|Montreal, July 15, 2004 / No 144|
by Edward W.Younkins
Novels, as well as plays and films, are excellent teaching tools for communicating ideas to students. A well-constructed and compelling story can engage students and make a subject more vital to them. Fiction provides students with interesting material that does not seem like hard work. The result is that novels tend to have greater teaching power and more appeal to students than articles, textbooks, or case studies. Because students are apt to enjoy reading fiction, it is likely that they may grasp ideas quicker and better than when more conventional teaching methods are used. For many people, pure theory is not as exciting as a good story.
Novels About Business
A compelling and relevant story is kept in one’s memory. Graduate and undergraduate business students have grounds for paying attention to novels concerning the business world. Many graduate business students are already in the world of entrepreneurship, manufacturing, and finance and undergraduate business students aspire to soon be in the corporate world. Novels can provide examples of challenges that a student may one day confront. It is no wonder that business novels connect with such students and work their way into the students’ thinking.
Novels can come close to mirroring reality and are able to illuminate the full context of a situation. Novels about business describe life as lived in the world of commerce. Situations in novels can be more realistic than the hypothetical examples postulated in articles, case studies, or lectures. A novel can provide a superb background from which to view business. A well-written novel about business can pose complex questions and deepen a student’s capacity for critical thinking. Such a novel can bring management problems and issues of business ethics to life by contextualizing organizational and moral questions and dilemmas. Ultimately, one’s character may be influenced by reading fiction. This pedagogical method may stimulate the moral cognition and insight of the reader. Some narratives have the potential to open one’s eyes with respect to what is really important.
Unfortunately, most novels are not representative of the real business world. It can safely be said that the businessman has not fared well in novels on the whole. The literary culture is often unflattering in its depictions of businessmen and capitalism, has attacked business and industry for destroying an old communal order based on equality, laments the businessman’s preoccupation with material success, and abhors the dominance of large organizations in people’s lives. Many novels go so far as to portray the businessman with hostility and derision.
Businessmen have been characterized as overly-materialistic, greedy, miserly, corrupt, unethical, villainous, hypocritical, insecure, exploitative, insensitive, anti-cultural, smaller-than-life, depersonalized and mechanized, repressive of emotions, and subservient to the system.
Ayn Rand’s Masterpiece
Fortunately, there is at least one novel, Ayn Rand’s monumental Atlas Shrugged, that presents the businessman in a realistic, favorable, and heroic image by emphasizing the possibilities of life in a free society, the inherent ethical nature of capitalism and the good businessman, the strength and self-sufficiency of the hardworking man of commerce, and the value of the entrepreneur as wealth creator and promoter of human economic progress. Atlas Shrugged shows the businessman’s role as potentially heroic by celebrating the energy and opportunity of life for men of talent and ambition to make something of themselves. This great novel teaches that acts of courage and creativity consist of following one’s sense of integrity rather than in blind obedience and in inspiring others instead of following them. Atlas Shrugged portrays the business hero as a persistent, original, and independent thinker who pursues an idea to its fruition. Rand’s 1957 masterpiece dramatizes the positive qualities of the businessman by showing the triumph of individualism over collectivism, depicting business heroes as noble, appealing, and larger than life, and by characterizing business careers as at least, if not more, honorable as careers in medicine, law, or education.
I use Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to help MBA and undergraduate business students better understand the philosophical, moral, and economic concepts underlying business and capitalism. I incorporate Rand's novel into my "Conceptual Foundations of Business" course at Wheeling Jesuit University. In that class, students take turns leading discussions on all 30 chapters of Rand's 1,075-page novel. During class discussions students cite specific scenes and passages and their accompanying page numbers.
My book, Capitalism and Commerce, provides an initial discussion of the philosophical, moral, and economic foundations upon which a capitalistic society is constructed. Rand’s novel then becomes the vehicle for incarnating these ideas – bringing abstract philosophy to life through character and plot.
Use of Atlas Shrugged in the course aids in moving from abstract principles to realistic business examples. Atlas Shrugged provides a link between philosophical concepts and the technical and practical aspects of business. Philosophy is shown to be accessible and important to people in general and to business people in particular.
A Brief Synopsis
The story is an apocalyptic vision of the last stages of a conflict between two classes of humanity – the looters and the non-looters. The looters are proponents of high taxation, big labor, government ownership, government spending, government planning, regulation, and redistribution. They include politicians and their supporters, intellectuals, religious leaders, government bureaucrats, scientists who sell their minds to the bureaucrats, and liberal businessmen who, afraid of honest competition, sell out their initiative, creative powers, and independence for the security of government regulation. The non-looters – the thinkers and doers – are the competent and daring individuals who innovate and create new enterprises. These prime movers love their work, are dedicated to achievement through their thought and effort, and abhor the forces of collectivism and mediocrity. The battle is thus between non-earners who deal by force and profit through political power and earners who deal by trade and profit through productive ability.
The plot is built around several business and industrial executives. The beautiful Dagny Taggart, perhaps the most heroic female protagonist in American fiction, is the operating genius who efficiently runs Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, which was founded by her grandfather. Her brother James, president in title only, is an indecisive, incompetent, liberal businessman who takes all the credit for his sister’s achievements. Dagny optimistically and confidently performs Herculean labors to keep the railroad running despite destructive government edicts, her brother’s weaknesses, the incompetence of many of her associates, and the silent and inexplicable disappearance of society’s competent industrialists, upon whom Dagny depends.
As both society and her railroad are disintegrating, Dagny attempts to rebuild an old Taggart rail line. In the process, she contacts Hank Rearden, a self-made steel tycoon and inventor of an alloy stronger and lighter than steel. Rearden, Dagny’s equal in intelligence, determination, and sense of responsibility, becomes her ally and eventually her lover. They struggle to keep the economy running and ultimately discover the secret of the continuing disappearance of the men of ability.
John Galt, a messiah of free enterprise, is secretly persuading thinkers and doers to vanish mysteriously one after the other – deserting and sometimes sabotaging their factories before they depart. Galt explains how desperately the world needs productive individuals, but how viciously it treats them. The greater a person’s productive ability, the greater are the penalties he endures in the form of regulations, controls, and the expropriation and redistribution of his earned wealth. This evil, however, is only made possible by the sanction of the victim. By accepting an undeserved guilt – not for their vices but for their virtues – the achievers have acquiesced in the political theft of their minds’ products. Galt masterminds his plan to stop the motor of the world by convincing many of the giants of intellect and productivity to refuse to be exploited any longer by the looters and the moochers, to strike by withdrawing their talents from the world by escaping to a secret hideout in the Colorado Rockies, thus leaving the welfare state to destroy itself. The hero-conspirators will then return to lay the groundwork for a healthy new social order based on the principles of laissez-faire capitalism.
Reason, Virtues, and Wealth Creation
The book shows students in this course that the only way for man to survive in society is through reason and voluntary trade. Atlas Shrugged focuses on the positive and shows students what it takes to achieve genuine business success and how to create value.
Rand, like Aristotle, holds an agent-centered approach to morality and concentrates on the character traits that constitute a good person. Reading Atlas Shrugged prompts students to reflect on what is constitutive of a good life. Rand’s heroes are shown to hold proper principles and develop appropriate character traits. The villains in the novel provide examples of what happens to people when they hold faulty principles (or compromise certain important principles) and fail to develop essential virtues.
Some discussions in class revolve around virtues such as rationality, independence, integrity, justice, honesty, productiveness, and pride. The novel's characters are analyzed to see if these are absent or present in them.
The novel teaches students that there are traits that correlate with business success and success in life. These include independent vision or foresight, an active mind, competence, confidence, personal or egoistic passion, a drive to action, the love of ability in others, and, above all having virtues.
Atlas Shrugged presents a thought-provoking portrait of businessmen who won't allow politicians to kick them around anymore. The novel presents steel-makers, railroad tycoons, and bankers as heroes – the problem-solvers, producers, and thinkers.
If Rand were writing today she would likely be including software designers, builders of telecommunications networks, and those who work with photovoltaics, cryogenics, aerogels, biochips, radio-wave lighting, microelectromechanical systems, quantum chips, shape-memory metals, and so on.
The class discussion of heroes in Atlas Shrugged leads to comparisons with real-life business leaders such as Bill Gates, Ken Iverson, Jack Welch, Sam Walton, Thomas Edison, Michael Dell, Michael Eisner, Edwin Land, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Roberto Goizueta, and Fred Smith. The class dialogue centers around the character traits, principles, decisions, and actions of these individuals.
Creators versus Confiscators
In the course, I use the book to illustrate there are good and bad businessmen and that businessmen don't always act virtuously. There are two kinds of businessmen – those who lobby government for special privileges, make deals, as well as engage in fraud and corrupt activities. Then there are the real producers who succeed or fail on their own. Rand's book shows what it takes to achieve genuine business success and how to create value.
Rand’s business heroes are independent, rational, and committed to the facts of reality, to the judgment of their own minds, and to their own happiness. Each of them thinks for himself, actualizes his potential, and views himself as competent to deal with the challenges of life and as worthy of success and happiness. Atlas Shrugged makes a great case that the businessman is the appropriate and best symbol of a free society.
Production is the means to the fulfillment of men’s material needs. Atlas Shrugged masterfully illustrates that the production of goods, services, and wealth metaphysically precedes their distribution and exchange. The primacy of production means that we must produce before we can consume. Production (i.e., supply) is the source of demand. This means that products are ultimately paid for with other products. Rand shows that, because life requires the production of values, people in business are heroic. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged find joy in taking risks and bringing men and materials together to produce what people value.
Atlas Shrugged chronicles the rise of corrupt businessmen who pursue profit by dealing with dishonest politicians. They avoid rationality and productivity by using their political pull and pressure groups to loot the producers. Rand is scathing in her indictment of these villains who would rob the creative thinkers who are responsible for human progress and prosperity.
Government intervention discourages innovation and risk-taking and obstructs the process of wealth-creation. In Atlas Shrugged the producers’ minds are shackled by government policies. Lacking the freedom to create, compete, and earn wealth, the independent thinkers withdraw from society. This is Rand’s recommended response to the bureaucratic assault of the entrepreneurial spirit.
Atlas Shrugged delineates government intervention as the great enemy of the businessman. Rand details how government intervention into private markets produces costs and unintended consequences more harmful than the targeted problem itself. Socialistic bureaucrats attempt to protect men from their own minds and tend to think only of intended, primary, and immediate results while ignoring unintended, ancillary, and long-term ones. Government-produced impediments to a free society are shown to include taxation, protectionism, antitrust laws, government regulation, social welfare programs, monetary inflation, and more.
Atlas Shrugged portrays capitalism as the only system that is objective, just, and compatible with individual freedom. The reader is shown that individual freedom, private property, free markets, voluntary exchange, and a limited government produce a society that best meets the needs and preferences of, and is in accordance with the nature of, imperfect but rational beings in a finite world.
A Great Foundation for Teaching Business Ethics, Economics, and More
Encouragingly, Atlas Shrugged is beginning to be taught in colleges and universities. Both Andrew Bernstein and Fred Seddon use it in their Business Ethics courses. Peter Boettke employs Atlas Shrugged as the foundation to teach Principles of Economics. Walter Block incorporates it in his Industrial Organization class and John Egger utilizes Atlas Shrugged’s compelling narrative in his Government and Business course. Gary Hull finds Rand’s masterpiece to be valuable in enlivening and contextualizing business issues in his Business in Literature class. These individuals have found Atlas Shrugged to be an excellent base for teaching issues in business, business ethics, economics, and political and economic philosophy. The future prospects for a free society will be greatly enhanced if we can get more professors to adopt Atlas Shrugged in their classes.
BB&T Corporation has recently donated one million dollars to the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business to establish the BB&T Chair for study of capitalism. The gift also called for the development of a course that will examine the ethical and moral foundations of capitalism based on the study of Atlas Shrugged. John Allison, Chairman and CEO of BB&T, a mission-driven organization guided by its own clearly defined set of values, said that the people at his company believe that ideas have a profound impact on human action and that an individual’s philosophy ultimately determines how he lives. He said that BB&T is particularly interested in the impact of ideas in the realm of economics and the free-market system and that his institution’s goal is to encourage an intellectual, objective, and rational analysis of capitalism from a moral perspective. Allison said that his favorite book is Atlas Shrugged because it provides a powerful justification for a rational value system and, through the characters in the novel, demonstrates the consequences of values on the quality of an individual’s life.
Atlas Shrugged is a great story that helps students to understand the nature of the world in which they live. It illustrates that only a free society is compatible with the nature of man and the world and that capitalism works because it is in accordance with reality. Capitalism is shown to be the only moral social system because it protects a man’s mind, his primary means of survival and flourishing. Atlas Shrugged is a powerful tool to educate, persuade, and convert people to a just and proper political and economic order that is a true reflection of the nature of man and the world properly understood.
Too many misconceptions have been disseminated about business and businessmen. They have rarely been treated fairly or accurately. We need to proclaim the truth about business. We must do what we can to improve the image of business and the businessman. Our goal should be to match the image of free enterprise with its reality. One excellent way to do this is to use Atlas Shrugged in our classes to show the positive and honorable qualities of business, businessmen, and careers in business.