Bryan Caplan

Arnold on Atlas: Where's He Right, Where He's Wrong

PRINT
Tyler Cowen Cheers Democracy... Health Care and Organization...

Arnold has just read my favorite novel. Here's my reaction to his reaction:

What I like is the "in your face" defense of businessmen and the unremitting attack on the "looters" of government. Rand is uncanny in her depiction of government involvement as a tar-baby phenomenon where "solving" each problem creates a worse one.
In that case, you might like my essay on public choice in Atlas Shrugged.

What I don't like are three things.

1. The heroes are so humorless and self-absorbed that I cannot root for them.

What's impressive about Rand's story-telling, in my view, is that she is so good at convincing readers to root for humorless, self-absorbed characters. If you think this just shows that Rand was terrible at characterization, consider: She painted such vivid portraits that thousands of real people started acting like her eccentric characters.

2. The credo of "I will not live my life for any man nor ask any man to live his life for me" (I'm paraphrasing) sounds too much like a survivalist fruitcake holed up in a shack in the hills. Ironically, at the climax of the book, the heroes behave more in Three Musketeers fashion. Although of course they don't say "one for all and all for one," Rand is playing that tune on your emotional violin in the end.
Quite right. Her moral vision is more plausible than her official theory.
3. The villains are clearly villains from the beginning.
Not Robert Stadler. He's portrayed so sympathetically at first that you keep expecting him to come to his senses and do the right thing.
What would be really neat, particularly in a movie version, would be instead to start out as if you were following a conventional Hollywood script, and get the audience to root for the crusading politicians against the greedy industrialists. Then...gradually...let it become clear that it's the industrialists who are the heroes and the politicians who are causing ever-greater harm.
If you could pull this off, I'd be thrilled. But it seems like a tall order to give Atlas Shrugged an M. Night Shyamalan conclusion.

Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (12 to date)
Scott Scheule writes:
What's impressive about Rand's story-telling, in my view, is that she is so good at convincing readers to root for humorless, self-absorbed characters. If you think this just shows that Rand was terrible at characterization, consider: She painted such vivid portraits that thousands of real people started acting like her eccentric characters.

Granted, but that she succeeds (somewhat) in spite of her poor characterization does not validate the poor characterization in the first place. Incidentally, it's not the self-absorption, nor even the humorlessness I object to: it's the pure flatness.

I had forgotten Robert Stadler. It's been a while since I've read the book.

Ian writes:

Sorry Bryan, but I have to agree with Arnold on his critique.
I had never had an urge to read Atlas Shrugged until I received over the mail in the fall. I picked it up and found myself continuously putting it down as the characters upset me. There are so many actions they commit that I can not picture anyone doing such as taking vacation not calling your own business or listening to the news after you had to fight tooth and nail to accomplish what you wanted; it isn't practical.
The love triangles are a waste of my time, and Rand spends too much time trying to build a secret I should care about.
I wanted to know who was John Galt after the first few chapters, but half way through, I stopped caring.
I do enjoy the pro capitalism rants but they are so few to come by that it is easy for me to put the book down and forget about it.
If I were to try to get someone interested in economics, I would rather give them Invisible Heart. Its short and easy to comprehend, even the love story gives you a chuckle (or rather I found it easier to get my fiancee to understand what I am talking about through it).

drtaxsacto writes:

I love the message of Atlas but after re-reading it last summer I was surprised at how plodding the prose is. The characters in Atlas are cardboard, free market cardboard but cardboard none-the-less. Rand could have benefitted from an editor. After the fifteenth exposition of a peroration on the value of individualist mentality, I became a bit tired.

Giovanni writes:

I'm with Mr. Kling 100%.

The extreme selfishness and individualist ideals of Dagny Taggart were completely hypocritical when she herself was a selfless manager who put the needs of the railroad business and its customers above personal needs such as profit, fame, leisure, or family. She also didn't fit her anti-social individualist ideals but actually cared quite a bit about certain other people in her world.

While I completely agree with the central capitalist theme of the book, it was just too obvious and repetitive and simply not entertaining.

Dan writes:

The ending Arnold is looking for is definitely provided– but not in that book. The first half of The Fountainhead had me– a hardcore libertarian semi-Objectivist who had seen the movie and knew the plot– rooting at least a little for the kindly Ellsworth Toohey. "Discovering" his deviousness in the end was a delight.

jb writes:

AS is definitely a book to be enjoyed by the young, who haven't been exposed to good writing and good characterizations.

In addition, Ayn's inability to deal with children in any meaningful way is also a considerable flaw. Atlas Shrugged, at the end of the day, does not describe a way to live your life.

What it is is a thought experiment - what if socialists took over the US - what kinds of things would happen. The ideas of what would follow: legalized looting, rationing, arbitrary seizure of assets, mafia-style takeover of the government, the inventive and hardworking people retreating from the system are what's important

And, if you look at the Soviet Union and Russia, what actually happened.


Don't read it for the plodding speeches or the chapter-long radio address or the bizarre love triangles and "mystical powers" of the capitalists. Read it to get a sense of the unintended consequences of government management. Read it to understand your own motivations, so you can manage yourself better. Read it to give yourself a defense against accusations of "selfishness" from people who want you to give them your money.

But don't read it for the characters.

Josh writes:

Atlas is more controversial, but Fountainhead DEFINITELY had that Hollywood quality Arnold is talking about. In the beginning, Ellsworth Toohey was quite a likeable character, and it wasn't entirely clear why we shouldn't cheer on Peter Keating. In my opinion, Fountainhead is a vastly better novel: the depth of the characters (Dominique is the most complex character of both of the novels) simply is better in the Fountainhead.

Taimyoboi writes:

"She painted such vivid portraits that thousands of real people started acting like her eccentric characters."

Out of the many millions that read the novel? That's not very convincing even if it was responsive.

The people who started imitating her characters are probably just as flat and self-absorbed as the ones in the novel.

Troy Camplin writes:

I love that there is the complaint that the characters are flat along with the complaint that Dagny Taggart is is a complex character and isn't flat.

Seamus McCauley writes:

She painted such vivid portraits that thousands of real people started acting like her eccentric characters

Or, we might just as plausibly say, she legitimised certain existing eccentric behaviours to the point at which a relative handful of people suddenly became willing to exhibit them publicly and attribute them to their reading of Rand. Much like, say, Thatcher deciding she was a Hayekian monetarist upon discovering what one was and realising the intellectual authority it would confer upon her existing opinions.

And I'm afraid I'm with Taimyoboi that - even if the causation did flow that way - emulation by a few thousand people is a pretty low score for a work of real cultural significance. By way of largely frivolous comparison, more than half a percent of the population of the UK gave their religion as "Jedi" on the last census. (Not that I don't love much of Rand's writing, but for my money the real genius - and sympathy - is in Fountainhead, not Atlas.)

Mason writes:

1. The heroes are so humorless and self-absorbed that I cannot root for them.
What's impressive about Rand's story-telling, in my view, is that she chooses not to make her heroes likable, and yet they are still heroes. I think it is a choice because she has likeable human characters; Eddie, and Cherryl (James Taggart’s wife). Having likeable characters would detract from the strenght of her arguments. If you find yourself agreeing with Galt, and sympathizing with Dagny and Rearden, it’s certainly not because you feel for them as people, it’s because you agree with the ideas. Had Dagny been a single mother in a rough neighboorhood, readers would have agreed with the character more than with Rands ideas.

To the extent that this is true, Rand expected her readers to be like her heroes, thinkers, rather than feelers.

spel writes:
She also didn't fit her anti-social individualist ideals but actually cared quite a bit about certain other people in her world.

But that's precisely because her individualist ideals were not anti-social. To be an individualist in Rand's view is to act on one's own judgment in order to achieve one's own happiness--not to become a hermit or an thug. Indeed, her point was that deep, fulfilling relationships among people were possible only among individualists: independent people who have their own goals, their own values, their own lives.

Rand's views on this issue are available on a new website: www.aynrandlexicon.com.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top