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This post is a refutation of objectivism as presented in Atlas Shrugged. Paradoxically, the problem with doing so is not that the question is too hard but too easy. It’s simple to say that Rand writes bad characters and ponderous speeches and dismiss the lot of it out of hand. There are two problems with that approach. The first is that it convinces nobody. If you do find her ideas compelling then easy mockery does nothing to expose their flaws. The second is that Rand actually had a number of excellent observations, ideas that shouldn’t be discarded even if she’s a lousy writer (and the writing isn’t all lousy either). What follows is an honest attempt to understand and refute the philosophy of objectivism. We’ll start by looking at Rand’s best ideas.
What Rand Does Well
Rand herself lived through the Bolshevik revolution, and escaped to America only by “going Galt” in that she wrote off everything she had in the Soviet Union and made it here with only what she could carry. That’s entirely to her credit, as is her subsequent prosperity in The Land of the Free. Having lived through that part of history she has an amazing grasp on the arguments of the communists, their appeals to a sort of morality, and the fatal flaws that doom the prospect of a socialist utopia. Indeed, she often seems to have a prescient vision of how society has progressed. This is not because she’s accurately predicted the advancement of mankind’s morality, but because mankind’s morality doesn’t advance. All these things she describes were problems in her day, are problems in our day, and will be with us until the Lord returns in glory.
The woke reformer is attempting to immanentize the eschaton much like the communist idealist of Rand’s day. The communist urges us to have compassion for the working man; the woke evangelist urges us to remember the suffering of those who are discriminated against. In both cases, they demand that we break our eggs to make their omelet, and as with the communists I’m not holding my breath waiting for that woke omelet to appear.
Rand’s industrialists are often condemned for their lack of human feeling. “Human feeling” is defined as love for a broad and unspecified general public, which as a practical principle means the industrialists pay out now, and instead of some general public reaping the benefit, the profits redound to the sort of people with political pull. Life for the common man gets worse. Maybe asking for pronouns will benefit some trans person somewhere by making them feel less excluded. I have my doubts. In the short term, there are diversity consultants pulling down good money for insisting that we all do so, and the common man suffers because actual communication becomes harder. But we can’t possibly fail to tack to the ever-shifting winds of what constitutes acceptable discourse; that wouldn’t be nice.
Early on in the book Hank Rearden gives ten thousand dollars to his brother’s charity. This fails to make his brother happy. The Rearden sibling genuinely isn’t concerned with money; he’s also entirely unconcerned with the putative objectives of his charity. What he wants, what he really wants, is Hank Rearden to acknowledge his moral superiority in being so unconcerned with money. He isn’t though; like the Pharisee loudly counting out his donation in the temple he’s not unconcerned with money, he’s buying something intangible. Dealing in the trade of cash for status does not make a man moral.
Brother Rearden, the diversity consultant, and the communist organizer, they’re all crying tears for the plight of someone. But they’re not actually helping that someone, they’re achieving some other goal. That isn’t compassion, that’s weaponized compassion. Crocodile tears should be met only with contempt.
Making Your Own Luck
The looters always say that “nobody ever gave them a chance.” Well, they’re given the chance. Phil Larkin gets his chance when the law forbids Hank Rearden to own his own ore mines. Phil Larkin squanders the chance he’s given. Dagny Taggart, despite bearing the family name, starts at the bottom of Taggart Transcontinental and works her way up to Operating Vice President. She would have had a chance given to her if she had insisted on the prerogatives of the family name. She didn’t need anyone to hand her a chance. There are such things in this world as lucky breaks and good men doomed to failure by misfortune rather than laziness and stupidity, however, sitting back and worrying about bad luck never gets you anywhere. You do what you can with what you have, which gives you the opportunity to mitigate bad luck and capitalize on any good fortune that turns up. Giving a man a chance only does him any good if he’s willing to use that chance.
This is, it should be noted, a hard doctrine to live by. If your fortunes are guided by the stars and your job hunting turns out wrong, oh well, that’s life, what can you do? If on the other hand there’s no luck at all, then it must be that your failure to get a job hinged on decisions you made wrong, effort that you could have put in, things you should have done. Living under that rule set will get you better results in life (because it will spur you on to evaluate mistakes and improve your efforts going forward) but it will drive you crazy if you take responsibility for factors you can’t influence. I use the example of job hunting deliberately; many important factors involved are beyond your control. Like, for example, the unstated objectives of the hiring committee.
The Cowardice of the Committee
You can see this from the first chapter, from the first time that Jim Taggart says “Nobody could blame me for…”. A man who sets out to solve a problem may or may not solve the problem. A man who sets out to insure himself against any possible downside might accomplish that, but if he solves the problem it’s purely a matter of accident. Don’t make that decision yourself; get a committee to decide it. Spread any possible blame around. Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. If your idea fails you’re screwed, but if everyone agreed to a solution that didn’t work then you’re in the clear. There are several problems with this approach. It wastes time. By securing risk with a committee to blame you’re also preventing yourself from taking any risks which are too scary for the committee. Worst of all a committee focused on limiting short-term losses may doom you to long-term catastrophe by forestalling any options that would offer long-term benefits at the expense of immediate risk.
The book illustrates this with the rebuilding of the Rio Norte line. The only way Dagny can get permission from Jim Taggart to do it right is if she assumes all the risk for herself. Jim wants to use steel rails because they’ve always used steel rails, and nobody could blame them if it turns out that Rearden Metal would have done the job better. If he had used steel rails that section of track wouldn’t have been able to handle the Colorado traffic, and the result would have been much the same as if the bridge of Rearden Metal had collapsed. Nobody would have blamed Jim; he wouldn’t have lost his corporate presidency. It still would have been his fault, for surrendering his judgment to the opinion of a committee instead of doing the job right.
Jim sneers at Dagny that she’s just gotten lucky, while ignoring all the labor, all the intelligence, and the courage to defy public opinion to produce that luck. Jim will never get so lucky himself because he’s secured himself against that chance.
The Aristocracy of Pull
I’m going to start here with a quotation from the eponymous chapter. It’s one of the best moments in the book.
“We are at the dawning of a new age” said James Taggart, from above the rim of his champagne glass. “We are breaking up the vicious tyranny of economic power. We have set men free from the rule of the dollar. We will release our spiritual aims from dependence on the owners of material means. We will liberate our culture from the stranglehold of the profit-chasers. We will build a society dedicated to higher ideals, and we will replace the aristocracy of money with —”
“The aristocracy of pull,” said a voice beyond the group.
When you lose an agreed-upon measure of social worth (which is what money and prices boil down to) then someone still does the measuring, and suddenly the person who decides on that measure becomes very important to your livelihood indeed. Despite the protestations of fairness and equality, the process doesn’t get any more fair or equal. When the slaves depose their masters the most likely result isn’t freedom; it’s a new set of masters. Money, as Francisco d’Anconia (the mentioned voice) reminds us, allows men to make agreements, not merely live by theft and the sword.
Jim Taggart, through his significant political pull, gets railroad bonds frozen. He no longer has to pay out to his investors. This is great news for Jim, and terrible for people who were relying on those investments. Not to worry says the government, those who have special need can get their bonds defrozen and those defrozen bonds can be cashed in. There springs into existence a bureaucracy to determine “special need”, and a class of defreezers who are adept at navigating that bureaucracy. Seem plausible to you? Tell me, was your job considered essential during the pandemic? In the general case, how closely do you think the groups of people who need welfare and the people who are adept at filling out the paperwork for it match? Again I refer you to Rand’s experience with the Bolshevik Revolution and what followed.
There’s one more danger to the Aristocracy of Pull. Those that live by the sword die by the sword. When the government needs a favor out of Jim Taggart they can extort it by threatening to defreeze all the railroad bonds. If Taggart had dealt honestly with his investors at the beginning he could have told the G-man to get bent. By using regulations to fleece his investors he gave the government the ability to use those self-same regulations to fleece him.
The Tyranny of Need
If your house burns down you can collect insurance money. The devious mind immediately asks “what if the money I collect is worth more than the house I burn?” That’s how you get insurance fraud. A charitable man gives a fish to a man who needs to eat. The man immediately considers “if I always need to eat, then he must always give me fish, and I’ll never have to work again.” That plan is fraudulent as well.
Charity, true charity, must always be done for the good of the recipient, including the moral good that refuses to let them become parasites depending only on charity. You can find this as far back as the Old Testament law which forbade the Israelites to go over their harvested field again and glean every last grain of, er, grain. This allows the widow and the orphan both charity to eat and the necessity of working to earn that charity. They have to go out and harvest that grain themselves. It also neatly prevents the taxes on the landowners from getting so large as to bankrupt them, leaving Atlas with a burden light enough that he’d never need to shrug. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
There are more excellent ideas that Rand has had, accurate descriptions of human venality and the horrors that ensue. The decline and fall of the Twentieth Century Motor company. The moralist’s need to propagandize. Her refusal to ignore the sacrificed individual for the sake of expedience. The dangers of people insisting that reality conform to their righteous outrage. I’m certainly leaving more out. I’ll just touch on one last point before moving on to the second half of the post.
The Consent of the Victim
This is an interesting point and one that I’m not sure I understand correctly. Hank Rearden goes on trial for breaking the laws concerning how much of his new Rearden Metal he’s allowed to sell to each customer. Rather than throw himself on the mercy of the court as they expected he denies their right to sanction his actions. They finally hand him a suspended sentence. By denying the judges had any moral right to condemn his actions he rubbed their noses in the fundamental injustice of the prosecution, and caused them to balk.
I have no doubt that this is a useful strategy some of the time. A Twitter mob feeds on the apologies of its victims because those apologies reinforce the mob’s conviction that it’s acting correctly to begin with. That only works when they believe they’re in the right. If a medieval brigand stopped you to relieve you of your coin purse he wouldn’t first demand that you tell him that he’s doing the right thing. He doesn’t care about your blessings or your curses.
Still, I’m filing this in the section on things that Rand has got right because I’m unsure how to evaluate it just yet. The trouble is that this only applies so long as the moralist oppressor believes (however incorrectly) that he’s doing the right thing. The woke moralist, asking you to try to be less white, may be stymied by you refusing to accept his premises. The woke brigand knows he’s in it for the loot, and he’ll use the woke cant to deprive you of your wallet unconcerned with how you may feel about it. The woke moralist may be confounded with the question “how is it, if I’m benefiting from systemic power structures, that in this instance I’m standing in front of you awaiting your justice?” To the woke brigand the question is irrelevant; he has to actually care about justice before an appeal to justice has any meaning.
After Rearden’s defense Francisco d’Anconia tells him that, three generations ago such a speech might have done something. Three generations before justice might have been the question on trial; if society had really degraded to the point which Rand is describing I can’t help but feel that the brigands would have taken over entirely and that Rearden wouldn’t have gotten off so lightly. Still, I’m marking the consent of the victim in Rand’s favor; it’s a useful concept for understanding that kind of villainy.
What Rand Doesn’t Cover
You can see the spots where Rand’s theory has trouble by looking for all the things that she didn’t find space for in a thousand pages of Atlas Shrugged. Building directly over the previous point you never see a brigand who steals through sheer force of arms rather than by pious platitude and government edict. A couple of times, Rand makes the point that her industrialists, being men of reason, must necessarily defeat the mob should it come to violence. This is silly, and that silliness is abundantly on display when Rand includes an actual combat sequence late in the book. The industrialist shoots a guard because the guard couldn’t decide whether to shoot the intruder or lay down his arms. A realistic guard would have shot the intruder, or made a personal value calculation and dropped his weapon. You may speak of vices inherent to the military mindset, but indecision isn’t one of them. Rearden, while still in thrall to the looter’s creed, made plenty of steel. Should we assume then that soldiers couldn’t win battles because of their adherence to a flawed socioeconomic doctrine? (I mean, it took down Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.) But I’m straying from my point.
There’s exactly one point where someone does something genuinely disinterested to help another person. An unnamed reporter helps Cheryl on her wedding day. This is mostly by accident; Rand needed someone for Cheryl to talk to in order to express Cheryl’s joy. A hard-bitten gossip columnist who can see the sorrow to come takes pity on the foolish girl and offers her some small aid. In this Rand falls into the temptation of writing a believable character and betrays her thesis. This reporter was neither living by the looter’s creed nor acting in an industrialist’s self-interest. What then was her motivation?
When Rearden first cheated on his wife he breaks his word. Rearden values his word highly, he’ll tell you himself, and the character demonstrates that throughout the book. No matter the difficulties inherent in fulfilling a contract Rearden pulls through. But he never repents for breaking his wedding vow. There’s a sense where his marriage to Lillian was dissolved when Lillian scorned his achievement and traded off the bracelet of Rearden metal for a soon-forgotten diamond. But that’s not good enough; Rearden spends the rest of the book moving mountains to ensure that he makes his business commitments despite the heavier and heavier burdens they place on his Atlas shoulders. Rand correctly excoriates the “I can’t be blamed for circumstances beyond my control” attitude in fulfilling business contracts, but apparently not in wedding contracts. Why then does Rearden ignore his wedding vows?
After their first night together Rearden makes a post-coital speech damning himself for living by his basest desires. Late in the book he repents of that, redeeming the thought by denying the distinction between mind and body. This is half correct. Rearden’s admiration for Dagny, her character, and her achievement comes from the higher things of the mind, and expresses itself in the lower bodily lusts. Physical desire can be generated by a spiritual admiration. The half that’s wrong is the assumption that there’s no other source of desire. The body wants to get drunk; the mind is concerned about the hangover. There is an old Christian heresy that the mind, the spiritual is inherently good and the physical, the body, is inherently evil. Rand rightly rejects this. The opposite assumption which she takes up, that there can be no conflict between the mind and the body, is foolish. Go ahead and eat that entire cake like you want to to find out why.
The Abolition of Managers
Objectivism seems to be a celebration of man’s will, a philosophy built around the notion that achievement is the measure of greatness. Those who dare, who risk, who rely upon their own judgment and who achieve mighty things are to be celebrated. That’s a fine thing, but lurking under that lies the question of what, exactly, they should choose to achieve. A young Francisco d’Anconia wants to outdo all his ancestors in making money with d’Anconia Copper. Hank Rearden spends ten long years perfecting Rearden metal, and intends to make great gobs of money with it. A government man comes by asking to buy the secret; Rearden refuses to sell. “Because it’s mine.” If money honestly earned is the measure of achievement then didn’t Rearden earn whatever he could squeeze out of the public fisc for that metal? He earned it. Lurking under the iron logic of the industrialists we find the Conditioners C.S. Lewis described in The Abolition of Man. Being ruled only by logic they have enslaved themselves to their postulates, postulates grounded only in whim. You cannot argue with Rearden’s “Because it is mine” any more than you could with a toddler refusing to share his chocolate milk with his sister.
This also arises out of Rand’s attempt to harmonize the desires of the mind with the desires of the body. If there can be no conflict between mind and body then there can be no control exerted over irrational, animalistic impulses. Those impulses must necessarily be of the same stuff as the rest of the being. Hank Rearden must desire Dagny Taggart physically because he admires her achievement so. One is left to wonder if he also feels a sexual attraction towards Ken Danagger who does so well at mining coal. But leave that cheap shot aside; the assumption that our basest desires are of the same stuff as our noblest impulses leaves you no reason to prefer the one to the other.
It’s also a pretty lousy description of how people actually act. Isn’t philosophy supposed to describe real people, and be applicable to real problems? This isn’t the only spot where objectivism fails to deliver, and I’ll get to that in a moment. First, a couple of quick quotes about ignoring reality from John Galt’s speech:
[Y]ours is the responsibility of judgement and nothing can help you escape it — no pinch hitter can live your life — that the vilest form of self abasement and self destruction is the subordination of your mind to the mind of another, the acceptance of an authority over your brain, the acceptance of his assertions as facts, his say-so as truth, his edicts as middle man between your consciousness and your existence.”
[L]ike a judge impervious to public opinion he may not sacrifice his convictions to the wishes of others, be it the whole of mankind shouting pleas or threats against him.
Or more succinctly, from John Galt in his Gulch:
Nobody stays here by faking reality in any manner whatsoever.
Then, his statement about the nature of guilt:
It is not any crime that you’ve committed that infects your soul with permanent guilt, it is none of your failures, errors or flaws, but the blank-out by which you attempt to evade them — it is not any sort of Original Sin or unknown prenatal deficiency, but the knowledge and fact of your basic default, of suspending your mind, of refusing to think. Fear and guilt are your chronic emotions, and they are real, but they don’t come from the superficial reasons you invent to disguise their cause, not from your ‘selfishness’, weakness or ignorance, but from a real and basic threat to your existence; fear because you have abandoned your weapon of survival, guilt because you know you have done it voluntarily.
I do not so submit the responsibility of judgment to another, and that another includes John Galt. The way you describe guilt Mr. Galt, it simply isn’t so. Forget original sin, forget self-deception; I have personally done evil, I have done it knowingly, and with bad intent. I have then felt guilty about it afterward. I have wished that I hadn’t done so, wished to make up the damage. What Galt is describing isn’t how guilt works. Rand is reasoning about sin like she refuses to reason about humanity; she’s taking the general case and ignoring the particular. A little boy who pushes a little girl down and steals her dolly is sinning, and he should feel guilty for it. This isn’t a failure of reason, a crime against survival, it’s causing hurt for hurt’s sake.
The invocation of self-deception doesn’t help her case either. Rand could say that in a Freudian sense I’m repressing the true causes of my guilt, or that I’m experiencing a false consciousness as a Marxist Leninist might, except that Ayn Rand of all people can’t. Never mind the revulsion she’d feel at siding with the commies, her philosophy doesn’t permit me to ignore the world by submitting my judgment to another. How can I then accept her definition of guilt if my own judgment tells me that it’s wrong? If I were to be an objectivist it would only be by violating the tenets of objectivism. Contradictions can’t exist.
This simple feeling of remorse is missing from the text. Rearden cheated on his wife. Never mind that his wife was an awful human being; the tenets of his own code of morality forbid him to break his word, but he never repented of that. He faced cosmic justice for lying about his affair but never for having the affair to begin with. There are characters who feel guilty; Dr. Stadler and Jim Taggart are ultimately broken by confronting the end result of their personal philosophies, but there’s no Raskolnikov to feel remorse over a crime he committed, no murderer listening to a heartbeat under his floorboards, no one so much as kicking a dog and saying “Gee I wish I hadn’t done that.” Any regret is expressed over what is ultimately an error of knowledge, not a moral error.
I can’t imagine that Rand hasn’t ever had this problem herself. Either she’s — in a technical sense — psychopathic, or she’s suppressing the postulate because it leads to contradictions that invalidate her philosophy. One may only regard compassion as merely a duplicitous wallet grab if one has never needed compassion to begin with.
This unexpectedly brings us all the way back to the opening of this essay, and explains the spots where Rand’s writing loses its adeptness. She uses perfect Mary Sue characters because admitting to any flaw in them offers an implicit refutation of her philosophy. The fight scene at the end is so laughable because she can’t bear to admit to the merest scrap of excellence in anyone who isn’t in her industrialist class. The society in Galt’s Gulch rings false because we know that it’d collapse in a hundred ways the minute the author dictating events looked away. You cannot admit to morally ambiguous characters because doing so disrupts the dualism of the philosophy Rand is trying to present.
In the end, this is where I get off of the train. Rand has made a lot of interesting and useful observations, but she fails to stitch them together into a cohesive philosophy. To get there she has to cheat, gluing things together with uncertain materials. Having spotted the shoddy construction her end philosophy is ultimately not persuasive.
 Dagny’s rise through the ranks at Taggart Transcontinental is a little too smooth to be plausible. She’s never denied an intermediate job because the guy in it can’t be fired for incompetence because he’s got connections. Nobody ever resents her rise and stymies her out of bureaucratic spite. I’m willing to give this a pass; Dagny needed to be at the top so that this story could be told.
 Money isn’t the only institution that does this. The law ought to as well. It often doesn’t and doesn’t in Rand’s novel, but that’s the fault of the men gaming the system, not the system itself. The judge who rules in favor of a poor man because he hates a rich man is just as corrupt as the judge who takes the rich man’s bribe. Similarly, the government that taxes your money away and offers a fraction of it back to you isn’t doing you any favors even though money ought to be a neutral medium of exchange.
 All good conservatives are fidgeting in their seats at this argument. The government has no money of its own; only money that is taken from the taxpayers. Rearden would be selling his metal for money, a part of which was first taken from him. I want to acknowledge the point but move on; Rearden didn’t turn down the sale because selling to the government was illegitimate.
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