Thursday, March 22, 2012

Atlas Shrugged Review

I finished reading Atlas Shrugged last night. It took me five months, but only because for the first two I was reading several other books and not giving it my full attention. Finally, however, I came to the end (and I want to know what happened to Eddie Willers. I mean, really?), and my mother made me promise to write a review about it. So here it is.

Atlas Shrugged seems, without exception, to be one of those books that is met with only one of two reactions--on the one hand, hatred to rival that afforded Hitler, or a mindless sort of love that equals that given to Mouch's policies amongst the unthinking rabble. I'm going to be the odd woman out and strike a middle road.

While I agree with Rand in some respects (I do believe that a government that keeps itself to the defense of life, liberty, and property is the best sort of government), much of her analysis struck me as simplistic and, at times, downright unrealistic. She, along with most of the people who love her book so ardently, failed to realize that what she was dealing with were fictional characters who were living in a fictional world. Of course they behave in a certain way. They were written that way. The way most of them behave would be entirely ridiculous in the real world; to expect every member of her society to behave in exactly the same manner, no matter the world around them sounds like some sort of really bad twist in a modern YA dystopian novel.

Which, of course, leads to the fact that all the "bad guys" think exactly the same way, and so do the "good guys". Despite her vociferous rejection of the absolutist thought that gives rise to the ideas of Thompson, Mouch, and Co., John Galt, Inc. does exactly the same thing. Except, of course, under the guise of being good and righteous, because making money is the only thing that is moral in the world. In essence, one can only be a good sort of person if one is just like John Galt, and is utterly and completely brilliant. Rand, and Galt with her, are rigidly absolutists when it comes to their ideas. In essence, either you are with them, or you are against them, and no thought that does not agree with their's can be permitted--which is the essence of tyranny. It may not be the tyranny of the looters, but it is still tyranny.

In addition, Rand seems to think that, so long as you can come up with some wonder product that you can give to the world, you will be acknowledged for your amazing talent and immediately given a place among the highest of the high...despite the fact that real life doesn't work that way, and never has. Capitalism is not a meritocracy any more than socialism is.

All of that isn't even touching on the flat characters that clogged the pages of this book. The story was reasonably engaging, but I couldn't get past Dagny's meek submission to every "worthy" man that came along, and the fact that every single "thinking" person worded their "thoughts" exactly the same way. Whether on the side of the looters or the side of the mighty paragons of business virtue, they all articulated exactly the same thoughts in exactly the same way, without pause or dissension.

So, it gets three stars because it managed to hold my attention throughout most of its 1,000 pages. I could have done without the 80-page speech that was a thinly-veiled rant against religion, but we readers can't have everything.


Stephen Whitecar said...

Rand was openly hostile to religion throughout her life, so "thinly veiled" is being kind. I don't personally find this offensive, but then I'm not religious.

I generally share the lukewarm attitude toward her and her ideas and I came to a basic sense of libertarianism not from her, as it seems many (unfortunately) do, but from Mill (utilitarianism feeds into libertarianism) or Hume/Smith or Friedman or Hayek instead. It seems you have followed a similar path (Bastiat for example). Rand was mostly good for polemics and thus is unconvincing in her works. If not utterly boring at times.

I tend to take away one positive Randian concept being that social justice demands not merely that we have methods and safeguards for appropriately penalizing people for wrongdoing but that we have methods and safeguards of rewarding people for successful ventures. But. One can get this idea in lots of places without reading 80 page monologues and without rational assessments of appropriate sexual partnerships covering up what are essentially rape. (Rand expressed an atypical version of sexual freedom in her philosophy, and it tended not to work out so well for herself personally).

I think it's also a too strong defence of IP law as a basis for this world of merit she envisions(or some other non-governmental means of property right defence similar to IP law). IP law has, as you imply, rarely worked to defend innovation into a true meritocracy. Patent fights in the 19th century were often brutal (sewing machine is the most commonly cited example), and current patents are often too broad or cover things that don't need patent protection, as but a few problems with this thesis.

Captialism and open entry to markets certainly offers greater incentives to innovate and invent than socialism, but it isn't based entirely on merit that innovation necessarily occurs.

Kyla Denae said...

I didn't find the religion-hating offensive, per se. I have far too many atheist friends for non-religion to offend me in any way. It was vaguely annoying, of course, to be told that I cannot be moral because I have faith, but the woman's dead now and John Galt was naught but a figment of her imagination. So there's that.

I definitely think there is some good to pulled from her books and thoughts. But there's enough there that needs to be taken objectively that I think it would be dangerous as an introduction to liberty. I've actually seen that happen to some friends of mine, which is annoying.

Son III said...

I haven't read it, but I wanted to - perhaps not so much now, but I'll still read it.

I saw part of the film they recently made of it, and found it impossibly jammed with economic philosophy, yet it wasn't unpleasant to finally see progress being promoted (as opposed to the liberal regressive movement's agenda which seeps into every form of entertainment media).

I'll read it, but having seen a bit of the film and this review, I will be prepared that it is Rand's world, and it is not the real world.

And as for the anti-religion, I have suffered through enough the cumulative hours of atheist and agnostic comments and jabs and paradoxical questions to not let it ruin my day. No one has everything right, but that doesn't rule their opinions elsewhere invalid.

Laissez-faire for the win.

Anonymous said...

Ayn Rand explains in several essays why she oversimplified the story and the thought expressions found there in.

I did not notice the anti-religious nature of the book. I did notice an anti-Christ spirit prevalent in the book, but on the whole I found it a deeply religious text.

Kyla Denae said...

Son, it's definitely worth a read, if only for the reason that most of the libertarian community has read it and you can't understand half of what they say if you haven't. -_- At least, not where I live. All the college-age folks have read it and have inside jokes about it, so it gets a bit annoying.

Tragedy, it was religious in its own way...if your religion is, of course, the pursuit of money.

Anonymous said...

Good characterization. Very similar to a characterization of the Christian religion I heard, once: The Christian religion is the pursuit of eternal life.

I would say they are both, equally correct.