Twenty years ago, I always looked forward to the arrival of the newest Easton Press catalog in the mail with an almost erotic yearning. Sometimes the too-long breaks between catalogs would be relieved by flyers advertising special editions. One of these, I seem to recall, displayed on its front page a four-volume set of the novels of Ayn Rand, together with several glowing endorsements of her works from business and political figures. A contemporary catalog speaks of her as a “daring philosopher and compelling author” and of her books as “controversial and powerful novels…classics that champion individuality and nonconformity in the face of numbing bureaucracy…some of the 20th century’s most influential writings.” I liked the sound of that, but I had other collecting priorities at the time. I did not get around to reading Rand’s novels for another sixteen years, and when I finally did so, my primary motivation had become curiosity as to exactly what she had to say that infatuated some and infuriated others.
I chose to focus on Rand’s fiction rather than her theoretical works to see how she would describe her economic and social theories in action, including the novels We the Living, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, the novella Anthem, and the play Think Twice. The plots of all these works, except the last, deal with the struggles of talented but nonconforming individuals to remain uninfluenced by their societies and triumph over them. While Atlas Shrugged is usually described as Rand’s masterpiece, her earlier, shorter works are greatly superior to it. Think Twice, a murder mystery, is probably her finest piece of writing, in which she depicts how dependence on another person can become the starting point for manipulation and abuse. She also used it as an opportunity to comment on the pernicious effects of charity in general, an idea that appears in the works of her contemporaries H.G. Wells and E. Phillips Oppenheim as well. The play’s weakest moment is its climax, which degenerates into melodrama with its stereotypical “the Communist did it.” Rand could not resist taking jabs at Communists. Her dystopian allegory Anthem benefits from its shortness and its lack of definite historical background; it is more focused, idealistic, and enthusiastic about individual freedom than any of her other novels. It is also more optimistic. We the Living, set in the early days of the Soviet Union, is less about the obscenity of the totalitarian state and more about the struggle to survive in a land ravaged by war. In a sense, it is Gone with the Wind transposed to Russia. Given that Rand considered herself a Romantic with a desire to express the best in human potential, the ending of this book is terrible. The Fountainhead deals chiefly with the topics of artistic integrity, extreme individuality, and the evils of dependence as expressed through the person of Howard Roark, a colorless architect whose egotism makes the Renaissance masters look humble by comparison. It is an agonizingly prolonged bildungsroman. As for Atlas Shrugged, there is the germ of a good plot in this book with its idea of the creative workers of the world uniting to go on strike from a society that has ceased to appreciate them, but Rand let it go on much too long. A more practiced writer of science fiction would have cut the book down to a third of its eventual length, producing a stronger effect. Otherwise, it is the story of how the free market is immeasurably superior to the managed economy, though Rand shows herself to be quite unclear on what a free market is. The famous speech delivered at the end of the book by her deus ex machina superman John Galt is physically painful to read, given its vanity and vagueness. Rand’s writing style is nothing special and abounds in similes. There are nevertheless occasional delightful moments in her books, such as D’Anconia’s remarks at the Rearden party in Atlas Shrugged or Roark’s exposition of the individual nature of the creative process (frankly the best part of The Fountainhead), and the plumbing analogy of We the Living. Galt’s largely vapid speech contains a few gems that are most likely the result of Rand’s interest in Aristotle:
“Your mind is your only judge of truth…If devotion to truth is the hallmark of morality, then there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man who assumes the responsibility of thinking…The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments…I saw that the enemy was an inverted morality—and that my sanction was its only power. I saw that evil was impotent—that evil was the irrational, the blind, the anti-real—and that the only weapon of its triumph was the willingness of the good to serve it.”
However, Rand elsewhere identifies this true morality with industrialism, rather blunting the idealism of those sentiments.
“The motive and purpose of my writing [is] the projection of an ideal man,” Rand once stated. Ostensibly, her ideal man is driven by a supreme love of life. “‘My life is the highest of values, too high to give up without a fight,’” railway executive Dagny Taggart asserts in Atlas Shrugged. “‘If existence on earth is your goal, you must choose your actions and values by the standard of that which is proper to man—for the purpose of preserving, fulfilling and enjoying the irreplaceable value which is your life,’” John Galt agrees. “‘A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death.’” “‘I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life,’” states the fiercely independent architect Howard Roark, the protagonist of The Fountainhead. “‘Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need.’” Roark goes further and connects the existence of life with the existence of reason: “‘When you suspend your faculty of independent judgment, you suspend consciousness. To stop consciousness is to stop life.’” There was clearly more to Rand’s view of the importance of life than survival, as further indicated by a comment that one of her characters makes to a Soviet official in We the Living: “‘You may claim the right to kill, as all fighters do. But no one before you has ever thought of forbidding life to those still living.’”
The objective of this life, according to Prometheus, the hero of Anthem, is happiness. “My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.” A recurrent theme throughout Atlas Shrugged is Rand’s observation that the harmful living situations and bizarre taboos of Western societies are largely responsible for both physical and mental suffering among the population of those societies. “‘We are on strike against the dogma that the pursuit of one’s happiness is evil,’” John Galt tells America. “‘We are on strike against the doctrine that life is guilt…
“You have been taught that morality is a code of behavior imposed on you by whim, the whim of a supernatural power or the whim of society, to serve God’s purpose or your neighbor’s welfare, to please an authority beyond the grave or else next door—but not to serve your life or pleasure. Your pleasure, you have been taught, is to be found in immorality, your interests would best be served by evil, and any moral code must be designed not for you, but against you, not to further your life, but to drain it.”
“‘We saw that we’d been given a law to live by, a moral law, they called it, which punished those who observed it—for observing it,’” a laborer in the same book remarks when complaining about the problem of freeloading in communal enterprises (although the statement applies broadly to any human law). “She would not allow pain to become important,” Rand wrote of Dagny Taggart, an oddly Aurelian statement placed in a context of industrial warfare. Throwing Rand’s views on the primacy of happiness into greater relief is a sinister passage penned by the socialist Ellsworth Toohey that appears in Fountainhead:
“Don’t allow men to be happy. Happiness is self-contained and self-sufficient. Happy men have no time and no use for you. Happy men are free men. So kill their joy in living. Take away from them whatever is dear or important to them. Never let them have what they want. Make them feel that the mere fact of a personal desire is evil.”
“‘Happiness is the successful state of life, pain is an agent of death,’” Galt summed up. “‘Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.’”
Happiness in Rand’s understanding—and that of her characters—is thus part of a set of related values. It is equal to success in life; it is also equal to, and inseparable from, personal freedom. Life is likewise inseparable from consciousness or conscious effort, happiness is similarly defined as a state of consciousness or awareness, and life itself is considered the highest value. The Randian hero moves through life towards happiness and freedom by means of reasoned, independent effort, attaining his goals while living, merely by living, so long as he retains his singular identity and confidence in his own intellectual powers. He is happy while pursuing freedom; he is free while pursuing happiness; he must be alive to do both; he cannot move through life without logic and identity. “‘Who can tell me why I should live for anything but for that which I want? Who can answer that in human sounds that speak for human reason?’” the protagonist demands in We the Living. Nowhere, however, is this feeling expressed more blatantly than in Anthem:
It is my mind which thinks, and the judgment of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth. It is my will which chooses, and the choice of my will is the only edict I must respect. Many words have been granted me, and some are wise, and some are false, but only three are holy: “I will it!”…
This god, this one word: I…
I owe nothing to my brothers, nor do I gather debts from them. I ask none to live for me, nor do I live for any others. I covet no man’s soul, nor is my soul theirs to covet. I am neither foe nor friend to my brothers, but such as each of them shall deserve of me. And to earn my love, my brothers must do more than to have been born. I do not grant my love without reason, nor to any chance passer-by who may wish to claim it. I honor men with my love. But honor is a thing to be earned. I shall choose my friends among men, but neither slaves nor masters. And I shall choose only such as please me, and them I shall love and respect, but neither command nor obey. And we shall join our hands when we wish, or walk alone when we so desire.
Howard Roark’s egotism is a close second to that of the self-made Prometheus. “‘I don’t work with collectives. I don’t consult, I don’t co-operate, I don’t collaborate,’” he says. So secure is he in his own self-sufficiency that he can claim, “‘A truly selfish man cannot be affected by the approval of others. He doesn’t need it.’” At one point he reflects that “it was strange to be conscious of another person’s existence.” On another occasion, he asks, “‘How can you let others decide for you?’” His sometime employer, the newspaper magnate Gail Wynand, shares this attitude:
“That I’ve never practiced any sort of integrity is not so important. What’s important is that I’ve never felt any need for it. I hate the conception of it. I hate the presumptuousness of the idea…If it were true, that old legend about appearing before a supreme judge and naming one’s record, I would offer, with all my pride, not any act I committed, but one thing I have never done on this earth: that I never sought an outside sanction. I would stand and say: I am Gail Wynand, the man who has committed every crime except the foremost one: that of ascribing futility to the wonderful fact of existence and seeking justification beyond myself. This is my pride: that now, thinking of the end, I do not cry like all the men of my age: but what was the use and the meaning? I was the use and the meaning, I, Gail Wynand. That I lived and that I acted.”
Rand took the Platonic concept of striving for the good life, the life lived with integrity according to one’s professed values, and turned it on its head by setting those values equal to self-interest. Fountainhead makes it clear that to the Randian hero, the ultimate form of selflessness—and therefore of evil—is to give up his ego.
It is worth observing that Rand elsewhere accused the nation-state of replacing one religious system (churchgoing/private morality) with another (collectivism/public morality), and rejected both systems, but was nevertheless eager to set up her own third religion of the Perfect Man. The hostility that such a self-sufficient, self-centered man must provoke among the socialists is expressed in another passage by Toohey:
“Great men can’t be ruled. We don’t want any great men. Don’t deny the conception of greatness. Destroy it from within. The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional. Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept—and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection.”
Perfection, in Rand’s world, is achieved through industrial progress, and her hero is therefore always a technologist. Engineers, architects, or those who could make money out of engineering and architecture were uniformly her favorites. And technology too is bound up with Rand’s conception of the virtues. In We the Living, the lead character Kira, who is training as an engineer, explains that “‘it’s the only profession for which I don’t have to learn any lies. Steel is steel. Most of the other sciences are someone’s guess, and someone’s wish, and many people’s lies.’” Technology—both in the sense of the physical steel that comprises it and in the sense of the natural laws governing its use—equals logic and truth in the Randian equation, which further equates it with life and happiness as well as virtue. Rand’s two major novels are perhaps the highest expression in fiction of the American technological sublime, a concept that the technology writer L.M. Sacacas summarized as the way “the Americans blended, almost seamlessly, their religious affections with their veneration for technology until finally the experience of technology took on the unifying role of religion in traditional societies.” “‘What are they, your mills—a holy temple of some kind?’” Rearden’s mother challenges him. “‘Why…yes,’ he said softly, astonished at the thought.” “‘He thinks you should take your shoes off and kneel, when you speak of architecture,’” one of Roark’s rivals comments dismissively. That same rival nonetheless later finds himself writing, albeit from a very different perspective than Roark’s, that “‘the architect is a metaphysical priest dealing in basic essentials.’” Representing the technologist as a high priest was certainly Rand’s intention. Dagny Taggart’s attitude towards her own family’s railway is forthright “worship of the skill that had gone to make it, of the ingenuity of someone’s clean, reasoning mind.” Rand likewise referred to John Galt’s miraculous motors as “a moral code cast in steel.” An anecdote from Atlas Shrugged underscores the point:
“Once, an elderly professor of literature, Mrs. Taggart’s friend, saw them on top of a pile in a junk yard, dismantling the carcass of an automobile. He stopped, shook his head and said to Francisco, ‘A young man of your position ought to spend his time in libraries, absorbing the culture of the world.’ ‘What do you think I’m doing?’ asked Francisco.”
“‘It’s we who move the world and it’s we who’ll pull it through,” Hank Rearden says to Dagny Taggart. Yes—for a price, since Rand made it clear that “‘the words “to make money” hold the essence of human morality’” and that “‘the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader.’” Technology, to be virtuous, must be exploited for profit, which term takes its place alongside life, happiness, and logic as a result. Any of Rand’s heroes might say with Anthem’s Prometheus, “The only things which taught us joy were the power we created in our wires.”
Life and technology are largely interchangeable terms in Rand’s worldview, in that a life lived well will manifest itself first in technological pursuits and then in the particular appearance or form that the ideal man stamps on his technology. “‘We live in our minds, and existence is the attempt to bring that life into physical reality, to state it in gesture and form. For the man who understands this, a house he owns is a statement of his life,’” Howard Roark explains. One of his designs, for a client who asks Roark to give him what he needs rather than what might be popular, turns out to be
…a study in circles; there were no angles and no straight lines; it looked like shapes caught in a flow, held still at the moment of being poured, at the precise moment when they formed a harmony that seemed too perfect to be intentional. It looked like a cluster of bubbles hanging low over the ground, not quite touching it, to be swept aside in an instant on a wind of speed; it looked gay, with the hard, bracing gaiety of efficiency, like a powerful airplane engine.
“‘What we love about these buildings, Dominique, is the creative faculty, the heroic in man,’” Roark says to his girl. “‘What in hell are you really made of, Howard?’” someone else asks him. “‘After all, it’s only a building. It’s not the combination of holy sacrament, Indian torture and sexual ecstasy that you seem to make of it.’” “‘Isn’t it?’” Roark replies. As for Dominique’s point of view, gazing down on New York, “the buildings of the city far below looked no bigger than the model on his table. It seemed to her that she could see his hands shaping the setbacks, the corners, the roofs of all the structures below, smashing and molding again.” The ideal man who can express himself through technology in his life does so by exercising power over men and nature alike, restrained only by his superior judgment, unique to his species and to the strong of his species. “‘I like cigarettes, Miss Taggart,’” a newspaper vendor comments. “‘I like to think of fire held in a man’s hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips.’”
Nature, on the other hand, is only a backdrop to man’s works, the raw material for his pursuits, as Gail Wynand makes clear in Fountainhead:
“When I look at the ocean, I feel the greatness of man. I think of man’s magnificent capacity that created this ship to conquer all that senseless space. When I look at mountain peaks, I think of tunnels and dynamite. When I look at the planets, I think of airplanes…It’s interesting to speculate on the reasons that make men so anxious to debase themselves…It’s as if they were smacking their lips in sheer glee that their best is dust before the brute force of an earthquake. As if they were sprawling on all fours, rubbing their foreheads in the mud to the majesty of a hurricane. But that’s not the spirit that leashed fire, steam, electricity, that crossed oceans in sailing sloops, that built airplanes and dams…and skyscrapers.”
In Anthem, Rand’s worldbuilding presupposes that collectivism has resulted in the collapse of industrial society, producing a medieval-style dystopia:
They whisper many strange things, of the towers which rose to the sky, in those Unmentionable Times, and of the wagons which moved without horses, and of the lights which burned without flame. But those times were evil…We learned that the earth is flat and that the sun revolves around it, which causes the day and the night…We learned the names of all the winds which blow over the seas and push the sails of our great ships. We learned how to bleed men to cure them of all ailments…All the great modern inventions come from the Home of the Scholars, such as the newest one, which we found only a hundred years ago, of how to make candles from wax and string; also, how to make glass, which is put in our windows to protect us from the rain…At forty, [men] are worn out…When a miracle happens and some live to be forty-five, they are the Ancient Ones…Our brothers in the Home of the Clerks spend one year to copy one single script in their clear handwriting.
Opposition to technological progress and industrial expansion is expressed only by the villains in a Rand novel. One of them, in Atlas Shrugged, avers that “‘machines have destroyed man’s humanity, taken him away from the soil, robbed him of his natural arts, killed his soul and turned him into an insensitive robot.’” This, oddly, was the worst thing Rand could think of to say about technology, even when speaking falsely—not that industry led to economic specialization and therefore a culture of dependence, nor that agrarian society would involve less economic dependence, but rather that machinery might somehow be immoral by its nature. Such an approach is explained by her conception that the machines themselves were a moral code, which humans might either embrace or reject, making them virtuous or evil respectively. Since the machines themselves were inherently moral, that the relationships of man with man might be affected negatively by machines was not something she ever considered possible. Where technology exists and is respected in the Randian world, it must elevate.
Part of the effectiveness of Rand’s works as intellectual exercises results from the obvious dichotomies she set up between her heroes and antagonists. Both classes of characters are clear and literal. Their positions are not nuanced. They state the essence of their competing values in simple, unambiguous terms and physically embody characteristics associated with those values—in short, they are avatars. The encounter between the Dean and Roark early in The Fountainhead is a good instance of this. It’s easy for the reader to resent the Dean; it’s equally easy for him to see the unfairly-suppressed promise in Roark. Mrs. Rearden’s party early in Atlas Shrugged is an even better example of Rand’s contrasting-characters technique, featuring more powerful and more varied figures. The characters who act out these dialectics are not stereotypes, but they are one-dimensional: ideas made flesh. Generally they represent tradition versus innovation and subservience versus independence. The ideal man is usually on one side of the debate and gets the best of it.
These ideal men of Rand’s are more than a little obvious and trite as well as physically unappealing. All her villains are undersized, slouching, or overweight. Conversely, all her heroes are tall and tend towards being cold, indifferent, bland, even cruel—rather New England Puritan stereotypes, in fact. Her own adjectives for them included calm, severe, contemptuous, cold, steady, tense, arrogant, courteous, expressionless, commanding, straight (We the Living); thin, hard, strong (Anthem); rigid, closed, disquieting, gaunt, insulting, insolent, austere, unapproachable, indifferent, cruel, “ice cube” (The Fountainhead); and unyielding, implacable, merciless, bitter, pure, lonely, ascetic, ruthless, tight, taut, astonished (Atlas Shrugged). Of the newspaperman Gail Wynand, she wrote, “He felt many emotions toward his fellow men, but respect was not one of them…a creature possessed by the single impulse to have his way.” Her occasional rapture over the human form was reducible to utilitarian motives: “‘the beauty of the human body is that it hasn’t a single muscle which doesn’t serve its purpose; that there’s not a line wasted; that every detail of it fits one idea, the idea of a man and the life of a man.’” In one sense, the aesthetic of her stories is Puritan materialism with God excised but the work ethic preserved. To Rand, wealth was important as a marker of the creative and determined man rather than as a force in its own right. If a man was wealthy, she assumed that he must have been strong enough and egotistical enough to earn his wealth, and therefore deserved respect, and though she acknowledged the exceptions to this rule briefly, she took sanctification by wealth for granted in general. The question raised by such descriptions of her characters, however, is how they are to convey the supreme virtue of happiness. Are these stern, detached, unemotional men her ambassadors of life and freedom? They have little charm or appeal and produce no conviction in the reader that the ideals they embody are attractive.
Nevertheless, so large did this ideal man loom in Rand’s vision that even her antagonistic characters couldn’t help but be swayed by the promise of his ability. In a passage in Atlas Shrugged in which the “looters”—federal bureaucrats—tell Rearden that they have every confidence that he will be able to keep up production in spite of the restrictions they have placed on him, they cannot resist expressing admiration for the greatest force of nature, the creative industrialist. They feel themselves compelled to render him homage against their will. This scene is Rand’s way of expressing how undeniable the greatness of the ideal man is even to his enemies, and how indispensable he is to them. John Galt’s calm resistance to his torturers at the end of the book provokes much the same response in them while recalling the wager of Epictetus as well. Rand’s reverence for the economic superman of her own creation also serves to highlight just how out of date her views on corporations were, even for the period at which she was writing. She viewed corporations as nothing more than fronts for driven men of steel, who were above the sordidness of weak collaboration or political influence buying. The arch-example of this in her works is Dagny Taggart, who is technically a minority stockholder in the family railway but nevertheless orders her brother and the rest of the directors about through sheer force of personality. Rand entirely lost sight of the fact that the reason for a corporation’s existence is to grant government privileges and protection to a group of individuals in order to assist them in exploiting other individuals who do not share in those protections. If Rand had really been serious about the primacy of men of genius, she would have advocated the abolition of the corporation in order to ensure that no ideal man could ever be ordered about by the inferiors on his board, that no business enterprise could ever be greater or less than its creators, and that talent would no longer be at the mercy of wealthy mediocrity. Instead, she dismissed the corporation as a legal fiction that merely provided her ideal men with the capital they needed for their great enterprises. She thought—and her readers would doubtless like to think—that her books are paens to a free market. In reality, they are only paens to capitalism, which would be almost nonexistent in a true free market. The heroic individualist industrialist she described was long dead by the time she began writing, if indeed he had ever existed at all.
While Rand was full of admiration for the laborer who triumphed, she had no such sympathy for him if he failed. From her first novel to her last, Rand’s writing overflows with contempt for the working class as a whole, the workers who are content to remain workers without attempting to exploit one another. In We the Living she pronounced, “‘It is an old and ugly fact that the masses exist and make their existence felt. This is a time when they make it felt with particular ugliness.’” Later in the book, she lashed out at the masses again with greater vehemence, rejecting the Benthamite ideal of “the greatest good for the greatest number”:
“Can you sacrifice the few? When those few are the best? Deny the best its right to the top—and you have no best left. What are your masses but millions of dull, shrivelled, stagnant souls that have no thoughts of their own, no dreams of their own, no will of their own, who eat and sleep and chew helplessly the words others put into their brains? And for those you would sacrifice the few who know life, who are life? I loathe your ideals because I know no worse injustice than the giving of the undeserved. Because men are not equal in ability and one can’t treat them as if they were.”
Elsewhere in her works, Rand ruled out talent and stated that mastery of any skill could be achieved through training, quite an inconsistency with this passage. She returned to the subject of the unworthiness of the masses in Atlas Shrugged, published twenty years later, first in the voice of Dagny Taggart:
“If the rest of them can survive only by destroying us, then why should we wish them to survive? Nothing can make self-immolation proper. Nothing can give them the right to turn men into sacrificial animals. Nothing can make it moral to destroy the best. One can’t be punished for being good. One can’t be penalized for ability. If that is right, then we’d better start slaughtering one another, because there isn’t any right at all in the world!”
And again, with bitter irony:
“What we are now asked to worship, what had once been dressed as God or king, is the naked, twisted, mindless figure of the human Incompetent. This is the new ideal, the goal to aim at, the purpose to live for, and all men are to be rewarded according to how close they approach it. This is the age of the common man, they tell us—a title which any man may claim to the extent of such distinction as he has managed not to achieve. He will rise to a rank of nobility by means of the effort he has failed to make, he will be honored for such virtue as he has not displayed, and he will be paid for the goods which he did not produce.”
“‘The public,’ to you, is whoever has failed to achieve any virtue or value,” Rand’s great hero John Galt declares in addressing the collectivists. “Groups of men are vacuums. Great big empty nothings,” Rand wrote in Fountainhead, in which her protagonist also “wondered why ineptitude should exist and have its say.” Gail Wynand expresses a similar attitude, with greater cynicism, towards his subscribers and the public. “‘The code of competence is the only system of morality that’s on a gold standard,’” the eccentric industrialist Francisco D’Anconia remarks in Atlas Shrugged, while Rearden informs his more collectivist competitors, “‘You expect me to hold my business down to the level of your incompetence. This is to tell you that you have miscalculated.’” Fountainhead portrays workers as the inevitable incompetents; in a capitalist fantasy, it assumes that the man at the top can only be at the top by reason of his excellence and therefore cannot be incompetent like those who have failed to rise. Elsewhere in the book, a socialist architect writes that “‘the literate is inferior to the illiterate, that the rich is inferior to the poor, and the able to the incompetent’” expressly so Rand can disagree with him, or make the reader disagree and thereby take her side. A jaded theatregoer attending a popular play says afterward, “‘I looked at the stage and I thought, this is what people are like, such are their spirits.’” For Rand, all of the proletariat was the lumpenproletariat, and all social welfare programs a penalizing of the competent to support the less competent. Competence (as a form of logic), profitability, and strength were necessary virtues that, in her eyes, the masses lacked. They were the masses; they were not individual ideal men.
Rand’s loathing for the mob and democratic governments included a conviction that “they” were out to “get” the individual. “‘Notice how they’ll accept anything except a man who stands alone,’” she wrote in Fountainhead. “‘They recognize him at once. By instinct. There’s a special, insidious kind of hatred for him. They forgive criminals. They admire dictators. Crime and violence are a tie. A form of mutual dependence. They need ties.’” “‘Society—all of it is the same performance for the same and only purpose: to reduce you to the kind of pulp that has surrendered the validity of its consciousness,’” John Galt says flatly in his radio address. This sentiment is echoed in We the Living, in which one of the characters reflects on the time-wasting policies of the new Soviet government: “‘I believe they’re doing it deliberately. They don’t want us to think. That’s why we have to work as we do. And because there’s still time left after we’ve worked all day and stood in a few lines, we have the social activities to attend, and then the newspapers.’” “They don’t want us to think” is an appraisal of the situation that echoes the nineteenth-century words of Major Sylvanus Thayer, commandant of the United States Military Academy, to former president James Monroe when advocating the distraction of students through constant academic and physical exercises. One of Roark’s clients is always prepared for failure by taking it personally, as an insult to the ideal man by the mob:
“When facing society, the man most concerned, the man who is to do the most and contribute the most, has the least say. It’s taken for granted that he has no voice and the reasons he could offer are rejected in advance as prejudiced—since no speech is ever considered, but only the speaker. It’s so much easier to pass judgment on a man than on an idea.”
Of another character in Fountainhead, an architect who prostituted his talent, Rand wrote, “He was great; great as the number of people who told him so. He was right; right as the number of people who believed it.” Her cynicism dismissed not only his success but also the entire notion of measuring success by popular approval and suggested that no thing generally approved by the mob can be a true success, that true accomplishment can only be accompanied by public silence, hostility, or confusion. Vox populi, vox dei in reverse.
Given their high opinions of their own powers and their contempt for the rest of mankind, it is unsurprising that Rand’s ideal men are outspoken elitists, regarding themselves as set apart from the rest, the Chosen People. Social equality, for Rand, was an excuse in the same category with “I never had a chance” and “I couldn’t help it”, phrases that repeatedly crop up in the mouths of her weak and unsuccessful characters. She embodied this idea in Howard Roark’s rival Peter Keating, a man who grasps at equality as something that will relieve him of the burden of competing with others who are more skilled than he is. Keating feels relief at recognizing his own mediocrity when he is otherwise surrounded by similar mediocrity. Gail Wynand, however, feels not confidence but fury at recognizing his superiority to those around him:
“Did you want to scream, when you were a child, seeing nothing but fat ineptitude around you, knowing how many things could be done and done so well, but having no power to do them? Having no power to blast the empty skulls around you? Having to take orders—and that’s bad enough—but to take orders from your inferiors! Have you felt that?”
“Did you drive the anger back inside of you, and store it, and decide to let yourself be torn to pieces if necessary, but reach the day when you’d rule those people and all people and everything around you?”
There is no question in the mind of the ideal man that he is superior to his fellows; in the Randian system, the lack of such a sense of superiority would itself be proof that the man who lacked it possessed no special abilities or strength. While discussing the need to provide housing for impoverished populations, one of the socialists in Fountainhead remarks, “‘Well, what about the Patagonians? It’s our job to teach them to want a roof.’” Though she might have put these words in the mouth of a collectivist, they accurately represented Rand’s own view. In a draft of the novel, she also wrote that part of the role of the ideal man should be “‘to teach them to want…to teach them to dream…to make them true to themselves.’” It was a vision of the architect as priest, the educated, sensitive, intelligent man guiding the mob and elevating it through technology—but all the while from a position of superiority. The great tragedy of life, as Rand saw it, was that the competent men should love their technical competence for its own sake so much that they would go on creating wonders for the benefit of the masses, even though the masses would revile and suppress them. John Galt is of course the supreme illustration of this trait in her works, as he is of many others. In his speech, he addresses humanity not as if he is one of them, but from a position outside and above them. What is he doing but playing the aristocrat, jesting on the steps of the guillotine, as he delivers a philosophy lecture lasting several hours to a nation of terrified people who could not have understood it if they were perfectly calm? Approaching his peroration, he announces,
“I have taught them that the world is ours, whenever we choose to claim it, by virtue and grace of the fact that ours is the Morality of Life. They, the great victims who had produced all the wonders of humanity’s brief summer, they, the industrialists, the conquerors of matter, had not discovered the nature of their right. They had known that theirs was the power. I taught them that theirs was the glory.”
The power and the glory in Rand’s novels belong to the ideal men, who are virtuous because they live to pursue profit through reason and technology, and who are certain to be happy, or at least fulfilled, in consequence. Rand’s stories and their heroes thus serve as sources of consolation and justification for those who feel that they are superior to other men or that their abilities are being unfairly suppressed by society. Though she rejected both Christianity and traditional philosophy, her books express her own version of both the ninth Beatitude and the Platonic ideal that the man of integrity would always be happy in his integrity, adapted for the needs of egotists.
Turning temporarily from Rand’s characters to the manner in which she treated the subject of government, her stories—and her characters—make it abundantly clear that while she opposed state interference in most economic matters, she was not absolutely opposed to the existence of government. On the contrary, she saw the government as performing proper and necessary functions within the economy. With the voice of John Galt, she proclaimed,
“A proper government is only a policeman, acting as an agent of man’s self-defense, and, as such, may resort to force only against those who start the use of force. The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law. But a government that initiates the employment of force against men who had forced no one, the employment of armed compulsion against disarmed victims, is a nightmare infernal machine designed to annihilate morality: such a government reverses its only moral purpose and switches from the role of protector to the role of man’s deadliest enemy, from the role of policeman to the role of a criminal vested with the right to the wielding of violence against victims deprived of the right of self-defense. Such a government substitutes for morality the following rule of social conduct: you may do whatever you please to your neighbor, provided your gang is bigger than his.”
The government is always the biggest gang of all, but Rand does not comment upon that interpretation of Galt’s remark. In essence, it is the gang that the industrialist can call upon to protect his property against domestic or international thieves. “‘Property rights are a superstition,’” a fool remarks in Atlas Shrugged. “‘One holds property only by the courtesy of those who do not seize it.’” From a pragmatic standpoint this is perfectly true. Hence, in Rand’s system, the state is a necessity in order to protect the property rights of the technologists and enable them to pursue life and happiness. Without the state, no technological sublime, no life, no logic, no virtue, no joy. An example of her ideal government is referred to in contemptuous terms by another of Atlas Shrugged’s villains: “‘It’s the worst government in any state. The laziest. It does nothing—outside of keeping law courts and a police department.’” Her heroic pirate informs Dagny Taggart, “‘Nor have I ever robbed a military vessel—because the purpose of a military fleet is to protect from violence the citizens who paid for it, which is the proper function of a government.’”
This approach to the concept of a “proper” government filling a needed role in society suggests that Rand and her heroes embraced a version of the non-aggression principle, and indeed John Galt offers just such an expression of that tenet:
“So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? no man may start—the use of physical force against others. To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival; to force him to act against his own judgment, is like forcing him to act against his own sight. Whoever, to whatever purpose or extent, initiates the use of force, is a killer acting on the premise of death in a manner wider than murder: the premise of destroying man’s capacity to live. Do not open your mouth to tell me that your mind has convinced you of your right to force my mind. Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.”
Morality ends where a gun begins—but how does the government capture criminals, repel invaders, and deter fraudsters without guns? If those are the moral functions of government, in support of the moral rights of property and life, how may the government fulfill those functions when it can only do so by immoral means? Does the robber walk into jail because the moral suasion practiced on him by a court has convinced him of his own guilt, or does he do so because an agent of the court is walking behind him with a gun, forcing his mind? There is a contradiction here in Galt’s own words, and a deeper contradiction behind it: the idea that freedom and government can coexist when the purpose of a government, as defined by Rand among others, is to deprive some of the population of its freedom of action in the interests of the rest.
By the time she wrote Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand had become fascinated by the law of identity, the first and most fundamental axiom of classical logic, another outgrowth of her interest in Aristotle. “‘A equals A,’” Galt repeats throughout the book. “‘A contradiction cannot exist.’” Yet Galt himself introduces a contradiction into his logic by declaring in one breath that the police, army, and courts—all of which initiate the use of force against others—are necessary, and in the next that no man may initiate the use of force against others. The strength of this contradiction is intensified by a survey of the uncompromising terms in which Rand for two decades rejected justification by force. In the introduction to We the Living, she declared,
“I could not understand how any man could be so brutalized as to claim the right to dispose of the lives of others, nor how any man could be so lacking in self-esteem as to grant to others the right to dispose of his life…do you consider it moral to treat men as sacrificial animals and to rule them by physical force?”
Right is the question that concerns Hank Rearden as he reflects on the government takeover of his business:
Destroyed at the whim of some men who sat and voted…Who knows by what minds? …Who knows whose will had placed them in power?—what motive moved them?—what was their knowledge?—which one of them, unaided, could bring a chunk of ore out of the earth? …Destroyed at the whim of men whom he had never seen and who had never seen those tiers of metal…Destroyed, because they so decided. By what right?
Technological might makes right, but not human might, as the pirate smugly suggests: “‘If my fellow men believe that the force of the combined tonnage of their muscles is a practical means to rule me—let them learn the outcome of a contest in which there’s nothing but brute force on one side, and force ruled by a mind, on the other.’” Against this, the collectivists in Atlas Shrugged respond, “‘When people are unanimous, how does one man dare to dissent? By what right?’” One of Roark’s clients speaks for freedom from the state and the public in more absolute terms:
“We must consider that since—unfortunately—we are forced to live together, the most important thing for us to remember is that the only way in which we can have any law at all is to have as little of it as possible. I see no ethical standard by which to measure the whole unethical conception of a State, except in the amount of time, of thought, of money, of effort and of obedience, which a society extorts from its every member. Its value and its civilization are in inverse ratio to that extortion. There is no conceivable law by which a man can be forced to work on any terms except those he chooses to set. There is no conceivable law to prevent him from setting them—just as there is none to force his employer to accept them. The freedom to agree or disagree is the foundation of our kind of society—and the freedom to strike is a part of it.”
Can the same state that is inherently an “unethical conception” engaged in extortion also be an adequate policeman—or, under those circumstances, does not the term “policeman” become synonymous with “extortionist”? A federal bureaucrat in Atlas Shrugged makes the case that, from the state’s perspective, the two words are identical:
“Did you really think we want those laws observed? We want them to be broken… There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted—and you create a nation of law-breakers—and then you cash in on guilt.”
The state is needed to punish criminals, according to Galt, but according to the state itself, it will make everyone into a criminal and punish as it chooses, dissolving any theoretical line of restraint. Neither Rand nor Galt ever attempted to resolve this contradiction, nor the more obvious and urgent one between their competing claims that the government has the right to initiate the use of force and that no one has the right to initiate the use of force.
Atlas Shrugged is filled with rejections of the idea that a man should collaborate with his oppressors, including the government, in the spirit of preserving public order. “‘Do not help your jailers to pretend that their jail is your natural state of existence,’” Galt exhorts his listeners. Francisco D’Anconia tells Rearden, “‘A viler evil than to throw a man into a sacrificial furnace, is to demand that he leap in, of his own will, and that he build the furnace, besides.’” Rearden himself has several thoughts to offer on the subject:
Through all those generations of crusades against corruption, the remedy had always been, not the liberating of the victims, but the granting of wider powers for extortion to the extortionists. The only guilt of the victims, he thought, had been that they accepted it as guilt.
“If it is now believed that my fellow men may sacrifice me in any manner they please for the sake of whatever they deem to be their own good, if they believe that they may seize my property simply because they need it—well, so does any burglar. There is only this difference: the burglar does not ask me to sanction his act.”
“I will not help you to preserve an appearance of righteousness where rights are not recognized. I will not help you to preserve an appearance of rationality by entering a debate in which a gun is the final argument. I will not help you to pretend that you are administering justice.”
“‘I was asked to use force to violate the rights of disarmed men, who came before me to seek my protection for their rights,’” Judge Narragansett, a minor character, says while explaining why he resigned from the bench. Again, these sentiments are not consistent with a respect for a state legal system that can be used to make anyone into a criminal at will, or with acceptance of the initiation of force by agents of the state acting as necessary policemen. It would have been more consistent for Rand to call for the extortionists and looters to be stripped of their guns and their ability to coerce. But she did not do so.
The novel concludes with Judge Narragansett beginning to draft an amendment to the US Constitution that will be passed when Galt’s followers have reestablished American society on their terms: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade…” To the reader, it is a mundane, mercenary anticlimax after a tale of revealed secrets, espionage, daring escapes, and cross-country flights. They risked their necks for that? you ask. Furthermore, that single clause contains another implicit ideological contradiction, one that also underlies Rand’s comments on money earlier in the book:
“Money allows no power to prescribe the value of your effort except the voluntary choice of the man who is willing to trade you his effort in return. Money permits you to obtain for your goods and your labor that which they are worth to the men who buy them, but no more. Money permits no deals except those to mutual benefit by the unforced judgment of the traders. Money demands of you the recognition that men must work for their own benefit, not for their own injury, for their gain, not their loss—the recognition that they are not beasts of burden, born to carry the weight of your misery—that you must offer them values, not wounds—that the common bond among men is not the exchange of suffering, but the exchange of goods.”
“‘Gold is the objective value, the means of preserving one’s wealth and one’s future,’” Rand added, even though gold, when divorced from monetization, is only another object of barter, albeit one that is widely known and highly valued. In treating money and gold as ideals of fairness, she purposefully neglected the role of the state in creating the money supply in the first place. Nowhere in her fiction did Rand suggest a return to the currency volatility of the nineteenth century before the implementation of central banking in the United States. When the state prints or creates a finite amount of money, it inherently limits the number and size of transactions that can be carried out using that money. When the state inflates or deflates the money supply, it alters the financial positions of individuals. When the state helps to establish a social system in which barter is abandoned and individuals expect to be able to conduct all transactions using currency, trade then becomes dependent upon the existence of currency and the value of gold becomes even more subjective relative to the currency. When the state restricts the circumstances under which currency may be used, the prior adoption of currency becomes an impediment rather than an aid to transactions. When the state creates a legal tender system or establishes an official exchange rate, it reduces the opportunities for free trade. The money supply is provided by the state—Rand never disputed this—and thus its very existence abridges the freedom of production and trade.
Why was Rand insincere about rejecting all government interference in the market, including a central currency? Why did she see a “proper” role for government in society, when by her standards bureaucratic government was nothing but the incompetent giving orders to the competent and democratic government nothing but the mob giving orders to the individual? The answers to both those questions are identical. Like most political philosophers, no matter how ostensibly radical they appear, Rand wanted to preserve the structure of government in order to appropriate it to her own ends. A limited government attuned to the interests of her elite technologists was, she understood, the key factor that could establish the conditions of privilege under which they would be able to flourish. Rand never admitted that the corporation, which she ignored because of its collectivist overtones, was a form of state privilege, and that corporate privileges alone (a different tax base, limited liability, separate legal identity, unlimited existence) had allowed capitalism to dominate the American economy. Her industrialists could not exist unless they were backed up by corporations able to collect the wealth of many investors in an easily realizable form—money. Hank Rearden found it much easier to convert money into steel than he would have found trying to convert investments in the form of baskets of produce, flocks of chickens, boxes of soap, manuscripts, and concert performances into steel. Individuals can easily trade all those things and countless others to supply their needs and make a profit—but a corporation cannot readily incorporate barter items into a large-scale business as part of its capital to provide negotiable value. The corporation and money—two pure concepts created and maintained solely by the forcible backing of the state—are inseparable from capitalism and industry, and therefore, in the Randian system, the state itself, in limited form, is likewise necessary to capitalism and industry. Without the state, the ideal men could not find the proper opportunities to express themselves. The state itself should never be an exploiter, but it can provide the framework to allow ideal men to exploit the masses.
An equally fundamental contradiction emerges when considering Rand’s various comments on the evils of depending on others. In Anthem, Prometheus states, “‘There is nothing to take a man’s freedom away from him, save other men. To be free, a man must be free of his brothers. That is freedom.’” Dominique, Howard Roark’s girlfriend, is even more abstract and absolute. She defines freedom as “‘To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing,’” and explains why:
“If I found a job, a project, an idea or a person I wanted—I’d have to depend on the whole world. Everything has strings leading to everything else. We’re all so tied together. We’re all in a net, the net is waiting, and we’re pushed into it by one single desire. You want a thing and it’s precious to you. Do you know who is standing ready to tear it out of your hands? You can’t know, it may be so involved and so far away, but someone is ready, and you’re afraid of them all. And you cringe and you crawl and you beg and you accept them—just so they’ll let you keep it. And look at whom you come to accept.”
The Fountainhead is Rand’s most consistent attack on dependence and, by extension, interdependence, which finds its subtlest expression in the tension between its two strong men, Roark and Gail Wynand. (Roark’s butting heads with everyone who disagrees with him is a much cruder manifestation of the same feeling.) Both Roark and Wynand are pure egotists out to get what they want. Roark, however, is a man who is complete within himself, who can be fulfilled and confident without the aid of others. If no one will hire him to build houses or skyscrapers, he is perfectly willing to go off and work in a quarry, retaining, as he sees it, his independence by doing so instead of prostituting his talent to public opinion. “‘I hate incompetence,’” he says. “‘I think it’s probably the only thing I do hate. But it didn’t make me want to rule people. Nor to teach them anything. It made me want to do my own work in my own way and let myself be torn to pieces if necessary.’” By becoming “one man against many…one man who wished neither to serve nor to rule,” he rejected the principle of rulership “and had thereby committed the only unforgivable crime.” Wynand, by contrast, wants power over his fellow men for reasons of both revenge and pleasure. This makes him dependent on other men and therefore flawed in Rand’s eyes in spite of his egotism:
“A man thinks and works alone. A man cannot rob, exploit or rule—alone. Robbery, exploitation and ruling presuppose victims. They imply dependence. They are the province of the second-hander…Rulers of men are not egotists. They create nothing. They exist entirely through the persons of others. Their goal is in their subjects, in the activity of enslaving. They are as dependent as the beggar, the social worker and the bandit. The form of dependence does not matter.”
The ruler is morally lowered by his dependence on his victims as much as his victims are by their willingness to be victimized. Each modern politician who praises Rand as an inspiration does so from the position of Gail Wynand, dependent upon his constituents as Wynand is upon his subscribers, unable to live up to her ideals by the very nature of his profession. What Rand refused to admit was that Howard Roark is in exactly the same position. He must have commissions and employment or he starves. This stems from his profession: an engineer cannot eat buildings. He too is dependent. That he accepts no advice or direction from his clients does not obscure the fact that he depends on them in order to survive. And when he runs away from the metropolis to work in the quarry, he is equally dependent on the wages paid to him by his new employer. Any form of employment in an industrial society is dependence.
Rand may have tried to spin the love of power as a form of dependence in the character of Wynand, but he is in no way unique. Virtually all of her ideal men seek power over other men as employers, whether purposefully or incidentally, and are consequently dependent “second-handers”. There is no conception in her values system of how a man can remain a worker and independent at the same time, or, for that matter, an employer and independent at the same time. The horror of dependence she displayed in Think Twice did not extend to recognizing every employer as a Breckenridge who would manipulate his employees automatically. In the introduction to Fountainhead, she announced, “Since man acts among and deals with other men, I had to present the kind of social system that makes it possible for ideal men to exist and to function—a free, productive, rational system which demands and rewards the best in every man, and which is, obviously, laissez-faire capitalism.” Apart from the smaller contradiction involved in the term “laissez-faire capitalism”—since capitalism, which requires state privilege to flourish, would be virtually nonexistent in a true free market—capitalism is based upon employment and therefore upon the mutual dependence of employer and employed. This would equate dependence with “a free, productive, rational system”, which was presumably not Rand’s intent. Industry, which goes hand in hand with capitalism, involves dependence both by entailing employer-employee relationships and by making every man in an industrial economy dependent upon every other for food, clothing, shelter, and so on through the specialization and alienation of labor. The urban laborer can produce none of these things for himself, through his own efforts, but must exchange his labor for a wage which he may then exchange with someone else in return for products produced by still others. Industrial society is a system of interdependence in which everyone consumes the output of everyone else. Even a free market requires dependence upon others, since market prices are set by demand. Rearden’s metal, Ellis’s oil, Halley’s music, and Roark’s buildings have value only to the extent that other people are willing to pay them for these products. A market-based economic system is dependent by definition. Capitalism, industry, and free markets all involve the dependence of humans on one another, yet Rand declared the first three concepts to be virtues and dependence to be one of the greatest of evils. She praised her ideal men for requiring no one, yet all of them depend, if not on employers or officials, then on the corner grocer or the dealer in drafting paper. She denounced subservience consistently throughout her novels, yet turned a blind eye to the way in which the economic and technological vision she projected would require subservience. If the pursuit of profit through technology is necessary to life and happiness, then it follows from her equations that dependence is necessary to life and happiness, a conclusion Rand would doubtless reject but which is implicit in her understanding of dependence when fully applied.
Ironically, Rand was well aware that a rural agrarian economy would involve far less human interdependence than an urban industrial economy. “I shall take my food from the earth by the toil of my own hands,” Prometheus declares in Anthem. “And the day will come when I shall break all the chains of the earth, and raze the cities of the enslaved.” He who produces his own food is less subject to the will of others than he who must obtain his food from others, but Rand chose to glorify industrial dependents instead of free farmers. The concept of “we” that she denounced as corrosive can only arise among groups, and cities are where the largest groups gather together. Again, Rand is superficially correct, when speaking of the decline of oil production in Atlas Shrugged, to state that it is the economy of scale of large businesses that keeps costs down for small businesses as well, and that the existence of large businesses is therefore in everyone’s best interests. She failed to explore the argument that if both large and small businesses were to fail, men would have to go back to producing as individuals, independent of employment and state regulation. Had the elimination of dependence been her true goal, she might have followed that line of thought instead. The technological sublime, however, requires industry and capitalism for its fulfillment. It was easier for Rand to ignore the contradictions in her treatment of industrial dependence than for her to abandon her machine fetish.
Through John Galt, Rand asserted that the mind was the only judge of truth, that morality must be freely chosen, and that no man has the right to force the mind of another. An earlier statement she made in We the Living implies that for a reasonable mind, morality and desire are the same thing: “‘If you know that a thing is right, you want to do it. If you don’t want to do it—it isn’t right. If it’s right and you don’t want to do it—you don’t know what right is and you’re not a man.’” She then put another contradiction in Galt’s mouth:
“I do not grant the terms of reason to men who propose to deprive me of reason. I do not enter discussions with neighbors who think they can forbid me to think. I do not place my moral sanction upon a murderer’s wish to kill me…There can be no right to destroy the source of rights, the only means of judging right and wrong: the mind.”
Here Galt echoes the teachings of his mentor, the philosopher Henry Akston, who is the quiet master-mind of Atlas Shrugged:
“When thinkers accept those who deny the existence of thinking, as fellow thinkers of a different school of thought—it is they who achieve the destruction of the mind. They grant the enemy’s basic premise, thus granting the sanction of reason to formal dementia. A basic premise is an absolute that permits no co-operation with its antithesis and tolerates no tolerance.”
In this case, the basic premise of the Randian system is, again, that reason is equal to life and morality. Any method of thought that does not involve reason, or any choice of action that does not appear to follow the most logical, efficient methods for maximizing life and happiness, is immoral in this system—even though Rand and Galt also admitted that the mind was the sole judge of truth and morality. What neither of them admitted was that the human mind is often unreasonable and impulsive, and not infrequently chooses to consider impulse moral and reason immoral. Being anti-thought and pro-impulse—Epicurean rather than Stoic, roughly speaking—is a well-established position in philosophy. The rejection of reason in favor of sensation has always had adherents, and Rand’s awareness of living in a society that prized sensation over logic likely infuriated her. Yet such a position is perceived as truth or right by its adherents and is freely chosen by them, making it moral according to Galt’s statements in which morality results from free choice and immoral according to his a priori assumption that logic alone is moral. The contradiction very much exists, and is enhanced by the vehemence of Galt and Akston in expressing it. “‘I do not grant the terms of reason…,’” Galt says haughtily, implying that without reason, his “neighbors” are not really human and he will not treat them as humans. His teacher fears the “destruction of the mind” if the false thinkers are acknowledged. The suggestion is that those who do not think according to Randian logical methods are not alive and that therefore no stigma attaches to dealing with them using methods other than “the terms of reason”, such as force. In Anthem, Prometheus speaks of “the fire which is called the Dawn of the Great Rebirth…the Script Fire where all the scripts of the Evil Ones were burned, and with them all the words of the Evil Ones.” The reader senses that Rand would have liked to do the same with the works of the thinkers she denounces. Thought which is not in accord with her system is, to her, not thought at all. She refuses to admit that the collectivists have as much right to their views, and to implement and fight for their views, as the individualists do—because their position is inherently, absolutely, axiomatically immoral. That is dogmatism, not a defense of reason.
The Randian rejections of freedom from dependence and freedom of thought are paralleled by Rand’s additional rejection of sexual freedom. In an inversion of the basic human attitude towards sexual pleasure worthy of J.J. Bachofen, she sneered, “Indiscriminate desire and unselective indulgence were possible only to those who regarded sex and themselves as evil.” Now, one of the minor preoccupations of Atlas Shrugged, in which those words appear, is how evil the prudish, hypocritical American attitude towards sex is, and how Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart show themselves to be superior to the twisted morals of their society by ignoring those morals and indulging themselves. Rand must have known that sexual freedom was inseparable from freedom in general, but it also appeared to have revolted her. Her representations of sexual behavior are shaped by the unresolved contradiction between those two viewpoints. She incorporated sex into her stories routinely, but saw a sexual relationship as a monogamous bond, albeit a serial one. She preferred to depict love triangles, which invariably tear apart as the plot evolves. When she was explicit about sex, it was always fierce, hurtful, painful, and in the case of Howard Roark so violent as to be nearly rape. Her limitations show up most fully in a consideration of Dagny Taggart’s sexual affairs. Dagny starts off with the young industrialist Francisco D’Anconia, moves on to the married Hank Rearden, and finally secures John Galt himself. Her progress is not merely a result of the development of the story; it is, in Rand’s portrayal, an inevitable expression of her quest for the ideal man in the most physical sense and of her success in achieving that goal. Rearden is superior to D’Anconia, so naturally Dagny chooses him over her earlier love, but Galt is then so superior to Rearden that she must leave Rearden behind, too—and because her former lovers are as reverent towards the ideal man as she is, they do not resent the transference of her affections but respect her for it. It never seems to have entered Rand’s head that Dagny could have achieved greater satisfaction, both physically and emotionally, by retaining all of her lovers instead of practicing partial self-denial. Even farther from her mind was the notion that D’Anconia and Rearden might also have expressed their admiration for Galt in a sexual manner, either with Dagny or without her. But Rand, far from being a thorough freethinker, was limited by the mores of her day. Multiple relationships and same-sex relationships alike, though expressing freedom from artificial social limitations much more powerfully than illicit heterosexual monogamy, represented a degree of freedom that made her uncomfortable. It is both screamingly funny and frustrating for the reader to watch the characters of Atlas Shrugged stumble around beneath their creator’s bourgeois Russian Orthodox morality like Victorian spinsters with trains.
Ayn Rand’s novels are a passionately-argued defense of her ethical system and very little more than that. Far from championing individuality and nonconformity, they champion strict conformity to the Randian ideal of the perfect man. These ideal men are cold, dispassionate aristocrats whose moral code may be summarized as happiness = life = reason = freedom = egotism = technology = industry = capitalism = profit = morality. Those who do not meet this standard are weaklings, dependents, second-handers, and it is only reasonable that their more successful fellows should exploit them. Rand’s love of life is not communicated by example, nor does it extend to those who do not belong to this technocratic elite. For Rand’s ideal man, freedom in practice is not the absence of control by or dependence on others, but the ability to exert control over others, as a preemptive strike to prevent them from doing the same. The freedom of one requires the unfreedom of others (just as the financial independence of the industrialist depends upon the financial dependence of his workers). In this sense, Rand’s concept of freedom negates itself, since it guarantees the attempts of the unfree to overthrow the free and take their place—a subject that Rand herself dealt with in Think Twice. Breckenridge’s family and associates resent his manipulative generosity so much that eventually one of them murders him to escape it. Rand’s objection was to the individual being dominated by the group, the community, the state—not to the individual being dominated by another individual if the former was inferior and the latter superior, or to the individual dominating the group. Freedom to her meant the freedom for the few to exploit the many under controlled conditions that would allow the genius of the former to flourish for its own sake.
But didn’t Rand regard dependence as an evil and control over others as a form of dependence? Nominally, yes, and her statements to that effect contradict the general tenor of her books throughout. She was filled with contempt for workers without genius or drive. She defended government because she understood it could provide necessary protections and advantages to men of genius. Most notably, she consistently defended and advocated the virtues of industrial capitalism, a system that requires mutual dependence in the shape of employment and that cannot exist without such dependence. She who declared “The contradiction does not exist” filled her works with contradictions. John Galt is no exemplar of supreme reason, but rather a highly confused man who in that respect resembles Rand’s other philosophical favorite, Thomas Aquinas. “‘A equals A,’” Galt insistently repeats. If that is so, then the immediate application of that law in human affairs is that one human being is the equal of any other human being. There are no superior men and inferior men, only humans of equal status. Individual equality was intellectually and emotionally repugnant to Rand, and her failure to apply the law of identity to human beings resulted in the greatest overall contradiction of her works: praising “freedom from the world” while prescribing systems that restricted the exercise of that freedom to ideal men. Given a choice between consistency, equality, and decentralization on the one hand, and contradictions, elitism, and heavy industry on the other, Rand chose the latter. Her love of strong men and the technological sublime was the dominant element of her moral system. If that meant that her strong men had to possess a certain degree of political power, she was willing to overlook the conflict between their power and her theory of the dependency of rulership. “‘After all, it doesn’t make any difference to the poor whether their livelihood is at the mercy of an industrialist or of a bureaucrat,’” one of her villains in Atlas Shrugged says dismissively. As long as it was the industrialist rather than the bureaucrat in charge, Rand did not care about the condition of the poor, either. She cared about the technocrats. Perhaps she concluded that if dependence was unavoidable anyway, she might as well establish a theoretical system in which an elite few could otherwise be free of control in exchange for the small concession of depending on their employees. Perhaps she never saw that the employer-employee relationship was a dependent one. She certainly never explored any serious alternatives to industrial dependence, such as a return to a hunter-gatherer or largely agrarian rural lifestyle that rejected the technological sublime, instead merely hinting at it as a possibility in Anthem.
The Fountainhead contains the cautionary lines, “‘It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.” The passage might serve as a prefatory warning to all of Rand’s texts. She too asked for a sacrifice: the sacrifice of human equality to the machine and its tenders. To ensure the triumph of capitalism and industry, she intended that there should still and always be masters, who, if they could not be entirely free by the nature of their situation, would at least enjoy more freedom than the men beneath them. Her novels are incitements to mastery and oligarchy. There is no true commitment to freedom in them.