The Objectivist Trilogy


Atlas Shrugged, a magnificent, melodramatic novel by Ayn Rand, is the premier exposition of the applied rational philosophy known as Objectivism. Despite a few hokey and/or long-winded episodes, it is in my opinion one of the most important novels of the 20th century. However, in browsing other material by self-proclaimed Objectivists, I find much that is unimpressive and downright bunk. I hereby propose that there are actually three states of mind, the rational, the irrational, and the twisted, and offer three small essays in the latter spirit.

Environmental Rationality

An incorrect interpretation of the applied philosophy presented in Atlas Shrugged may lead a critic to argue that Objectivism supports runaway, laissez-faire Capitalism at the expense of environmental concerns. It is my intent to dismantle that assertion.

In Atlas Shrugged, rational producers such as John Galt asked for "Nothing but freedom. We required that you leave us free to function—free to think and to work as we choose—free to take our own risks and to bear our own losses—free to earn our own profits and to make our own fortunes...." With absolute freedom, the rational man also assumes absolute responsibility for his actions, and that responsibility includes the acquisition of appropriate knowledge. As stated by John Galt, "An error of knowledge is not a moral flaw, provided you are willing to correct it... but that which you refuse to know, is an account of infamy growing in your soul."

Our body of scientific knowledge is imperfect, but only the irrational mind would discard it on that premise. And that body includes knowledge which is obtained through the efforts of environmental scientists, knowledge which is relevant to the actions of an individual. Therefore, to ignore the environmental consequences of one's own actions is to be irrational, to be against life.

It is the irrational industrialist that would attempt to hide any deleterious consequences of his work, environmental or otherwise. I have little difficulty imagining what Orren Boyle might do upon discovering that his mill was contaminating the water supply of a nearby town. To the extent that he could get away with it, he would bury the fact under a blizzard of sidetracking propaganda. He would attempt to shift any blame. He might even build a hospital and laboratory to treat the sick and study the mechanisms of poisoning and point to these artifices as evidence of his concern for the public welfare. But he would not solve the problem of his own free will. In short, he is fraudulent.

How, then, would a rational industrialist react to the discovery that his beloved work is flawed? As Atlas Shrugged states of Hank Rearden, "When a problem came up at the mills, his first concern was to discover what error he had made; he did not search for anyone's fault but his own... it prompted him to action in an immediate impulse to correct the error." Hank would acknowledge the flaw in the process, assume responsibility for it, halt it immediately if necessary, and expend himself to the greatest of his ability to find the solution.

Given that the irrational industrialist exists, how could we, as rational beings, deal with him? The simplest answer is to say no. Say no to Orren Boyle, boycott his work, boycott the work of those who support him and buy his products, and educate others to do the same. How long could he last when honesty and justice belong to the majority of us? We would be our own watchdogs.

And when honesty and justice belong to the few? What, then, of the government? Should we allow the government to regulate us to prevent people such as Orren Boyle from destroying the environment? The answer, most emphatically, is no. According to John Galt, the government has three proper functions: the police, to protect us from criminals; the army, to protect us from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect us from the fraudulent. But the responsibility to challenge the fraudulent falls on the shoulders of the rational citizen, not on any government official. Again, we are the watchdogs, and must through the appropriate mechanisms maintained by the government bring about justice.

Let us then consider the environmentalist, the one who dedicates his life, out of love for the planet, to act as that watchdog. The irrational environmentalist only hears those things which he wants to hear, only considers those arguments which he believes to be in his own interest, only studies those scientific facts which support his false interpretation of reality. The rational environmentalist, on the other hand, has a great responsibility: to hear all things, to consider all rational arguments, and to study all scientific facts.

Nonetheless, I create such artificial distinctions as industrialist and environmentalist merely to flavor my own arguments. To one who correctly analyzes the precepts of Objectivism, the classifications are superfluous. There is no rational industrialist, no rational environmentalist, only—and supremely—the rational man.

American Government in the Corporate Metaphor

It does not take any great leap of imagination to consider the American government as a corporate entity. Once that step is taken, the next logical step is to criticize the government in terms of good business practices. My intent is to focus on two particular points: the governing documents and finance.

Corporate administration rests upon three bodies of documentation: the charter, the constitution, and the bylaws. The charter of a corporate entity is the document that validates its existence—it is a statement of intent, of purpose, of goals, of focus. The constitution of a corporate entity provides the framework for its administration; that and nothing more. All other issues belong in the bylaws.

The American document most comparable to a charter is the Declaration of Independence, and I will refer to it as the national Charter. Although primarily a list of complaints against the King of Great Britain as a vindication of revolution, it nonetheless provides a focus for the nation: to recognize and nourish the fundamental rights of Man, which include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

To the Objectivist mindset the statement needs no further elucidation. However, it is a testament to irrationality in American history that much debate and bloodshed has been wasted on varying interpretations of it, and that the Constitution has been amended in ways that are not germane to its proper function.

The American Constitution, in its original, unadulterated form, is a masterwork of its authors. One of its most unique qualities is the consideration of irrational behavior in the three branches of government, and the establishment of rules to help prevent it from getting out of hand. And, out of similar considerations, it makes itself difficult to modify.

Nonetheless, it has been subject to abuse from day one. How many amendments actually pertain to the administrative framework of the government, and how many belong rather in the Bylaws? Which amendments are unnecessary reiterations of the Charter? Which are the antithesis of the Charter? And what irrational and superfluous amendments are currently under proposal?

To the extent that a corporate entity is comprised of rational people, the bylaws are composed of guidelines to expedite various business processes. However, to the extent that a corporate entity tolerates the presence of irrational people, the bylaws devote increasing space to penalizing irresponsible behavior. In the latter situation, the development of new bylaws tends to become a knee-jerk reaction to unanticipated situations; little if any time is spent devising a rational solution to the actual problem.

To what extent are the American Bylaws rational guidelines? To what extent do they focus on penalizing irresponsible behavior? To what extent do they actually solve problems? And to what extent are they themselves irrational, superfluous, and/or a contradiction of the national Charter?

Finally, how does a corporate entity finance itself? Through issuing stocks and bonds, and by charging its clients for services rendered.

American citizens are the clients of the American government, and currently pay the government for its services by means of taxes. While the government has the right to charge its clients, inequality of taxation implies inequality of service, which implies inequality of rights. That, I would suggest, is the chief objection to the income tax.

To the extent that we agree to the three basic services of government—police, army, and courts—let us pay a modest yet just price as equal clients. If a citizen lacks the money for that price, let alternate forms of payment be found, such as a period of labor. As for other services that may be provided, let us pay for them as we use them, and let the government itself judge over time which services are profitable.

Good and Evil: A Comparison of Atlas Shrugged and The Lord of the Rings

Upon reading and rereading Atlas Shrugged and The Lord of the Rings, I find comparison of the two tempting, for both of these novels display firm and compelling visions regarding personal philosophy and the rejection of Evil.

One of the most unique aspects of Atlas Shrugged is its rational definition of Good and Evil based on the principles of Objectivism. Good is that which is free, independent, thinking, and productive. Evil is that which attempts to feed upon others through false premises. But fundamentally Good is strong and Evil is weak, for Evil can only perpetuate itself through the consent of the Good who allow themselves to shoulder the burden. However unnoticeable and benign that burden may seem at first, by accepting it the Good have fallen into a trap and open themselves to a situation which they cannot win. The only way to conquer Evil is to refuse to carry it.

John Galt, the protagonist and embodiment of Objectivism, is the leader of the war against Evil, a ringleader of a strike in which those shouldering the burdens of Evil shrug them off and step aside to watch the world collapse in order that they may rebuild it in a new age of freedom.

The Lord of the Rings, by contrast, takes place in a mythological age where godlike beings still exist. The last of them to maintain a presence in Middle Earth is Sauron, who is not weak at all but incredibly powerful. Sauron's Evil cannot be ignored: it can enslave you or kill you no matter where you try to run. Evil must be fought and eradicated.

Only Tom Bombadil, the perfectly self-realized being, is uninfluenced by Sauron's Evil. Perhaps he represents the Objectivist ideal in a nonhuman sense, but he teaches us no real lesson. The true leader of the war against Evil is Gandalf, who points out that armed battle against Sauron cannot succeed unless his chief weapon is destroyed.

The chief weapon of Evil in Atlas Shrugged is a collection of deceitful propaganda bearing the names of "Brotherly Love," "Public Welfare," and "Original Sin." These concepts are exploited by Evil to generate a sense of guilt in the Good and to convince them of the necessity to support the incompetent and the fraudulent. When these weapons fail, those who have ridden the unsuspecting into positions of power resort to compulsion and thuggery. As effective as these weapons are against those who are conditioned to listen to them, their effectiveness vanish upon recognition of what they are.

In The Lord of the Rings, the chief weapon of Evil is the Ring. Made by Sauron, the Ring contains much of his raw power, and to a certain extent has a sense of will. The Ring was originally lost at a time when Men and Elves were powerful enough for a decisive battle to take place. But it has since reappeared, and is attempting to return to its maker.

Because of the nature of the Ring, it is the key to the conquest of Sauron. But the Ring itself cannot be used. Weaker minds that use the Ring are drawn to Sauron as thralls, and more powerful minds that use the Ring—while they may conquer Sauron in war—eventually only become his shadow. Nor can the Ring be hidden. It must be destroyed, for that is the only way to prevent Sauron from regaining it; once he did so, there would be no stopping him. Yet such is the power of the Ring that none who holds it could possibly bring himself to destroy it.

What the Ring hadn't counted upon, in its attempt to return to its master, is its encounter with simple yet extremely tough minds: Gollum, Bilbo, and eventually Frodo and Sam. Not only do they resist the call to return to Sauron, they also resist using the Ring as a weapon. In addition, they have the strength and tenacity to hold the ring without being fully destroyed by it. Because of that, the Ring's ends are frustrated. More on that later.

The more powerful the Good, the greater the Evil they can become through the Ring. Characters such as Gandalf and Galadriel wisely refuse the Ring, for while they know they are strong enough to use it to overthrow Sauron and establish "benevolent" realms, they also know that their rule would be false and Evil.

Saruman, a great and wise wizard at one time more powerful the Gandalf, lusts after the Ring but never obtains it. He succumbs to Evil and in his bid to rival Sauron and establish his own realm merely ends up a twisted, embittered wreck. Compare him to Robert Stadler, the great scientist and mentor of John Galt who compromises himself to serve Evil and ends up perishing in a pathetic attempt to extort the world with violence.

Boromir is the human who advocates use of the Ring, and over time the hold of the Ring grows on him, until violently he attempts to force Frodo to turn it over. Frodo escapes, but Boromir regains his presence of mind, realizes what the Ring has done to him, repents the Evil, and atones for his failure. Hank Rearden believes that he can shoulder the burden of Evil and somehow win against it, but when he finally realizes the extent to which he is actually fueling that Evil, he repents and drops the burden.

The central characters of The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged, Frodo and Dagny, represent the core of incredible courage in the novels. Both bear unbearable burdens, and it is heartbreaking to see them struggle through self-imposed missions which must ultimately fail. Frodo bears his burden because he knows he must; Dagny bears hers because she cannot bring herself to release it. But at the same time, their failure is their triumph, for no others can match their accomplishments.

Although Frodo cannot himself cast the Ring into the Cracks of Doom which would destroy it, he does what no other can by actually carrying the Ring that far. Gollum intervenes through his unbreakable determination not to surrender the Ring to anyone. He himself, through accident or otherwise, falls into the Cracks of Doom with the Ring and breaks the power of Sauron. Nonetheless, in the end, all surviving characters that have dealt directly with the Ring, no matter how powerful they are, are wounded beyond measure, and must journey West for the ultimate healing and leave others to bring about the new age.

Dagny Taggart retains possession of her railroad, her work, and her integrity longer than any other. Out of love for her and the knowledge that she must eventually give up, John Galt remains near her and is captured by the enemy as a result. Dagny, with the aid of the strikers, rescues him; it is at that point that she is ready to witness the final collapse and return with him to rebuild the true civilization. Wounds occur, but however difficult their struggles, those who have dropped their burdens find a new sense of freedom, hope, and confidence, and after the destruction of Evil bring about the new age themselves.

It is perhaps no accident that, although written independently, both novels were written at about the same period of time. Evil in both novels is that which enslaves. In The Lord of the Rings to fight Evil requires bearing unbearable burdens, whereas in Atlas Shrugged the way to fight is to shrug them off. The Lord of the Rings is a timeless work, set in a timeless period, whereas Atlas Shrugged speaks to the Industrial Age using 20th century metaphors. Both novels offer an astonishing array of characters with distinct ways of dealing with Evil.

In the end, after the downfall of Sauron, there is no strong Evil left, and it remains up to Men to devise the lesser Evil described in Atlas Shrugged. For that reason, I like to consider Atlas Shrugged as a sequel to The Lord of the Rings.

The Circular File