Atlas Laughed

No McMansions in Atlas Shrugged

Ayn Rand has been enjoying an extended splash in the political and ideological limelight of late. Conservatives embrace her aversion to all but minimal government. Libertarians fawn over her unabashed championing of unrestrained capitalism. Adolescents are drawn to her ability to tap into volatile hormones through her portrayals of defiant individualism.

I was once one of those seventeen year olds, seething with unfocused rebellious impulses, eager to find a way to assert my uniqueness, when I discovered The Fountainhead and then Atlas Shrugged. I was fortunate to have as an intellectual comrade and guide a classmate who was unnaturally brilliant and wise, and is now chairman of a university philosophy department. He helped me to focus on the underlying principles, the logic, and not just the hormonal rush of imagined empowerment, the excuse to behave badly and feel entirely self-righteous about it.

Fear not. I am not here to defend Ayn Rand or as an apologist for Atlas Shrugged. But I can’t help but remark on what seem to me major anomalies in the public perception of her work.

The narrative on the right suggests that many of our business leaders and conservative/libertarian politicians see themselves as stepping from the pages of Atlas Shrugged. That is, noble, heroic, battling against the freeloaders of the world and their liberal enablers. And, incidentally, as a way of justifying gargantuan executive bonuses, de-regulation of all kinds, and generally trying to strangle the involvement of government in the lives of individuals.

But who among these public figures, who among our captains of industry, actually bear any resemblance to the protagonists of Atlas Shrugged? A great, laughable leap of imagination is required. Rand may have used the dollar sign as her symbol of value, or medium of value exchange, but none of her heroes behaved anything like today’s billionaire headline grabbers. In the book there were no boastful assertions about their wealth, their possessions. None of them seemed to be building McMansions, buying yachts or private planes or lavishing themselves with ostentatious bling. They seemed to lead somewhat austere lives, actually. Their common attribute was their devotion to their chosen path, their passion for their work, their competence. Thematically it was about integrity, not the accumulation of wealth. In fact the relative austerity of their lives had more in common with a leftist radical’s utopian vision (their hideaway community in the Colorado Rockies bore more resemblance to a Zen retreat than an enclave of the super rich).

The one apparent exception was the Latin playboy Francisco D’Anconia, but his profligate ways turned out to be merely an elaborate ruse.

A telling example came from steel magnate Henry Rearden. On the day of his signal achievement, the first pouring of his revolutionary new metal, his gift to his wife was not a new Bentley or a massive Tiffany diamond, but a simple ring made from that first batch. The symbolic gesture was transparently not about consumption or excess, but about sharing the intensely personal satisfaction of a major accomplishment. Ironically, she was unimpressed with the gesture, no doubt preferring something of vulgar excess – and she was on the wrong side of the Randian values divide.

The notion of a billionaire hedge fund manager self-identifying with Rearden or John Galt is laughable. Donald Trump likely imagines himself a Randian hero. Enough said!

I can think of one person, actually, who might have been an AS hero. Steve Jobs. We lionize him today for his vision and zeal and breeze by the things that made him difficult as a person. We willingly pay a premium for the products he brought to life from that vision, products that changed the world. How different is this from Henry Rearden’s brilliant new metal, or John Galt’s engine?

Howard Roark, the maverick architect in The Fountainhead, is worth a fresh look as well. We are introduced to him as he’s skinny-dipping the day he gets kicked out of school for his non-conforming ideas about design. He goes to the Dean’s office wearing “old denim trousers, sandals, a shirt with short sleeves and most of its buttons missing.” Howard Roark as proto-hippie? Who knew?

I have to scoff at the Randian bandwagon wannabes, but there is one indelible mark that she left on me, for which I offer no apologies, no shame. In her philosophical framework there were three cardinal values: reason, purpose and self-esteem. Reason. Purpose. Self-esteem. Not a bad mantra.

Reason, purpose, self-esteem. Where is the fault in this trifecta? This is my take-away from Ayn Rand. The rest seems superfluous. Reason. Purpose. Self-esteem. Works for me.

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