Rereading Atlas Shrugged

This post will not at­tempt to avoid spoilers, and will be much more com­pre­hen­si­ble if you’ve read the book or are fa­mil­iar with its ba­sics, but I also hope it’ll be some­what un­der­stand­able if you haven’t read the book at all; to aid with that I’ll put sum­maries af­ter all the names.

I first read At­las Shrugged as a teenager, I think for an es­say con­test. I was already a liber­tar­ian from read­ing Free to Choose, and found Rand’s moral­ism offputting and her char­ac­ters strange. I was a ‘tech­ni­cal’ liber­tar­ian,[1] in that I was con­vinced that de­cen­tral­iza­tion led to bet­ter de­ci­sion-mak­ing and bet­ter re­sults, and didn’t see how the moral liber­tar­i­ans made a bet­ter case than the moral statists. And even when it came to moral­ity, the peo­ple I saw at church were putting in sig­nifi­cant effort to try to be bet­ter, and yet Rand’s heroes didn’t seem to have any sort of moral de­vel­op­ment; the good peo­ple were good, and the bad peo­ple were bad, and there wasn’t any en­gage­ment with the ques­tion of how to be­come good. I think that was the main con­tent of my es­say, and un­sur­pris­ingly it didn’t win any­thing.

But a friend re­cently men­tioned that they had read it and were sur­prised about how much it was about ra­tio­nal­ity; I re­mem­bered some bits and said “yeah, that checks out,” but when I read it was sur­prised at just how much there was, and how top­i­cal much of it was to cur­rent events and de­ci­sions I’m fac­ing.

A truly great book should be read in youth, again in ma­tu­rity and once more in old age, as a fine build­ing should be seen by morn­ing light, at noon and by moon­light. ― Robert­son Davies

For this post I ex­pect to slip be­tween “how I saw At­las Shrugged as a youth” and “how I see it now”, with the first mostly to ex­plain by con­trast.

Creators revisited

In youth, I thought Galt’s Gulch (a hide­out in the Rock­ies ac­cessible only to the cre­ators on strike) was ridicu­lous. You have peo­ple whose pri­mary skills are be­ing ex­ec­u­tives, and they be­come man­ual la­bor­ers, and they’re bet­ter off? Why think a min­ing ex­ec­u­tive would be any good at dig­ging cop­per him­self, or an air­craft ex­ec­u­tive would be good at rais­ing hogs?

I think I was con­fused in­stead of en­light­ened by hav­ing the cat­e­gory of “ex­ec­u­tive.” James Tag­gart (the ‘villain’ railroad ex­ec­u­tive) would be de­nied en­try to Galt’s Gulch, and starve if he ended up there. The pri­mary char­ac­ter­is­tic of the cre­ators is that they op­er­ate off their in­side view and own re­spon­si­bil­ity. Rear­den (the ‘hero’ steel-maker) in­vents a new va­ri­ety of metal, not by see­ing it in a flash of in­sight, but by be­liev­ing that it’s pos­si­ble enough to re­main de­ter­mined through ten years of ob­sta­cles and set­backs. Dagny Tag­gart (the ‘hero’ railroad ex­ec­u­tive) pro­vides value by mak­ing de­ci­sions us­ing her own judg­ment, by pay­ing close at­ten­tion to de­tails, and turn­ing to­wards in­stead of away from prob­lems.

Some of the sci­en­tific and en­g­ineer­ing in­ven­tions are fake, and I think in youth I over­es­ti­mated how much the char­ac­ters were sup­posed to be mu­tant su­per­heroes in­stead of do­ing some­thing that could be copied. Sure, you might not be able to sleep as lit­tle as Dagny, but you could try to ac­tu­ally suc­ceed in your work, and work in a field where that’s no­ticed and re­warded in­stead of pun­ished.

It re­minds me of simul­cra lev­els; the heroes are the peo­ple who live in ‘re­al­ity’, and the villains are the peo­ple who live in ‘so­ciety’.

The heroes look at the world to de­ter­mine what is true; they say things they think are true so that other peo­ple will have a more ac­cu­rate model of the world; they try to en­ter hon­est com­pe­ti­tions, they try to win, are sports­man­like when they lose, and think there is no honor or profit in dishon­est com­pe­ti­tions. When sel­l­ing things, they as­sume buy­ers will make their own judg­ments on the facts; they would mar­ket sushi as cold, dead fish. The heroic sci­en­tists re­fuse to work for any in­sti­tu­tions that ac­cept gov­ern­ment fund­ing! [2]

The villains look at other peo­ple to de­ter­mine what is true; they say things they think will en­hance their po­si­tion and re­duce their ri­val’s po­si­tions; they try to keep com­pe­ti­tions illeg­ible, trade in­fluence, and seek to con­strain oth­ers by guilt. Over and over again, when a non-strik­ing hero in­ter­acts with one of the villains, Rand points out how the hero is, through a com­bi­na­tion of some­thing like the prin­ci­ple of char­ity and some­thing like a willful blind­ness to­wards the evils of hu­man­ity, de­liber­ately not un­der­stand­ing what the villain is say­ing or what mo­ti­vates them, be­cause if they did they would have to hate them. (Rand’s villains are un­der no such com­punc­tion, and freely hate the heroes.)

Of course, not ev­ery­one is a ‘hero’ or ‘villain’; one of the things I saw read­ing it now is how differ­ent peo­ple have differ­ent nu­ances and shades, and how many char­ac­ters are ‘good’ but not ‘heroes’, or ‘bad’ but not ‘villains’. While the heroes and villains of­ten end up in deep con­flict be­cause of huge philo­soph­i­cal differ­ences, the less ex­treme char­ac­ters nor­mally are de­picted hav­ing small con­flicts be­cause of sim­ple mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion and in­abil­ity to over­come the typ­i­cal mind fal­lacy or cul­tural clash (such as ask vs. guess, or com­bat vs. nur­ture); when Rear­den and his mother can’t have a real con­ver­sa­tion, it’s be­cause both of them can’t see the other, and only know how to po­litely in­ter­act with their men­tal model of the other per­son (which, of course, is not how the other per­son wants to be in­ter­acted with).

And so, when you say “a bunch of nerds and en­g­ineers build a fron­tier town with only nerds and en­g­ineers,” I say “oh yeah, that to­tally checks out, and I can see the ap­peal.” Hav­ing seen more of the power of hav­ing some­thing to pro­tect, and how quickly clever peo­ple can un­der­stand things they fo­cus on, it also no longer strains cre­dulity that an air­craft man­u­fac­turer could also figure out rais­ing hogs, and hav­ing seen what true own­er­ship looks like, it no longer sur­prises me that they would choose a ‘down­grade.’[3]

The Conflict

In youth, I fo­cused on the con­flict be­tween the cre­ators and the loot­ers, and watched how Rand’s fic­tional Amer­ica falls to com­mu­nism and self-de­struc­tive moral­ity. The cre­ators deal with ab­solutes and ob­jec­tive facts; the loot­ers deal with ne­go­ti­a­tions and sub­jec­tive facts, and they can’t over­come this method­olog­i­cal differ­ence, or the un­der­ly­ing moral differ­ences. Read­ing it now, the in­ter­est­ing con­flict is be­tween Dagny (the hero­ine who be­lieves in hu­man­ity) and Galt (the hero who ini­ti­ates the strike).

Both of them op­pose the loot­ers. Dagny views them re­signed bore­dom, and re­solves to work harder, be­liev­ing that she can pro­duce more blood than the leeches can drain. Galt de­cides to give them what they want, good and hard. But only one strat­egy can be em­ployed at a time; if Dagny and other scabs keep civ­i­liza­tion afloat de­spite the fun­da­men­tal con­tra­dic­tion pre­sented by the loot­ers, then that con­tra­dic­tion can re­main un­ad­dressed. If Galt and the strik­ers yield con­trol over the visi­ble earth to the loot­ers, then the world grinds to a halt with mas­sive wide­spread mis­ery, and the lega­cies of past cre­ators are mostly de­stroyed. So the two of them have a shadow war over the cre­ators, with Galt even­tu­ally win­ning.

This shadow war, of course, isn’t a lo­gis­ti­cal af­fair, but a moral and philo­soph­i­cal one. When peo­ple are ready to give up on hu­man­ity, Galt vis­its them and puts into words the moral feel­ings that they haven’t heard be­fore from any­one else, and con­vinces them to give up col­lab­o­ra­tion with loot­ers and go on strike. Valu­ing sur­prise and lived ex­pe­rience over per­sua­sion, he doesn’t take his mes­sage to the pub­lic un­til he’s won.

The Judgments

One of the things that was most strik­ing about the book this time around was the sense of “they should have known bet­ter.” That is, not only is it good to think, and to turn to re­al­ity for truth, but peo­ple are re­spon­si­ble for figur­ing that out. Not nec­es­sar­ily from scratch—but in an un­cer­tain and em­bat­tled in­for­ma­tion ecosys­tem, it mat­ters whether or not they end up with that con­clu­sion. Many of the side char­ac­ters have a brush with truth, and turn to­wards it, and then die or suffer an ig­no­ble end be­cause they got some im­por­tant fact wrong, and good in­ten­tions aren’t good enough.

Ben­quo’s com­ment shows what Ed­die Willers (Dagny’s as­sis­tant) gets wrong—ba­si­cally, he’s loyal to “the train com­pany” in­stead of “think­ing” or “en­g­ineer­ing” or “pro­duc­tive work”, and is un­able to do any­thing about the col­lapse of the world be­sides “work harder,” and it’s not enough. Cher­ryl Brooks meets James Tag­gart and takes at face value the pub­lic re­la­tions claim that he was be­hind the John Galt line (which was ac­tu­ally Dagny’s idea and sole effort, done af­ter he washed his hands of it), and doesn’t try to un­der­stand her en­vi­ron­ment in the right way to dis­cover she’s be­ing tricked un­til too late. Robert Stadler (the ge­nius physi­cist, and one of Galt’s two teach­ers) wants to think about the ab­strac­tions un­der­neath phys­i­cal re­al­ity in­stead of so­ciety, and so ac­cepts what­ever deal is offered him by so­ciety, and finds him­self backed into a cor­ner, his sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies used for ends hor­rific to him, a pow­er­less figure­head who will say in pub­lic what­ever he is asked to say. The Wet Nurse goes to col­lege to study met­al­lurgy and ends up work­ing as the bu­reau­crat mon­i­tor­ing Rear­den’s mills; he even­tu­ally dis­cov­ers that he wants a real job at the mills, but the con­trol­ling regime he works for would need to ap­prove his trans­fer, and would view his de­sire to trans­fer with sus­pi­cion.

Most in­ter­est­ing to me is the re­la­tion­ship the sides have to per­sua­sion. The loot­ers spend much of their time co­or­di­nat­ing, but it’s back­room deals with in­for­ma­tion as cur­rency and empty plat­i­tudes and guilt trips in pub­lic. They don’t think the pub­lic can think, and so their at­tempts to figure out what to do and their at­tempts to con­vince the pub­lic are en­tirely dis­joint af­fairs.[4] The strik­ers think that one of the fun­da­men­tal obli­ga­tions peo­ple have is figur­ing out the state of the world, and only nudge peo­ple into ac­tions, in­stead of try­ing to re­veal new parts of the world to them. (They’re like the man hand­ing out blank leaflets.) The scabs view par­ti­ci­pa­tion in hu­man so­ciety as a cost of do­ing busi­ness, view do­ing busi­ness as the pri­mary goal in life, and don’t have any­thing to offer other scabs be­sides con­tin­u­ing to do busi­ness to­gether. Rather than some­one com­ing to Rear­den and say­ing “hey, hu­man­ity isn’t worth it, why don’t you just leave?” they wait un­til hu­man­ity has mis­treated Rear­den enough for him to already be­lieve it, and only needs it pointed out to him for him to re­al­ize that he already be­lieves it.

Con­sider the con­nec­tion to their ba­sic way of look­ing at the world: for the looter, so­cial re­al­ity is the dom­i­nant re­al­ity, and so they spend a lot of time at­tempt­ing to shift the views of those around them. For the striker, phys­i­cal re­al­ity is their dom­i­nant re­al­ity, and so they let facts ‘speak for them­selves’.

You Can Lead A Horse To Water, But

The parables from the book struck me, both the first time around and the sec­ond. Here’s my fa­vorite:

“I know who is John Galt,” said the tramp. “It’s a se­cret, but I know it.”

“Who?” she asked with­out in­ter­est.

“An ex­plorer,” said the tramp. “The great­est ex­plorer that ever lived. The man who found the foun­tain of youth. John Galt spent years look­ing for it. He crossed oceans, and he crossed deserts, and he went down into for­got­ten mines, miles un­der the earth. But he found it on the top of a moun­tain. It took him ten years to climb that moun­tain. It broke ev­ery bone in his body, it tore the skin off his hands, it made him lose him home, his name, his love. But he climbed it. He found the foun­tain of youth, which he wanted to bring down to men. Only he never came back.”

“Why didn’t he?” she asked.

“Be­cause he found that it couldn’t be brought down.”

My read­ing of this is that truth is find­able, but you have to go to it, and you can­not bring it to you. If you seek to find out what chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion will lead to a bet­ter va­ri­ety of steel, you will find it; if you seek to prove that your start­ing guess is right, you will of­ten be dis­ap­pointed. And even this method of find­ing truth is an ex­am­ple of this; if you seek out method­ol­ogy with gen­uine cu­ri­os­ity, you will find a good one, and if you trust to what you started out with, you suc­ceed only by luck.

This seems like a re­cur­ring theme, some­how; the sense that you can’t think for an­other per­son, and it’s wrong to try. The best our ex­plorer can do is shout down “this is how I climbed up the moun­tain”, but oth­ers need to climb up them­selves. You can’t read your way into origi­nal think­ing, or trust your way into a con­fi­dent con­clu­sion.

In­ci­den­tally, I didn’t read the in­tro­duc­tion by Leonard Peikoff ei­ther read-through, be­cause in the sec­ond para­graph he says Rand wouldn’t have wanted an in­tro­duc­tion to her work, in­stead of let­ting it stand on its own mer­its. But af­ter my most re­cent read-through, I idly read the in­tro­duc­tion, and came across some­thing shock­ing. He quotes a di­ary en­try by Rand:

I seem to be both a the­o­ret­i­cal philoso­pher and a fic­tion writer. But it is the last that in­ter­ests me most; the first is only the means to the last; the ab­solutely nec­es­sary means, but only the means; the fic­tion story is the end. Without an un­der­stand­ing and state­ment of the right philo­soph­i­cal prin­ci­ple, I can­not cre­ate the right story; but the dis­cov­ery of the prin­ci­ple in­ter­ests me only as the dis­cov­ery of the proper knowl­edge to be used for my life pur­pose; and my life pur­pose is the cre­ation of the kind of world (peo­ple and events) that I like—that is, that rep­re­sents hu­man perfec­tion.

Philo­soph­i­cal knowl­edge is nec­es­sary in or­der to define hu­man perfec­tion. But I do not care to stop at the defi­ni­tion, I want to use it, to ap­ply it—in my work (in my per­sonal life, too—but the core, cen­ter and pur­pose of my per­sonal life, of my whole life, is my work).

This is why, I think, the idea of writ­ing a philo­soph­i­cal non-fic­tion book bored me. In such a book, the pur­pose would ac­tu­ally be to teach oth­ers, to pre­sent my idea to them. In a book of fic­tion the pur­pose is to cre­ate, for my­self, the kind of world I want and to live in it while I am cre­at­ing it; for as a sec­ondary con­se­quence, to let oth­ers en­joy this world if, and to the ex­tent that they can.

It shocks me that a book I have been given for free four times, pre­sum­ably in the hopes of cul­ti­vat­ing a like-minded soul, was writ­ten be­cause Rand wanted to make it for her­self, rather than to have an im­pact on the world, or to teach oth­ers. [It re­minds me of Manda­tory Se­cret Iden­tities, or the art hav­ing a pur­pose be­sides it­self.]

The Relevance

When I was younger, I had a sense that while some top­ics might be off limits, civ­i­liza­tion was built on and sup­ported rea­soned de­bate. Then I had the sense that more and more top­ics were be­com­ing off limits and that the prin­ci­ples un­der­ly­ing de­bate were be­ing at­tacked di­rectly, as well as the differ­ence be­tween value of top­ics be­ing much larger than I had naively ex­pected, as ex­is­ten­tial risk makes most other con­sid­er­a­tions pale in com­par­i­son. Yes, you might not be able to speak the truth about A or B or C, but the small gains made by so­ciety be­ing right about any of those pale in com­par­i­son to the gains made by so­ciety be­ing right about X, and so to the ex­tent one needs a good rep­u­ta­tion for so­ciety to heed their thoughts about X, one should be silent on A, B, and C. But this isn’t just a lo­cal thing; the sound of silence is spread­ing more broadly as more peo­ple de­cide it’s not worth it to speak up.

First they came for the episte­mol­ogy. We don’t know what hap­pened af­ter that. --Michael Vassar

His­tor­i­cally speak­ing, this isn’t re­ally a sur­prise, and is more of a ‘re­turn to nor­malcy,’ with the ac­com­pa­ny­ing ob­ser­va­tion that most of his­tory has been quite bad to live in on im­por­tant met­rics.

That is, the stan­dard way things have gone is that there’s some rul­ing hege­mony, and they have a vested in­ter­est in con­trol­ling the be­lief sys­tem of those that they rule; the prin­ci­ples of clas­si­cal liber­al­ism, like free­dom of thought and re­li­gion, rather than hav­ing nat­u­ral al­lies in all other be­lief sys­tems, have nat­u­ral en­e­mies in those sys­tems, as when­ever a be­lief thinks it can win, it doesn’t see any value in pro­tect­ing its com­pe­ti­tion. Well-kept gar­dens die by paci­fism, and the uni­ver­sal­ist liberal or­der failed to main­tain moral supremacy.

My per­sonal re­sponse to this has mostly been to with­draw; if so­ciety doesn’t want me to speak my un­fet­tered thoughts, then I shall fet­ter my­self; I’m co­op­er­a­tive enough for that, at least. If var­i­ous traits that make me a good thinker make me un­fit for pub­lic ser­vice, then I will do other things in­stead. If var­i­ous poli­cies that are down­stream of care­ful think­ing are highly un­pop­u­lar, then I will not put my trust or effort into poli­tics. There’s a lot of Galt in this, where so­ciety gets what it re­wards, and it’s up to so­ciety to learn to re­ward the right things.

Suc­cess lies in be­ing se­cre­tive, and defeat lies in re­veal­ing things— an en­light­ened lord will have none of this at­ti­tude. Suc­cess lies in be­ing out­spo­ken, and defeat lies in hid­ing things— a be­nighted lord will have none of this at­ti­tude. Thus, if the lord of men is se­cre­tive, then dishon­est words will come, and straight talk will be turned back. Petty men will draw near, and gen­tle­men will be put at a dis­tance. If the lord of men is out­spo­ken, then straight talk will come, and dishon­est words will be turned back. Gentle­men will draw near, and petty men will be put at a dis­tance. --Xunzi, “Un­do­ing Fix­a­tion”

There’s a trope in Con­fu­cian think­ing, which is that in times of trou­ble, where there are no good peo­ple to serve, the best peo­ple—to the Con­fu­ci­ans, the most morally up­right—will re­treat into ob­scu­rity, and wait for bet­ter times.[5] This seems to both be a pu­rity thing and a self-preser­va­tion thing; an hon­est man can­not serve a dishon­est regime with­out los­ing his hon­esty, and while a wicked minister might trou­ble a lo­cal mer­chant for taxes or bribes, they would plot to kill an­other minister in their way. It is un­healthy to be an hon­est man in a dishon­est or­ga­ni­za­tion, and so the thing for the hon­est men to do is be­come sim­ple schol­ars or crafts­men or mer­chants.

And yet, the Dagny in my heart is not so will­ing to give up. Without peo­ple who look at a wicked world and say “I will stand up for good­ness,” how could the world have any good­ness in it?

I must come to the topic of “sel­l­ing” new ideas. You must mas­ter three things to do this:

  1. Giv­ing for­mal pre­sen­ta­tions.

  2. Pro­duc­ing writ­ten re­ports, and

  3. Mas­ter­ing the art of in­for­mal pre­sen­ta­tions as they hap­pen to oc­cur.

All three are es­sen­tial—you must learn to sell your ideas, not by pro­pa­ganda, but by force of clear pre­sen­ta­tion. I am sorry to have to point this out; many sci­en­tists and oth­ers think good ideas will win out au­to­mat­i­cally and need not be care­fully pre­sented. They are wrong; many a good idea has had to be re­dis­cov­ered be­cause it was not well pre­sented the first time, years be­fore! New ideas are au­to­mat­i­cally re­sistsed by the es­tab­lish­ment, and to some ex­tent justly. --Richard Ham­ming, “The Art of Do­ing Science and Eng­ineer­ing—Learn­ing to Learn”

And most of all, I find my­self won­der­ing what the miss­ing third way is. Pre­sum­ably one can serve two mas­ters, and ex­ist in both phys­i­cal and so­cial re­al­ity, and Bayesi­ans can win against bar­bar­ians; what does it look like to ac­tu­ally defend the En­light­en­ment and liberal virtues against en­croach­ing illiber­al­ism? That is, could there be a suc­cess­ful open cam­paign in the daylight that was in fa­vor of rea­son and nerds? (And the real deal, in­stead of “I fuck­ing love sci­ence” slo­ga­neer­ing and Hol­ly­wood nerds?)

And if not, then what? Will free thought sim­ply fade into ob­scu­rity? Will some­one make one (or sev­eral?) mod­ern Gulchs, where an open so­ciety of the mind can ex­ist by be­ing a closed so­ciety of the body?[6] Will there just be whispers in the dark, where free thinkers find each other out­side of the spotlight?

  1. I hadn’t yet read Hayek, who I think is the best rep­re­sen­ta­tive of this branch and gave me a much firmer in­tel­lec­tual foun­da­tion, par­tic­u­larly with The Con­sti­tu­tion of Liberty.. ↩︎

  2. The Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion had only been founded 7 years be­fore the book was pub­lished, and so Rand hadn’t had much chance to see what gen­eral gov­ern­ment-funded sci­ence looked like. But as far as I can tell, sci­en­tific cul­ture is way worse to­day than it was a hun­dred years ago, and the fund­ing model might ac­tu­ally be a sig­nifi­cant fac­tor?] ↩︎

  3. I can’t find the quote at the mo­ment, but once I came across a game com­pany CEO talk­ing about what it’s like to be CEO, and the ex­am­ple he chose is notic­ing that the trash was full and tak­ing it out him­self. Some­one who thinks of CEO in terms of ‘sta­tus’ will be too ‘big’ to take out the trash, but the true way to be CEO is to be always figur­ing out what needs to be done and then en­sur­ing it gets done.] ↩︎

  4. Fran­cisco d’An­co­nia, one of the strik­ers who is us­ing his in­her­ited wealth and com­pany to help speed up the wreck­age of the world, en­joys tweak­ing the loot­ers af­ter they in­vest in him on the ba­sis of his rep­u­ta­tion and then the en­ter­prise (de­liber­ately) fails, be­cause it was based on the plat­i­tudes in­stead of proper rea­son­ing. “I thought you would ap­prove of it. … I thought you would con­sider the San Se­bas­tian Mines as the prac­ti­cal re­al­iza­tion of an ideal of the high­est moral or­der. … I thought you would rec­og­nize it as an hon­est effort to prac­tice what the whole world is preach­ing.” ↩︎

  5. ‘How gen­tle­manly Ch’u Po-yu is! When the Way pre­vails in the state he takes office, but when the Way falls into di­suse in the state he al­lows him­self to be furled and put away safely.’ The Analects. Tho note the differ­ence be­tween the trans­la­tions; the Lau one (1979) matches my un­der­stand­ing, but the Legge one (1893) is a very differ­ent thing! ↩︎

  6. Xunzi’s stu­dents were given promi­nent po­si­tions in the state of Qin, a land on the west­ern fron­tier of China, and from that base con­quered the rest. Early Mus­lims were ex­iled to Me­d­ina, where they de­vel­oped fully, and then were able to con­quer their origi­nal home of Mecca, and then be­yond. The fi­nal lines of At­las Shrugged in­volve John Galt look­ing out from the Gulch and say­ing “The road is cleared. We are go­ing back to the world.” ↩︎