Ayn Rand – Atlas Shrugged

I first read this book in 2010. It was a gift from the senior development engineer at Build.com during a series of interviews I had there. It is the kind of book that gives you a lot more questions than answers.

There is a knife’s edge today which I feel myself balancing on. On one side, there are people like Peter Thiel who have amazing ideas about business growth and the future, alongside a casual disregard for altruism and social responsibility. On the other side are people who spend all their time and energy on helping others, with a casual disregard for the business growth that could elevate their ideas to having a real impact on the future.

In the same way, politically, there are socialists like Bernie who want to feed the hungry and educate the masses, but casually disregard fiscal responsibility. Opposite him, Ron Paul and the libertarian austerity crowd want to let the hungry starve and close the schools in order to balance budgets. Both relegate themselves from accomplishing their goals by ignoring the valid points on the other side.

In the middle, there are a few impact entrepreneurs who accomplish change and improve the world by building businesses that create change as a product or service. Tesla and Solar City are easy examples, but there are many others. These people balance their budgets while building products that have a huge impact on real problems facing the world today.

I think it takes honestly understanding both sides and thinking both ways to see the narrow  path between them.

Far From The Middle

Atlas Shrugged is a long way from that path of effectiveness through the center of the issues, and it informs a great many people today. This book is an important part of understanding the way the world is today and how one side thinks.

Rand does a great job of creating a vision of what John McCaskey calls, “an exciting moral enterprise.” She shows a world with two sides, the bums and mooches on one side and the heroic “Prime Movers” who lead industry, build products, and make things happen in the world. She calls her philosophy Objectivism, assuming the denotation of an unbiased and unarguable validity. It is worth pointing out that this philosophy is contradicted by a huge number of examples from her life, and its foundational arguments are based within a drastically simplified world.

In an early metaphor in the book, she describes a large oak tree which had been seen as a symbol of power and strength by one character. It is split by lightning and shatters. The character looks inside and sees that the tree’s heart had long since rotted away, and all that was left was its shell, “The living power had gone, and the shape it left had not been able to stand without it”

Her characters set out to convince all the Prime Movers to abandon the world and retreat to a remote and secret mountain valley where they can wait for the world to collapse, only to re-emerge and rebuild it in their image once the mooches have realized the error of their ways.

It is a very convincing story, and it really makes you want to become someone she would consider a Prime Mover, and to avoid doing anything she might think of as “Moochy.”

The problem is that the vast majority of the world is full of people who don’t fit into her molds, and people who don’t want to lead or make things. And there is nothing wrong with that.

I found myself constantly thinking back to Buckminster Fuller‘s famous quote, “We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

Probably for that one in ten-thousand person Fuller is talking about, this book is great. As a very driven and ambitious person, it is easy to get distracted and discouraged by the lack of drive, direction and ambition most people have, and this book really taps into that. In this world, those mooches and bums are cattle to be dehumanised with pejorative titles. This makes it easy to ignore them and focus on creating and fulfilling her grand vision of being what she calls a Heroic Being, a Prime Mover.

There are really great and valuable things in this book, and it is always a very inspiring read, but I worry about those who consider it a kind of religious text. There is so much wrong with it and the kind of world it would like to create.