Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #35: Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

I have an old school copy of this thing. It's printed on what I suspect is Bible paper and is in like...size 2 font, and I have carpal tunnel now, but you know what, that is okay. I swiped this book from my parents' house several years back because I had heard about Ayn Rand and it seemed like A Book I Should Read. I promptly put it on my bookshelf for the better part of five years, until I was shopping on Shabby Apple and saw that they had a dress called Dagny Taggart, which needless to say I thought was a pairing of made up words. I thought the dresses were cute, so I linked Ashley to them because our friendship is based on enabling, at which point she got ALL excited and told me all about how I have to read Atlas Shrugged because I am Dagny Taggart and BOY HOWDY it's a super good book. So much of my life progresses because of shopping. It's odd, really.

In any case, I'm not really sure whether I should be offended or flattered by Ash's comparison to Dagny, because this book is a hell of a lot to digest. What I appreciate is that Rand manages to highlight the failures of both extremes of the capitalism/socialism debate. Her brother is a weak, inept man crippled by his constant bowing to the imagined greater good, while many of her corporate allies are completely apathetic to their "fellow man," giving themselves over wholly to the idea of the Rockefeller quote about his God-given right to make money, and to make more money, and to spend it as he sees fit. Dagny is torn between these extremes; she prioritizes her business above almost everything else in her life - in several scenes her expressions of humanity are presented as huge surprises to those around her - but she also has clear sympathy and concern for certain people along the way. She faces constant challenges to her business-centric attitude, but exercises Rand's objectivist philosophy along the way to hopefully come out on top.

I find this particularly relevant today...our political discourse seems to swing between people saying we should drop everyone's ass in the mud, and people who want to put everyone under the government's wing. There is middle ground, but it's being ignored by the Debate Makers of America, and that is a damn shame, because it's the only way to sensibly patch some of our current problems up (to say nothing of the fact that 95% of America falls in neither camp). Rand wants us to pursue our own happiness regardless of anything else, and to have a government that only defends our right to do so. I'm not totally on board with this, primarily because I think we do have a human obligation to ensure that our fellow man is not starving to death, freezing in winter, dying unnecessarily. We should make sure that there is a basic standard of existance; not a posh house with a yard and everyone driving a Porsche and getting free money every month, but a system ensuring that you have a fair shot at maximizing your own potential. We can't make up for natural, in-born inadequacies. However, if we make sure that people can get an education (an education, not babysitting services) and a basic ability to sustain their lives, that maximizes everyone's potential to follow their own happiness. If we maintain a baseline standard of living - a low one, not a free ticket - then we won't have to pay for things like lifetimes on welfare or skyrocketing healthcare for the uninsured or the general bullshit of dragging along people who exist on social services without ever lifting a finger to help themselves.

I think much of America's recent problems have come from a lack of courage in our convictions. We're capitalist, right? Capitalism rewards those who make a valuable, solid product (or at least who can sell it as such). This means that there is naturally an inferior product behind the leader. This is why I hate those GM commericals so much...don't spend your fucking ill-gotten gains on telling me how Totally Freaking Sweet the new GM is, how about making a better fucking product? Invest in your damn R&D and perhaps in asking people what they actually want to drive periodically. Notice what the Japanese carmakers did? People wanted to blow less on their gas, so the Japanese companies made smaller cars that were more efficient. American automakers made SUVs. What the hell? Let those companies die that can't survive. Instead, we've obligated ourselves to keeping these people on corporate welfare. They're going to die someday, guys. They haven't changed their business plan, they just upped their advertising budget. We can either blow a ton of money on prolonging the process, or we can let them fail, deal with the relatively short period of suck, and then rebuild something with the information we learned. I don't know about you all, but I'd rather just let them fail so someone who makes something useful that works can take the new place on top. If we believe in capitalism, we need to let it work. I believe in true capitalism. I think the problem is when we freak out and interfere with its natural progession. Make decisions and stick with them.

So, okay, it's a decent book. It's not the best written - it's pretty good, but it has a couple of my least favorite quirks, including some long ass speechifying (and from someone who just unleased a babble about Japanese and American car companies in a book review, I think you can figure out the level of speechifying we're dealing with here) and repetitive description - but it WILL make you think, and I think it directs your thoughts towards particularly relevant matters for this moment in history. However, get a newer version that has font bigger than "fine print usually reserved for legalese." And a wrist support.

1088 pages

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