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’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.

  • Joshua Holmes

    I think Rand’s enduring legacy comes from two things:

    1. Embracing the heroic side of man and encouraging others to pursue it.

    2. Outlining the way that abstract philosophy can make a real difference in people’s lives.

    Epistemology is interesting, but it doesn’t instruct anyone on what to do or how to live. Objectivism does, which is why

  • Chepe Noyon

    You know, I thought that, given my respect for the free market, I would like Ayn Rand, but I never finished reading Atlas Shrugged — its analysis of moral issues was so stupid that I got disgusted with it.

    Let me describe the part that put me off. My memory may disserve me, so please correct any errors on my part. The protagonist is on the train. It stops in the middle of nowhere. She inquires why; the train engineer explains that the safety communications system has broken down and he does not have verification that the way ahead is safe, so regulations require him to stop. She asks him if he can see any oncoming trains. He says no. She orders him to proceed with care, and then goes off on a long rant about how safety considerations can lead to the most irrational results.

    What Ms. Rand failed to understand was the moral treatment of low-probability, high-consequence accidents. The regulations that the engineer was respecting keep the probability of high-consequence accidents close to zero. Ms. Rand preferred an approach that had a low but nonzero probability of an accident. Let’s say that the odds of a head-on collision with another train in such a situation are only one in a thousand. That sounds pretty safe. But a head-on train collision could kill dozens of people, incurring net costs of millions of dollars. Let’s say that such an accident would have cost $10 million. Then the decision to proceed cost the company (in probability terms) $10,000. If the time thereby saved generated more than $10,000 in profit, then the decision was a good business decision; if less, then it was a bad business decision. But Ms. Rand did not address any of these considerations; she just ranted away at how costly safety regulations are. I found her treatment of an interesting moral problem to be childish, so I set the book aside and never looked at it again.

    Well, I did look at the last page, on somebody’s recommendation. There I found this ludicrous scene where somebody “blesses” the world with “the sign of the dollar”. I burst out laughing when I read that. Sheesh, this lady is pretty simple-minded, I thought.

  • UCrawford

    I think Rand’s book was undermined by the constant idea that the perfect human never develops attachment to anything and always reacts perfectly consistently without emotion (well, that and her characters’ tendency to go off on five page uninterrupted monologues). The relationship between Dagny and the industrialist she was screwing before she ran off with John Galt (I forget the guy’s name). Jealousy and feelings of rejection don’t exist among the elite? Sorry, but I didn’t buy it…Rand’s ideal version of humans was as flawed as socialism’s view of humans. They just don’t act that way.

    The whole feud with Nicholas Branden and how it split the Objectivists pretty much showed just how unrealistic Rand’s grasp of human nature and emotion was…even Objectivism’s creator and resident god couldn’t excise it from her system. And the whole “superman” theory underlying it was troublesome. I agreed with most of her ideas about individual choice and striving for excellence, but I think Alan Moore basically said it best when he dismissed objectivism itself as a laughable ideal. “The Fountainhead” meant a lot more to me.

  • VRB

    It is interesting that John Gault was not Joan Galt and that her boundaries didn’t extend femenism. Only to an honorary male, not woman.