Atlas Shrugged At 50
The New York Times has a surprisingly positive piece today marking the upcoming 50th anniversary of the publication of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged:
One of the most influential business books ever written is a 1,200-page novel published 50 years ago, on Oct. 12, 1957. It is still drawing readers; it ranks 388th on Amazon.com’s best-seller list. (“Winning,” by John F. Welch Jr., at a breezy 384 pages, is No. 1,431.)
The book is “Atlas Shrugged,” Ayn Rand’s glorification of the right of individuals to live entirely for their own interest.
For years, Rand’s message was attacked by intellectuals whom her circle labeled “do-gooders,” who argued that individuals should also work in the service of others. Her book was dismissed as an homage to greed. Gore Vidal described its philosophy as “nearly perfect in its immorality.”
But the book attracted a coterie of fans, some of them top corporate executives, who dared not speak of its impact except in private. When they read the book, often as college students, they now say, it gave form and substance to their inchoate thoughts, showing there is no conflict between private ambition and public benefit.
“I know from talking to a lot of Fortune 500 C.E.O.’s that ‘Atlas Shrugged’ has had a significant effect on their business decisions, even if they don’t agree with all of Ayn Rand’s ideas,” said John A. Allison, the chief executive of BB&T, one of the largest banks in the United States.
“It offers something other books don’t: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete,” he said.
And the CEO of BB&T Bank, who took a stand last year against financing projects built upon Kelo-like takings, isn’t the only executive who has found inspiration in a book that has never been accepted by the literary elite:
Some business leaders might be unsettled by the idea that the only thing members of the leadership class have in common is their success. James M. Kilts, who led turnarounds at Gillette, Nabisco and Kraft, said he encountered “Atlas” at “a time in college life when everybody was a nihilist, anti-establishment, and a collectivist.” He found her writing reassuring because it made success seem rational.
“Rand believed that there is right and wrong,” he said, “that excellence should be your goal.”
John P. Stack is one business executive who has taken Rand’s ideas to heart. He was chief executive of Springfield Remanufacturing Company, a retooler of tractor engines in Springfield, Mo., when its parent company, International Harvester, divested itself of the firm in the recession of 1982, the year Rand died.
Having lost his sole customer in a struggling Rust Belt city, Mr. Stack says, he took action like a hero out of “Atlas.” He created an “open book” company in which employees were transparently working in their own interest.
Mr. Stack says that he assigned every job a bottom line value and that every salary, including his own, was posted on a company ticker daily. Workplaces, he said, are notoriously undemocratic, emotionally charged and political.
Mr. Stack says his free market replaced all that with rational behavior. A machinist knew exactly what his working hour contributed to the bottom line, and therefore the cost of slacking off. This, Mr. Stack said, was a manifestation of the philosophy of objectivism in “Atlas”: people guided by reason and self-interest.
“There is something in your inner self that Rand draws out,” Mr. Stack said. “You want to be a hero, you want to be right, but by the same token you have to question yourself, though you must not listen to interference thrown at you by the distracters. The lawyers told me not to open the books and share equity.” He said he defied them. “ ‘Atlas’ helped me pursue this idiot dream that became SRC.”
Knowing Ayn Rand, who admittedly was not perfect herself, I think she might just be more pleased by that compliment than by whether or not the Philosophy Department takes her seriously.