It All Depends on What You Shrug About

Through a glass

There are many ways to read a novel, and Atlas Shrugged is no exception. Entrepreneurs tend to read it in a particular way. But if I were to read it, I would get something different out of it, in spite of the guidance Ayn Rand gave readers about what she was up to in the book. You can say what you want as clearly as you can, but what it ends up meaning to another person is beyond your control. Ayn Rand must have known this. But I digress.

While reading Brad Keywell’s recent essay “A Book That Changes Lives,” the first thing I noticed was something positive: “I had never before read a story about relationships—spanning those in circles of business, friends and romance—where everything centered on the quest of reaching one’s highest calling…. The most respect, admiration, and love went to those who had a clear definition of their purpose and who strove for it despite the odds….” The Hero’s Journey! Maybe Atlas Shrugged isn’t as bad as I’ve thought it must be.

But wait. He says he had never before read a Hero’s Journey story featuring someone in business. What about A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life? (All right, that’s a movie not a book; but still, bankers!)

Kate Elliott’s Crossroads series wasn’t around when Brad Keywell was a boy. But her central character, Mai-Ili Mei, is certainly a hero. And it is Mai’s business acumen that gets her into trouble at the outset and in the end saves her and the future of the Hundred from her barbaric husband. If a hero like Mai exists in story today, there must have been business-based heroes long ago.

Keywell also says that “… it’s important no one feel guilty about making money…. Profit is a healthy and vital aspect of capitalism, and is a worthy endeavor.” I think close to everyone in the U.S. would agree that profit is healthy and vital. It’s just that profit isn’t the only worthy endeavor in economics or in life. That is one of the points of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge’s problem is not that he is a business man; it is that he has focused his life on business to the exclusion of all else. And the purpose of the ghostly visits is to broaden his point of view and enrich his life.

No one says that anyone should feel guilty about making money. But people have a problem with an attitude that says “I’ve got mine. Who cares whether you have yours.” Or worse, “I’ve got mine, and that means I’m blessed. You don’t have much, therefore you must deserve to be poor.” People who think this way either haven’t read the story of Job or don’t understand what it means.

I walked away from the essay with a few other impressions. Keywell seemed to say that society scorns innovation. I tried to figure out what society he was talking about, but I could only think of Europe and how the Church reacted to Copernicus and Galileo during the 1500s and 1600s. One of America’s core beliefs is the value of progress; you don’t have progress without innovation. In fact, some of our folk heroes are innovators. Remember Benjamin Franklin?

In the end, Keywell has a few things to say about philosophy, particularly about Plato (“…some philosophies can be inhibitors, like Plato’s doubting about whether we even exist and his denying that the material world is real.”), Aristotle (“…such as Aristotle’s conviction that the pursuit of happiness is at the core of human existence, and that the good life is one of personal fulfillment.”), and Rand (“…what we perceive around us is reality, that people are capable of dealing with this reality and pursuing a good life, and that humans are thinkers, and therefore, heroes who can achieve greatness.”). I can agree with these points about Aristotle and Rand (but not Plato), as far as they go.

But he concludes: “Unleashing the power of human ingenuity is imperative, and it’s unethical (and immoral) for anyone, governments or others, to get in our way.” And here, I disagree. Vehemently.

This type of conclusion seems typical of an uncritical reading of Rand. Philosophies are created in a particular time and place. They grow out of a culture and a set of experiences. And once they are shared, people learn them in a time and place and culture. It is important to look at Ayn Rand’s views about capitalism and government in the context of her life. She was born in 1905 in Russia, graduated from Petrograd State University in 1924, and came to the U.S in 1925. During her first twelve years, she experienced life in tsarist Russia. Although not religious Jews, her family must have been aware of the anti-Jewish pogroms that occurred through 1917 and government-sponsored anti-Semitic literature. During her teens, she experienced two revolutions, one civil war, being displaced, having to flee her home, and periods of near-starvation; it is significant that the Bolsheviks (effectively the government at that time) confiscated her father’s business. Later as a young adult, she was kicked out of university for being bourgeois (as were others; she was later reinstated and graduated in 1924). No wonder Ayn Rand was a proponent of free-market economics and limited government!

In the end, it all depends on what you shrug about. Do you shrug about millions of people living in poverty, generation after generation? Or do you shrug about confiscating someone’s property and livelihood? Neither of these positions is justifiable. Setting up a dichotomy like this creates a straw man argument (or a plot device). Our business leaders and innovators should have the critical thinking skills to notice this.

Ayn Rand has a reputation in some circles as being immature in her thinking, and that assessment is made for a reason. Although Rand makes many good points in Objectivism, her philosophy, she stops too soon.

The point is not “I’ve got mine; who cares about you.” Nor is it “I have nothing, so I’m going to force you to share yours.” The point is to find a middle way: I’ve got mine. What is the best way—or even a good way—to make it possible for you to get yours. I’ve had mentors, you should as well. And so on. Living a life of personal fulfillment and helping others are not mutually exclusive.

I think most people don’t understand how their history and experiences influence what they perceive in the present and what they can conceive about the future. And they don’t know that it is possible to change this. That capacity for self observation and ability to change what we think is part of what makes us human. Or it’s part of what we get—our operating system—because we are human. The critical thing is knowing that the capacity exists, knowing how to use it, and choosing to use it. This sounds like some of the ingredients of innovation to me.

Yes, it’s imperative to unleash the power of human ingenuity. But don’t stop there, and don’t run over anyone else. Extend a hand. Innovate for everyone. Find a third way. Find another way. Find a middle way. Find a new way.

Image photography by Sarah Rungren and Marilyn Freedman

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