I’m probably going to regret this post, but here goes.
At 21 I knew nothing…and I loved Ayn Rand
It’s funny how reading ATLAS SHRUGGED in my 40′s is so very different from reading it at 20-something and 30-something. Okay, so back in the day, I finished college at age 21, had student loans to pay off, and was working as a cashier at Shop n Save. I drove a beat-up old car, was trying to find a teaching job, and was eating boxed macaroni and cheese that cost 33 cents a box at least a few times a week. While ringing out groceries, I’d notice people coming through my line buying steaks and even lobsters–using food stamps. This was a small town. These were regular customers. The foods were not just “special occasion” groceries. What I saw each and every day was people on welfare, paid for out of my meager check in payroll taxes, eating better than I was…and incidentally not being very nice to the efficient cashier ringing up their grocery order. It was around that time I first read ATLAS SHRUGGED. It made sense to me from where I was standing–namely, eight hours a day behind that revolving black grocery belt for just above minimum wage so I could pay my bills and eat processed food-like substances.
A Progressive Spurt in my 30′s
Things got better for me. I never did get a teaching job, but I worked hard and moved up to the corporate office of Hannford Bros. Co. (Shop n Save’s parent company). I married my college sweetheart and we pooled our resources. Then I became a mom, and suddenly everything looked different to me. I switched political parties. I read Jim Hightower. I stopped listening to Rush Limbaugh and I looked at our Republican politics–headed by a president I thought was a complete and utter idiot–and saw crony capitalism in all its glaring inconsistency and wrongness.
Going through this “progressive spurt” in my 30′s, I believed Rand was evil incarnate, an unfeeling and uncaring person who thought rich corporations and their executives should rule the world at the expense of their hard-working employees. At the time, executive salaries and bonuses were skyrocketing while hourly wages were stagnating. NICKEL AND DIMED came out. Corporations moved production overseas, American industry was dying, and many people were finding themselves out of work and out of luck.
Where, I asked, were Rand’s heroic businessmen who produce wonderful products AND pay a decent wage to their workers? Can a Walmart employee make enough of a living to pay for food, clothing, shelter, and health care? No! Why do the executives of corporations pay themselves so much more than their workers? Are those executives really working that much harder? Is this fair? No. How, exactly, do we differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys in the world of business today? Are there any businessmen like the heroes of ATLAS SHRUGGED? Who decides if the executives are overcompensated? Don’t the executives all sit on each others’ boards and vote in large compensatory packages? What about prices continuing to go up while wages stagnate? Are corporations doing that on purpose, for the sake of immediate profits regardless of the long-term risks? Shouldn’t the government DO something about it? And what about the poor people? More well-to-do people, unless forced, would not give enough to fix the problems of education, healthcare, food security, and housing, so the government has to step in so everyone gives their fair share to solve societal problems, right?
“Grow up!” my 30-year-old self said to my 20-year-old self. “This is the real world, not the ideal world. Ayn Rand was naive–and mean, to boot. The rich should pay.”
Then we had an economic crisis. Huge corporations were bailed out by the taxpayers while executives walked away with bonuses. Now, even though we are supposedly “in recovery,” it doesn’t really feel that way to most people.
You’d think my progressive streak would be widening. Instead, I continue to read and observe, and what I observe is that neither conservative nor progressive politics actually work–for me personally or for the country. We are in trouble. Neither side seems to have a good solution, and they certainly can’t find a way to work together. The only answer I’ve been able to come up with is a simple one. Go local. Local where you know the owners of the businesses. Local where you know who really deserves a helping hand and who doesn’t. Local where you can be part of a community, voluntarily, and work together to improve your lives.
And that is basically a Libertarian kind of thing.
The Productive vs. the Unproductive
At mid-life and still dissatisfied with swallowing any philosophy or political platform whole, I decided to re-read ATLAS SHRUGGED. In doing so, I rediscovered that Rand’s central conflict is actually between the productive workers (rich or poor; owners or employees) and the unproductive looters and moochers (rich or poor; owners or employees).
In Rand’s world, you can be successful and moral no matter what job you hold as long as you do it well and don’t ask to get something for nothing. Is this evil? I have a hard time thinking so.
In ATLAS SHRUGGED, Rand isn’t advocating that the rich prosper at the expense of the poor. In fact, Rand wants no person to prosper at the expense of another person. Especially the rich. Rand’s uber-hero, John Galt, lives by the following creed:
“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for me.”
John Galt was not rich. He was an inventor. He was smart. Yet, he wasn’t a rich executive. He never had the chance. He was an employee of a motor company until he became fed up and decided to start a “strike of the mind.”
One way ATLAS applies today
In Atlas Shrugged the biggest villains are the rich and powerful company executives who link up with government officials to use the “pull” to gain advantages, contracts, money, and power.
Think about the government people today who sit on the board of companies like Montsanto, blurring the lines between government and industry. They are the villains of Atlas Shrugged. Think of the companies that hire lobbyists to influence lawmakers to create legislation that benefits those companies rather creating an even playing field. Those are the villains of Atlas Shrugged.
In Rand’s world-view, the lazy person mooching off his relatives and never bothering to stir the pot of stew and the corporate executive who used his political influence to get more than he earned in “special interest money” are equally guilty regardless of income. The hard-working, honest laborer and the industrialist who creates–from the power of his mind–an important new product are equally revered by Rand. It is about integrity. Money, she says, should be the reward for hard work.
But in the dystopian society she created for ATLAS SHRUGGED, money is no longer a symbol of one person’s work being traded for another person’s work. It is a means unto itself, gained by power and pull, at the expense of others who allow it, or who can no longer fight it. It is stolen–by taxes, by so-called fairness laws, by out and out bribery and back-door deals.
Again, it is not a story of rich versus poor. Rand does not advocate a society where benevolence is absent. Instead, she says that benevolence should not be forced on a person by threat of jail. It should be freely given, not demanded by law. Ideally, I couldn’t agree more. To envision a world where anyone, from any background, can work hard and expect to be paid accordingly, can use their mind and learn, and can work their way to career positions according to their level of ability, is inspiring.
When thinking about the society I want to live in, my ideal is that everyone would have a minimum standard of living that includes shelter, food, education, and health care. I actually think Rand wanted that too. I think most everyone wants that. The only question is: what’s the best way to achieve that? We’ve tried crony capitalism. We’ve tried socialism. They haven’t really worked. Rand gives us an alternative to think about, at the very least.
Not a great piece of literary writing
Okay, so the actual writing isn’t all that great,the characters are cardboard, and if I have to read about one more male’s “taut cheek planes” or “gaunt strength” I may just throw up a little. Rand’s ideas, however, they make me think. I like that. Adds a little zest to the day.
If you haven’t read ATLAS SHRUGGED in ten or more years and you are at least 40, I challenge you to try it again with an open mind. I recognize that Rand had absolutely no concept of sustainability or an acknowledgement of reality regarding natural resources (come on, Rand Fans, she came up with a motor that created energy, literally, out of thin air! Talk about magical thinking!) And, yes, she dismissed certain ideas of spirituality which may or may not have some validity at some physical energetic level that we haven’t yet figured out how to objectively measure. However, her ideas about rewarding those who work hard, think harder, and create and innovate are surprisingly inspiring, even in 2013…
Here is Ayn Rand. I know. I know. You may have the idea that she was a hard-hearted, cruel bitch. And I suppose I must be as well if I am defending her magnum opus. Fair enough. You have lots of good company.
Read the book again, anyway. I dare you.