Atlas Shrugged

I recently read the novel “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. Although I had always wanted to read it, it’s over 1000 pages long. As a result, it was daunting to start.

However, now that I’ve read it, I’m very glad I did.

The key theme of the novel is summed by the following two quotes, the first which is repeated at multiple points in the book, and the second which is the concluding sentence of the book:

“I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

“He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.”

Taken together, these two quotes show Ayn Rand’s advocacy for each individual’s pursuit of self-interest in a capitalistic society as the philosophy which produces the best outcome for society.

I too believe in the pursuit of self-interest and capitalism as two core drivers of human progress. However, they alone aren’t enough. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that one way to pursue your self-interest is by directly harming others, as shown by numerous examples in the novel. What I’m referring to here is actions which cause direct harm to another human, like physical harm and stealing, rather than those which present a lost opportunity for another human, like winning a game structured to have a single winner. The former actions need to be regulated and penalized.

The second reason is that the pursuit of self-interest in the real world isn’t sufficient to produce the direct causal relationship between actions and outcomes which is what’s theoretically depicted in the novel. In the real world, starting conditions and luck are important determinants of outcomes, and these are both outside of our control. As a result, the outcomes of a purely self-interested world need to be complemented by efficient methods of redistribution (at both a societal level, and the level of individual responsibility) in order for those that would otherwise be left behind due to reasons outside of their control to also be able to survive and lead good lives.

Originally published at Thoughts of a VC.