Ayn Rand’s prophetic novel, Atlas Shrugged, reads like today’s news.
In Atlas Shrugged, the country is in an economic downturn marked by business closings and massive unemployment. Many other countries are destitute and are becoming socialist states. In the U.S., Colorado is the last great industrial center. Leading the charge is Ellis Wyatt’s productive oil field, made possible by his innovations. Dagny Taggart, VP of Operations for Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, wants to build a line to link Wyatt’s oilfields with the rest of the U.S. She wants to use Rearden Metal to build it, a new alloy developed by Hank Rearden. Dagny, an engineer, believes in Rearden’s company, the last dependable steel manufacturer in the U.S. and in his product, though it is untested. Her brother James wants to do business with a crony who heads an inefficient company that is in no way as good as Rearden’s firm.
The economic depression is worsened by the strange disappearance of talented people who retire and vanish. As more and more great men disappear, the U.S. population becomes more depressed and pessimistic. To express the growing pessimism, people began asking a question with no answer, “Who is John Galt?’ The question describes the growing sense of hopelessness and pessimism. Fueling the turmoil is an increasing effort by government to pass legislation that stifles the creativity and enterprise of such men as Wyatt and Rearden. Economic pressure groups want the government to force companies to share their profits. Men like Rearden believe in the right to own the product of their effort and to trade with whomever they please. The government increasingly tries to outlaw the voluntary exchange of goods and services.
The government’s response to the worsening economic situation is to pass onerous legislation that requires all workers to stay in their jobs, all businesses to remain open regardless, and that all patents and inventions must be turned over to the government. The government nationalizes more and more industries while the politicians use their power and influence to create their own empires. The collapse of the U.S. economy due to the government’s socialist policies is inevitable.
As economic conditions deteriorate and more and more talented people disappear, Dagny eventually crashes a plane into Atlantis, a hidden valley in Colorado. Dagny finds that all the talented inventors, artists, industrialists, philosophers, and scientists whom she has long admired have taken refuge in Atlantis. They have gone on strike. She also finds that John Galt does indeed exist and is their leader.
Rand started writing the novel in 1946. When it was published in 1957, She explained to editors that Atlas Shrugged was, in part, written to provide a moral defense of capitalism. Rand passionately believed that without the unfettered independent mind, the world would collapse into savagery. Rand believed the independent mind of the individual is responsible for all human progress and prosperity. When Rand was writing Atlas Shrugged, many people believed that the government should have the right to coercively redistribute income and regulate private industry.
Atlas Shrugged is a passionate argument that American society’s freedom is responsible for the country’s great achievements. Prosperity suffers when great minds and innovation are shackled by government regulation and interference. The great thinkers and doers — the producers — in Rand’s sweeping novel go on strike in support of individual rights and political freedom versus a debilitating collectivism.
Atlas Shrugged is imbued with Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. In Rand’s own words, “capitalism is the only system where people are free to function and where progress is accompanied, not by forced privations, but by a constant rise in the general level of prosperity, of consumption, and of enjoyment of life.”
In Greek mythology, Atlas was condemned to support heaven and earth on his shoulders. What if he shrugged? Today, all across America, people are beginning to shrug.