Dagny Taggart runs the largest railroad in the United States. Her brother, James, inherited from their father the title of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, but lacks the knowledge to manage the corporation. Dagny had prepared herself for the responsibilities of being Chief Operating Officer by mastering, or at least understanding, every job that is involved in running a railroad. Her lover is Francisco d'Anconia, the competent heir to the largest copper mining corporation in the world.
Dagny becomes alarmed when, one by one, the most capable CEOs suddenly retire and leave for parts unknown. When her lover vanishes after sabotaging his company into worthlessness, she begins a quest to discover the identity of a man who had been seen talking to each of the CEOs just before they departed. Her relentless pursuit ends when she crashes her plane in a hidden valley, and is pulled from the wreckage by John Galt.
He gives her a tour of the valley. She discovers all the missing CEOs continuing their business pursuits, but only within the valley. John had persuaded them to quit the outside world by teaching them the futility of working within the current system of government regulation. They, the more productive, were being forced to support the less productive, and when the CEOs learned that this system is suicidal for all involved, they went on strike. Atlas, the character in the old story who supported the world on his shoulders, shrugged.
John cleverly transmits the terms of the strike across all the airwaves just as everyone was expecting to hear the President speak about the worsening state of the economy. John explains that the CEOs will return to work if all their property is protected from government control. These capitalists expect to be stopped by the government if they hurt someone, but they refuse to have their productivity controlled by anyone. John with Dagny, and the other valley inhabitants, safely wait to hear the response to their terms. Either way, they had won their freedom.
My response to the author of this novel, Ayn Rand, is to acknowledge that she is right. Several years ago, I was interested in discovering if the growing process was evolutionally separate enough from the aging process to allow me to engineer myself so that I could continue to live. A professor took me to a genetics conference where I learned that what I had in mind was so dangerous that the government would have to control my experiments. I do not want to hurt anyone, so I took a number and got in line, waiting for the old scientists to die to free a place for me in one of the few government approved laboratories.
While I was waiting, a friend gave me Atlas Shrugged, and after reading it and everything that I could find by Rand, I began to understand what I had suspected—our system could use some improvement. Philosophy, which is the study of what is fundamentally going on, has been littered with beliefs in the existence of more than one universe; the acquisition of knowledge by other than reason; and the duty to give one's life to others. Rand cleared the debris by presenting an integrated view of reality, which recognizes that there is only one universe; we understand only by thinking; and life is to be enjoyed.
Most people are just like Johnny, once we start thinking, we spend many years forming thoughts about everything that we encounter—until we start thinking about what it means to be alive. Our next mental step is usually a silent scream, "I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die!" The overwhelming flood of fear that this belief triggers never recedes for many people. Their past had been involved in growing bigger, stronger and brighter, and now this image makes the future a place that they do not want to go.
A popular solution to this problem is to stop thinking, usually with the help of drugs, or for some, the belief that they will live again after they die. Rand explains that survival is a challenge for those who choose to think, but for those who do not think, it is impossible. People can accept that living requires effort and that their success is not guaranteed, or they can just not think about it and be guaranteed of their failure.
As I navigated the course through the pages of her novel, Rand painted a picture in my mind of a place that she wanted to live. It was beautiful. It was so beautiful that I started to build a place just like it. Such is the power of ideas. If it works in your mind, you cannot wait to rearrange the elements to match your mental image.
I worried about my enthusiastic response to Rand's novel because it was similar to my brother's response to the Bible. He began with the euphoria, but after trying to kill himself, he settled into a constant state of unhappiness. I have respect for books. If someone who I considered my superior in many ways could start out by reading a book and end up in a hospital, I have to be careful.
I check out every thought for myself, and recently enjoyed confirming that I am understanding what I read and not merely believing what others say, like my brother. Some of Rand's notes about Atlas Shrugged were published in the January 1992 issue of The Intellectual Activist. On page three, she is quoted as writing, ". . . all his emotions, of course, are determined by his thinking...” I think the evidence reveals that this belief is false.
This does not lessen my admiration for Rand because many times she cautioned people to question what they read, but it is satisfying to disagree with the second most intelligent person. The most intelligent was the first animal to form the first thought many years ago. I think it is appropriate to call this first human God because by my reading of the old books, that is who is being referred to. To learn what people are telling you can save you a lot of time, but to simply accept what they believe is lethal.
One last response to Atlas Shrugged is that we are witnessing the birth of a new nation based upon the ideas of Rand. I hope that enough Americans will see the value of further constitutional limitations on our government. But if too many fail to understand and vote, our nation will disintegrate back into independent States, like the former Soviet Union—with probably at least one State conforming to the image of Rand's valley.