n the surface, this is the story of an industrialist who struggles to hold together a railroad as the world around her sinks deeper and deeper into poverty and decay. In this hypothetical America, property rights and individual freedom have been crushed by a sort of socialist political correctness: the idea that becoming wealthy is wrong, and the idea that society should take from the rich and give to the poor, solely because the poor have some claim upon the public conscience, have become the law.
Although that may sound egalitarian, Ayn Rand shows that, in fact, it is nothing less than totalitarianism, and its inevitable outcome is corruption on a national scale, followed by economic collapse. It is a lesson many thought had been learned when we watched the disintegration of Communism. Today, it seems, that lesson is being re-learned.
The premise of this book is well-known: the most productive and inventive mysteriously disappear, reminiscent of what Christians call the Rapture, leaving society to discover for itself what life would be without them. In their absence, industrial society collapses even faster, while the dropouts create a free-market capitalist utopia in the mountains.
Ayn Rand's philosophy is laid out in a sixty-page-long speech (pp. 1009-1069) by John Galt, the leader of the dropouts. The fact that the characters have such superhuman powers of concentration that they can stay awake for an incredibly tedious six-hour speech on political philosophy is undoubtedly the reason Amazon classifies this book as science fiction. In the rest of the book, the writing is engaging, but the characters are monochromatic and predictable: either completely virtuous or completely corrupt. But the story is not about the characters. As people used to say in the '90s, it's the economy, and the philosophy, stupid. (Okay, they didn't really say this, but they probably should have.)
The philosophy, known as objectivism, is that the world is as real as it appears to be, and each individual is responsible only for his or her own actions and well-being. No one else has any automatic moral claim on your behavior. To think for oneself, face reality courageously, and accept responsibility for one's life are the highest ethical values. The pit of moral bankruptcy, according to objectivism, is for a society to punish people for their virtues and reward them for their vices.
This political philosophy was no doubt informed by Rand's early exposure to the moral, intellectual, and economic desert that was the Soviet Union under socialism. Like the America in Atlas Shrugged, socialist societies reward failure, deprive humans of their independence, pay people who are not productive, and punish people for earning profits. Ayn Rand shows how this leads to bankruptcy and social collapse. Many today believe that America's pork-based economy could suffer a similar fate, and this book has soared in popularity since America lurched toward socialism in 2008.
The following quotes from various characters in this book illustrate Rand's point of view:
"When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion, when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing ... you may know that your society is doomed."
"The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws ... But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted--and you create a nation of law-breakers--and then you cash in on guilt"
The only alternative to free exchange and free markets, says Rand, is coercion and violence:
"So long as men live together on earth and need means to deal with one another-- their only substitute, if they abandon money, is the muzzle of a gun."
In Atlas Shrugged we also see Ayn Rand's ideal men and women--intelligent, wealthy, and strong-willed--and their rejection of their role under socialism as cows to be milked for the benefit of those who are ruled by greed and envy, who are content to spend their days as parasites, leeching off the accomplishments of the productive, unwilling or unable to realize that things could be better.
Of course, in real life, great innovators are not irreplaceable. A society might continue for many years, even centuries perhaps, without innovation, becoming stagnant and making no scientific progress, until external forces destroy it, or until something changes in the world, leaving it unable to adapt. At that point the country would be locked into permanent third-world poverty. Also, in the real world, the innovators would not disappear, but one by one their burning flame of creativity would die. The effect would be the same: businesses going unstarted, books left unwritten, and diseases left uncured. Some readers may think this is just a libertarian fantasy, but it's a real phenomenon. I have observed it a few times myself: unless given freedom to create, innovators will just tell society to screw itself. Society at large, of course, never knows (or cares) about the lost inventions and discoveries. It just knows that things, for some mysterious reason, keep getting worse.
While Ayn Rand has a reputation for taking a single point and pounding it into the ground, the point in Atlas Shrugged is a vitally important one. Even though this book was published in 1957, the anti-capitalistic slogans and the attitudes of the press and the people are the same as those we hear today. That makes Atlas Shrugged essential reading for any thinking American.