When Atlas Shrugged was published in October of 1957, it spoke to a world that was very different from ours, on the surface at least.
Dwight Eisenhower was president. A novel called Peyton Place topped the best-seller list. Lauren Bacall could still have played Dagny.
The Soviet Union had just beaten the United States into space, with the launch of Sputnik forty years ago today, and there were fears that communism would fulfill its boast to leave the free world in the dust.
There were no personal computers, fax machines, videocassette recorders, automatic teller machines. Most people didn't even own their telephones--they were rented from Ma Bell, and you could have any model you wanted as long as it was black.
Though the 1950s were not the halcyon days of family values that conservatives sometimes imagine, the two-parent family was still the norm. Crime rates were about a third of what they are today. Most middle class women expected to marry after college and raise children rather than pursue a career. Prejudice against blacks was still pretty widespread, and pretty openly expressed.
Obviously, the world has changed enormously over forty years. The information revolution has transformed the way people think, work, communicate, invest their money. The sexual revolution of the 1960s has changed the way we do other things, and it broadened into a wider movement of personal growth, self-help, and self-actualization; the pursuit of individual happiness has weakened the hold of the old lifestyle conventions. Racial and ethnic prejudice is much less common today--and so is the sense of personal honor and responsibility.
The Soviet empire has collapsed, bringing to an end a vast and grisly experiment with collectivism. Few people would now deny the economic virtues of a market system. And a market liberal movement, aiming to restore a pure capitalist system, based on limited government and individual rights, has sprung up over the last forty years and become a significant political force.
We've talked about Atlas Shrugged and the world, and the many ways in which Rand's portrayal of the mixed economy and welfare state was right on the money, despite the changes that forty years have brought. We've talked about the book's role in stimulating the market liberal movement. But now it's time to talk about the future.
Atlas Shrugged is a timeless work, because it is a philosophical work. Much in the book is dated, to be sure, but not its philosophical core. Atlas is a ringing defense of capitalism as the only social system consistent with human nature and human values. It lays out in dramatic form the worldview on which a capitalist society depends: that human life in this world is the standard of value and morality; that reason is man's means of survival and the glory of his nature; that production, not sacrifice, is the most exalted form of human activity; that producers are the Atlases who carry our world on their shoulders; that thinking, creating, and producing are activities of individuals, who must be free to act on their own judgments, following their own visions; that the individual has the moral right to live for himself and to pursue his own happiness, and does not need to justify his existence by service to God or country.
In the shape of a novel--and a gripping and beautifully written novel at that-- Ayn Rand presented an entire system of philosophical ideas that are as valid, as relevant to our lives, and as important for the future of freedom, as they were in 1957.
If we want to reduce that system to its absolute essence, I would say it consists of two fundamental points: reason and individualism.
Atlas Shrugged is a book about the role of reason in man's life. Reason as an absolute. Reason as a source of knowledge and truth, as against faith, authority, or any form of wishful thinking. Reason as a guide to action, as the standard of value, as the basis for a rational, objective moral code. And above all, reason as a creative power, the source of all human achievements, from philosophy to the sciences to art to invention and material production. On this score, one of Rand's great achievements was to dramatize the role of the mind in production, cutting through the false dichotomy between spiritual and material affairs.
George Gilder has written eloquently about the dynamism of a capitalist economy, showing how wealth is not a static thing but a process driven by human imagination and intelligence. Julian Simon has written eloquently of the human mind as the ultimate resource, not iron ore, crude petroleum, or arable land. These things are easy to see in an information age: intelligence is stamped on the silicon of a computer chip for even the slowest person to see.
But Ayn Rand understood all of this forty years ago. She had an incomparable skill at dramatizing the intelligence embodied in even the grimiest quarters of industrial civilization. Here is one of many examples from the novel:
"Motive power--thought Dagny, looking up at the Taggart Building in the twilight--was its first need; motive power, to keep that building standing; movement, to keep it immovable. It did not rest on piles driven into granite; it rested on engines that rolled across a continent."
And what do those engines rest on? Riding in the locomotive on the first run of the John Galt Line, Dagny walks into the engine room:
"They are alive, she thought, because they are the physical shape of the action of a living power--of the mind that had been able to grasp the whole of this complexity, to set its purpose, to give it form.
"They are alive, she thought, but their soul operates them by remote control. Their soul is in every man who has the capacity to equal this achievement. Should the soul vanish from the earth, the motors would stop, because that is the power which keeps them going--not the oil under the floor under her feet, the oil that would then become primeval ooze again--not the steel cylinders that would become stains of rust on the walls of the caves of shivering savages--the power of a living mind--the power of thought and choice and purpose."
Rand's heroes reject any demand for self-sacrifice.
The second great theme of Atlas Shrugged is individualism. Rand understood that thought and choice and purpose are actions of the individual, not the group. Her heroes think for themselves rather than following convention. Growing up, Dagny always intended to run Taggart Transcontinental some day. "She was fifteen when it occurred to her for the first time that women did not run railroads and that people might object. To hell with that, she thought--and never worried about it again." Rand's heroes are men and women who set their own purposes, act by their own judgment, take responsibility for their lives, and deal with each other by open mutual consent, to mutual advantage, recognizing that their own self-interest lies in dealing with people who are themselves self-movers.
As individualists, Rand's heroes reject any demand for self-sacrifice. The novel is the story of a strike by "the men of the mind," the producers and achievers, a strike to protest and withdraw their sanction from the idea that they have to live for others, and that the greater their ability the greater the debt they owe. "We are on strike," says John Galt, "against self-immolation. We are on strike against the creed of unearned rewards and unrewarded duties. We are on strike against the dogma that the pursuit of one's happiness is evil." Those who join Galt's strike swear an oath, by their life and their love of it, that they will not live for the sake of others nor ask others to live for them.
Capitalism is not just an efficient economic engine; it is a social system that allows, rewards, and celebrates the best in man's nature.
In rejecting the ethics of self-sacrifice, Ayn Rand was defending the classical liberal view of the sanctity of the individual as an end in himself. She also believed in the sanctity of the individual's own mind as his guide to the truth. When Dagny discovers the strikers' hiding place, Galt tells her that "nobody stays [in this valley] by faking reality in any manner whatever," voicing his commitment to reason as an absolute. But he also says: "Our first rule ... is that one must always see for oneself." And the philosopher Hugh Akston adds: "Consider the reasons which make us certain that we are right, but not the fact that we are certain. If you are not convinced, ignore our certainty. Don't be tempted to substitute our judgment for your own."
Atlas Shrugged has inspired millions of readers to live as men and women of the mind, to seek independence, achievement, and fulfillment as individuals in their personal lives. It has also convinced several generations of activists that capitalism is a moral crusade. Capitalism is not just an efficient economic engine; it is a social system that allows, rewards, and celebrates the best in man's nature. And socialism--or any other form of collectivism--is not just inefficient. It is immoral. It is a degrading expression of envy, of malice, of the lust for power in the few who rule and the fear of freedom in the many who submit.
These were crucial ideas for the world to hear forty years ago, when totalitarianism was still a major threat and many still believed in its claims to moral superiority over capitalism. But the ideas of reason and individualism are no less crucial for our own time. They are not merely polemical weapons with which to flog the collectivists. They are positive ideals that we need in order to sustain and advance a free society. The information economy is putting a higher and higher premium on the ability to think, and on the willingness to think and act independently. Reason and individualism are values that people must cultivate within themselves if they are to reap the benefits of freedom.
Conservative intellectuals tend to elevate tradition, faith, and authority over reason.
So are intellectuals singing the praises of reason? Are educators teaching the skills of thinking as their first priority? Are moralists promoting rationality, independence, and the individual's right to live for himself? Hardly. The dominant voices in the cultural arena today, the voices we hear most often publicly addressing issues of value, are those of conservatives like William Bennett; and, on the other side, what is sometimes called the cultural left, the regime of multiculturalism and political correctness that dominates the universities, the arts, and other cultural institutions. These two contenders are engaged in a noisy culture war with each other. But underneath their differences, both sides share a common antipathy to reason and individualism.
Conservative intellectuals tend to elevate tradition, faith, and authority over reason as guides to human action, harking back to the first modern conservative, Edmund Burke: "We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages."
To cure the problems in our society, a number of conservative spokesmen are calling for a revival of religion. Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley says, approvingly, "We are undergoing what the Founding Fathers would recognize as a Great Awakening." The Great Awakening was an episode of religious mania in the 1700s; its essence was an appeal to faith as against the Enlightenment culture of secular rationalism. And indeed the fastest-growing religions today are the fundamentalist and evangelical sects that are most explicit in favoring faith over reason.
Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, often spoke of gaining recognition in politics for "people of faith," and it's pretty clear that what he wanted was respect for faith: a public acceptance of the appeal to the authority of revelation and sacred texts in debates about public policy. Talk-show host and columnist Dr. Laura Schlessinger counsels a woman asking advice on moral education for her children: "Ultimately, there needs to be the final word, separate from our personal whims and ability to rationalize." So: what religion to adopt? Just pick one, she advises. Any religion will do, and it doesn't matter much how you choose--a piece of advice that perfectly illustrates the arbitrary, non-rational character of faith.
Why is religious faith so important for conservatives? Because they see it as the basis for morality. Conservatives have lately been arguing that the decline of traditional standards of character is responsible for social pathologies like crime, drug abuse, and welfare dependency. They blame the counterculture of the 1960s, and more generally the spirit of individualism, for eroding traditional standards. Individualism, they complain, elevates the pursuit of happiness over the cultivation of virtue, the essence of virtue being self-restraint, self-sacrifice, self-discipline.
William Bennett, former Education Secretary and author of The Book of Virtues, has complained that "our society now places less value than before on what we owe others as a matter of moral obligation; less value on sacrifice as a moral good; less value on social conformity, respectability, observing the rules; and less value on correctness and restraint in matters of physical pleasure and sexuality. Higher value is now placed on things like self-expression, individualism, self-realization, and personal choice."
Anita Hoge, a self-described "parents' advocate," opposes various character education programs in schools for slighting what she calls moral absolutes. In her view, students should be told that stealing is wrong, "according to an authority--either God or parents, it doesn't matter." In the same vein, a Wall Street Journal editorial a few years ago complained about the "shift away from community and family rules of conduct and toward more autonomy, more personal independence."
Conservatives, in short, have not been advocates of reason nor of individualism. The same is true of their enemies in the culture wars.
The multiculturalists who dominate the universities and the arts are vehemently hostile to reason. It is hostility not in the name of religious faith, as a rule, but as sheer, skeptical, nihilistic rejection. Academic philosophers have long been teaching that the validity of the senses can't be proven, that standards of logic are subjective human conventions, that scientific theories can never be conclusively verified by the evidence. In the decades since Atlas Shrugged was published, these old attacks on the foundations of reason have been taken to their logical extremes.
A student of literature today is likely to be taught that there are no objective standards for evaluating the merit of a novel, play, or poem, or even for determining what the literary work means. Students in the humanities are routinely taught that science is only one way of looking at the world, a paradigm that is no better than other paradigms such as myth, astrology, or witchcraft. The universities are dominated by the view that objectivity is a myth and that standards are arbitrary.
It gets worse. Today's multiculturalists are not garden-variety skeptics and relativists who say that all cultures and beliefs are equally valid. They embrace the Marxist idea that cultures and beliefs are expressions of class interest. It's not just that Western culture-- specifically the Enlightenment culture of secular rationalism--is no better than others. It's worse, because it is the culture of an oppressor class. In particular, reason, objectivity, and standards are tools by which white males oppress others. Thus a prominent feminist asserts, "The very objectivity said to be characteristic of scientific knowledge and the whole dichotomy between subject and object [that is, between the mind and reality] are, in fact, male ways of relating to the world." Catherine Stimson, a dean at Rutgers University, is more blunt: "Under the guise of defending objectivity and intellectual rigor, which is a lot of mishmash, [defenders of academic standards] are trying to preserve the cultural and political supremacy of white heterosexual males."
This whole mindset is obviously hostile not just to reason but to individualism. The premise of multiculturalism is that people are tribal beings, who are defined--and who define themselves--by the racial, sexual, and ethnic groups they belong to.
The cultural left and their conservative critics are fighting over different forms of the same principles.
Multiculturalists assume that people identify with their racial and sexual classes, take pride in the achievements of others with the same sex or skin color, and have a touchy kind of self-esteem that is wounded by any suggestion that their group is achievement-challenged. Multiculturalists believe that any disparity among groups is the product of unjust discrimination and oppression. This egalitarian assumption has been developed into an elaborate theory of victimology in which people actually debate such questions as whether a gay Afro-American male is more or less oppressed than a handicapped Latino woman.
So that, in brief, is the culture war. You can see that despite the differences between the cultural left and their conservative critics, in terms of fundamentals they are fighting over different forms of the same principles. And since neither side is committed to reason and individualism, neither side is particularly enamored of capitalism. On the left, of course, the hatred of capitalism is open and visceral. But even the conservatives are not really pro-capitalist.
Although many of them have been political allies in the battle to limit the growth of government, I think is fair to say that their outlook gives them no principled attachment to political freedom. This is true not only in matters of speech, values, and lifestyle, but in economic matters as well. The dynamic character of capitalism upsets traditions. It puts an increasing premium on character traits like autonomy, independence, the willingness to think for oneself. It gives people greater mobility--both the physical mobility of travel and the psychological mobility of access to new ideas and ways of life--mobility that undermines attachments to the local communities where conservative values and traditions tend to flourish.
To quote William Bennett again: "Unbridled capitalism is a problem. It may not be a problem for production, but it's a problem for human beings. It's a problem for the whole dimension of things we call the realm of values and human relationships." William Schambra, of the conservative Bradley Foundation, complains that community institutions are being eroded by "an unholy marriage between the marketplace and radical individualism."
But radical individualism is precisely what the world needs. Radical individualism, and rational individualism. A free society, by nature, is an individualist society. It leaves people free to pursue their own interests, through voluntary trade with others, and leaves them responsible for choosing their course in life. A free society allows, encourages, and even depends on people who can define the values that give their lives meaning, and then pursue these values autonomously. It relies on people who are entrepreneurs in their own lives, who are capable of thinking for themselves, who have a sense of self-ownership, and the drive to make the most of themselves and their opportunities. The ideas of the culture warriors, on both sides of the conflict, are completely out of touch with that reality.
As Ayn Rand often noted, there is a gross disparity between the realms of science, technology, and business, which depend on the exercise of reason and where intelligence, independence, and the pursuit of self-interest are rewarded; and, on the other hand, the humanities, the arts, the world of culture and ideas, where the dominant trends are hostile to reason and individualism. All of this is still true. Indeed, the disconnect between culture and reality has widened over the last four decades.
We live in a world where virtually every product we use, from the food we eat to the video games we play, is shaped if not invented outright by the conscious application of scientific knowledge. Businesses are desperate for people who are competent to employ this knowledge, snapping up new Ph.D.s in computer science, chemistry, engineering, and other technical fields; and paying billions of dollars to train their employees.
Beginning in the 1970s, the earnings gap between college graduates and high school graduates has been widening. Indeed, inequality across the whole range of earnings has been increasing--a sign of the premium that the market is placing on education and intelligence. The rewards for productive effort keep increasing, but they depend increasingly on the ability to think.
Social and economic changes are also putting a higher premium on individualism as a character trait. Multiculturalists often point out that our society is becoming more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, and so forth, because of immigration, travel, and the expansion of the global economy. But the implication is the opposite of the one they draw. This diversity requires that people have a sense of their own identity as individuals, and can relate to other people as individuals, rather than relying on group identity.
The pace of the market and the increasing ease of corporate restructuring are making it less and less safe to rely on a single corporation for lifelong employment, expecting to be rewarded for loyalty to the firm and for submerging one's personal goals to the goals of the firm. Once again, there is a premium on a more entrepreneurial approach. As John Sculley, former CEO of Apple Computer, put it: "The new corporate contract is that we'll offer you an opportunity to express yourself and grow, if you promise to leash yourself to our dream, at least for a while."
What is true on the job is true in other areas of life as well. We have an increased array of choices about where and how to live, and whom to live with. We have more leisure time, if we want it, and more adult education, more art and entertainment, more choices about recreation, than ever before. A burgeoning self-help and personal growth industry offers books, seminars, audiotapes on everything from time-management to marriage. Psychologists now know enough about depression, anxiety, and stress to make relief from these maladies possible for most people. To take advantage of all these opportunities, however, you have to be selective, winnowing what is sound from what is false or flaky. And that means, once again, that the benefits are available only to those who can think and choose for themselves.
You have a life. It's a precious thing, and it's yours. Make the most of it.
This is not to say there is anything historically relative about the fact that reason is man's primary means of survival, or about the fact that individuals are ends in themselves. These are timeless truths. Still, there is a significant difference in the demand for rationality and independence between a person who could expect to live in the same place most of his life, work for the same employer, at a job that wouldn't change much from year to year, get most of his news from one of the two or three papers in town, work out his views of current events, politics, the world, and life in general by discussion with others who believed pretty much what he did--there is a difference, I say, between that mode of life and that of the ordinary person today, for whom travel is cheap and easy, who will probably be changing jobs repeatedly and in any case will have to keep upgrading his skills all the time, who has access to scores of newspapers, magazines, and TV channels that bombard him with often conflicting information, and who is surrounded, on the job and everywhere else, by people of radically different ethnic backgrounds and worldviews from his own.
In short, both the advantages of using one's mind, and the perils of failing to do so, are greater today than ever before. Living well increasingly requires what I have called the entrepreneurial outlook on life: a spirit of self-ownership, a conviction that one's life is one's own, not something for which one must answer to some higher power; a willingness to set the terms of one's life--to form convictions, to choose goals and values, and to make decisions--by one's own judgment, without dependence on others; a spirit of self-reliance, initiative, and alertness to opportunity, a belief that life is what you make of it.
Many people are feeling their way toward this outlook on life, struggling with the challenges it poses, trying to reap the benefits it offers. Where can they turn for support in their quest? There is, as I've said, a flourishing self-help industry offering advice on practical strategies for success. But who is offering moral support?
Ayn Rand knew that human beings have a profound need for morality, both as a guide to making particular choices in their lives and as a sanction on their lives as such. "In spite of all their irrationalities, inconsistencies, hypocrisies and evasions," she wrote, "the majority of men will not act, in major issues, without a sense of being morally right and will not oppose the morality they have accepted.... The power of morality is the greatest of all intellectual powers." I think she was profoundly right on that point. The impulse to justify one's existence is nearly as strong as the impulse to preserve it--and indeed, moral codes inimical to human life have led people to engage in the most extraordinary acts of sacrifice and self-destruction. So it is not enough that we have opportunities for enjoying the good things in life, nor that we have the political freedom to do so. People will not exploit their opportunities, nor defend their freedom, without a sense of being right.
Most people understand that knowledge and thinking skills are important assets in life. But who is telling them that the exercise of these skills is a moral virtue? Not the conservatives, who may defend intellectual achievement in the academy but are nervous when people think for themselves about morality. Not the cultural left, which views rationality as a tool of oppression. Not the educators who view the acquisition of skill as less important than social adjustment and the feeling of self-esteem. It is Ayn Rand who offers a moral blessing on the act of thought. "A rational process is a moral process," she wrote in Atlas Shrugged . "If devotion to truth is the hallmark of morality, then there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion that the act of a man who assumes the responsibility of thinking."
Most people want to be happy--at least they prefer it to the alternatives--and many are eagerly pursuing the expanding opportunities in our society for personal fulfillment, satisfaction, excitement, joy. But where do they find moral affirmation for the pursuit? Not from conservatives, who regard the pursuit of happiness as a selfish liberal indulgence. Not from the cultural left, who regard it as a selfish bourgeois indulgence. It is Ayn Rand , in Atlas Shrugged , who tells them that "the work of achieving one's happiness [is] the purpose, the sanction and the meaning of life."
This country was founded on the principle that all men have the right to the pursuit of happiness. It was, at the time, a revolutionary conception. As one scholar put it, the Declaration of Independence enshrined "the Enlightenment's revolutionary objective, to place at the heart of politics the sacredness of each separate individual's own quest for happiness and the good life." But no thinker of the Enlightenment, and no one since, until Ayn Rand , has dared to state the implication clearly and forthrightly: the implication that it is right and proper for individuals to live for themselves, pursuing their own interests, and that the doctrine of self-sacrifice is not a code of benevolence and good will, but of hostility to life.
What other philosopher of individualism has dared to challenge the conventional ethics of altruism? Who, besides Ayn Rand , has challenged the notion that it is noble to place service to others above the pursuit of our own interests? Who is there now to defend the right, the moral right, to live for oneself?
When the president of the United States declares to a conference on volunteerism, "Citizen service is the main way we recognize that we are responsible for one another.... Our mission is nothing less than to spark a renewed national sense of obligation, a new sense of duty, a new season of service," who is there now to reply: No one in a free society need justify his existence by service to others. That premise is the basis for collectivism. The man who could make such a statement, and who cannot see how it contradicts the founding principles of the Declaration of Independence, is not fit for public office.
When a businessman who started a cable TV news service, at a time when no one thought such a venture could possibly succeed, declares that he is giving away a billion dollars to charity, and demands that other successful businessmen do likewise, who is there now to say: You fool, you bloody fool, don't you see that making your money, not giving it away, is the thing you should take moral credit for. Philanthropy is fine, if that's what you want, but giving away your money is easy compared to the vision, courage, and commitment it took to make it.
And when young people look for guidance in life, a moral beacon to follow, Ayn Rand is still the only moralist who tells them: You have a life. It's a precious thing, and it's yours. Make the most of it. Don't give it up, don't waste it on things you don't value, regardless of what others demand from you. Work with others when you can, love and give yourself to them as they deserve, but always by the standard of what is best for your own life. The purpose of ethics is to help you find and enjoy what is best, not to sacrifice it. Pursuing your happiness, taking full responsibility for it, is a worthy and challenging task. It will take thought and effort, it will take ambition and courage, it will take everything you have, and if you succeed you will have the right to be proud, morally proud, of what you have accomplished.
No one else today is saying these things. And that is why Atlas Shrugged is no less important today than it was forty years ago. That is why this wonderful book will continue to earn the kind of readership, and have the kind of impact, that we celebrate today.
David Kelley, Ph. D., is the founder and executive director of The Atlas Society and one of the world's foremost authorities on Ayn Rand 's philosophy of Objectivism . A nationally-known philosopher, teacher, and writer, Dr. Kelley has taught philosophy and cognitive science at Vassar College and Brandeis University. His books include Unrugged Individualism, The Art of Reasoning, and The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand.
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.