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Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Sanction of the Victim

Atlas Shrugged gives a powerful metaphor for improving your own life

Few libertarian authors generate more heated disagreement than Ayn Rand. Whatever her flaws, she could often be a very sharp observer of human behavior and human culture, and there are ways to put those observations into use beyond politics and in interpersonal relationships instead.

The primary moral message of Atlas Shrugged, I would argue, is the idea that evil has, to a large degree, only the power that its victims grant to it.

Consider the image that provides the book’s title. Francisco D’Anconia asks a party guest,

If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders — what would you tell him to do?

Francisco answers his own question: “To shrug.”

The point here is that Atlas is only a victim because of his willingness to think he is morally obligated to suffer, to continue doing the thing that is crushing him.

This concept is refined further in the book and is best summarized as the importance of “the sanction of the victim.”

In the book’s political economy, this idea refers to the fact that the creators and producers continued to work hard at what they love, even as those around them made it increasingly more difficult to do so.

Like Atlas, the weight of the “looters” continued to bear down on the attempts of the producers to keep the railways and steel factories open. What John Galt does is to try to convince them all that it is time to shrug — to withdraw their sanction from the very code that made them victims.

For most of the main characters in the book, the key moment is when they realize they are complicit in their own unhappiness because they have accepted the moral code of their victimizers. This is why Rand insisted, both in her novels and nonfiction, on the importance of philosophy, and especially ethics.

Characters like Hank Rearden don’t think they need philosophy as they can just continue doing what that they love and ignore the people who try to bring them down. But without philosophy, Rand argues, Hank and the others who Galt tries to get to join him in his strike cannot understand their own victimization.

Choosing to ignore ethics simply allows others to dictate the terms of morality, and to the extent that the producers of the world tacitly or explicitly accept the looters’ morality, they have given them “the sanction of the victim.”

Whether it’s Atlas shrugging, Rearden leaving his unhappy marriage, or capital going on strike, all of them are connected by the refusal to bear a burden that has been self-imposed by accepting without question the (mistaken) moral code of others.

This basic idea also has relevance outside the context of political economy, and understanding it can make your life a better place.

Rearden’s relationship provides one example. If you are in a relationship where it seems impossible to please your partner, despite your best honest efforts to do so, it’s likely to make you miserable. Here is where it’s worth asking if you bear some responsibility by having bought into your partner’s problematic value scale that makes pleasing him or her impossible.

By agreeing to a set of rules that has rigged the game against you, you agree to lose and forgo your own happiness. You have given that person the sanction that turns you into a victim by agreeing to a code that ensures you can never win.

Recognizing this point can improve your life immensely if you simply shrug. Naming what’s happening and refusing to agree to the other person’s rules is the first step to happiness, either by changing the rules or ending the arrangement. But you first must recognize the role played by your passive acceptance of a rigged system.

You can see this idea at work in the office as well. Co-workers who make you miserable often do so because they are able to convince you to play office politics by their rules they created, and those rules are likely to make you the loser. Again, recognizing that you do not need to accept those rules, and sanction the implicit moral code they involve, is the first step in freeing yourself from your victimization.

What Atlas Shrugged ultimately asks us to consider is whether we have thought carefully about the moral rules and ethical principles that we explicitly or implicitly accept. If you are unhappy with your life, and especially with your various professional or interpersonal relationships, it is worth asking whether that unhappiness is of a kind with Atlas trying to carry a weight that he cannot possibly support.

If so, withdraw your sanction of the rules of a rigged game. Shrug off that weight. Find new rules or different players. As Rand emphasized, your happiness is within your grasp if only you recognize your role in making it possible:

Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours. 

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.


  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.