In Atlas Shrugged the Movie, I said in part
II have deliberately not looked at any of the arguments around the film, although again I can guess, nor have I sought to read the book again. I internalised it a long time ago, and I don't want current arguments or even my current thought to distort my perceptions before I can put them down.
That sounds fine. However, I have a bad habit of wanting to check basic facts such as when the book was written. So I went on line to do that. Inevitably, this drew me into the arguments around Ayn Rand, about the things she argued, about certain ways of thinking. I now wanted to respond to those arguments.
I may decide to do this. However, having seen the arguments and also looked at the comments from Neil and Ramana on my original post, I want to make a short and limited comment.
At the time I first read the book I was heavily into fiction of all types including science fiction where Heinlein was a particular favourite. I had not heard of the Austrian School, Hayek was a writer whose books rested unread on my father's shelves, Milton Friedman was unknown, I had never heard of neoclassical economics nor of the free market. I was reading for my personal pleasure, fascinated by pictures of different societies, absorbing ideas.
The concept of wreckers and parasites is central to Atlas Shrugged. The big train crash in the book occurs because money required for maintenance and proper support was plundered to meet immediate individual needs, self-gratification. Sound familiar?
Rand juxtaposes this with the concept of selfishness. However, this is not selfishness as the word is normally used. Rather, she argues that personal relations, the contribution made by one individual to another, has to be earned. When it comes to personal relations, no-one has rights. There is only contribution, reciprocity. By implication, this extends to the corporate sphere.
Forget all the free market wrapping she put around the book. Rand herself saw this as central, but it is secondary. It leaves open a question that Rand herself never really addressed in the book: what happens if the market is used by the wreckers?
I said that Rand had had an enduring influence on my thinking in all sorts of ways. Take my own thinking on management and especially people management.
I have, I think, had a pretty good track record at getting good results from people. I have sometimes seemed to be a soft manager, but I am actually quite hard. Rand is central to this.
in modern management, expectations are set by targets, key performance indicators. These are set from above. The whole language associated with productivity, with improved performance, is one way. What can I get from you, how do we get the best results from what we have?
In some ways this is wrecker language because there is rarely reference to what should be provided in return. It is all one way.
Rand's concept of selfishness, reciprocity, is personal; modern economics and management language is not. People have been removed from the equation
As a manager, I want good results - above average results - from my staff. To achieve this, management has to be personal, reciprocal.
The staff are paid money. They provide labour in return for cash. That is one element. But what can reasonably be expected for that cash? If you constantly ramp up pressure on staff seeking to get more for the same money without offering any gain to the staff, by increasing pressure on the staff, you risk becoming a Rand wrecker. You become the person who caused the train crash.
if you want above average returns from people, you have to offer above average returns. You have the basic equation of what you can expect from people for the money you pay. Then, to go beyond this, you have to give something back. This need not be money. Motivation, a sense of self-value, recognising people's needs, flexibility, all come into play. It is all personal.
What do you do if someone does not deliver? Well, you have to be fair. You have to understand the basic equation. You have to work with the person. You need to know the why. Finally, if someone is not delivering on the basic equation, then they may have to go. In the end, it's all a question of personal judgement. There may be formalised rules, but in the end it's about equity and reciprocity.
This is why I say that my approach to people management is in some ways perceived as soft while in fact being hard. I have been perceived as soft because I try to accommodate people, because I will fight for my people. Yet the reality is I that I generally get far better returns. Further, and unlike a lot of managers, I won't tolerate long term under performance because it's easier. I try to solve it. Most times I can.
And who are Ayn Rand's wreckers today? Well, consider this.
What about the advisers, financiers, CEO's and managers who focus on and have contracts expressed in terms of their immediate financial rewards, who bend everything to achieve their pay and bonuses regardless of the impact on others, who play corporate games, accept no concept of reciprocity beyond that which suits their immediate needs?
I accept that my interpretation of Atlas Shrugged is personal. It is also a very long time since I read the book. There are many other aspects of Ayn Rand's philosophy. I have spoken of just one element, I think the central element, that came to be important to me
In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart fights to save the railroad. Later she joins with Henry Rearden. It was these fights that I found the most satisfying part of the book. By contrast, I found the ending unsatisfactory. But that's another story.
In a comment, Winton Bates drew my attention to two posts he wrote on the selfishness issue. I am writing from a memory a long time ago. Winton has read Rand more recently. The posts are: