Ayn Rand believed that people were far too stupid to run the economy democratically. She sought to convince the incompetent majority that their survival depends on a tiny group of highly gifted people. In her last novel, Atlas Shrugged, a small group of wealthy geniuses, led by an inventor of unparalleled ability named John Galt, decide to teach the world this lesson once and for all.
John Galt quits his job in a democratically run workplace vowing to "stop the motor of the world". The factory that so disgusted him was run by workers according to the slogan
"From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."
The workers were too dumb to set up reasonable rewards and penalties for work that was done well or poorly. Rand believed this required rare ability. Her imaginary workers grossly exaggerate their needs, hide their abilities and run the company into the ground. Horrified by their stupidly, and even more by their ingratitude towards men of ability, John Galt convinces a select group to withdraw their brilliance from the world and hide out in the Rockies. They establish a village – Galt’s Gulch – where they live in high tech comfort while the world around them crumbles into chaos, hunger and technical backwardness because of their absence.
Incompetent businessmen and their allies in government resort to increasingly repressive and inept measures to deal with John Galt’s "strike of the mind" as he calls it. After watching the lesser breeds suffer for a few years, John Galt takes to the airwaves (using special technology he invented) to give them a three hour long philosophical lecture. Of course, if people really were too dumb to survive without his clique then he should have boiled his speech down to his key demand – that government restrict itself to enforcing contracts and protecting property rights. Galt claimed that a government that does anything more than that is a "looters state".
Rand was dead serious about the ideas conveyed in Atlas Shrugged. In her non fiction, she often quoted from her novels to substantiate her views. Two of her main assumptions were that
1) Unregulated competitive markets would produce a meritocracy – an aristocracy of talent – in which the most intelligent and determined obtained the most decision making power.
2) This aristocracy would carry the rest of us along on their shoulders like the fabled Atlas carried the heavens – not because they wanted to, but as a fortunate result of their selfish acts. For our own good – in our "rational self interest" as she put it – we should follow this aristocracy’s orders and show them considerable gratitude.
Both assumptions are absurd. A competitive market is a voting system based on one dollar, one vote. Goods and services (and power) flow to those with the most money. It produces an aristocracy of wealth, not talent.
More importantly, even if the market did produce an aristocracy of "talent" (however defined), it would be a rotten system, for the same reason that all aristocracies and dictatorships have been. The elite invariably pass the benefits of their decisions to themselves and the painful consequences to others. The others become expendable. The weaker they are relative to the elite, the worse things get for the others because the most important questions in an economy are questions like "Whose life matters?", "Who gets to eat and who doesn’t?" – moral questions, not technical ones.
Atlas Shrugged portrays some regular folks sympathetically (those who look up in awe at Rand’s "heroes") but makes it perfectly clear that Rand considered just about everyone to be expendable. The basic premise of the story says that, but she made it clear in other ways.
For example, a major train wreck takes place as incompetence spreads like wildfire because of the "strike of the mind". Rand’s heroine in the novel – a railroad executive named Dagny Taggart – had quit her job but returns to work after the wreck. She feels it’s her duty to the one person of ability who may have died in the crash:
"The life of a man of ability who might have perished in the catastrophe, but will escape the next one, which I’ll prevent"
Poor Dagny couldn’t be completely sure that only mediocrities had died. This is the thread that keeps her from going completely over to Galt’s side until the end of the novel. They become lovers. Pathological "greatness" attracts.
Ragnar Danneskjold, one of John Galt’s strikers, doesn’t limit himself to withholding his intellect from the world. He blows up expropriated factories and robs government ships to pay back income tax to a short list of the "productive rich". He is an inverted Robin Hood who proclaims that
"…until the last trace of him [Robin Hood] is wiped out of men’s minds, we will not have a decent world….He became a justification for every mediocrity who, unable to make his own living, has demanded the power to dispose of the property of his betters…"
Rand takes care to explain that Dagnar Danneskjold’s crimes are not altruistic. They are "rational self interest" because he is preparing to rebuild society after it collapses. She doesn’t flesh out how many people his exploits kill. We are presumably supposed to imagine that his victims were mediocrities and therefore irrelevant.
Nobody was more expendable to Rand then "savages" to whom John Galt often refers derisively in his three hour sermon. Rand refused to renounce the most vicious lies about how the United Sates was founded. She told an audience of army cadets in 1974:
"I believe, with good reason, the most unsympathetic Hollywood portrayal of Indians and what they did to the white man. They had no right to a country merely because they were born here and then acted like savages. The white man did not conquer this country."
There are other myths Rand perpetuates. One of her characters in Atlas Shrugged is Nat Taggart – Dagny’s revered distant ancestor – the fabled "self made man" who "built" a railroad company some time around the end of the nineteenth century without receiving a dime of government subsidy. In reality, the early northern railroads received huge government subsidies, but, even without them, a real life Nat Taggart would have been a recipient of crucial government help. Indigenous peoples were murderously cleared out of the way for him by the government. It imposed the highest tariffs in the world to protect domestic industry (which he depended on) from more productive foreign rivals. The government also defeated the South (which opposed protectionism) on behalf of northern capitalists like Taggart.
How did a disgusting novel like Atlas Shrugged achieve enduring success as a cult classic? I’d suggest that the following reasons are the main ones.
1) Much of what Rand says is in line with the propaganda we have always been bombarded with under capitalism. Fortunately, a lot of people will now be repulsed by her mutterings about "savages". That would certainly not have been the case in 1957 when the novel was first published. However, myths about the "self made man" and about the development of United States are still aggressively sold. Much worse, the idea that the lives of others are expendable (Iraqis and Afghans for example) is constantly conveyed if not usually with Rand’s bluntness.
2) The story promoted elitism using plain language for the most part. This shows the importance of not doing the opposite – denouncing elitism using insider language. Rand wanted to sell books, but also thought that she could convince "mediocrities" to mind their place. She didn’t let herself be hobbled by the notion that politics in fiction has to be buried under symbolism or subtlety. Atlas Shrugged was explicitly partisan and political.
3) In a twisted way, she sought to inspire people, not demoralize them. "Don’t be guilt-tripped into being less than you can be" she seemed to say – and contrived situations in her novel where the advice did not always seem immoral. People are often guilt-tripped in unjustifiable ways by authority figures or by family members. The vilest propaganda often has an element of truth. Rand also gave her readers a handy excuse to fall back on if they failed to rise in the world. If you fail, it isn’t necessarily proof that you weren’t great. Maybe the government helped lesser people (like the incompetent businessmen in Atlas Shrugged) rise above you.
With an ego equal to John Galt’s, Rand declared that the only thinker to whom she owed any "philosophical debt" was Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC). I guess there was quite a long dry spell in philosophy until she came along. Aristotle disdained observation which could have easily disproved one of his theories – that women had fewer teeth than men.
Bertrand Russell wrote
"…although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths."
Similarly, although Rand lived among real people, she clung to repugnant ideas about them that simple observation, and a modest amount of empathy, should have made anyone discard.