“I’m leaving it as I found it. Take over. It’s yours.
At the closing of the first installment of the book-turned-movie trilogy Atlas Shrugged, this phrase was posted in view of the burning oil fields formerly owned by entrepreneur Ellis Wyatt. Wyatt had “shrugged” his “responsibility” to provide the nation’s key source of oil and disappeared, escaping suffocating government regulation and an exceedingly anti-capitalist society. His hard work, innovation, and risk-taking had built his business. As he grew more successful, however, Wyatt Oil was exploited by laws that de-incentivized success. Thus, he escaped, taking his brain and talent with him. This is where Atlas Shrugged II begins.
*Caution: Possible Spoilers Ahead.*
The film takes place in the “near future” where gas prices are $40 per gallon and unemployment has skyrocketed. The “Fair Share” law has revolutionized the “free” market by forcing businesses to provide their products equally to all who request them, regardless of the size of the entity. Thus, larger businesses are not able to acquire enough oil, coal, metal, etc. to function and smaller businesses have more product than they know what to do with. In other words: redistribution of wealth has become commonplace and class warfare has erupted. Large businesses are perpetually surrounded by protesters holding Occupy-esque signs with slogans demonizing the rich and pleading for their “fair share.” Sound familiar? Sure, the events in Atlas Shrugged are extreme, but I’m confident that if we don’t make a change now, they will soon become a reality.
What struck me as most familiar was the political and social culture in which Atlas Shrugged took place. The term “fair share” was tossed around like a hot potato, yet no one could define what it meant. Can we define what it means in 2012? Someone? Anyone? Bueller? Another phrase that was repeated often during the film was, “it’s not my fault” or “I don’t want to take the responsibility.” For some reason I had a vision of Barack Obama mentioning something about “the mess he inherited,” but I digress. Few characters stood up to take responsibility for anything. Thus, like the mythical Atlas, the few remaining hardworking entrepreneurs were holding the world up on their shoulders and the burden got heavier by the day. The remainder of the people waited for a handout or for someone to take responsibility from them. This is certainly a frightening trend, and one we see today. If we all don’t start taking a bit more personal responsibility, 2012 might look a little bit like the nation in Atlas Shrugged.
While the film portrays a pessimistic picture of our future, I left the theater with a feeling of hope. While Ayn Rand certainly spends more of her novel attacking the perils of collectivism and socialism, she also not-so-subtly points out that the heart of the free market is the businessman who DID build his business, gaining success in the process. Many of the film’s villains (and many public figures today) demonized the wealthy, claiming that profit was their only goal. While both primary characters Henry Rearden and Dagny Taggart expressed profit as a main priority in their lives, the route that they took to make their fortunes was what really mattered. Francisco D’Anconia put it best when he stated: “Having money is not the measure of a man. What matters is how you got it.” In Ayn Rand’s conception, money is worthless unless it can back its validity on hard work, innovation, and risk taking; all key characteristics of the American entrepreneurs who built our nation. Money that is unjustly acquired or “looted” is meaningless, for it guts the heart of profit all together. Therefore, this is why Ellis Wyatt’s resounding words “I’m leaving it as I found it” make such an impact. He DID build his success. Without his talent and initiative, the booming business of Wyatt Oil would never have existed.
I was so impressed with the film that I actually saw it twice within a 36 hour period. However, as a warning, it is not a film that screams social conservatism. Ayn Rand was an atheist and this is evident in her works. In her mind, the greatest authority is the individual, not God. I disagree with her on this core issue of her ideology (labeled Objectivism), but I believe the films Atlas Shrugged parts 1 and 2 (and soon 3) are valuable tools for those of us with a conservative or libertarian approach to fiscal issues. Above all, Atlas Shrugged II should serve as a warning for all of us. Unless we throw phrases like “fair share” and concepts like collectivism in the trash bin of history, our great nation will resemble the America in which Atlas Shrugged took place. We must espouse, and more importantly, pride ourselves, in the characteristics that propelled the heroes of the film to victory: hard work, personal responsibility, and belief in a free market. We must stop demonizing success and instead praising innovation. We DID build America. That’s something of which all Americans should be proud.