by Bryan Caplan
[Won 3rd prize in a 1991 IHS essay competition.]
[Note: All page references are to the paper-back edition of Atlas Shrugged.]
An individual's actions, for Ayn Rand, are always a consequence of his philosophic convictions - and his specific philosophic convictions are always a consequence of his free choices. So, if a person living in an authoritarian society, such as the America presented in Atlas Shrugged, disobeys the orders of his government, this defiance will have been preceded by a decision in the individual's mind to think independently and search for truth rather than blindly accept the opinions of others. And, since Rand believes that groups are simply aggregates of individuals, all members of a group of freedom fighters must have previously had the intellectual courage to question the values of their authoritarian society and seek new answers armed only with their dedication to truth.
Thus, Rand's view of the link between men's ideas and their actions explores both meanings of Lord Byron's "Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow." The first meaning is obvious: Only the people who value liberty have a motive to win it. But there is another, more subtle meaning in Byron that Rand also explores: Those who would free themselves from false ideas of their society must make their own choice to sift through the contents of their minds and remove beliefs without rational support. False ideas, in fact, have a power to control human souls, whereas physical force can at most control overt behavior. Throughout Atlas Shrugged, Rand shows how both aspects intertwine: the people who choose to rationally question their society's values are the same ones who see the value of individual freedom, and those who see the value of individual freedom commit their lives to winning it.
Symbolically, the struggle for freedom in Atlas Shrugged begins with a single man, John Galt. With the use of flashbacks, Rand shows that Galt's battle is not merely physical or technical; rather, he seriously pondered what to strike the blow against - whether to strike any blow at all. Twelve years after graduating from Patrick Henry University, Galt solved the problem in a flash of genius: "Then I saw what was wrong with the world, I saw what destroyed men and nations, and where the battle for life had to be fought. I saw that the enemy was an inverted morality - and that my sanction was its only power. I saw that evil was impotentÉ and that the only weapon of its triumph was the willingness of the good to serve it." (pp.972-973) The pre-history of the strike in Atlas Shrugged shows that, for Rand, knowledge of the nature and value of liberty are problems that must be solved by one's consciousness before one can try to win liberty in existence.
Guided by his rational insight into his society's problem, Galt turns to strategy. If the problem were merely the physical suppression of a large group of freedom-loving people by amoral tyrants, the solution might be a simple confrontation. The true case is different. Galt's society, in the mass, accepts its own enslavement as justified; the government uses physical violence to crush dissent only in exceptional cases where indoctrination fails. Given this, Galt looks for the weak link in the chain that binds mankind. The chain is its moral code that exalts obedience in mind and body over free thought and free trade. Probing into the nature of the code, Galt discovers the proper strategy to fight it. "It is a code," Galt explains, "that thrives not on those who observe it, but on those who don't, a morality kept in existence not by the virtue of its saints, but by the grace of its sinners. We have decided not to be sinners any longerÉ We shall blast it out of existence by the one method it can't withstand: by obeying it." (pp.688-689)
Galt's struggle for freedom, then, rests on the fact that he previously freed his mind from the dogmas of his society and accepted the responsibility to think independently. His policy of independent thought leads him to see that freedom is a supreme value, and that only he can start the quest for liberation. His rigorous thinking does not merely convince him to strike the blow, but shows him where and how to strike it. He concludes that the men of the mind should go on strike, should refuse to support the society that rejects their values, and let it destroy itself. Galt's strategy parallels that of Etienne de la Boetie, one of the earliest theorists of non-violent resistance: "I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer: then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces."1 The difference is that in Galt's case, the tyrant is not a literal overlord, but an ideology that justifies political oppression as such.
In his attack upon the dominant ideas of his age, Galt pinpoints the root of men's hostility to liberty: their fear of relying on their own minds. "Do not say that you're afraid to trust your mind because you know so little. Are you safer in surrendering to mystics and discarding the little that you know?" (pp.982-983) What Galt sees is that authoritarianism has one basic demand: that the individual suspend his thinking and accept the word of his leaders on faith. Galt tries to persuade his fellow men that they pay a terrible price when they abdicate their minds to avoid the responsibility of judgment:
They place their lives in the hands of another person without any means of judging his performance. Galt implores, "Accept the fact that you are not omniscient, but playing a zombie will not give you omniscience - that your mind is fallible, but becoming mindless will not make you infallible - that an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error." (p.983) If enough men would adopt this policy of independent thinking, political rule would lose its legitimacy and society would re-discover the alternative of liberty. Here again, Galt shows, there is a blow that must be struck if men will be free. It is a blow that each man must strike for himself by resolving to be sole proprietor over his own mind.
John Galt converts his friend Francisco d'Anconia at the inception of the strike. Francisco then devotes himself to the cause by converting others with similar values but without the explicit knowledge they need for moral self-defense. In one of the most interesting relationships in Atlas Shrugged, Francisco plays the role of teacher to unwitting student Hank Rearden. Francisco's lesson is a difficult one to teach, because he cannot safely expose the entire corpus of his beliefs at once. Instead, he must gradually work to open Rearden's mind until Rearden himself chooses to question his current convictions. Francisco hopes that if he asks questions of Rearden - and hints at the answer - Rearden will seek and discover the truth. Initially Francisco's goal is modest. As he puts it in conversation, "I am calling your attention to the nature of those for whom you are working." (p.144) But Francisco wants to spark a more fundamental mental revolution. Francisco sees that if Rearden begins to ask the right questions, Rearden will, like a detective who solves a crime with a handful of clues, gradually discover the truth about his society.
Through Rearden, Rand illustrates that false ideas are potent tools of oppression, more potent than brute force alone. Rearden, she shows, is a man of reason, justice, and integrity. He rejects society's judgments in little things, such as the value of Rearden Metal, but grudgingly accepts society's moral evaluation of himself. In his early business dealings with Dagny, Rearden says off-
handedly, "We haven't got any spiritual goals or qualities. All we're after is material things. That's all we care for." (p.89) What is clear here is that this is not Rearden's first-hand conclusion. Instead, he absorbs popular moral doctrines and then repeats them, never bothering to intellectually digest them. This leaves him in a difficult position: He wants to struggle for his rights, but grants his enemies' claim that he is their moral inferior. When speaking with Francisco, Rearden states, "Now I'll guess what you're thinking: go ahead, say that it's evil, that I'm selfish, conceited, heartless, cruel." To which Francisco replies, hinting at Rearden's intellectual error: "The only thing that's wrong in what you said is that you permit anyone to call it evil." (p.144) Francisco sees that the questions of self-esteem and the struggle for liberty intertwine. Only if a man sees his own dignity and moral worth will he feel that he deserves to be free and that those who oppress him are morally wrong. Francisco's effort to win Rearden over might be called an intellectual seduction. Francisco exposes Rearden to new ideas, not his entire philosophy or underlying goal. He then observes how Rearden applies these new ideas to his life. Consider the sequence of events that lead to Rearden's defiant speech at his trial for illegally selling Rearden Metal. Before this, Francisco twice made philosophic defenses of production and trade in Rearden's presence. In the first, the famous speech on money, Francisco asserts, "To trade by means of money is the code of the men of good will. Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and effortÉMoney permits no deals except those to mutual benefit by the unforced judgment of the traders. Money demands of you the recognition that men must work for their own benefit, not for their own injury, for their gain, not their lossÉ" (p.388) Here Francisco reveals to Rearden that property and exchange do not rest on cynical pragmatism. A moral foundation supports them: They embody respect for human life. Property and exchange imply a society where all men may peacefully cooperate for mutual benefit - and allow each individual to go his own way and make his own decisions.
Francisco makes a second effort to open Rearden's mind shortly before his trial date. This time Francisco tries to show Rearden his moral worth. As Rearden and Francisco look at Rearden's steel mills, Francisco identifies what lies behind the means of production. "If you want to see an abstract principle, such as moral action, in material form - there it isÉ Every girder of it, every pipe, wire and valve was put there by a choice in answer to the question: right or wrong? ÉYou had to act on your own judgment, you had to have the capacity to judge, the courage to stand on the verdict of your mind, and the purest, the most ruthless consecration to the rule of doing right, of doing the best, the utmost best possible to you." (p.425) Rearden has always seen himself as a skillful producer - and has accepted the casual disdain that society dribbles upon him for this role. Francisco shows that production is not merely a material activity, but a spiritual one that involves high moral standards such as rationality, independence, courage, and integrity. The corollary is that Rearden, a producer, must himself possess these noble qualities. Francisco's two speeches to Rearden give him the knowledge and the self-esteem to stand up for his rights at the trial, to publicly denounce the injustice of the state. Witness how Rearden's appreciation for the deeper meaning of free trade has blossomed: "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 produce it for their benefit at the expense of mine, and they do not buy it for my benefit at the expense of theirsÉ we deal as equals by mutual consent to mutual advantage - and I am proud of every penny that I have earned in this manner." (p.451) This, he explains, is why he defied the government's regulation of his business. They had no moral right to restrict his peaceful and productive activities. He does not accept the government's ideological justification for its repressive actions: since the issue is his right to liberty, the prudence of these regulations is a red herring. Here then, we see a further exploration of Lord Byron's dictum. Rearden frees himself by personally disobeying the law. But his choice to break the law is only the conclusion in a long chain of reasoning that began with his resolution to regain sovereignty over his mind and his moral code, both of which were infected by the prevailing ideology of obedience and guilt.
Lord Byron's claims that, "Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow." On its surface, it seems an overstatement. There are obvious counterexamples, where liberators champion the cause of oppressed peoples without the ability or interest to free themselves. One of the most fascinating aspects of Atlas Shrugged is that, by carefully studying the relationship between the ideas that the individuals in a society hold and the consequences of implementing these ideas, Ayn Rand vindicates Lord Byron's assertion. She vindicates it not by denying the obvious objections, but by showing that Byron's statement is much deeper than it appears.
Let us study the components of Rand's conception of the individual's ideas and the condition of society. Dr. Akston, clearly speaking for Rand, states: "Every man builds the world in his own imageÉHe has the power to choose, but no power to escape the necessity of choice. If he abdicates his power, he abdicates the status of man, and the grinding chaos of the irrational is what he achieves as his sphere of existence - by his own choice." (p.735) Ideas, then, can only enter a consenting mind. Each individual must decide for himself - and only for himself - whether he will think critically or not. If he does choose to think, he has set out on the path of self-liberation. Instead of accepting whatever others believe, he will look and see for himself. Since this is the proper means of gaining knowledge about the real world, the individual that has a policy of thinking will generally prosper. Compare such a person to the opposite kind, the person who chooses to avoid thinking and simply accepts the ideas of others. There is no reason to think that such a person will succeed in life, because his ideas will be true only by chance.
A society, for Rand, is equivalent to its constituent members. The general state of the society, then, will be determined by the choices that the individuals in it have made. As Galt says eloquently, "Look around you: what you have done to society, you had done it first within your soul; one is the image of the other." (p.984) Rand's point is this: each individual has a character, a soul, that he has created through his cumulative choices. This "soul" is internal, but expresses itself in the world through the individual's actions. Therefore, Rand believes that any macro explanation of social happenings must ultimately identify the prevailing ideas in order to be valid.
The free-thinking individual, Rand believes, has no motive to deny others their freedom. He wishes to prosper and find happiness, and realizes that he can best gain these values when all men commit themselves to peaceful cooperation and individual rights. Individuals who don't want to think for themselves have a very different
outlook. Dissent threatens their basic values by undermining their confidence in their dogmas. "[A] censored reality," Galt concludes, "is the result." (p.962)
According to Rand, then, individuals, ideas, and society inter-
relate in the following way: individuals choose to think or not to think; this choice determines what ideas they will adopt; these ideas are the fundamental determinant of each individual's behavior; and the interaction of individual behavior, through both cooperation and conflict, determines the general condition of a society.
Rand's theory of the mechanics of society coheres neatly with Byron's "Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow." But for Rand, the critical blow is never the physical fight for freedom - through this might be necessary - but the blow that each individual strikes within his or her own mind, an intellectual blow for independent thought and against dogmas accepted on faith. "Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority," (pp.982-983) is Rand's personal appeal to every reader to strike the blow for freedom inside his or her soul. At a turning point in Atlas Shrugged, when Dagny chooses to leave Atlantis and return to the world, Galt tells her why she should never lose hope that she will find a better life. The reason is that the primary obstacle between her and and a better life is herself. As Galt puts it, "through all the years of your struggle, nothing had barred you from Atlantis and there were no chains to hold you, except the chains you were willing to wearÉRemember you can reach it whenever you choose to see. Remember that it will be waiting and that it's real, it's possible - it's yours." (pp.755-756) Galt says this to an individual, but it could also be the whole of mankind. Humanity will be free as soon as the ruled realize that ideology, not brute force, is the rock upon which oppression rests - and that the way to end that oppression is to reject the ideology that sanctions it. Freedom exists potentially so long as man exists. To actualize this potential men must choose to liberate their minds and think for themselves. Notes
1: de la Boetie, Etienne. The Politics of Obedience: the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, Free Life Editions, 1975, p.53.