If you’ve never heard of Atlas Shrugged don’t fret it likely means you are under 40. Atlas Shrugged is a classic 1950s fiction novel written by Ayn Rand during the cold war when communism and state control were directly butting heads with capitalism and Democracy. The book examines concepts that are just as pertinent today as they were when Rand began writing in the mid-late 1940s. The conflict between the individual’s ability of production and the creation of value versus duty and obligation to others. Rand explores what happens when the producers of the world stop producing. How does that affect the world? What happens when the capable refuse to work? At what point do incentives to the individual vs. society become warped? All of these questions are addressed through the eyes of industrialists adept at producing and middleman in politics who bargain and broker deals for “the good of the people.”
This novel is a long one at over 1,000 pages yet it reveals itself in layers going deeper into the ideas of the individual vs. the collective good, capitalism, and communist principles. The book is about a female railroad executive fighting to save her railroad while top industrialists disappear leaving her with fewer allies to fight against the looters of the world. Simply Dagny Taggart struggles to add value to the world while those in power demand more while limiting her resources under the guise of “helping the people.”
Ultimately I found this piece to be both entertaining and insightful as I reflect on my own motivations. The extreme of removing all incentives for capable people to work hard, taking away profits, and creating a business environment where everything is stacked against productivity is quite moving. It shows that if incentives in society become warped against private individuals then it will remove individuals desire to work productively. This really resonates when you consider the climate of the times this novel was written and reflect on how that has impacted communist societies versus capitalist societies.
I happened to be reading this as an American while visiting Russia for the World Cup (I was stopped going into FIFA Fan Zones by security because I had the book on me… though unlikely anyone knew what the novel was about – simply confused who brings a book into a watch party). I got to see first hand the legacy of the USSR and how a different economic incentive structure affected a nation.
This was top of mind for me as I reflected on my experiences and what drives me forward while weighing the benefits of the social nets we have implemented in the US. There is tremendous value in taking care of the elderly and the sick. Providing opportunities for the less fortunate to rise and have a shot at achieving the American dream. Yet, Rand’s novel has forced me to contemplate at what point is it too much and at what point do we disincentivize individuals to produce. Generally speaking social programs are government managed and funded through taxes which can only be levied if production occurs. What happens if we hamper production to the point where it no longer becomes beneficial to produce?
Atlas Shrugged is a valuable piece of literature that will have you contemplating social and political issues through different lenses. You will be forced to analyze the cost and benefits of philosophical, economic, and moral principles. I highly encourage you to read this book if you enjoy work that encourages critical thinking. For those that read the book… “Who is John Galt?”