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Atlas Shrugged Essay Contest

Atlas Shrugged logoSince I’m a student for a little while again, I posted an essay for this year’s Atlas Shrugged essay contest. There’s nothing like writing an essay to really make you feel like a student! [Update: I didn’t win. =( ]

Atlas Shrugged Essay Topic #2: In Atlas Shrugged, the heroes want to “make” money while the villains want, on the surface at least, to “have” money. What is the difference between these two views of money? Explain your answer by reference to actual events in the novel.

Distinguishing between “making” money and “having” money is a key insight highlighted by Ayn Rand, however despite the rational selfishness that the main characters put forward, their view of making money necessarily requires the considerations of other people—that one person’s new idea has value only if someone else thinks it has value—whereas the view of having money pits one man against his neighbor where invariably the only way to have is to take. How ironic that the villains in the book who decry selfish ambition are actually embracing the more selfish of the two views of money.

Making money implies that one can increase wealth by work and mental effort. Strictly speaking this is not making money exactly, and Midas Mulligan even reverts to a gold standard for representing money in the Colorado mountains. In this sense the protagonists actually embrace the “having” money point of view, but Hank Rearden acknowledges that it is wealth that is made, and that is the meaning taken here. Gold becomes a means for value exchange enabling wealth to be “made.”

With the notion that wealth can be made comes hope, opportunity, and achievement. One can think of what no one has done or of doing something better, and this creates a value difference between what is currently available and what one proposes. Despite the main characters’ insistence that they follow a selfish path, their philosophy depends on other people and how one’s ideas and actions improve the lives of others. Regarding the desparately-needed new rails for the Rio Norte line, Hank tells Dagny Taggart, “I intend to make you pay for it,” and Dagny gladly does.

New ideas may also benefit the creator directly. John Galt explains to Dagny that such innovations give the inventor time, not money, and time can be redeemed to pursue what one desires. In this sense time is a sort of gold standard with oneself. One cannot pay oneself with gold for a new idea, but time—the ultimate limited resource—can be “saved” by innovation.

The value of a new idea is based on the improvement that it provides another person. It is the recognition of one person’s achievement by another, but it is not a hollow recognition for the benefit of the creator. It is the acknowledgement of one person’s genuine contribution to another. Richard Halley’s fifth concerto, John Galt’s motor, even Hugh Akston’s cooking—these have value because they improve someone else’s life, not necessarily that of the creator. Without this understanding, Hank’s wife Lillian cannot appreciate the significance to the world of the first pouring of Rearden Metal. Instead she offers sarcastically, “Shall we declare it a national holiday, darling?”

Allowing individuals to develop their ideas may lead to more good ideas, such as when Hank proposes his new bridge structure to Dagny. She asks if he invented the bridge in the last two days, and he replies, “I `invented’ it long before I had Rearden Metal. I figured it out while I was making steel for bridges. I wanted a metal with which one would be able to do this, among other things.” His desire to build a better bridge drove him to invent a better metal.

This view of money provides stability and correction because value can be verified, tempered, adjusted not by a single creator but by the people. In its selfishness, it gives power to the consumers to negotiate their futures and demand something better, but these demands come not in the form of declaring a right but proposing a counter-offer: “We will pay you more money for something better.” It respects the creator and creates a lasting relationship among people where respect, not force, is the key ingredient. Everyone benefits, and here the best way to maximize the common good and provide a positive future is to allow individuals to achieve and submit their efforts for peer valuation. In contrast when one views money as something to have, then one must necessarily look around for existing wealth and think of ways to get it, for unless more can be made, the only way to get more of something is to take it.

While it is possible to take money peaceably as with the case of selling goods and services, one might start looking enviously at another person with more money and quickly realize that it is much more efficient to take it by force. One might easily justify it as well, assuming that the person with more money must have in turn gotten it by taking it from someone else.

Without the insight to make money, some characters in the book apply their creativity to inventing ways to take money. Inevitably this leads them to force their ideas on others by law, a common theme among people with this view. Balph Eubanks’s negative view of humanity convinces him that, “We ought to place a limit upon their material greed,” and he suggests that no more than 10,000 copies of a book should be permitted to be sold. James Taggart pushes through the Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule in order to remove the “destructive competition” of Dan Conway’s Phoenix-Durango line. Orren Boyle uses Directive 10-289 and blackmail to force Rearden Metal into the government’s hands.

Even the fair exchange of money can be warped when one has the wrong view. Consider Hank’s mother and his brother Philip who decide it is not right that Philip exist only on Hank’s charity. Her solution is to have Hank give Philip a job instead, “but a nice clean job, of course, with a desk and an office and a decent salary.” Hank’s reply: “But he knows nothing about the steel business!”

The two views of making money and having money ultimately affect the value you place on other people. If you believe that you can make money, then you inherently acknowledge that other people have value and that your positive impact on their lives is what makes money, but if you believe that money can only be had, then other people become an impediment to your happiness, and you will seek ways to take from them as the “looters” in the book often did.

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  1. vivianne
    March 26th, 2010 at 20:53 | #1

    Those Ayn Rand Institute essay contests are extremely difficult to win but it’s awesome that you even attempted (unlike all the people who gave up, including me.) Nice essay.

  2. March 29th, 2010 at 11:44 | #2

    I should have included the update: I didn’t win, and there were something like 4,000 entries this year. Wow.

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