I originally wrote this back in 2010, but I read it again today and it still holds up:
So, I recently read Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" for the first time, and was... well... impressed by the scope of the novel, however disappointed by the actual writing - especially compared to her previous novel, "The Fountainhead", which I loved. A friend asked why I liked one, but not the other, and here was my reply:
"The Fountainhead" deals primarily with art and imagination and creativity, and not letting any other human dictate what one should or should not create. So much so, that Howard Roark (the novel's protagonist) will not be moved by public opinion OR by financial concerns. He would rather go bankrupt and be blasted publically by every newspaper from here to kingdom come, than to sacrifice his vision. To that end, I found it fascinating. Yes, the protagonist is an architect, not a playwright, but I still connected with him on an artistic level.
In "Atlas Shrugged" however, we focus on businessmen. These businessmen have the same intensity of focus as Howard Roark in "The Fountainhead", which I admired, AND their approach to business is very similar to Roark's approach to his architecture. They plan to earn money REGARDLESS of public opinion, and even in the face of pending bankruptcy, they will still do everything they can to produce, create, and hopefully make their millions in the process. In many ways, I admired "Atlas Shrugged" and what it set out to do.
However, "Atlas" is WAY too judgmental of other viewpoints. In a key scene, the main protagonist calls social workers the most evil people in America, because all they want to do is take money away from the rich and give it to the poor. I happen to like social workers. I have several family members who are social workers. They are about as diametrically opposed to evil as I am from a turtle. The most likable character in the novel makes a broad comparison of Robin Hood to the devil, and over and over again, Rand calls people with a social conscience "Evil" or "a looter", as if a person's desire to help others is a sin. Yes, I understand WHY she wrote this novel, and what worldy concerns were happening (Stalin was in power, Cuba was overthrown, the Red Scare was in full effect, and McCarthy was at the height of his popularity). However, the judgments hurled at some of my own philosophies were not well met by me as a reader. In fact, I felt many of her arguments were not even well formed. Had she been in the room as I read it, I'd have challenged her on many tenets of her argument.
On the flip-side, the protagonist in "The Fountainhead" makes one thing very clear - he doesn't give a DAMN what others think of him or his work. Roark does not judge people - not even Peter Keating, who is stealing his ideas and marketing them as his own. He just does what he does, and allows others to judge themselves. He is a mirror by which others can see their own faults and reflections. Yes, the character of Ellsworth Toohey is a Socialist, and clearly the villain of the piece, but in the greatest line of the novel, Toohey asks "Why don't you tell me what you think of me, Mr. Roark?" Roark replies, "But I don't think of you." It sums up everything.
Had Rand been more subtle in "Atlas Shrugged", I might have been on board. But "Atlas" is SOOOOOOOOO judgmental, with the words "Evil" and "A socialist" tossed around so much that it resembled a McCain/Palin rally, and EVERY SINGLE ONE of her protagonists is so amazingly brilliant and of the same mind, I felt bored. Yes, there are some (possibly many) great businessmen out there who make a sizable profit doing the right thing. But as we've seen recently with Enron, Halliburton, BP, and many other examples, there are LOADS of businessmen who are JUST AS BAD as the corrupt politicians who are villainized in "Atlas Shrugged." Rand proposes (like a Tea Partier) that government should stay out of big business. That's all well and good, and I might be able to support it - Except in her example, all businessmen would naturally work within the United States, keep jobs for our citizens, promote the best employees, fire the worst, regulate themselves in order to maintain a better profit, and so on. Yet that doesn't happen! Businesses are constantly outsourcing, letting people go regardless of their talent, as long as they can save a buck somewhere else. Rand IGNORES the handicapped entirely, shits all over anyone who cares about their family more than work, and she favors social selection over any other societal model. Which again, is an ok philosophy worth debating, but in this novel, she makes NO ROOM for disagreement or doubt. Her protags are all perfect beings - ALL of them. And I get her point - we should encourage the best workers and discourage the worst. Fine, I'm all for it. But deregulating completely? Going back to "the perfect world" of laissez-faire capitalism? I'm sorry, I don't think it works. There is JUST as much temptation for a businessman to be corrupt as a politician.
Some other complaints:
1) She blames the fall of capitalism on Robin Hood - the idea of stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Yet, Robin Hood didn't steal from the hard-working rich, who earned their money honestly! He stole from LAZY rich, especially from the lousy politicians who over-charged taxes on their citizens, without offering comparable benefits in return. Robin Hood would have NEVER stolen from King Richard, the king everyone admired - he only stole from Prince John, who is the same type of douchebag as James Taggart in the novel. Prince John and James Taggart were both handed everything, put forth zero effort, yet felt the world owed them everything. So Robin Hood said "Screw you, I'm taking all your unearned tax money back." Based on this novel alone, I would have thought Rand would LOVE Robin Hood. In fact, she even has a likable character named Ragnar Danneskjold who is a modern-day pirate, who does what? Oh right, he steals from the corrupt politicans who overtaxed the businessmen, and gives the money back to the rightful owners. Ragnar Danneskjold IS Robin Hood. This was a poorly conceived metaphor on her part. Robin Hood is actually about as Ayn Randian as you can get...
2) Two of her main protagonists were born rich and handed everything. Francisco and Dagny were both heirs to MAJOR sources of wealth and property. Yes, so is James - one of the antagonists. But maintaining one's wealth, and rising up from nothing to earn it are two different things entirely. If you want to argue about the merits of capitalism, to a country that is divided economically, these two characters are NOT the best examples. They work as foils, but they're not going to "speak" to someone who is raising three kids, working two jobs, and struggling to pay the bills. Reardon did work hard to get where he is, but he certainly didn't come from poverty. He rose up from the middle class. Unfortunately, because of this, "Atlas Shrugged" smacks of an "I-have-everything-and-I-want-to-keep-it" smugness. In "The Fountainhead", you at least have Gail Wynand, who rose up from the slums of New York to become wealthy, which is more impressive, and you also have Roark, who doesn't CARE about money. Possibly John Galt's background is comparable to Wynand's, though he's only in the novel a relatively short time, and really, he's more comparable to Roark. Money is important to Galt, but more as a philosophy - making money IS Galt's artwork.
3) As a novel, Rand fails in "Atlas Shrugged" by creating TOO MANY perfect protagonists! There are not enough flaws (tragic or otherwise) in any of her protagonists, and there are SO MANY flaws in all of her antagonists. It's hard to swallow, at least on a dramatic level. I suppose the metaphor works for what she's trying to say, but as a novel, it sucks. In "The Fountainhead" you have ONE perfect person, and even the people who want to be like him fall short. I can buy that. I just can't buy that every single person who cares about money actually follows the same moral code as every other person who cares about money. I just don't buy it. They all use the same language: "The looters", "evil", "I will never put anyone else's interests above my own." etc. It's not that I don't get where she's coming from -- it's that for someone SO concerned with individuality, it seems weird and contradictory that these staunch individualists would each share the same philosophy - right down to the EXACT SAME WORDS every time they speak!
4) Dagny sleeps with three dudes in the novel - each one more impressive than the last, and EACH TIME, the previous dude is like "Wow, I'm so glad you're sleeping with that dude - because he's so much better than me." BULLSHIT! That is such bullshit. I don't care how "perfect" you are! What MAN, let alone a staunch individualist such as Francisco D'Anconia and Henry Reardon, is going to back down on his sexual conquest in order to promote the greater good of his philosophy? WTF?!? Again, I get where her philosophy is coming from, but it's BULLSHIT, and goes completely against human nature and biology.
5) And with all of those staunch individualists in that one community, are you really going to tell me that no wars are started? No arguments? No one has a bad day or gets sick, or wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and says something dumb to someone else? No one decides they want to make more money than the next guy, or tries to rob someone, hoping that no one will notice? And what about children? How will this society sustain itself without children? And if they have children, then what happens when those children become teenagers or decide they don't like the philosophy espoused by the rest of the community? I don't buy it. I DON'T BUY IT. The people in that community are described as having the biggest egos in the world. How are they even living near each other? Let alone not ripping each other's throats out? Again, it's a nice philosophy, but it's BULLSHIT. Human nature does NOT WORK THAT WAY.
6) And what happens when one of these amazing people has a child who is handicapped, and unable to give back to the society? Who takes of the child? Obviously not a social worker, since they're all evil. And probably not the parent, since they're so busy making money and being amazing for the good of all society. So do the parents simply abort the child who is incapable of providing any benefit to the society? This is never even touched on, and yet it is the biggest flaw in her entire argument.
Perhaps I'm cynical, and I really TRIED to see it Ayn Rand's way, but I don't. I think her "community" would dissolve in a month if it ever came to be. It would fall apart EXACTLY the same way communism would. One person would eventually get tired of being equal, and would try to tip the scales in his or her favor, which would piss off the other people, and a war would start. One person would eventually get sick, and out of fear of dying, might do something dumb - or the people that love them might do something dumb, or they might have a stroke and go crazy and break the rules. I don't know! But she completely fails to account for human nature. Not all people are smart, not all people are capable, and not all people are of sound body and mind. In her "ideal world," those people would just die, I guess. I simply can't accept that... There are far too many flaws in this novel for it work on its own merits.