When I was 15, I read The Fountainhead and loved it. That book has had a huge influence on my life, and I’ve read it several times since then. However, I could never get into Atlas Shrugged. No matter how many times I tried picking it up, I lost interest. Why did I care about trains and industry? Did I really need to care who John Galt was?
At a friend’s house about a month ago, we were discussing the movie version, and I realized it’s now or never. Watching the movie first always ruins books, so I had a deadline: April 15.
Over the course of five late, late nights in March, I read the tome. Once I got into it, I couldn’t put it down. I plowed through a 1,000+ page novel in less than a week. That’s a feat I haven’t accomplished since high school.
My biggest regret is waiting 10 years. Had I finished it at 19 rather than 29, I would have marveled at the philosophy of the novel, but it would have remained a fictional story about a dystopian future.
Now, I read the book and realized that much of it has become reality, as I explained on Friday.
Ayn Rand realized in 1957 that America was on a road towards socialism, long before almost anyone else. Most of us didn’t wake up to see this until after TARP was passed, which explains why the book is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. The book is currently #4 on both Amazon and iTunes. Rather impressive for a 55-year-old book with clunky dialogue.
What surprised me was how realistic this slide towards socialism was in the novel. There was no revolution, no coup and no military takeover. The America in Atlas Shrugged hurtled towards destruction by passing an endless series of government reforms and regulations aimed at “helping the little guy” and making things more fair.
Government bailouts of industries, nationalized medicine, expansion of “rights”, persecution of those who work hard and make money and the demonization of the wealthy are all themes that we echoed in sound bites on every cable station in this country.
Upon reading The Fountainhead for the first time, I remember intensely disliking the characters. While the novel was influential, I really didn’t like anyone in the novel. Atlas Shrugged was very different. I admired the characters. While rigid and ideologues, they all wanted to pursue their lines of work, succeed and be left the alone by the government. Any conservative or libertarian can identify.
While I could never be a full Objectivist because of Rand’s atheism, I believe she left out a critical difference between aid from a private nonprofit and government aid that’s very noticeable in Atlas Shrugged.
This subject could launch a series of blog posts since I’m passionate about it and have worked in philanthropy. There’s a difference between helping those around you out of compassion for their needs versus helping others through government programs funded by compulsory taxes. Rand never seemed to understand helping others out of compassion, which I find to be a failure of Objectivism.
I have no issue with private charity. In fact, I firmly believe that a number of government programs (AmeriCorps) would be wildly successful if managed by private foundations and nonprofit. However, public entitlement programs (WIC, SNAP, Section 8, etc.) are actually hurting people, and in my opinion have enslaved generations in an endless cycle of poverty or “working poor” conditions.
Poverty must be fought on a person-by-person level through unique programs created by states and communities. Massive one-size-fits-all government programs with endless layers of bureaucracy and equally endless paperwork (seriously, look into the summer lunch program at SNAP.) don’t work, and there’s evidence they make the problems worse, especially when private charities take government aid.
As we see in Atlas Shrugged, once you take away a man’s ability to stand on his own, he’s reduced to an empty shell and capable of very little. Once you destroy the intrinsic pride of working hard and accomplishing something for yourself, that person feels useless. That uselessness and hopelessness driven by entitlement programs have multiplier effects across communities. The effects of which, we’ve seen highlighted most recently in films like Waiting for Superman.
The novel made me feel guilty that my involuntary tax dollars are enabling others to waste away their lives rather than understand what is achievable through education and hard work.
This may be harsh to some of my readers, but remember that I’ve served as an AmeriCorps VISTA “fighting” poverty and spent a number of years in nonprofit programming, communications and fundraising on hunger, education an public health issues. I’ve seen what’s going on and what’s working. I can say that about 98% of what’s working has nothing to do with government programs. Want to understand poverty thoroughly? Go write a federal grant on an issue relating to it and then come back and talk to me.
Given my interest in philanthropy and nonprofit work, this angle of the book stood out. The obvious tie-ins with high gas prices, decline of personal freedom and the over-reach of government are almost too scary to think about. As Ed Morrissey noted:
It occurred to me last night that this film wouldn’t have resonated nearly as well three years ago, or ten years ago, or perhaps not any time in the 54 years since Rand published the novel. The sense of crisis in the movie would have seemed too far from the experience of most Americans; likewise, the sense of aggressive, populist redistributionism would have looked hyperbolic and contrived. If this isn’t the perfect moment for this film, then it’s as close as I’d like to see it in my lifetime.
This movie is less Hollywood escapism and more of a docudrama that could easily air on TLC. I was happy to see that it’s showing in Chattanooga at the Rave (I’m in Tennessee for the next few days), so I plan on seeing it tomorrow.
Atlas Shrugged is a book that will stay with me for a long time and should be one that I re-read every five years. If you are a conservative, you really should make the effort to read it. It’s intimidating, but readable. Unfortunately, recent events and legislation make it far more understandable than even a decade ago.
Aside from the clunky dialogue and length, my main criticism of the book was the tendency of every male character to fall in love with Dagny Taggert. While I like Dagny and can relate to her, did Rand really have to make Francisco d’Aconia, Hank Rearden and John Galt fall in love with her? It just seemed excessive. The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series also had this problem with every female character falling for Mikael Blomkvist. I get that Dagny and John Galt have some kind of soulmate component (if Rand was romantic enough to believe in soulmates), but it seemed unfair to Francisco and Rearden.