Because life is a series of edits

Review: Atlas Shrugged (Part 1)

In Books, Movies, Politics on April 17, 2011 at 11:40 pm

Over the past several months, I've been working my way through Ayn Rand's seminal novel, Atlas Shrugged. While I'm usually a quick reader, Rand's 54-year-old, 1,088-page epic about the clash between laissez-faire capitalism and unbridled socialism has taken more time than usual to read, but not because it's poorly written; I'm a coach and it's baseball season (and books don't read themselves).

Fortunately, I'd read enough to cover the newly-released Atlas Shrugged (Part 1) movie, made for $10 million and filmed in 26 days. Megan and I saw it Sunday night and, though I confess I was skeptical as to how it would play for reasons of limited budget and potentially bad acting, my fears were relieved. This independently-produced film featured some capable actors (I liked both Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart and Grant Bowler as Henry Rearden), a good musical score (Elia Cmiral), and CGI that wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it'd be. In case you haven't seen it yet, here's a trailer to give you an idea of what I mean:

In a word, the film is plenty watchable as a movie, but the real reason to see it is for the storyline of the book. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote a succinct summary at, noting its timeliness for our present-day economic situation:

"Atlas Shrugged is a novel, but its plot is anything but fiction. In it, successful businesswoman, Dagny Taggart, the head of one of the largest railroad companies in America, struggles to keep her company alive in challenging economic times. Searching for innovative ways to stay afloat, she teams with steel magnate Hank Rearden, the developer of an innovative metal alloy, thought to be the strongest metal in the world. Success seems assured. Then the federal government steps in. The government proclaims the Taggart-Rearden partnership 'unfair' to other steel producers and passes a law regulating how many businesses an individual can own. The law is euphemistically titled the 'Equalization of Opportunity' bill."

Thomas goes on to explain the significance of the book 54 years since its publication:

"Atlas Shrugged is about those who would penalize individual achievement and subsidize 'the collective.' It is the embodiment of Karl Marx's philosophy, 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.' To put it another way, the collective believes that if you earn $2 dollars and I make $1 dollar, you owe me 50 cents to make things 'fair.' This is redistributionist or, to paraphrase the president (Obama), 'spreading the wealth around.'"

Not one to swoon (over anything), Thomas encourages folks to go see the movie. More liberal thinker Michael Shermer, writing at The Huffington Post, also liked the film, noting that "the choice to set the film in 2016 instead of the 1950s allowed the writers to tie in current events related to the recession and bailouts — with truck transportation and the airlines financially restricted because of excessive fuel prices and America returning to railroads as the bloodline of commerce." For the uninitiated, he also explains Rand's overarching philosophy of objectivism and her ultimate hero, John Galt:

"Who is John Galt? He is the film's principle avatar for Ayn Rand, without her all-too-human flaws. Who is Ayn Rand? She is the mind behind the philosophy of Objectivism, which she once summarized while standing on one foot:

1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
2. Epistemology: Reason
3. Ethics: Self-interest
4. Politics: Capitalism

In Objectivism, (1) reality exists independent of human thought, (2) reason is the only viable method for understanding it, (3) people should seek personal happiness and exist for their own sake and no one should sacrifice himself for or be sacrificed by others, and (4) laissez-faire capitalism is the best political-economic system to enable the first three conditions to flourish. This combination, said Rand, allows people to "deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit."

To American ears, this sounds positively patriotic…until one looks past Objectivism's ideals into its realities. In a recent Facebook exchange, Ryan Dykhouse, a former student of mine and now a junior political science major at Olivet Nazarene University, voiced his perspective on Rand's philosophy this way:

"Ayn Rand believed that charity was immoral, that individuals are solely themselves responsible for all circumstances, and utterly promoted the prominence of the elite. Reason, the rational individual, has been utterly debunked. All individuals are products of the relationships they have with others. If you ignore the communal nature of humanity, you ignore the function of morality. The overbearing individualism of Ayn Rand's objectivism destroys the communal nature of humanity, and therefore humanity itself. Jesus promoted community and the giving of oneself to others, not the self-promoted greed of John Galt and the elitist heroes of Ayn Rand. Even within conservatism, believing that the individual is the sum of all things is dangerous…at least I believe so."

As I told Ryan, I don't disagree. I'm not an objectivist, nor someone who believes that the individual is the sum of all things. I do, however, appreciate Rand's spot-on commentary on what happens when government over-reaches in the name of the state. In light of recent history of "too big to fail" initiatives, this aspect of her writing (and of the film) is uncanny and scarily prophetic. Ed Morrisey, writing at Hot Air, gets at the timing of everything below:

"It occurred to me last night that this film wouldn’t have resonated nearly as well three years ago, or ten years ago, or perhaps not any time in the 54 years since Rand published the novel. The sense of crisis in the movie would have seemed too far from the experience of most Americans; likewise, the sense of aggressive, populist redistributionism would have looked hyperbolic and contrived. If this isn’t the perfect moment for this film, then it’s as close as I’d like to see it in my lifetime."

Unfortunately, Christianity gets pulled both ways by well-intentioned Christians who believe that either unrestrained capitalism or compulsory socialism is the economy of the Kingdom; neither is correct. John Wesley's view of a healthy capitalism was to "make as much as you can, save as much as you can, give as much as you can" – all three had to be in play for capitalism to be biblical. And an understanding of Acts 2 does not read as New Testament Marxist theory when one understands that Communism saying, "What's yours is mine," is very different from Christianity saying, "What's mine is yours."

The extremes of pure capitalism or pure socialism are both evil, and there's plenty of evidence in the world to support this claim. Whichever extreme of the economic spectrum one may favor, Atlas Shrugged – in book or movie form – should serve as a nuanced critique of both rather than a simplistic rationale for either.

Good movie. Recommended.

  1. thanks for the write-up! i’ll be sure to catch it at the local redbox cineplex.
    i also think that’s the most concise explanation of objectivism i’ve read.

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