Most of us do not take much note when February 2 passes--and if we do, it’s just in reference to Groundhog Day. But February 2nd marks something much more important than a mythical, weather-forecasting rodent. It is the birthday of the late, great author and philosopher Ayn Rand, the woman who gave us "Atlas Shrugged" (1957), one of the most influential works of the 20th century.
Although "Atlas Shrugged" is a must read for everyone, it is particularly the case for anyone in the business world. If you ask any hundred successful businessmen chosen at random to name the book that has most inspired them, you will undoubtedly hear "Atlas Shrugged" repeated over and over. Why?
Because, in the form of a thrilling novel with inspiring heroes, "Atlas Shrugged" does something no other book has ever done: it presents the pursuit of profit, the essence of business, as a profoundly moral activity.
Observe that while profit-seeking is widely recognized as economically indispensable, it is also widely regarded as morally tainted, if not outright immoral. This applies, not just to attempts to “profit” via theft or fraud, but to the pursuit of profit as such. For example, pharmaceutical companies who successfully develop and sell life-saving drugs, oil companies who explore the ends of the earth to extract a vital resource, and financiers who efficiently invest wealth through our dynamic financial markets are all routinely castigated for their high profits. And those who defend profit-seeking do so, not on moral grounds, but as an amoral means to a noble end: the “public good”--i.e., the good of everyone besides businessmen themselves.
To the extent honest, productive businessmen absorb this view of their profession--and most do, to some extent--they experience unearned guilt over their work, and are unable to morally challenge the ever-increasing taxes and regulations foisted on them for the “public good.” "Atlas Shrugged" rocks their world.
The heroes of "Atlas Shrugged" are a group of great achievers, mostly businessmen, who, like businessmen today, live in a world that damns, shackles, and drains them. But these achievers refuse to accept this treatment; they fight back. They go on strike, refusing to work in a society that at once depends on their achievements but brands them immoral for seeking to profit from those achievements. They let the world see what happens when their “immorality” is removed.
“We are evil, according to your morality,” the leader of the strike, John Galt, tells the world in a radio address; “We have chosen not to harm you any longer. . . . We are dangerous and to be shackled, according to your politics. We have chosen not to endanger you, nor to wear the shackles any longer.”
Without the great, profit-seeking industrialists, what remains is, as Galt puts it, “a world without mind”--a world without the thinker-creators who forge steel by the megaton, direct intricate transcontinental train networks, and bring new inventions to the masses--a world that quickly spirals downward into poverty and destruction.
As readers witness how the world treats the Atlases who carry it on their shoulders, and what happens when Atlas shrugs, they gain a new appreciation for these “dollar chasers,” and begin to question the premise that the profit motive is immoral. Readers are joined in this moral-intellectual journey by one of the leading characters in the story, metal magnate Hank Rearden, who is one of the last to learn about the strike.
We meet Rearden at the triumphant culmination of his 10-year-quest to revolutionize the industrial world with Rearden Metal: an alloy far lighter, stronger, and cheaper than steel. When he succeeds, he expects to profit handsomely from sales to grateful customers eager to buy his magnificent new product.
Instead, he is punished for his efforts--first by slander and denunciation from a society that damns Rearden Metal as a fraud (“a lethal product of greed”)--then by the destruction of his profits by regulations that dictate, in the name of the “public good,” how much he can produce and whom he must sell to--and finally by outright nationalization of his product. As his business is destroyed, the world suffers destruction with him--yet his critics still mindlessly damn his pursuit of profit, and demand “wider powers” for the government to curb it.
As Rearden suffers through all this for the sin of trying to make money by creating incredible value, he is led, with the help of the strike’s leaders, to a profound moral realization. The selfish pursuit of profit that he so excels at--pursuing his own well-being by his own independent thought, production, and trade--is the essence of what human life requires, and therefore, the highest of moral virtues. “They had known,” says Galt of Rearden and the other strikers, “that theirs was the power. I taught them that theirs was the glory.”
Armed with, as Galt puts it, “the knowledge of [his] own moral value,” Rearden is able to defend himself from government predations like never before. In response to accusations that he “works for nothing but his own profit,” Rearden responds defiantly, “I work for nothing but my own profit--which I make by selling a product they need to men who are willing and able to buy it. . . . I do not sacrifice my interests to them nor do they sacrifice theirs to me; we deal as equals by mutual consent to mutual advantage--and I am proud of every penny that I have earned in this manner. . . . I refuse to apologize for my ability--I refuse to apologize for my success--I refuse to apologize for my money.”
Unfortunately, while Rearden experiences a lifelong moral transformation in the story of "Atlas," most of the readers of "Atlas Shrugged" do not. While many businessmen derive lasting inspiration from "Atlas," they do not attain or pursue an enduring understanding of the moral virtue of profit--and certainly do not proudly defend their right to practice it freely. Thus, many of "Atlas Shrugged’s" most vocal admirers at once proclaim adoration for the novel, while simultaneously attempting to justify their existence by appealing to some “higher cause” (“the environment,” “diversity,” “the community”)--and certainly do not proudly stand up for their right to pursue profit in a free market. They engage in the same tried-and-failed tactics of behind-the-scenes lobbying and appeals to the “public good” that have led to the shrinking of economic freedom over the past century.
To celebrate Ayn Rand’s birthday this year, businessmen should make a point of rereading the novel. But this time, in addition to being inspired to greatness by its heroes, they should pay special attention to the book’s radical moral philosophy--a philosophy that has the potential to truly change how they look at their lives and enable them to fight successfully for their freedom.
Alex Epstein is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, focusing on business issues. The Ayn Rand Center is a division of the Ayn Rand Institute and promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.”