industry and rescue the economy, the response is a concerted effort to keep the metal off the market; worse, when its value is grudgingly recognized, people demand subsidized access to it in the name of the public good. How completely unjust!--we think in outrage. We rally behind the proud, profit-seeking man. We become invested in his success. What our priests and teachers taught us was immoral, Ayn Rand boldly presents as heroic--and we wish we could meet her heroes in real life.
By introducing to us a new kind of hero, Ayn Rand challenges our own thinking. Maybe, just maybe, we've been pursuing the wrong ideals in life. Should I pursue a career in business to make money, or so that I have something to give away? Should I be a doctor because I have an obligation to help the needy, or because I love the subject and have exceptional skills and training to trade with patients willing to pay me? Should I be proud of the money I've earned, or should I feel guilty because others have less? Am I required to accept religious doctrine on faith, or are there other standards by which I can determine right from wrong? For Ayn Rand's characters, the answers to these questions are vital to their happiness, and it is a betrayal of self not to ask them.
But Ayn Rand didn't simply raise thought-provoking questions. Through her dramatic story, she shows us exactly where she stands, and why. Hank Rearden has an inalienable right to sell his product at whatever price his buyers are willing to pay. It's his property, the result of his creative effort, the product of his reasoning mind, and no person nor the whole of society can stake a claim upon it. James Taggart, who calls for the producers to altruistically support the unproductive, is in fact morally bankrupt. His motivation for pursing the undefined and indefinable "public interest" is to gain power. He can't earn it so he has to grab it. Before Atlas Shrugged, most of us could not have conceived of a Hank Rearden as heroic and a James Taggart as depraved. Yet there it was.
How did Ayn Rand reach us with such impact? Her challenge to conventional thinking, and her philosophical answers, come in the form of an intricately woven literary masterpiece. She writes of people who act on their judgment, who experience joy and loss, who have to figure out the answers for themselves--just as we need to. Presented in the form of a riveting story, we can be inspired by her new ideas, see their concrete meaning, and apply them to our own lives. This is the reason the book has had a lasting impact on so many people in the past 50 years.
What's the best way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged? Read the book--or re-read it and re-connect with why it changed your life. There could be no higher tribute to Ayn Rand.
Debi Ghate is Vice-President of Academic Programs at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand--author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
For more articles by Debi Ghate, and her bio, click here.