Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged answers the question "Who is John Galt?" In Ayn Rand's masterpiece all of the great creative minds of the country go on strike. They refuse to work until their genius is not only accepted, but goes unfettered. Their action is a response to the collectivist bent of the government which restrains them more and more, sucking away their freedom for the supposed benefit of all society. Rand ably demonstrates that it is actually the creative minds unfettered that create prosperity for society. Chaining them, stifles them, and ultimately, the society regresses.

Ayn Rand had personal experience with collectivism. Rand had grown up in Russia and had seen the development of a collectivist society first-hand. She understood what happened when the incentive to work (controlling the fruits labor) was taken away. In the Soviet Union, with some of the richest farmland in the world, people were starving because the Soviet bureaucracy could not even deal with farming and food distribution. Yet, this was a function that occurred naturally in a free market.

The story opens with the world headed down the socialist path. Economic conditions are deteriorating everywhere, and in the U.S. the collectivists are in power. As the socialistic government puts more and more restrictions on industry and trade, it sucks the wealth out of the system for the benefit of the users of society, Dagny Taggart, the heroine of Atlas Shrugged struggles in her own job as a railroad executive and heiress. The users continue to demand more and more sacrifices from the producers.

In the face of ever more onerous government restrictions, Dagny works to make her railroad work efficiently and turn a profit. But any help she can get from other producers keeps drying up. Mysteriously, every hard-working man of business or science or even philosophy retires and then simply disappears. She is unable to get anything done. Finally, she decides that she must solve the mystery of the disappearances. To do this she has to pull many threads together and answer the question, "Just who is John Galt?"

Ayn Rand tells a great story while conveying her philosophy of Objectivism. The characters represent different groups, Reardon, the able industrialist, James Taggart, Dagny's brother is the pandering soul-less heir to the Taggart rail-line, who actually aids and abets the destruction of his own railroad by the forces of collectivism. Eddie Willers is the idealized common man, who though not a genius knows what works and what doesn't. Then, of course, there is John Galt who in the end explains all to a wondering world.

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Band of Brothers

Though the story of Atlas Shrugged is about individuals, their force and power, it is also a story about institutions, corporations and governments. Though these institutions seem to have a life of their own they are really the instrument by which things get done in society. In the hands of producers they make life better for everyone, in the hands of users they operate as leeches sucking off the vital forces.

Is Atlas Shrugged a realistic novel? Certain characters are idealized. The idea of a conscious strike by the producers of the country in some ways seems far fetched. But the novel's premise is not meant to reflect reality as much as it is to reveal a truth (while at the same time telling an exciting story). A collectivist society does stifle individualism. It does discourage the producers. Ultimately, it will result in a the engine of the world stopping and even running backward.

At one point in the novel Reardon is talking to Francisco d'Anconia. D'Anconia tells him that if Atlas was straining with the last of his strength to support the world, he would tell him to shrug, to end his self-sacrifice, to recognize his own right to live. This is what Rand's novel is all about, a realization that self-sacrifice only results in the enslavement of us all.

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