Posted By carlos on May 13, 2011
I first read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand about 40 years ago. At the time, in my youth, after having read the book, I was both ecstatic and depressed.
Why was I exhilarated and depressed, because I saw both sides of myself. I saw those moments of bliss and exhilaration when I accomplished something regardless of what others thought. I also recognized those moments when I succumbed to social guilt and cultural pressure and felt miserable.
Atlas Shrugged hammers the very virtues of society. It pits the philosophy of free will and its sister, liberty, against the philosophy of compassion and its sister, altruism. It questions our social morality.
How do you reconcile the desire for liberty and self-expression and comply with the moral dictates of society?
Capitalism and all the other socio-political/economic “isms” strive to define a system of rules, a framework that gives order to a society. If liberty is the driving force of a community, then Capitalism or some version of Capitalism appears to be the ‘ism’ of choice.
Pure Capitalism imposes no restrictions on an individual’s pursuit of wealth. Unfortunately, the holders of that wealth become power mongers that impose their will on those with less wealth through sheer force of their accumulated wealth and exploit the masses in subtle and perverse ways.
On the other hand, planned systems like Socialism and Communism impose centralized control and attempt to distribute wealth equitably among the population. Again, unfortunately, the holders of that power, the power of law, will impose their will on those without able representation.
More often than not, common sense judgment is non-existent in an altruistic world and one law fits all forcing all to comply under penalty of law. On the other end of the law are those that take advantage of the law and demand their “God given” equality.
Freedom and Liberty
So how do you reconcile the desire for freedom and liberty in all our pursuits with the desire to leave no man behind?
Ayn Rand champions captains of industry. Except that there are no longer any champions of industry, only multi-headed corporations devouring resources like the multi-headed Hydra of Greek mythology.
The novel celebrates the individual and the arrogance of truth but only focuses that celebration through the lens of free enterprise. The saga equates liberty and freedom with making money. It declares that monetary gain and liberty are inseparable.
It is true that without social, economic, and political liberty and freedom, individuals are not free to choose their labor. Consequently, without freedom they cannot make whatever money they desire or deem necessary.
The liberty and freedom that our forefathers declared is not limited to the pursuit of money. It encompasses all aspects of human life. It is a matter of dreaming a dream and having the freedom to achieve that dream.
We confuse the achievement of wealth, through creativity and production, with truths that have been declared, “to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights … life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That ideal assumes equality in terms of potential, not in terms of capabilities. It assumes responsibility.
With our inalienable rights come responsibilities. Were that not true we would experience anarchy in this human reality. Because humanity is unequal in its understanding of those responsibilities, nations enact laws to allow for the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.
I would venture to guess that most would agree that without some law in place, our American society would resemble the pinnacle example of the survival of the fittest. The American Wild West would be a love story in comparison to the resulting lawless anarchy.
It is fair to say then, that as a society we define through law what our responsibilities should be in our pursuit of life, liberty, happiness. The cornerstone, the foundation, of that definition is our Constitution.
Hypocrisy and Injustice
Atlas Shrugged confirms the hypocrisy of our society. We applaud truth, individualism and creativity and enforce conformity. There is no denying that injustice abounds in this the freest of all countries, but therein lies responsibility.
Injustice is not a result of the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. It is the result of not taking individual responsibility of our potentials and converting them into capabilities through action. It is the result of greed, greed for power. It is the result of lust for the power of control.
Knowledge and experience forge the human spirit. Culture and religion taint the human spirit. I am not a ‘religionist’ nor am I an atheist, but I recognize the Divine Spirit in humanity. The Declaration of Independence addresses that Divine Spirit. It is the potential of humankind.
It is unfortunate but necessary that for lack of an understanding of responsibility, we must limit the divine potential in humanity through law. It is when that law institutes “a long train of abuses and usurpations” that a nation must question its laws and the powers that allow them.
Are we approaching that limitation? Over fifty years ago, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged warned us of an alarming trend in government. Today we allow corporations and religion to control our government and force the subtle and perverse slow boil of conformity.
Nonetheless, I must ask. Where would you be were it not for the Civil Rights legislation of 1964?