As usual, this is not a book report. These are some ideas and themes that stuck with me after reading Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged."
My friends on the right often talk of Ayn Rand as if she were some spiritual benchmark of what it means to be a free-market conservative. My friends on the left, who have actually read any of her books, often make her out to be the queen of selfishness and cruelty. On one hand, she is revered and on the other reviled. Without a doubt, she may be one of the most polarizing figures in American literature.
I chose to read this book because my friends on the right challenged me to do so. For all those who recommended I read this book, I hope they read "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," and the "Communist Manifesto" like I suggested because I kept up with my end of the bargain. I also read this book because I don't mind having my world view challenged. In these instances, a few things occur. My argument is strengthened, my mind is changed, and/or I am given insight into how the other side views the world. With an open mind, I read books such as this fully understanding the possibilities before me.
First and foremost, my mind was not changed by reading the book. I closed the book more sympathetic to those who've accumulated wealth but I am still a strong believer in a social safety net, regulations, and a free-market system that does the most good for the most people. If my beliefs existed on a pendulum, then I advanced to the right by the length of an eyelash. Still, some themes stayed with me. These are notions that I am still wrestling.
Do We Owe the Wealthy Something?
Rand sees the wealthy as job creators; the backbone of the American economy. Her philosophy of Objectivism has men and women concerned wholly with themselves first and above all else. At times throughout this book, she seems to embrace the idea of selfishness above the whole. She believes safety nets make people lazy and dependent on assistance. She also seems to preach in favor of an unbridled free-market system that is self-regulated. She also seems to hold the wealthy on a pedestal. At times, this book read as if, we as the citizenry, owe them for every good thing in our lives. Without them, there are no jobs, no income, no clothes, no car, no house, no life... If only we would get out of their way, then they could provide even more jobs and improve our lives even more.
Now, I know Rand was an atheist and that is not something I hold against her, but I can't help but think of my Republican friends and how most of them have a deep abiding love for Jesus Christ. When I read Rand, I don't see God. I don't see people concerned with the poor, sick, disabled, and disadvantaged. While none of her characters seem focused on hoarding wealth, they also don't seem focused on those born into different circumstances than they were. As someone on the left, I believe in equity and the free-market. I live with the understanding that none of us start at the same place. Some need assistance and some were born into favor. I want both to work to improve their lives but I want them to do so while remembering their fellow man and realizing none of us succeeds if all of us don't succeed.
Mine versus the Collective
This book preaches another simple idea; a job and nothing else. To me, it comes across as what the wealthy earn should stay theirs. It shouldn't be used for the collective good. I am assuming this goes beyond infrastructure and defense. Beyond those two points, I am not sure what else she thinks the government should be responsible for when it comes to the collective good. Without a doubt, she doesn't believe tax dollars should be used as public assistance. This means no social security, unemployment insurance, disability income, Medicaid or Medicare. Obviously, as a liberal, this bothers me. While I am sure there are abuses in the systems, I also believe there are people who depend on the social safety not because they are lazy and are trying to game the system but rather because of circumstances that are out of their hands. Again, in my mind, these systems are in place to create some equity.
How Republicans Think
I am sure there have been many Republicans who have lost sleep over the exercise of trying to come to terms with how Democrats process the world. I know I have spent many restless hours pondering the same thing from the other side of the aisle. Ultimately, these thought processes come down to a difference in philosophy. To me, Republicans believe in trickle down economics and prosperity begins with a government that doesn't stand in the way. Liberals believe in building from the ground up and that a rising tide lifts all boats. They also believe in an activist government that works to ensure balance. These are fundamental differences but both arguments, in theory, should deliver us to the same point; a society where everyone thrives. Our great challenge is that neither philosophies can operate independently or in a vacuum. They must exist in a world with the other. From this book, I have been inspired to take this idea to heart. I will also do my best to focus less attention on what divides and more on what brings us together.
Is Money Evil?
This book asks you to think a lot about wealth and the accumulation of it. For me, this forced me to answer a fundamental question; do I think money is evil? Simply, no I do not. I think money is a tool and like any tool, it can be used for good or evil. It can bring joy or it can bring destruction. A tool in the right hands will build houses for the poor or it will burn villages to the ground. It is the personal responsibility of the user to decide how the tool will be used. From where I stand, I want money to do the most good for the most people. I want it to be spent wisely and efficiently. I don't care who has it and how much of it they possess. I am concerned with those who don't and how we can assist them in an effort that they too might experience some of life's bounty.
This isn't my first Ayn Rand book. I have also read, "We the Living." That book focuses on a couple attempting to escape from the oppressive world of communist Russia. In "Atlas Shrugged," Rand attempts to paint a picture of communism consuming America. She imagines a world where every day the government takes over more of the private sector in the name of fairness and balance. She sees an America where the redistribution of wealth through taxation is a punitive system set up to harm those who have accumulated wealth. While I understand her outlook of a slippery slope, I believe reaching this point in a democratically elected, two party democracy such as ours is near impossible. If the 1990's prove anything, it is that both sides of the aisle can recognize abuses in the system and work to reform them as they did with welfare.
Toward the end of "Atlas Shrugged," the wealthy elites find themselves tired from the constant bullying of an oppressive government. Seeing no way to fight back, they decide to take their wealth/knowledge and leave. With them goes the hope that society will fall without their leadership and money. When it does, the hope is that the American government will realize the error of its ways and work to correct them. For me, this was the most challenging part of the entire book. I look at men like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Both of these men have amassed tremendous amounts of wealth and both have decided to give vast amounts of the fortunes away before and after they die. If these men were paid a salary instead of earning their incomes via stocks, they would be taxed at a tremendous rate. Still, they demand the government to tax them fairly. They know the system works in their favor and not for those who are poor or in the middle class. Instead of running and hiding, they work to improve the lives of others. They are wealthy and there people in this world who depend upon. They also realize that hand up sometimes begins with a handout.
Be good to each other,