Book review : Atlas Shrugged

May 25, 2022

This post will not attempt to avoid spoilers, and will be much more comprehensible if you’ve read the book or are familiar with its basics, but I also hope it’ll be somewhat understandable if you haven’t read the book at all; to aid with that I’ll put summaries after all the names.

I first read Atlas Shrugged as a teenager, I think for an essay contest. I was already a libertarian from reading Free to Choose, and found Rand’s moralism offputting and her characters strange. I was a ’technical’ libertarian,[1] in that I was convinced that decentralization led to better decision-making and better results, and didn’t see how the moral libertarians made a better case than the moral statists. And even when it came to morality, the people I saw at church were putting in significant effort to try to be better, and yet Rand’s heroes didn’t seem to have any sort of moral development; the good people were good, and the bad people were bad, and there wasn’t any engagement with the question of how to become good. I think that was the main content of my essay, and unsurprisingly it didn’t win anything.

But a friend recently mentioned that they had read it and were surprised about how much it was about rationality; I remembered some bits and said “yeah, that checks out,” but when I reread it recently was surprised at just how much there was, and how topical much of it was to current events and decisions I’m facing.

A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight. ― Robertson Davies

For this post I expect to slip between “how I saw Atlas Shrugged as a youth” and “how I see it now”, with the first mostly to explain by contrast.

Creators revisited In youth, I thought Galt’s Gulch (a hideout in the Rockies accessible only to the creators on strike) was ridiculous. You have people whose primary skills are being executives, and they become manual laborers, and they’re better off? Why think a mining executive would be any good at digging copper himself, or an aircraft executive would be good at raising hogs?

I think I was confused instead of enlightened by having the category of “executive.” James Taggart (the ‘villain’ railroad executive) would be denied entry to Galt’s Gulch, and starve if he ended up there. The primary characteristic of the creators is that they operate off their inside view and own responsibility. Rearden (the ‘hero’ steel-maker) invents a new variety of metal, not by seeing it in a flash of insight, but by believing that it’s possible enough to remain determined through ten years of obstacles and setbacks. Dagny Taggart (the ‘hero’ railroad executive) provides value by making decisions using her own judgment, by paying close attention to details, and turning towards instead of away from problems.

Some of the scientific and engineering inventions are fake, and I think in youth I overestimated how much the characters were supposed to be mutant superheroes instead of doing something that could be copied. Sure, you might not be able to sleep as little as Dagny, but you could try to actually succeed in your work, and work in a field where that’s noticed and rewarded instead of punished.

It reminds me of simulcra levels; the heroes are the people who live in ‘reality’, and the villains are the people who live in ‘society’.

The heroes look at the world to determine what is true; they say things they think are true so that other people will have a more accurate model of the world; they try to enter honest competitions, they try to win, are sportsmanlike when they lose, and think there is no honor or profit in dishonest competitions. When selling things, they assume buyers will make their own judgments on the facts; they would market sushi as cold, dead fish. The heroic scientists refuse to work for any institutions that accept government funding! [2]

The villains look at other people to determine what is true; they say things they think will enhance their position and reduce their rival’s positions; they try to keep competitions illegible, trade influence, and seek to constrain others by guilt. Over and over again, when a non-striking hero interacts with one of the villains, Rand points out how the hero is, through a combination of something like the principle of charity and something like a willful blindness towards the evils of humanity, deliberately not understanding what the villain is saying or what motivates them, because if they did they would have to hate them. (Rand’s villains are under no such compunction, and freely hate the heroes.)

Of course, not everyone is a ‘hero’ or ‘villain’; one of the things I saw reading it now is how different people have different nuances and shades, and how many characters are ‘good’ but not ‘heroes’, or ‘bad’ but not ‘villains’. While the heroes and villains often end up in deep conflict because of huge philosophical differences, the less extreme characters normally are depicted having small conflicts because of simple miscommunication and inability to overcome the typical mind fallacy or cultural clash (such as ask vs. guess, or combat vs. nurture); when Rearden and his mother can’t have a real conversation, it’s because both of them can’t see the other, and only know how to politely interact with their mental model of the other person (which, of course, is not how the other person wants to be interacted with).

And so, when you say “a bunch of nerds and engineers build a frontier town with only nerds and engineers,” I say “oh yeah, that totally checks out, and I can see the appeal.” Having seen more of the power of having something to protect, and how quickly clever people can understand things they focus on, it also no longer strains credulity that an aircraft manufacturer could also figure out raising hogs, and having seen what true ownership looks like, it no longer surprises me that they would choose a ‘downgrade.’[3]

The Conflict In youth, I focused on the conflict between the creators and the looters, and watched how Rand’s fictional America falls to communism and self-destructive morality. The creators deal with absolutes and objective facts; the looters deal with negotiations and subjective facts, and they can’t overcome this methodological difference, or the underlying moral differences. Reading it now, the interesting conflict is between Dagny (the heroine who believes in humanity) and Galt (the hero who initiates the strike).

Both of them oppose the looters. Dagny views them resigned boredom, and resolves to work harder, believing that she can produce more blood than the leeches can drain. Galt decides to give them what they want, good and hard. But only one strategy can be employed at a time; if Dagny and other scabs keep civilization afloat despite the fundamental contradiction presented by the looters, then that contradiction can remain unaddressed. If Galt and the strikers yield control over the visible earth to the looters, then the world grinds to a halt with massive widespread misery, and the legacies of past creators are mostly destroyed. So the two of them have a shadow war over the creators, with Galt eventually winning.

This shadow war, of course, isn’t a logistical affair, but a moral and philosophical one. When people are ready to give up on humanity, Galt visits them and puts into words the moral feelings that they haven’t heard before from anyone else, and convinces them to give up collaboration with looters and go on strike. Valuing surprise and lived experience over persuasion, he doesn’t take his message to the public until he’s won.

The Judgments One of the things that was most striking about the book this time around was the sense of “they should have known better.” That is, not only is it good to think, and to turn to reality for truth, but people are responsible for figuring that out. Not necessarily from scratch–but in an uncertain and embattled information ecosystem, it matters whether or not they end up with that conclusion. Many of the side characters have a brush with truth, and turn towards it, and then die or suffer an ignoble end because they got some important fact wrong, and good intentions aren’t good enough.

Benquo’s comment shows what Eddie Willers (Dagny’s assistant) gets wrong–basically, he’s loyal to “the train company” instead of “thinking” or “engineering” or “productive work”, and is unable to do anything about the collapse of the world besides “work harder,” and it’s not enough. Cherryl Brooks meets James Taggart and takes at face value the public relations claim that he was behind the John Galt line (which was actually Dagny’s idea and sole effort, done after he washed his hands of it), and doesn’t try to understand her environment in the right way to discover she’s being tricked until too late. Robert Stadler (the genius physicist, and one of Galt’s two teachers) wants to think about the abstractions underneath physical reality instead of society, and so accepts whatever deal is offered him by society, and finds himself backed into a corner, his scientific discoveries used for ends horrific to him, a powerless figurehead who will say in public whatever he is asked to say. The Wet Nurse goes to college to study metallurgy and ends up working as the bureaucrat monitoring Rearden’s mills; he eventually discovers that he wants a real job at the mills, but the controlling regime he works for would need to approve his transfer, and would view his desire to transfer with suspicion.

Most interesting to me is the relationship the sides have to persuasion. The looters spend much of their time coordinating, but it’s backroom deals with information as currency and empty platitudes and guilt trips in public. They don’t think the public can think, and so their attempts to figure out what to do and their attempts to convince the public are entirely disjoint affairs.[4] The strikers think that one of the fundamental obligations people have is figuring out the state of the world, and only nudge people into actions, instead of trying to reveal new parts of the world to them. (They’re like the man handing out blank leaflets.) The scabs view participation in human society as a cost of doing business, view doing business as the primary goal in life, and don’t have anything to offer other scabs besides continuing to do business together. Rather than someone coming to Rearden and saying “hey, humanity isn’t worth it, why don’t you just leave?” they wait until humanity has mistreated Rearden enough for him to already believe it, and only needs it pointed out to him for him to realize that he already believes it.

Consider the connection to their basic way of looking at the world: for the looter, social reality is the dominant reality, and so they spend a lot of time attempting to shift the views of those around them. For the striker, physical reality is their dominant reality, and so they let facts ‘speak for themselves’.

You Can Lead A Horse To Water, But The parables from the book struck me, both the first time around and the second. Here’s my favorite:

“I know who is John Galt,” said the tramp. “It’s a secret, but I know it.”

“Who?” she asked without interest.

“An explorer,” said the tramp. “The greatest explorer that ever lived. The man who found the fountain of youth. John Galt spent years looking for it. He crossed oceans, and he crossed deserts, and he went down into forgotten mines, miles under the earth. But he found it on the top of a mountain. It took him ten years to climb that mountain. It broke every bone in his body, it tore the skin off his hands, it made him lose him home, his name, his love. But he climbed it. He found the fountain of youth, which he wanted to bring down to men. Only he never came back.”

“Why didn’t he?” she asked.

“Because he found that it couldn’t be brought down.”

My reading of this is that truth is findable, but you have to go to it, and you cannot bring it to you. If you seek to find out what chemical composition will lead to a better variety of steel, you will find it; if you seek to prove that your starting guess is right, you will often be disappointed. And even this method of finding truth is an example of this; if you seek out methodology with genuine curiosity, you will find a good one, and if you trust to what you started out with, you succeed only by luck.

This seems like a recurring theme, somehow; the sense that you can’t think for another person, and it’s wrong to try. The best our explorer can do is shout down “this is how I climbed up the mountain”, but others need to climb up themselves. You can’t read your way into original thinking, or trust your way into a confident conclusion.

Incidentally, I didn’t read the introduction by Leonard Peikoff either read-through, because in the second paragraph he says Rand wouldn’t have wanted an introduction to her work, instead of letting it stand on its own merits. But after my most recent read-through, I idly read the introduction, and came across something shocking. He quotes a diary entry by Rand:

I seem to be both a theoretical philosopher and a fiction writer. But it is the last that interests me most; the first is only the means to the last; the absolutely necessary means, but only the means; the fiction story is the end. Without an understanding and statement of the right philosophical principle, I cannot create the right story; but the discovery of the principle interests me only as the discovery of the proper knowledge to be used for my life purpose; and my life purpose is the creation of the kind of world (people and events) that I like–that is, that represents human perfection.

Philosophical knowledge is necessary in order to define human perfection. But I do not care to stop at the definition, I want to use it, to apply it–in my work (in my personal life, too–but the core, center and purpose of my personal life, of my whole life, is my work).

This is why, I think, the idea of writing a philosophical non-fiction book bored me. In such a book, the purpose would actually be to teach others, to present my idea to them. In a book of fiction the purpose is to create, for myself, the kind of world I want and to live in it while I am creating it; for as a secondary consequence, to let others enjoy this world if, and to the extent that they can.

It shocks me that a book I have been given for free four times, presumably in the hopes of cultivating a like-minded soul, was written because Rand wanted to make it for herself, rather than to have an impact on the world, or to teach others. [It reminds me of Mandatory Secret Identities, or the art having a purpose besides itself.]

The Relevance When I was younger, I had a sense that while some topics might be off limits, civilization was built on and supported reasoned debate. Then I had the sense that more and more topics were becoming off limits and that the principles underlying debate were being attacked directly, as well as the difference between value of topics being much larger than I had naively expected, as existential risk makes most other considerations irrelevant. Yes, you might not be able to speak the truth about A or B or C, but the small gains made by society being right about any of those pale in comparison to the gains made by society being right about X, and so to the extent one needs a good reputation for society to heed their thoughts about X, one should be silent on A, B, and C. But this isn’t just a local thing; the sound of silence is spreading more broadly as more people decide it’s not worth it to speak up.

First they came for the epistemology. We don’t know what happened after that. –Michael Vassar

Historically speaking, this isn’t really a surprise, and is more of a ‘return to normalcy,’ with the accompanying observation that most of history has been quite bad to live in on important metrics.

That is, the standard way things have gone is that there’s some ruling hegemony, and they have a vested interest in controlling the belief system of those that they rule; the principles of classical liberalism, like freedom of thought and religion, rather than having natural allies in all other belief systems, have natural enemies in those systems, as whenever a belief thinks it can win, it doesn’t see any value in protecting its competition. Well-kept gardens die by pacifism, and the universalist liberal order failed to maintain moral supremacy.

My personal response to this has mostly been to withdraw; if society doesn’t want me to speak my unfettered thoughts, then I shall fetter myself; I’m cooperative enough for that, at least. If various traits that make me a good thinker make me unfit for public service, then I will do other things instead. If various policies that are downstream of careful thinking are highly unpopular, then I will not put my trust or effort into politics. There’s a lot of Galt in this, where society gets what it rewards, and it’s up to society to learn to reward the right things.

Success lies in being secretive, and defeat lies in revealing things— an enlightened lord will have none of this attitude. Success lies in being outspoken, and defeat lies in hiding things— a benighted lord will have none of this attitude. Thus, if the lord of men is secretive, then dishonest words will come, and straight talk will be turned back. Petty men will draw near, and gentlemen will be put at a distance. If the lord of men is outspoken, then straight talk will come, and dishonest words will be turned back. Gentlemen will draw near, and petty men will be put at a distance. –Xunzi, “Undoing Fixation”

There’s a trope in Confucian thinking, which is that in times of trouble, where there are no good people to serve, the best people–to the Confucians, the most morally upright–will retreat into obscurity, and wait for better times.[5] This seems to both be a purity thing and a self-preservation thing; an honest man cannot serve a dishonest regime without losing his honesty, and while a wicked minister might trouble a local merchant for taxes or bribes, they would plot to kill another minister in their way. It is unhealthy to be an honest man in a dishonest organization, and so the thing for the honest men to do is become simple scholars or craftsmen or merchants.

And yet, the Dagny in my heart is not so willing to give up. Without people who look at a wicked world and say “I will stand up for goodness,” how could the world have any goodness in it?

I must come to the topic of “selling” new ideas. You must master three things to do this:

Giving formal presentations. Producing written reports, and Mastering the art of informal presentations as they happen to occur. All three are essential–you must learn to sell your ideas, not by propaganda, but by force of clear presentation. I am sorry to have to point this out; many scientists and others think good ideas will win out automatically and need not be carefully presented. They are wrong; many a good idea has had to be rediscovered because it was not well presented the first time, years before! New ideas are automatically resisted by the establishment, and to some extent justly. –Richard Hamming, “The Art of Doing Science and Engineering – Learning to Learn”

And most of all, I find myself wondering what the missing third way is. Presumably one can serve two masters, and exist in both physical and social reality, and Bayesians can win against barbarians; what does it look like to actually defend the Enlightenment and liberal virtues against encroaching illiberalism? That is, could there be a successful open campaign in the daylight that was in favor of reason and nerds? (And the real deal, instead of “I fucking love science” sloganeering and Hollywood nerds?)

And if not, then what? Will free thought simply fade into obscurity? Will someone make one (or several?) modern Gulchs, where an open society of the mind can exist by being a closed society of the body?[6] Will there just be whispers in the dark, where free thinkers find each other outside of the spotlight?