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Thursday, June 15, 2017

What the Critics Get Wrong About Atlas Shrugged

I’ve just begun to re-read Ayn Rand’s 1,200 page behemoth Atlas Shrugged.

I’ve just begun to re-read Ayn Rand’s 1,200-page behemoth Atlas Shrugged. The book left such a positive impression on me six years ago when I read it for the first time that I vowed to re-read it every five years or so to keep picking up on new things.

In the meantime, I became a little curious to see what other people online had to say about the book. I’ve long heard the rumor that Atlas critics give such undue hostility to the book that it’s plausible to imagine that most of them never read it in the first place!

Atlas Shrugged is a vast and complex forest but Hartmann is peering only at a couple of the trees.

Thom Hartmann’s Distortions of Atlas 

It didn’t take long before I came across a couple of videos and articles from Thom Hartmann, a popular far left-wing commentator, and I knew my suspicions were justified. As you’ll see shortly, his descriptions of Rand’s classic novel are so extremely caricatured and unfounded that you really have to doubt his claim that he’s actually read the book.

(In fairness, he claims to have read the book in high school, which would have been more than 40 years ago. Perhaps the following is a fault of memory…)

Atlas Shrugged Is about the Importance of CEOs

Hartmann: “Do you really think if all the CEOs went on strike that society would collapse? This is the basic premise of the book.”

Yes, exactly! Atlas Shrugged: the tale of a society’s downfall when its CEOs skip work for the golf course!

This, of course, isn’t what the book is about. It is true that some of Rand’s protagonists—Hank Rearden and Ellis Wyatt, for example—were heads of large and important companies. And yes, these innovative corporate leaders did eventually go on strike, but it is also true that some of Rand’s villains—James Taggart and Orren Boyle, for example—were presidents of large and important companies as well.

So, what actually caused the strike and ensuing collapse in Atlas? Altruism. 

Any conscientious reader would have observed at least somewhere between page 1 and 1,200 that had the latter, and not the former, gone on strike, “society” would never have “collapsed.” This explodes the idea that Atlas was some sort of apologia for “CEOs” in specific and “the rich” in general.

Atlas Shrugged Is about Billionaires Who Don’t Want to Pay Taxes

Hartmann: So, in Atlas Shrugged, when the billionaires, tired of paying taxes and complying with government regulation, go on strike, Ayn Rand writes that the American economy promptly collapsed.”

Atlas Shrugged is such a vast and complex forest, yet Hartmann is peering like a hawk at only a couple of the trees. Taxation and regulation are both separate elements in the book’s periodic table, but together they are not enough to cause the explosion of society.

So, what actually caused the strike and ensuing collapse in Atlas? To answer this question is to get to the basic theme of the book, a theme that is present on every single page: altruism.

It’s absurd to think Rand labeled anybody over a certain income threshold as a “producer.”

Atlas Shrugged has to do with the differences between a society based on altruism—in which the masses are told that their noblest deed is to sacrifice for “others”—and a society based on individualism—where individuals are respected as “ends in themselves” and free to pursue their own interests.

Through policies such as the Equalization of Opportunity Act and the Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule, people who embody altruism treat the individualists as mere pieces on a chessboard, to be manipulated and harassed as the altruists please (since it’s in the name of “others”).

Eventually, a mysterious man named John Galt persuades the most innovative and oppressed individualists to simply go “on strike.” This puts society in the hands of the Altruists, who know nothing of how to produce wealth, only how to redistribute it and that is why society collapses.

As Galt lays out:

“We’ve heard so much about strikes, and about the dependence of the uncommon man upon the common. We’ve heard it shouted that the industrialist is a parasite, that his workers support him, create his wealth, make his luxury possible—and what would happen to him if they walked out? Very well. I propose to show to the world who depends on whom, who supports whom, who is the source of wealth, who makes whose livelihood possible, and what happens to whom when who walks out.”

Atlas Shrugged Is about the Rich Producers vs. The Poor Looters

Hartmann: “On one side are the billionaires and the industrialists. People like Dagny Taggart, a railroad tycoon, and Hank Rearden, a steel magnate… On the other side are the “looters,” or everyone else who isn’t as rich or privileged, or who believed in a democratic government to provide basic services, empower labor unions, and regulate the economy.”

Once again, any detailed reading of the book would quickly reveal the sloth resting in this cartoonish summary. First of all, based on the fact that many of the villains in Atlas are wealthy, it’s absurd to think that Rand indiscriminately labeled anybody over a certain income threshold as a “producer.”

Secondly, Rand had nice words for the “middle class,” which she termed as “the heart, the lifeblood, the energy source of a free, industrial economy…” So this idea that Rand would have considered you a moocher if you weren’t a rich industrialist is just plain old propaganda.


Hartmann and similar critics of Atlas Shrugged seem to be so wrapped up in a class-conflict outlook that they struggle to comprehend an author who judged individuals with standards having nothing to do with their current economic status.

Atlas Shrugged is many pages long, but well worth the effort. All sorts of themes exist within its pages, just waiting to challenge the reader’s understanding of himself and the rest of the world.

  • I'm a current undergraduate in economics at Western Michigan University and a former policy intern at FreedomWorks.