Shrugging & Nodding

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, regarded by many as her best and most philosophically representative novel, was published on this day in 1957. The passage below is one of those that tends to cause a headshake in most of Rand’s readers!—the pro-Rands up-and-down, the anti-Rands side-to-side. The Twentieth Century Motor Company has implemented its revolutionary Marxist plan—”everybody in the factory would work according to his ability, but would be paid according to his need”—and in no time the workplace was “a contest among six thousand panhandlers, each claiming that his need was worse than his brothers.” The hardworking felt cheated and humiliated, and “the shiftless and irresponsible had a field day”:

  They bred babies, they got girls into trouble, they dragged in every worthless relative they had from all over the country, every unmarried pregnant sister, for an extra disability allowance, they got more sickness than any doctor could disprove, they ruined their clothing, their furniture, their homes—what the hell, “the family” was paying for it!
… If this is what it did to a single town, where we all knew one another, do you care to think what it would do on a world scale?…To work—with no chance of an extra ration, till the Cambodians have been fed and the Patagonians have been sent to college. To work—on a blank check held by every creature born, by men whom you’ll never see, whose needs you will never know, whose ability or laziness or sloppiness or fraud you have no way to learn and no right to question….

In the introduction to Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (2009), Jennifer Burns tries to explain Rand’s enduring appeal:

She was one of the first American writers to celebrate the creative possibilities of modern capitalism and to emphasize the economic value of independent thought. In a time when leading intellectuals assumed that large corporations would continue to dominate economic life, shaping their employees into soulless organization men, Rand clung to the vision of the independent entrepreneur. Though it seemed anachronistic at first, her vision has resonated with the knowledge workers of the new economy, who see themselves as strategic operators in a constantly changing economic landscape.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.