Quillen Misses Atlas’s Point

Ed Quillen, a columnist for the Denver Post whose work I often appreciate, recently wrote a snarky, misleading review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. While his column illustrates — and perhaps helps contribute to — the continued popularity of the novel, his remarks could stand some improvement.

Quillen illustrates a common problem in interpreting the book. He says he read the book when he was 16, and apparently he hasn’t read it since. Often kids read the novel without seriously understanding any of Rand’s ideas or any of her literary subtlety, then, later, they complain that the book is juvenile based on their juvenile understanding of it. I too read Atlas Shrugged when I was around 16 or a bit older, but I didn’t really get what she has to say until later in life. So read the novel as an older teen, and then read it again when you’re 25, and perhaps again later on with Rand’s other essays (the novel was published when Rand was 52, in 1957), and then write a newspaper column about it.

Quillen correctly indicates that the novel’s plot is about what happens when, in the context of socialistic political controls of the economy, the producers go on strike. I’ve written about this as well, with my dad. Rand describes the strike of the novel as a “fantastic premise” and a “hypothetical case.” Indeed, she explicitly wrote that she didn’t think it is time to go on strike. Yaron Brook, head of the Ayn Rand Institute, also said the appropriate move is not to go on strike, but to fight back intellectually. Furthermore, the novel is not just about the producers going on strike; it is about them paving the way to return to a world of reason and political liberty.

Yet, as Rand was aware, higher taxes and more political controls do discourage and impede productive effort and sometimes encourage people to quit their paying jobs, so her premise does have its roots in reality. Furthermore, in a fully totalitarian society, producers should go on strike, either by leaving the country or fighting back.

But of course, as Brook indicates, the real theme of the novel is not just that producers should quit working in the face of increasing political oppression. If that’s all you get out of the novel, you’re not actually reading it. Rather, Rand builds a case for rational self-interest, which neither exploits others nor subjects one’s self to exploitation, leading to a life of reason and a morality suited for living a successful, prosperous life on earth.

Quillen suggests that Rand’s philosophy is similar to that of Nietzsche, despite the fact that Rand explicitly denounced Nietzsche’s philosophy as irrational and deterministic. For more on this, see Robert Mayhew’s essay, “We the Living: ’36 and ’59,” in Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living.

Next Quillen conflates the productive geniuses with those “trying to get their hands on even more public money.” But Rand does not confuse independent producers with government moochers. Indeed, Atlas is filled with villains who are the sort of businessmen who seek political advantage, including the brother of the heroine, James Taggart.

Quillen argues that “there’s little reason to worry about the withdrawal of some current Galt, since others might well be ready to step up to the plate.” As evidence, he lists a few cases in which people independently came up with similar inventions. For instance, Leipniz invented the calculus along with Newton. But does Quillen seriously doubt that the world would be a different place, a worse place, had Newton never lived and contributed so much to physics, far beyond the discovery of calculus? What if both Leipniz and Newton had lived in the sort of world that crushed intellectual advancement?

Quillen then notes that he dislikes Microsoft, despite the fact that the company played a major role in the spread and development of the personal computer, and despite the fact that certain Microsoft products, such as Word, continue to be industry standards even on other platforms, including the Mac.

True, in any industry often a handful of individuals help build the industry. But a relatively small number of individuals built the modern computer industry, and our world would be a far different place without the likes of Steve Jobs, Stephen Wozniak, and Bill Gates. In many cases a single individual makes astounding advances that would not have been duplicated by others or that would have been delayed by decades if not centuries.

The question, then, is whether we want to build the sort of world that recognizes and rewards productive geniuses, and permits them the freedom to work according to their own judgment and reap the rewards of doing so, or a world that increasingly yokes producers with political controls, thereby impeding their progress.

Atlas Shrugged promotes a world of reason, rational self-interest, voluntary cooperation, progress, and liberty.

3 thoughts on “Quillen Misses Atlas’s Point”

  1. You’ve hit it so wonderfully on the head. These people criticise from their own juvenile understanding of Atlas Shrugged.

    I think that’s just such an essentialised, and incredibly important point.

  2. I, too, first read Atlas at the age of 16. I liked the book very much then, but I read it for the plot line and did not really consider the ideas.

    I read it again last summer, and then again in January of this year. I found I needed to read it twice in order to begin to appreciate the crafting of the book to make it an enjoyable read, as well as a book of ideas. The difference between my 16-year-old understanding and my 50 year-old understanding is very great. The book had more depth, better writing, and was much more subtle than I had remembered.

    An aside: A friend from New Jersey, who is my age, wrote my daughter (23) a note suggesting that she should not read Atlas or take the ideas seriously, because he had read 100 pages and had to put it down at the age of 18. She, being wiser than I was at her age, smiled to herself and had a copy shipped to him from Amazon.

  3. My first reading was at the age of 30 and I could not put the book down, through weary eyes and late nights.

    Just today I saw soybeans in the market and thought of the book. It made me think of the millions of Ukrainians that starved to death during record soviet grain harvests and how political control and mismanagement have killed so many. I believe the mark of a great book it makes you think long after you put it down.

    Foolishly I wish I could find that place in the mountains, but all I see is the rotting hulk of the Century Motor Corp.

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