I read Atlas Shrugged in college with the intention of doing one of those ARI scholarships, but I never managed to write the essay. In fact, it took me 9 months to read the damn book, and I still haven't read all of the John Galt Manifesto. I used it as an example of a manifesto in a class I took Freshman year, but never read the whole thing.
Now, it's really late so I have to be honest here: I loved Atlas. It was so emo. So self-centered and self-important. So much like I was at the time, and the sex scenes were pretty hot too. I also enjoy the way Ayn Rand writes fiction, which is strange because I can't get past page 106 in Master and Margarita or even past the first paragraph of any Dostoevsky. (I can't even read modern fiction from Russia, despite how awesome the Nightwatch movies are.) Rand's style, while traditionally Russian (read: long and overly-detailed, with a slow-moving narrative) allowed the book to take on a life of its own for me. Francisco was played by Antonio Banderas; John Galt by Michael Shanks; Christian Bale was Hank Rearden; and I, at the ripe old age of 19, was Dagny having all that dirty, shame-embracing sex with those older, more successful, more powerful men who really, truly understood what Dagny did not: you have to destroy civilization to really save it.
Ah, what a load of bullshit. It's so funny how this person who was educated in a public system funded by the blood, sweat, and tears of everyone in the country (Rand moved to the United States when she was a kid, mind you, so the majority of her education took place here), emphasized this idea of "every man for himself". It's even funnier how, despite the fact that she claims each of the characters was self-taught in their given field, everyone who reads that book whether they admit it or not knows that the greatness of each of these great characters was won on the backs of poorer, dumber people.
Hank Rearden could never have built his Rearden Metal without people to work in and manage his factory. And someone was managing the money that his wife squandered.
Francisco's fortune was based on exploitation of the noble savages of Central America who, whether they actually count as people or not in Rand's world, built the empire that Francisco inherited rather than earning.
Even John Galt had some form of learning, had some form of acquired knowledge that allowed him to build his amazing motor. Without the contributions of previous scientists, Galt (Tesla) would never have done what he had cause he would have needed to waste his entire life developing 300,000 years worth of human technology. You don't go from fired-clay pots to a sonic lock in one lifetime. It's not possible.
And no matter how much she loved trains and civil engineering (which, on its face defies the entire point of the philosophy espoused in this 1069 page tome -- civil engineering in a "one for all and all for me" society? Preposterous! Figure it out for yourself!), Dagny Taggart couldn't survive without a man. Whether it was Daddy, her brother, Francisco, Hank, or John (hell, she probably banged Ragnar too, but that part got edited out so that Rand could keep the book under 1500 pages), Dagny was never "one for all and all for me" because of her inherent inability to function as an independent person because of that damned uterus. It all comes down to the line about how she knew that she didn't deserve John's affection. Dagny made herself less because she was always trying to live in a way that made a man want her. She fucked up her life, threw away her father's company, and shamed herself into intellectual submission. For what?
Rand doesn't go into what happens when all the lights go out in New York City. She doesn't manage to extrapolate that the completion of her "Objectivist" philosophy is absolute anarchy -- oh wait, actually she does, but it's totally a good thing cause that cuts out the rabble. The idea of a person being paid what they are worth is fine, but most people don't develop any monetary worth on their own. You're either born into wealth (like all of the protagonists in Atlas), or you gain it through schooling, the most effective form of which is through the public school system (and yes, I'll admit that I am over-looking the failings of public school, because that's not my frakking point here). Public school brings the most amount of knowledge to the greatest number of people, and those people will grow into their potential in ways that would be impossible if the only option was private schooling.
Libertarianism is fine for some things like drugs and sex, but the only way to maintain a truly free society is with a social safety net that includes public school and various social programs that keep people from having their potential actively denied them because they had the bad luck not to be born a Taggart. The bottom line is, there's no such thing as a "Self-Made Man". He doesn't exist. Each person in a society is only as free as the least among them. It may not be ideal for someone who likes to think of themselves as being completely independent, but it's true: injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
More to the point here, Objectivism is silly because it pretends to be "objective" when it's really subjective. Promoting selfishness above all else is not objective, because acting solely in your own interest requires a subjective point of view. Utilitarianism is far more objective than "Objectivism", because the reality is (when things are viewed objectively) the needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the few; at least until we get skin color and external versus internal genitals involved. That's why we put people in jail. That's why we go to war with countries that are smaller than us and don't really have nuclear weapons. That's why the Cold War was a cold war, because if it became a hot war everyone on the planet would have died so that some guy in either Moscow or Washington could prove his dick was bigger.
By lacking significant forethought and objectivity, Ayn Rand made a mockery of her own philosophy of selfishness. No one saves the world by building little canals along their front lawn, and even if Dagny did get to live happily ever after in Galt's Gulch everyone there lacked the ability to be objective enough to see beyond their own needs and thus lacked the ability to affect significant change and save the world. They merely sat idly by, fiddling while Rome burned.
Good book though.