When Ayn Rand finished writing "Atlas Shrugged" 50 years ago this month, she set off an intellectual shock wave that is still felt today. It's credited for helping to halt the communist tide and ushering in the currents of capitalism. Many readers say it transformed their lives. A 1991 poll rated it the second-most influential book (after the Bible) for Americans.
At one level, "Atlas Shrugged" is a steamy soap opera fused into a page- turning political thriller. At nearly 1,200 pages, it has to be. But the epic account of capitalist heroes versus collectivist villains is merely the vehicle for Ms. Rand's philosophical ideal: "man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."
In addition to founding her own philosophical system, objectivism, Rand is honored as the modern fountainhead of laissez-faire capitalism, and as an impassioned, uncompromising, and unapologetic proponent of reason, liberty, individualism, and rational self-interest.
There is much to commend, and much to condemn, in "Atlas Shrugged." Its object – to restore man to his rightful place in a free society – is wholesome. But its ethical basis – an inversion of the Christian values that predicate authentic capitalism – poisons its teachings.
Rand articulates like no other writer the evils of totalitarianism, interventionism, corporate welfarism, and the socialist mindset. "Atlas Shrugged" describes in wretched detail how collective "we" thinking and middle-of-the-road interventionism leads a nation down a road to serfdom. No one has written more persuasively about property rights, honest money (a gold-backed dollar), and the right of an individual to safeguard his wealth and property from the agents of coercion ("taxation is theft"). And long before Gordon Gekko, icon of the movie "Wall Street," she made greed seem good.
I applaud her effort to counter the negative image of big business as robber barons. Her entrepreneurs are high-minded, principled achievers who relish the competitive edge and have the creative genius to invent exciting new products, manage businesses efficiently, and produce great symphonies without cutting corners. Such actions are often highly risky and financially dangerous and are often met with derision at first. Rand rightly points out that these enterprising leaders are a major cause of economic progress. History is full of examples of "men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision." In the novel, protagonist Hank Reardon defends his philosophy before a court: "I refuse to apologize for my ability – I refuse to apologize for my success – I refuse to apologize for my money."
But there's a dark side to Rand's teachings. Her defense of greed and selfishness, her diatribes against religion and charitable sacrificing for others who are less fortunate, and her criticism of the Judeo- Christian virtues under the guise of rational Objectivism have tarnished her advocacy of unfettered capitalism. Still, Rand's extreme canard is a brilliant invention that serves as an essential counterpoint in the battle of ideas.
The Atlas characters are exceptionally memorable. They are the unabashed "immovable movers" of the world who think of nothing but their own business and making money. "... I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of them all – that I was a man who made money," says copper titan Francisco d'Anconia. But these men are regarded as ruthless, greedy, single-minded individualists. They are men (except for Dagny Taggart, who could be confused for a man) who always talk shop and give scant attention to their family. In fact, no children appear in Rand's magnum opus.
Her chief protagonist, John Galt, is an uncompromising superman. He is the proverbial Atlas who holds the world on his shoulders. He has invented a fantastic motor, yet is so frustrated with state authority that he withdraws his talents – hence the title, "Atlas Shrugged" – and spends the next dozen years working as a manual laborer for Taggart International.
Mr. Galt somehow succeeds in getting the world's top capitalists to go on strike and, in many cases, strike back at an increasingly oppressive collectivist government. Rand's plot violates a key tenet of business existence, which is to constantly work within the system to find ways to make money. Real-world entrepreneurs are compromisers and dealmakers, not true believers. They wouldn't give a hoot for Galt.
Rand, of course, knows this. And that's OK, because "Atlas Shrugged" is about philosophy, not business. In her world, there are two kinds of people: those who serve and satisfy themselves only and those who believe that they should strive to serve and satisfy others. She calls the latter "altruists."
Rand is truly revolutionary because she makes the first serious attempt to protest against altruism. She rejects the heart over the mind and faith beyond reason. Indeed, she denies the existence of any god or higher being, or any other authority over one's own mind. For her, the highest form of happiness is fulfilling one's own dreams, not someone else's – or the public's.
Galt crystallizes the Randian motto: "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." No sacrifice, no altruism, no feelings, just pure egotistical selfishness, which Rand declares to be supreme logic and reason.
This philosophy transcends politics and economics into romance. The novel's sex scenes are narcissistic, mechanical, and violent. Are the lessons of her book any way to run a marriage, a family, a business, a charity, or a community?
To be sure, Rand makes a key point about altruism. A philosophy of sacrificing for others can lead to a political system that mandates sacrificing for others. That, Rand shows with frightening clarity, leads to a dysfunctional society of deadbeats and bleeding-heart do-gooders (Rand calls them "looters") who are corrupted by benefits and unearned income, and constantly tax the productive citizens to pay for their pet philanthropic missions. According to Rand, they are "anti-life."
But is the only alternative to embrace the opposite, Rand's philosophy of extreme self-centeredness? Must we accept her materialist metaphysics in which, as Whittaker Chambers wrote in 1957, "Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world"?
No, there is another choice. If society is to survive and prosper, citizens must find a balance between the two extremes of self-interest and public interest.
Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, may have found that Aristotelian mean in his "system of natural liberty." Mr. Smith and Rand agree on the universal benefits of a free, capitalistic society. But Smith rejects Rand's vision of selfish independence. He asserts two driving forces behind man's actions.
In "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," he identifies the first as "sympathy" or "benevolence" toward others in society. In his later work, "The Wealth of Nations," he focuses on the second – self-interest – which he defines as the right to pursue one's own business. Both, he argues, are essential to achieve "universal opulence."
Smith's self-interest never reaches the Randian selfishness that ignores the interest of others. In Smith's mind, an individual's goals cannot be fully achieved in business unless he appeals to the needs of others. This insight was beautifully stated two centuries later by free-market champion Ludwig von Mises. In his book, "The Anti-Capitalist Mentality," he writes: "Wealth can be acquired only by serving the consumers."
Smith's theme echoes his Christian heritage, particularly the Golden rule, "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" (Matt. 7:12). Perhaps a true capitalist spirit can best be summed up in the commandment, "Love thy neighbour as thyself" (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39). Smith and Mr. von Mises would undoubtedly agree with this creed, but the heroes of "Atlas Shrugged" – and their creator – would agree with only half.
Today's most successful libertarian CEOs, such as John Mackey of Whole Foods Markets and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, have adopted the authentic spirit of capitalism that is more in keeping with Smith than Rand.
Theirs is a "stakeholder" philosophy that works within the system to fulfill the needs of customers, employees, shareholders, the community, and themselves. Their balanced business model of self- interest and public interest shows how the marketplace can grow globally in harmony with the interests of workers, capitalists, and the community – and can even displace bad government.
The golden rule is the correct solution in business and life. But would we have recognized this Aristotelian mean without sampling Rand's anthem, or for that matter, the other extreme of Marxism-Leninism? As Benjamin Franklin said, "By the collision of different sentiments, sparks of truth are struck out, and political light is obtained."
John Galt – it's time to come home and go to work.
• Mark Skousen has taught economics at Columbia University and is the author of the new book, "The Big Three in Economics."