Book review: ‘Atlas Shrugged’ by Ayn Rand

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

“Atlas Shrugged” is the story of what happens if the “prime movers” of society go on strike. Hank Rearden was a titan in the steel business. He invented Rearden Metal, a steel alloy, relatively light in weight, and much stronger than conventional steel. Dagny Taggart was the operations manager of Taggart Transcontinental, by far the largest railroad in the United States. There were several others of similar stature in the business world, but not many.

They were out of step with the times, however. The world was being taken over by “people’s republics,” communist-style governments that championed equality for all regardless of their status or contribution. The movement had caught on in the United States, and a government had been elected that promised something for everyone, regardless of his or her input, through the government’s “economic plan.”

As might be expected, the something for everyone soon turned out to be hardship, but it wasn’t the plan or the government at fault; it was the greed of the industrialists. That brought about more plans and more control on the industrial leaders and even more hardship and more blame.

Through it all, Dagny managed to struggle on, in large measure by building a freight line to an area still thriving because of oil being produced from oil shale by a method developed by Ellis Wyatt. As a result, the area also had related businesses and thus a significant amount of freight. The line was built of Rearden Metal at a cost savings, since Dagny was the first to use it on such a large application. The metal was a success, as was the rail line. The line had all the freight it could haul and more. There would be enough profit to rebuild other parts of Taggart Transcontinental. Hank Rearden would prosper as well.

But the planners had other ideas. The profit had to be shared with other railroads not in a position to make such income. A plethora of schemes were tried but, as would soon happen often, Wyatt destroyed his business and disappeared. His profit was a result of his ingenuity; why must he support those of lesser effort and ability? The related businesses folded, creating more hardship. The answer was more plans, restrictions. It was greedy Wyatt’s fault, not that of the planners.

The cry of frustration through all this was, “Who is John Galt?” No one seemed to know where the phrase had come from, but when anything came up that seemed beyond human control, the phrase was used. By the end of the novel, we learn the painful truth of what happens when the prime movers go on strike. We also learn who is John Galt and why that is important. Further, through the mouths of her characters, we learn Ayn Rand’s philosophy of unfettered capitalism.

“Atlas Shrugged” was voted No. 20 on the America Reads best-loved 100 books. On the one hand, that makes sense. It has reportedly been a bestseller for more than four decades. A treatise of philosophy within a complicated love story, the edition that I read was 1,168 pages. “Atlas Shrugged” fans must have voted every day to get such a high rating for their favorite. Also voting, no doubt, were some who had not read the book but based their choice on its reputation as a capitalism bible. Not that the book doesn’t deserve it standing, but it’s not an easy, or fast, read; the number of readers must be limited. That said, it is worth the effort if you like your philosophy in fiction form.

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