Acton Institute Powerblog

Considering Atlas Shrugged on Film

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This piece was originally written for the Breakpoint blog. Crossposted with their permission.

Christians have a deep ambivalence about Ayn Rand that probably draws as deeply from the facts of her biography as from her famous novels. When the refugee from the old Soviet Union met the Catholic William F. Buckley, she said, “You are too intelligent to believe in God.” Her atheism was militant. Rand’s holy symbol was the dollar sign. Ultimately, Buckley gave Whittaker Chambers the job of writing the National Review essay on Rand’s famous novel Atlas Shrugged that effectively read her and the Objectivists out of the conservative movement. The review characterized Rand’s message as, “To a gas chamber, go!” Chambers thought Rand’s philosophy led to the extinction of the less fit.

In truth, the great Chambers (his Witness is one of the five finest books I’ve ever read) probably treated Rand’s work unfairly. Though Rand certainly made no secret of her contempt for those unable or unwilling to engage in true exchange of economic value, she was right to tell interviewers that she was no totalitarian because of her abhorrence for the use of force. She did not believe in compulsion. Instead, she wanted a world in which a man stood or fell on his productivity. Rand saw production as the one great life affirming activity. Man does not automatically or instinctively derive his sustenance from the earth. He must labor and produce. This was Rand’s bedrock and explains why she had such contempt for those who try to gain wealth through political arrangements. She saw this parasitism on every point of the economic spectrum from the beggar to the bureaucrat to the purveyor of crony corporatism.

The critical tension between Rand and Christian theology is on human worth. Christians affirm the inherent and very high value of individuals because of their creation in the image of God. Rand values human beings only for their achievements. A person who does not offer value is a leech, a “second rater.”

Atlas Shrugged, the film, is well worth seeing, both because of the challenge posed by Rand’s worldview and because it avoids the pedantic speech-making of the overly long novel. Rand doesn’t trust her story to get her philosophy across. The novel struggles under the weight of her desire to teach. Thanks to the constraints of the film medium, we learn through the development of the characters and the plot. As a result, the tale comes through quite clearly and simply.

The story proceeds from a fascinating premise: what if the most able were to go on strike and take their gifts away from the broader society (like Lebron taking his from Cleveland!)? These talented individuals stop producing because society (in the form of government) has begun to take their contribution for granted and seeks to control the conditions under which they live, work, and create.

Government action occurs under the rubric of equity, but these people who “move the world” — as one conversation in the film expresses — do not understand what claim the government has to order their lives or to confiscate the fruits of their labor. The villains of the piece are not so much any welfare class as much as corporatists who want to link their companies to government arrangements so as to assure profit without the need for strong performance. They go on about loyalty and public service, but it is a mask for mediocrity and greed. The heroes (Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggert) want to make money, but they are virtuous because they give obvious value for every cent they earn.

The underlying moral is that we must not make too great a claim to control the inventors and entrepreneurs lest we frustrate them into inactivity. Though we think we gain by taxing and regulating their efforts, there is a strong possibility that we will lose a great deal more by blocking the creative impulse and inspiring a parasitic ethic of entitlement.

Rand’s atheism, materialism, and reduction of the human being’s value to economic productivity are all severely problematic for a variety of good reasons. But one might compare her political and economic thought to chemotherapy, which is basically a form of poison designed to achieve a positive outcome. You don’t want to take it if you can avoid it. You hope the circumstances in which you would use it don’t arise. However, in an age of statism, it is a message that may need to be heard. Not so much in the hopes that it will prevail as much as to see it arrest movement in a particular direction which will end badly if it continues.

Hunter Baker Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science at Union University and an Affiliate Scholar in Religion & Politics at the Acton Institute. He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student's Guide.


  • ARL

    Rand was a fascist, pure and simple.

  • How can she be a fascist if she would not employ state power against anyone?

  • J.M. Gronka

    “the fascinating premise”, I disagree with authour Hunter Baker. The character, John Galt, did not “go on strike” and thereby “take his gifts” from society in order to punish society. He was simply rebelling against a government who saw fit to use “producers of wealth” as the source of funds to be redistributed amongst the masses, so that more people of a “deserving society” could enjoy “equal benefit” of “societies combined effort”. (If you don’t read the book you may not understand this reference) Today we just refer to this as the redistribution of wealth or socialism, maybe even, extreme socialism.
    “Government action” This is not what I interpreted from the story. The real villians arte the Hierarchy in government. They have resorted to confiscation of wealth through regulation of business and industry. Eg, thru EPA, OSHA, DER IRS, etc. etc. Totally disagree with Mr. Baker as to the “villans” of the story. He makes it seem as though the industrialists are the greedy villans. Not my interpretation at all.
    “underlying moral” is way off base. There is no doubt that over regulation, by any means, stifles creativity. I think most people agree with that.
    Over all, this review is not well thought out, or the writer is not knowledgeable of the whole story. Very important to note that if he is commenting on “only the movie version” the next two parts have yet to be filmed. He only saw a part odf the story. So his comments are not only off base but irrellevant. Joseph M. Gronka, BsEd, DDS, MAGD

  • Mr. Gronka, I don’t think you’ve understood the review. In any case, I am well familiar with the book, the film, the life of Ayn Rand, Rand’s other works, etc.

  • J.M. Gronka

    Guess not :)

  • Jonathan Dickson

    “Rand was a fascist, pure and simple.”

    Someone is not afraid of displaying their ignorance for all to see!

  • Ken

    Ironically, Rand’s style has always struck me as that of an Old Testament prophet (that’s the way I tend to think of her influence on the cause of liberty, too).

  • Thank you for many interesting points. I have loved the novel. Rand emphatically did not reduce the worth of human being to mere economic productivity – that view is explicitly rejected din all of her mature works. She made the moral case that one’s working life is terribly important to one’s survival and thriving and one’s relationship to others, and therefore to one’s moral status, and that one has to do the best possible. She said that her aim in “Atlas” was to “spiritualize the secular.” She was also emphatically not a materialist or a reductionist – she held that consciousness is an axiomatic feature that is fundamentally irreducible. She’s not nearly so grindingly earth-bound as one would think from some of these remarks. (I must add, to forestall the usual objection, that I don’t agree 100% with her. I’m an admirer, but not a captive to any party line.)

  • ARL – Rand was an opponent of all forms of government coercion, be they fascist, communist, Nazi, Maoist, crony-capitalist, or anything else. How can you maintain she was a fascist?

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  • ‘Fascist’ has been adopted in the Progressive lexicon as referring to all things unworthy. It has no definition except in the sense that it is the opposite of the coercive collectivist state which is motivated by ‘justice’ and the advocacy for which is the source of self worth for Progressive adherents.