Why Is Atlas Shrugging?

The following essay was written by me in 2011 and submitted to the Ayn Rand Institute’s “Atlas Shrugged” essay contest. With the movie, “Atlas Shrugged: Part II” coming to theaters on October 12, it seemed appropriate to share.

The negative connotation greed usually conjures does not carry over to what is meant by greed in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  Greed in this sense is refusing to sacrifice the fruits of one’s own labor without return.  The utopia of greed is the perfect society which is allowed to function when each person is the sole beneficiary of his work.  When those who live on the work of others are cut off because of this “greedy” philosophy, two things happen.  First, the leech is removed from the wealth producer, meaning the wealth producer will keep more of what he earns, giving him more incentive to produce.  Second, the leech, now forced to survive on his own, must find work, effectively contributing to society in the form of production.  This former parasite will for the first time have an incentive to develop marketable skills, reaching potential he would never have reached were he allowed to remain on the wealth producer’s free ride.  A utopia of greed nets higher productivity and greater wealth on an individual and societal level.  It raises the standard of living by removing those who live on the work of others, giving them no choice but to provide for themselves and leading them to instead join the workforce where they will be the only one to benefit from acquiring the highest possible level of marketable skill.

Hank Reardon’s brother Phillip does not work; he is completely supported by his brother.  This would be understandable if Phillip could not work; however, such is not the case.  Phillip’s potential is there — he is an able-bodied young man — but the fact is that he never has to worry about where his next meal is coming from. On the contrary, he lives in the lap of luxury while Hank works ridiculously long hours at the mill.  Hank paid his brother’s way through college but Phillip never decided what he wanted to do.  Hank took exception “with a man who did not seek any gainful employment, but he would not impose his standards on Phillip; he could afford to support his brother and never notice the expense. Let him take it easy” Hank thought, mistakenly assuming that Phillip would sooner or later make something of himself (41). But years later when Phillip is 38, he is a jobless, helpless adult, unable to provide for himself, and unwilling to perform jobs which might provide upward mobility, all because of Reardon’s lack of greed.  Bred from the same stock as Hank Reardon it is difficult to believe that had Phillip needed to make ends meet on his own he would have failed.  Obviously any self advancement Phillip could have attained has been handicapped by his brother’s benevolence.  Such waste of one’s own potential would never be tolerated in the utopia of greed that is Galt’s Gulch, where it is forbidden to work at the expense of oneself for the benefit of another.

But not all trades can be quantified in monetary terms, and surely it is possible for a married couple to exist greedily and happily.  Such is not the case for Hank and Lillian Reardon however, and Hank is once again an enabler, this time to a worthless wife.  Lillian need not invent her own kind of miracle metal to fulfill her part of the trade, but giving away a bracelet forged from the first drops of Reardon Metal ever created is telling insight into her refusal to reach any sort of potential as a good wife.  Lillian accepts Hank’s money and gives him sex, which she believes is fulfilling her obligation, but Hank struggles to admit that he is getting the short end of the stick.  Chilling insight is given into Lillian’s true motive for marrying Hank as she schemes with James Taggart and states “If you had the most powerful horse in the world, you would keep it bridled down to the gait required to carry you in comfort, even though this meant the sacrifice of its full capacity, even though its top speed would never be seen and its great power would be wasted. You would do it—because if you let the horse go full blast, it would throw you off in no time” (399).  If she does not handicap Hank, Lillian risks being left behind, leaving her with no one to leech off of, not only financially, but socially.  She looks at her husband as an animal, a common beast of burden to act as her slave to serve her financial and social lusts, while contributing nothing to their marriage.  Lillian is willing to be a weight on Hank’s shoulders and impede his greatness in order to selfishly support herself, who has achieved no greatness, and has no value.  Hank realizes what the trade is missing as he falls in love with Dagny and the two bask in each others’ love, a love based on their achievements, not a contractual obligation as Hank’s marriage to Lillian becomes.

Dagny may be the operating vice president of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad but it is obvious that she runs the show.  Her brother James, who is the president of the company, completely relies on his sister to keep the company afloat despite advocating for federal bills which make it impossible to both make a profit and fulfill the government requirements.  James so relies on his sister that when a disaster occurs in a tunnel of the Taggart Transcontinental railroad and an entire trainload of customers dies by asphyxiation, he writes a resignation letter, questioning whether or not to sign it.  When Dagny unexpectedly returns to deal with the catastrophe, her brother, who is never certain of how to run the company “was certain of the first thing he had to do: he hurried to his office to destroy his letter of resignation” (627).  Even after spending a month in Galt’s Gulch Dagny is unable to stop supporting those around her, believing that she herself can bear the world on her shoulders.

People like Dagny are what freeloaders rely on.  In order to have a significant portion of the population benefiting from the labor of the rest, there must be people who are willing to provide not only their fair share of the wealth production, but enough to be distributed to the people who refuse to gain marketable skills and contribute to society through work.  Dagny’s role in providing for those who are worthless is a macrocosm of Hank’s role in providing for his family.  In this circumstance, the general population who leeches off the government is comparable to Phillip in their refusal to better themselves due to the welfare of others. These masses have been taught for years by the ever-broadening government that they will be coddled despite their ineptitude—after all, until now the wealth producers had always had enough to support society, and hardly notice it.  So after decades of “selflessness”, millions are left without job skills and with no willingness to take on the responsibility of leadership positions. The looting government is Lillian’s counterpart in the macrocosm, using the wealth Dagny produces to support them, while hindering her full ability. Much as Lillian sees her husband Hank as a prize animal to be paraded, the government views Dagny as such, even requiring her attendance of a government radio broadcast to deceive the public into thinking she is on their side.  It is fitting that Lillian Reardon is sent by the government to blackmail Dagny and declares “’I’m devoid of greed’” as she informs Dagny that her affair with Hank will be revealed “’on every radio program tomorrow, unless you appear on one radio program tonight’” (849-850).  Just as Lillian seems to need her husband and his greatness to achieve social positioning, the government apparently needs Dagny to calm the public.  But each has a stronger motive: the psychological need to gain approval from a successful person, produced by insecurities and self hate leading them to engage in “a level of self-deception where they would seek the extorted approval of an unwilling victim as the moral sanction they needed” to continue destroying in the name of the public good (846).

This world of an oppressive ever-expanding government driving the country and its apathetic people to the brink of starvation is the type of world allowed to exist when people like Dagny and Hank refuse to be greedy.  Before Galt established the wealth producers’ strike, there had never been the unwillingness of the industrialists to provide for the moochers.  Because of this newfound refusal, the world is collapsing, and only on the verge of its destruction does Dagny realize her part in propping up the looting government, which props up the mooching masses, which have always needed the people they condemn.

In Galt’s Gulch live those who remain human, inhabiting a Utopia of Greed, where all produce, striving to reach their full potential.  Each resident of the valley need not waste energy and time ensuring the survival of others, instead living by the oath: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine” (731).  Today the novel Atlas Shrugged is as relevant as it ever has been, as our government uses frighteningly similar arguments to those of Wesley Mouch and Mr. Thompson in order to advocate selfless welfare.  Greed for the fruit of one’s own labor, greed for the power over one’s own life, and greed for the pursuit of happiness may be all that keeps Atlas from shrugging.


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2 thoughts on “Why Is Atlas Shrugging?

  1. “Lillian is willing to be a weight on Hank’s shoulders and impede his greatness in order to selfishly support herself, who has achieved no greatness, and has no value.”

    In a deeper sense, Lillian Rearden is not selfish but selfless. Her identity is wrapped up, not merely in the social benefits of being a rich wife, but in tearing down and breaking a great man. She has no deeply held values (no “self”) of her own, except the destruction of Hank Rearden’s self-esteem, using altruism and cynicism as her weapons.

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