Atlas Shrugged Part 1: Ayn Rand’s Polemic Against the Looter Society

Why is it moral to serve others, but not yourself? If enjoyment is a value, why is it moral when experienced by others, but not by you? Why is it immoral to produce something of value and keep it for yourself, when it is moral for others who haven’t earned it to accept it? If it’s virtuous to give, isn’t it then selfish to take?

John Galt, Atlas Shrugged

It’s April 15th which traditionally is the deadline for filing your federal income taxes (this year the deadline is April 18th, however). It’s no accident that the long-awaited release of the movie rendition of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s 1957 philosophical masterpiece on individual freedom, is released on this black day of government theft!  Actually, John Aglialoro, the independent producer of the film, wanted the movie released on February 2nd, Ayn Rand’s birthday, but the film wasn’t ready so April 15th was the next best thing.

Atlas Shrugged is a Showpiece for Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Philosophy

Rand was born Alissa Rosenbaum in 1905 pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, Russia, the daughter of a pharmacist. She experienced the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and graduated from Petrograd State University in the USSR before immigrating to America in 1926 at the age of 21. It’s reasonable to assume that her devotion to laissez-fair economics and libertarianism were a direct reaction to her disgust at the tyranny practiced by Russia’s communist dictatorship in the name of “helping” the working class. Atlas Shrugged was Rand’s fourth and last novel, and expressed the culmination of her philosophy known as objectivism. Actually, she had wanted to call her philosophy existentialism, but that was already taken. The details of the philosophy are beyond the scope of this article, but Rand summed it up as:

the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

She was against all forms of religion, mysticism, faith, emotion, or ideology not based on empirical evidence and fact. Factual observation and reason are the two abilities that all human beings share and are, therefore, the only true democratic bases for human relations. Throughout history, despots have utilized unjustified ideologies based on phony and coercive altruistic concepts to control and enslave people.

For a person to agree to “do this” simply because it is written somewhere or because some alleged deity believes it to be “moral” is — without independent rationale analysis – a surefire road to slavery. Each person should only do things that make themselves happy based on their own observations and which do not interfere with the rights of other people to do the same. Her philosophy is clearly based on “social contract” theory, which was developed by the 17th century British empiricists Francis Bacon and John Locke.

Rand is not against charity and altruism provided it is performed voluntarily; she is only against coercive altruism, which is usually just a pretext for corruption and social control. As her alter ego John Galt stated in Atlas Shrugged:

Is it ever proper to help another man? No, if he demands it as his right or as a duty that you owe him. Yes, if it’s your own free choice based on your judgment of the value of that person and his struggle.

In other words, there is nothing inconsistent between selfishness and altruism if helping others makes one happy.

While Rand believes people should have the freedom to live their lives as they see fit, she definitely has a personal preference as to how people should decide to conduct themselves. In Rand’s world, the best lives are based on continual learning, innovation, and productivity. Creativity is the highest form of human endeavor and should be honored, not exploited. It is only through creative productivity that the world will advance and become a better place. As protagonist and architect Howard Roark stated in her 1943 novel The Fountainhead:

Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution—or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary.

To hear the objectivist philosophy straight from Ayn Rand’s mouth, I recommend the following YouTube videos of an interview she did with a young Mike Wallace in 1959, part 1 and part 2. Her discussions of what constitutes love and the government’s primary role in creating the abusive industrial robber barons of the 19th century are fascinating.

Atlas Shrugged Part 1: The Movie

Enough about philosophy, let’s talk about the movie itself! It’s hard to believe that it took 54 years to bring Atlas Shrugged to the silver screen given the book’s tremendous popularity and influence. According to a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress, Atlas Shrugged was voted second only to the Bible as the most influential book of all time. In 1998, Modern Library conducted a three-month online poll of more than 200,000 readers who voted Atlas Shrugged the best novel of the 20th century.

In August 1992, soon after the Library of Congress survey, John Aglialoro purchased the movie rights to the book from the Ayn Rand Institute for $1 million. Aglialoro is a serial entrepreneur and semi-professional poker player who currently is CEO of CYBEX International, a maker of exercise equipment. In 2007, he was ranked the 10th richest small business executive in the country by Fortune Magazine. He is a disciple of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy and is a trustee of the Washington D.C.-based Atlas Society.

Long story short, no movie studio would agree to produce the movie because of Aglialoro’s insistence that the script stay 100% pure to Rand’s objectivist philosophy. There was also concern that the subject matter was too arcane and wouldn’t be popular enough to generate a money-making movie. With his rights to the movie set to expire on June 15, 2010, Aglialoro decided to produce the movie himself and started filming on June 13, 2010. He used no-name actors and operated on a bare-bones production budget of $10 million.

Despite these obstacles, I am pleased to say that I found the movie not only enjoyable, but loyal to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of individual freedom. The acting was excellent, the story compelling, and the panoramic shots of trains hurtling through the American West (especially Colorado) were breathtakingly beautiful. There’s also a fireball explosion at the end of the movie that is impressively staged and acts as a surprising twist in the plot that sets up the cliffhanger needed for the sequel.

Summary of Atlas Shrugged Part 1

The novel is so large that the movie is just the first part of a planned three-part trilogy.  Consequently, many important characters are not fully fleshed out nor is the full scope of John Galt’s plan explained. In a way, these omissions build suspense and mystery that will keep viewers hanging on the edge of their seats for the coming sequels.

The movie begins on September 2, 2016 in the not-too-distant future. Europe and South America have adopted Marxist forms of socialized government and all the countries are now called “People’s States.” The U.S. isn’t much better off, with government regulation crippling productive businesses and stifling innovation. The result is a devastating global depression that has caused massive unemployment, the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling below 4,000, and gasoline prices spiking above $35 a gallon. High energy prices have caused the airline and trucking industries to fail, leaving railroads as the only cost-effective mode of transportation left. A train is seen hurtling across the countryside only to derail and crash because of poorly constructed railroad tracks.

The main characters in the film are as follows:

James Taggart – CEO of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad and a lazy incompetent jerk who has no pride of ownership and would rather do business by sabotaging competitors, graft and political lobbying than innovation and quality control.

Dagny Taggart – Sister of James and Vice President of the railroad company. She is the antithesis of her brother and one of the novel’s heroes. She seeks out Hank Reardon, who has developed a revolutionary form of metal that is stronger and more durable than steel, in the hopes that “Reardon Metal” can be used to rebuild the railroad’s track system and restore the company’s reputation for reliable transportation. 

The role of Dagny is played by Taylor Schilling who was previously best known for her TV role as a nurse on NBC’s now-canceled medical drama Mercy. Schilling is stunningly beautiful and I couldn’t take my eyes off her the entire film.

Hank Reardon – Genius inventor of “Reardon Metal.” He is the type of hard-working and creative producer that Ayn Rand most admires. Unfortunately, he is surrounded by a mother, wife, and younger brother who have no understanding of either innovation or hard work and who simply want to get their hands on Hank’s money for their liberal and self-congratulatory wealth-transferring charities. Don’t feel too bad for Hank, however. He gets it on with Dagny later in the film (lucky guy).

Wesley Mouch – Government lobbyist-turned-bureaucrat with no talent of his own whose sole purpose in life is to gain political power and use it to confiscate as much money as possible from the productive members of society. Promotes laws such as the “Fair Pay Act,” which makes it impossible to fire an employee if a company is making any money, the “Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule,” which prevents railroads from competing too strongly against other railroads, and the “Equalization of Opportunity Act,” which prevents companies from owning more than one line of business.

Mouch’s character is a thinly disguised metaphor for the moochers of society who simply loot the wealth of others and produce nothing themselves. Hence, the term “looter society.”

Dr. Floyd Ferris – Government biologist in charge of the State Science Institute whose main job is to either confiscate innovative technology from private investors for the benefit of the government or shut it down entirely. He tries to blackmail Hank Reardon into giving up control of Reardon Metal. Later in the book, Ferris builds a torture machine to convince inventors to cooperate if they can’t be persuaded in a more civil fashion.

Hugh Akston – Philosophy professor at Patrick Henry University who is the role model and mentor for the book’s three soldiers of individual freedom: (1) John Galt, (2) Latino playboy and former Dagny lover Francisco d’Anconia, and (3) Ragnar “the Pirate” Danneskjöld who is a reverse Robin Hood that “steals” (i.e., repossesses) gold from the government tax moochers.

Dagny Taggart finds Mr. Akston working as a cook in a roadside diner. Why is such a prominent thinker working in a diner? Hmmm…

John Galt – Inventor of a revolutionary automobile motor that operates on a virtually limitless natural resource: static electricity in the atmosphere. Quits his job at Twentieth Century Motor Company after government regulation forces the company into bankruptcy, destroys the motor, and goes undercover. The director of the movie plays John Galt in the movie and stays in the shadows, so we never see his face, but we see Galt approach business leaders who subsequently disappear . . . . Why they disappear remains a mystery that will be revealed in the Part 2 and Part 3 sequels.

I won’t give it away other than to explain that the title of the book refers to a Greek mythological titan named Atlas who battled the Greek Olympian gods and lost. His punishment was to hold up the earth and heavens on his shoulders forever. Ayn Rand saw the world’s business producers as similar to Atlas in that their hard work is what makes the world prosperous. Rand’s book speculates what would happen if Atlas (i.e., the producers) decided not to hold up the world anymore by shrugging his (their) shoulders?

Who is John Galt?

You may think I have already answered this question up above, but the question is its own reality apart from the character. It is a catchphrase uttered by various characters throughout the film: “Who is John Galt?” In each case, the utterer is a depressed, defeated individual who has apparently given up. In contrast, when Dagny is asked that question by a reporter at the christening of the new “John Galt Railroad Line,” Dagny answers: “We are all John Galt!”

John Galt is the embodiment of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy of reason and productivity. Adopting this philosophy will liberate any person, promote their self-esteem, and allow them to develop to their full potential as human beings. To ask “who is John Galt?” is to admit one’s continued ignorance and enslavement. We will only achieve success as a society when this question is no longer asked.

Atlas Shrugged and Obamacare

There’s simply no denying that this movie came out at a time when many people — particularly in the Tea Party movement — see the Obama Administration as out of control in terms of deficit spending, industry interference, and tax increases. Stephen Moore, a top-notch conservative thinker at the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, has written an article demonstrating how the parasitic government described in Atlas Shrugged has become reality in the Obama Administration. Obama’s recent speech where he rejected and demonized Congressman Paul Ryan’s reasonable attempt to cut government spending is a sure sign that higher taxes are coming soon. Wesley Mouch and the looter society are alive and well in America.

The question that Americans need to ask is not “who is John Galt” but “where is John Galt?” We need him very badly right about now.

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