Ayn Rand is a famous Russian-American writer, one of the most famous writers of the 20th century. Her most famous book, Atlas Shrugged, is a story of several magnates caught in the adverse environment of state regulation of business and transition to the planned economy. The book corresponds to her philosophy, according to which the free-market capitalist economy is the only system where freedom is possible.
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However, after discussing a characteristic exclamation of one of the book’s main characters, we will see that such a view is highly controversial. Hank Rearden is one of the characters of Atlas Shrugged, a major industrial magnate. His exclamation at his trial, “The public good be damned, I will have no part of it!”, as well as his whole speech (Rand 446-447), should be interpreted as a critique of political views, according to which it is acceptable to take advantage of some people to benefit others.
Clearly, if we take into account the whole theme of Rand’s novel, which depicts dystopian life in the United States during their being changed according to the ideas of planned economy (as they were seen by Rand), and the sufferings of major business tycoons, who breathe life into the whole US economy, it becomes obvious that, according to the novel, the magnates, the strong ones, are being taken advantage of, and the weak, who get profit from such a policy, are the benefactors.
This idea is very characteristic of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, entitled “objectivism”. According to it, only one, objective reality, exists, and the human mind is the tool to conquer it. Rand perceives humans as “teleologically ordered systems”; their main goal is self-maintenance (Badhwar and Long Ch. 2.5).
Therefore, according to Rand, any philosophy (and, arguably, the reason itself) is only needed as far as it helps a person to live a good life; therefore, philosophy and reason have an “urgent, practical importance” (Badhwar and Long Ch. 1). To successfully perform self-maintaining functions, humans need to be free of hindrances. Thus, Rand is a proponent of both personal and economic freedom.
Believing that both these types of freedom can only be achieved in the free market capitalism, she opposes planned economy. She sees a free-market society as an “unknown ideal”, the only system of societal and economic organization in which people are respected and perceived as “ends in themselves” (Badhwar and Long Ch. 1).
This clarifies the meaning of Hank Rearden’s exclamation and his whole speech. In the light of Rand’s views, Rearden is a person who achieved wealth as a result of his own work. Hank says: “All I want is the freedom to make money,” an instrument which would support and sustain his existence (Rand 446).
The author perceives her character and the likes of him as strong, courageous people who fight to stay alive (Rand 729). Thus, as we have noted, Atlas Shrugged can be perceived as a manifesto of capitalism and free market economy. It is possible to look at these views in the light of the writer’s biography (Sciabarra 2); having been born in Russia, she became a victim of the Russian Revolution, and had to flee to the Crimea.
However, later she was able to enroll at the University of Petrograd, where she dreamt of moving to America, which she did in 1926 (Hicks par. 6-10). Having been a victim of a revolution made under the flags of Leninist version of Marxism, it is no wonder she opposed that political doctrine.
However, some critique should be given regarding Rand’s views, the ones expressed in Atlas Shrugged in particular. The author perceives the free-market economy as the sole possible way to allow for personal freedom and independence. She also sees the wealthy as those who move the society forward, and, arguably, many other people as weaklings and parasites (Bendle 42).
These are very strong and highly controversial claims which could definitely use some critique. It is worth noting that Rand’s perceptions were much criticized by such prominent capitalist thinkers as Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises; this drove Rand mad. For instance, Hayek believed that “the government had an important role… in the provision of health care, unemployment insurance, and a minimum wage”; “an ass, with no conception of a free society at all”, Rand concluded (qtd. in Bendle 48-49).
As for Hank Rearden’s speech at the trial, there could be various interpretations of it. It is definitely unacceptable to take advantage of one group of people in order to let another group receive numerous benefits. But it is highly questionable who must really be perceived as benefactors, and who are taken advantage of.
Howard Zinn, for instance, provides numerous historic counterexamples to the view that the wealthy should be protected from the state regulation; a bright example is the Civil War (1861-1865), when the uncontrolled businesses supplied soldiers with paper-laced footwear, clothes that would fall apart in the rain, sand instead of sugar, and defective weapons that exploded right in hands when used (Zinn 218).
Hank Rearden’s exclamation seems to achieve an entirely different meaning in this light. No wonder that one reviewer’s conclusion about Atlas Shrugged, the book promoting free market with no borders or limitations at all (in fact, social Darwinism), was: “To a gas chamber–go!” (qtd. in Bendle 42).
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As we have seen, Atlas Shrugged is a manifesto for the free-market capitalism, the sole system which, according to Rand’s philosophy, allows for freedom in the society. The book’s character, Hank Rearden in his speech, in fact, provides a detailed explanation of the perceptions the book is based on (Rand 445-447). But the support of the extreme free-market capitalism is a highly controversial issue.
Badhwar, Neera K., and Roderick T. Long. Ayn Rand. 2012. Web.
Bendle, Mervyn F. “Did Atlas Shrug? Ayn Rand and Philosophy as a One-party State.” Quadrant Magazine 55.5 (2011): 42-50. Print.
Hicks, Stephen R. C. Ayn Alissa Rand (1905—1982). n.d. Web.
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. n.d. Web.
Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. Print.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present. n.d. PDF file. Web.