Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

– if music was emotion and emotion came from thought, then this was the scream of chaos, of the irrational, of the helpless, of man’s self abdication.

– There is no necessity for pain – why, then, is the worst pain reserved for those who will not accept its necessity?

– They kept their secret from the knowledge of others, not as a shameful guilt, but as a thing that was immaculately theirs, beyond anyone’s right of debate or appraisal. She knew the general doctrine on sex, held by people in one form or another, the doctrine that sex was an ugly weakness of man’s lower nature, to be condoned regretfully. She experienced an emotion of chastity that made her shrink, not from the desires of her body, but from any contact with the minds who held this doctrine.

– You go through life looking for beauty, for greatness, for some sublime achievement, he said. And what do you find? A lot of trick machinery for making upholstered cars and inner-spring mattresses.

– Man’s only talent is an ignoble cunning for satisfying the needs of his body, said the old bum. No intelligence is required for that. Don’t believe the stories about man’s mind, his spirit, his ideals, his sense of unlimited ambition. […] Spirit? said the old bum. There’s no spirit involved in manufacturing or sex. Yet these are man’s only concerns. Matter – that’s all men know or care about. As witness our great industries – the only accomplishment of our alleged civilisation – built by vulgar materialists with the aims, the interests and the moral sense of hogs. It doesn’t take any morality to turn out a ten-ton truck on an assembly line.

– Do you think a man should give jewelry to his mistress for any purpose but his own pleasure? He asked. This is the way I want you to wear it. Only for me. I like to look at it. It is beautiful.

I like giving things to you, he said, because you don’t need them.

No?

And it’s not that I want you to have them. I want you to have them from me.

That’s the way I do need them, Henry. From you.

Do you understand that it is nothing but vicious self-indulgence on my part? I’m not doing it for your pleasure, but for mine.

Henry! The cry was involuntary; it held amusement, despair, indignation and pity. If you’d given me those things just for my pleasure, not yours, I would have thrown them in your face.

Yes…Yes, then you would – you should.

Did you call it your vicious self-indulgence?

That’s what they call it.

Oh, yes! That’s what they call it. What do you call it, Henry?

I don’t know, he said indifferently, and went on intently. I know only that if it’s vicious, then let me be damned for it, but that’s what I want to do more than anything else on this earth.

– I do not seek the good of others as a sanction for my right to exist, nor do I recognise the good of others as a justification for their seizure of my property or their destruction of my life. I will not say that the good of others was the purpose of my work – my own good was my purpose, and I despise the man who surrenders his. I could say to you that you do not serve the public good – that nobody’s good can be achieved at the price of human sacrifices – that when you violate the rights of one man, you have violated the rights of all, and a public of rightless creatures is doomed to destruction. I could say to you that you will and can achieve nothing but universal devastation – as any looter must, when he runs out of victims. I could say it, but I won’t. It is not your particular policy that I challenge, but your moral premise. If it were true that all men could achieve their good by means of turning some men into sacrificial animals, and I were asked to immolate myself for the sake of creatures who wanted to survive at the price of my blood, if I were asked to serve the interests of society apart from, above and against my own – I would refuse, I would reject it as the most contemptible evil, I would fight it with every power I possess, I would fight the whole of mankind, if one minute were all I could last before I were murdered, I would fight in full confidence of the justice of my battle and of a living being’s right to exist. Let there be no misunderstanding about me. If it is now the belief of my fellow men, who call themselves the public, that their good requires victims, then I say: The public good be damned, I will have no part of it!

– A wish for the irrational is not to be achieved, whether the sacrificial victims are willing or not. But men will not cease to desire the impossible and will not lose their longing to destroy – so long as self-destruction and self-sacrifice are preached to them as the practical means of achieving the happiness of the recipients.

– Man has no automatic code of survival. His particular distinction from all other living species is the necessity to act in the face of alternatives by means of volitional choice. He has no automatic knowledge of what is good for him or evil, what values his life depends on, what course of action it requires. Are you prattling about an instinct of self-preservation? An instinct of self-preservation is precisely what man does not possess. An ‘instinct’ is an unerring and automatic form of knowledge. A desire is not an instinct. A desire to live does not give you the knowledge required for living. And even man’s desire to live is not automatic: your secret evil today is that that is the desire you do not hold. Your fear of death is not a love for life and will not give you the knowledge needed to keep it. Man must obtain his knowledge and choose his actions by a process of thinking, which nature will not force him to perform. Man has the power to act as his own destroyer – and that is the way he has acted through most of his history.

– Existence exists. And the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists. […] Whether you know the shape of the pebble or the structure of a solar system, the axioms remain the same: that it exists and that you know it.

– What is the nature of guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge – he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil – he became a moral being. He was sentenced to experience desire – he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy – all the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of man’s fall is designed to explain and condemn, it is not his errors that they hold as his guilt, but the essence of his nature as man. Whatever he was – that robot in the Garden of Eden, who existed without mind, without values, without labour, without love – he was not man.

– ‘Sacrifice’ does not mean the rejection of the worthless, but of the precious. ‘Sacrifice’ does not mean the rejection of evil for the sake of the good, but of the good for the the sake of evil. ‘Sacrifice’ is the surrender of that which you value in favour of that which you don’t.

If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve  the career you wanted after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbour’s child and let your own die, it is.

If you give money to help a friend, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to a worthless stranger, it is. If you give your friend a sum you can afford, it is not a sacrifice; if you give him money at the cost of your own discomfort, it is only a partial virtue, according to this sort of moral standard; if you give him money at the cost of disaster to yourself – that is the virtue of sacrifice in full.

If you renounce all personal desires and dedicate your life to those you love, you do not achieve full virtue: you still retain a value of your own, which is your love. If you devote your life to random strangers, it is an act of greater virtue. If you devote your life to serving men you hate – that is the greatest of virtues you can practice.

A sacrifice is the surrender of a value. Full sacrifice is full surrender of all values. If you wish to achieve full virtue, you must seek no gratitude in return for your sacrifice, no praise, no love, no admiration, no self-esteem, not even the pride of being virtuous; the faintest trace of any gain dilutes your virtue. If you pursue a course of action that does not taint your life by any joy, that brings you no value in matter, no value in spirit, no gain, no profit, no reward – if you achieve this state of total zero, you have achieved the ideal of moral perfection.

You are told that moral perfection is impossible to man – and, by this standard, it is. You cannot achieve it so as long as you live, but the value of your life and of your person is gauged by how closely you succeed in approaching that ideal zero which is death.

– I swear by my life and my love for it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

– “Run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil. That sentence is the leper’s bell of an approaching looter.” —Francisco d’Anconia

‘Atlas Shrugged’: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years

JANUARY 9, 2009

By STEPHEN MOORE

Some years ago when I worked at the libertarian Cato Institute, we used to label any new hire who had not yet read “Atlas Shrugged” a “virgin.” Being conversant in Ayn Rand’s classic novel about the economic carnage caused by big government run amok was practically a job requirement. If only “Atlas” were required reading for every member of Congress and political appointee in the Obama administration. I’m confident that we’d get out of the current financial mess a lot faster.

Many of us who know Rand’s work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that “Atlas Shrugged” parodied in 1957, when this 1,000-page novel was first published and became an instant hit.

Rand, who had come to America from Soviet Russia with striking insights into totalitarianism and the destructiveness of socialism, was already a celebrity. The left, naturally, hated her. But as recently as 1991, a survey by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club found that readers rated “Atlas” as the second-most influential book in their lives, behind only the Bible.

For the uninitiated, the moral of the story is simply this: Politicians invariably respond to crises — that in most cases they themselves created — by spawning new government programs, laws and regulations. These, in turn, generate more havoc and poverty, which inspires the politicians to create more programs . . . and the downward spiral repeats itself until the productive sectors of the economy collapse under the collective weight of taxes and other burdens imposed in the name of fairness, equality and do-goodism.

In the book, these relentless wealth redistributionists and their programs are disparaged as “the looters and their laws.” Every new act of government futility and stupidity carries with it a benevolent-sounding title. These include the “Anti-Greed Act” to redistribute income (sounds like Charlie Rangel’s promises soak-the-rich tax bill) and the “Equalization of Opportunity Act” to prevent people from starting more than one business (to give other people a chance). My personal favorite, the “Anti Dog-Eat-Dog Act,” aims to restrict cut-throat competition between firms and thus slow the wave of business bankruptcies. Why didn’t Hank Paulson think of that?

These acts and edicts sound farcical, yes, but no more so than the actual events in Washington, circa 2008. We already have been served up the $700 billion “Emergency Economic Stabilization Act” and the “Auto Industry Financing and Restructuring Act.” Now that Barack Obama is in town, he will soon sign into law with great urgency the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan.” This latest Hail Mary pass will increase the federal budget (which has already expanded by $1.5 trillion in eight years under George Bush) by an additional $1 trillion — in roughly his first 100 days in office.

The current economic strategy is right out of “Atlas Shrugged”: The more incompetent you are in business, the more handouts the politicians will bestow on you. That’s the justification for the $2 trillion of subsidies doled out already to keep afloat distressed insurance companies, banks, Wall Street investment houses, and auto companies — while standing next in line for their share of the booty are real-estate developers, the steel industry, chemical companies, airlines, ethanol producers, construction firms and even catfish farmers. With each successive bailout to “calm the markets,” another trillion of national wealth is subsequently lost. Yet, as “Atlas” grimly foretold, we now treat the incompetent who wreck their companies as victims, while those resourceful business owners who manage to make a profit are portrayed as recipients of illegitimate “windfalls.”

When Rand was writing in the 1950s, one of the pillars of American industrial might was the railroads. In her novel the railroad owner, Dagny Taggart, an enterprising industrialist, has a FedEx-like vision for expansion and first-rate service by rail. But she is continuously badgered, cajoled, taxed, ruled and regulated — always in the public interest — into bankruptcy. Sound far-fetched? On the day I sat down to write this ode to “Atlas,” a Wall Street Journal headline blared: “Rail Shippers Ask Congress to Regulate Freight Prices.”

In one chapter of the book, an entrepreneur invents a new miracle metal — stronger but lighter than steel. The government immediately appropriates the invention in “the public good.” The politicians demand that the metal inventor come to Washington and sign over ownership of his invention or lose everything.

The scene is eerily similar to an event late last year when six bank presidents were summoned by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to Washington, and then shuttled into a conference room and told, in effect, that they could not leave until they collectively signed a document handing over percentages of their future profits to the government. The Treasury folks insisted that this shakedown, too, was all in “the public interest.”

Ultimately, “Atlas Shrugged” is a celebration of the entrepreneur, the risk taker and the cultivator of wealth through human intellect. Critics dismissed the novel as simple-minded, and even some of Rand’s political admirers complained that she lacked compassion. Yet one pertinent warning resounds throughout the book: When profits and wealth and creativity are denigrated in society, they start to disappear — leaving everyone the poorer.

One memorable moment in “Atlas” occurs near the very end, when the economy has been rendered comatose by all the great economic minds in Washington. Finally, and out of desperation, the politicians come to the heroic businessman John Galt (who has resisted their assault on capitalism) and beg him to help them get the economy back on track. The discussion sounds much like what would happen today:

Galt: “You want me to be Economic Dictator?”

Mr. Thompson: “Yes!”

“And you’ll obey any order I give?”

“Implicitly!”

“Then start by abolishing all income taxes.”

“Oh no!” screamed Mr. Thompson, leaping to his feet. “We couldn’t do that . . . How would we pay government employees?”

“Fire your government employees.”

“Oh, no!”

Abolishing the income tax. Now that really would be a genuine economic stimulus. But Mr. Obama and the Democrats in Washington want to do the opposite: to raise the income tax “for purposes of fairness” as Barack Obama puts it.

David Kelley, the president of the Atlas Society, which is dedicated to promoting Rand’s ideas, explains that “the older the book gets, the more timely its message.” He tells me that there are plans to make “Atlas Shrugged” into a major motion picture — it is the only classic novel of recent decades that was never made into a movie. “We don’t need to make a movie out of the book,” Mr. Kelley jokes. “We are living it right now.”

Mr. Moore is senior economics writer for The Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page W11

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