Atlas Shrugged: World’s Worst Boss

Atlas Shrugged, p.34-37

It’s late at night when the first pouring of metal is done, and Hank Rearden is walking home from his mills and reminiscing. He’s reflecting on his past and his climb up the corporate ladder, which gives us a rare opportunity to examine something Rand doesn’t discuss much: her ideas as to how a business should be run.

You might think this a strange statement, considering that this is a book about capitalism, but it’s true. Rand doesn’t spend much time dwelling on what exactly her protagonists do behind their desks day-to-day; it’s more important for her to tell us that they’re bold and decisive and bold than it is to show us what bold and decisive decisions they actually make. The only business decisions she really talks about are the big, risky ventures, the ones where the looters gasp, “That’s impossible!” so that her heroes can humiliate them by proving how much better they are than everyone else at everything.

But as I said, I’m interested in the day-to-day decisions, the minutiae. Just what would it be like in reality to work for one of Rand’s corporate-titan protagonists?

Hank gives us a glimpse of it by recalling his first day on the job. And the memory is a jaw-dropping one:

He saw the day when he stood on a rocky ledge and felt a thread of sweat running from the temple down his neck. He was fourteen years old and it was his first day of work in the iron mines of Minnesota. He was trying to learn to breathe against the scalding pain in his chest. He stood, cursing himself, because he had made up his mind that he would not be tired. After a while, he went back to his task; he decided that pain was not a valid reason for stopping. [p.36]

Admittedly, I don’t know much about iron mining, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of job you can do for a few hours a week after classes, so it’s probably safe to assume that Hank dropped out at 14 to go work in a mine. The text doesn’t specify the nature of the work he was doing, but if it’s the kind that leaves you dripping with sweat and filled with scalding pain, it’s probably not clerical work. So, what we have here is a young teenage dropout employed in hazardous, grueling manual labor. Rand seems to find this entirely unremarkable.


Yeah… I’m gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Saturday, even if you can’t breathe because of that scalding pain in your chest.

But now Hank is the boss, and presumably he runs his business by the same principles. So, what must it be like to work for him? He sees nothing objectionable about 14-year-olds working full-time (how many of them are employed in his mines and foundries?), and since he doesn’t think that physical pain or tiredness are valid reasons for stopping work, I’m guessing he doesn’t offer paid time off or sick leave. I think that would make Hank the classic Boss from Hell. And as the kicker, here’s his life philosophy:

People, he thought, were as hungry for a sight of joy as he had always been – for a moment’s relief from that gray load of suffering which seemed so inexplicable and unnecessary. He had never been able to understand why men should be unhappy. [p.37]

Yes, the boss who sees nothing wrong with working while you’re in agonizing pain can’t understand what people should ever be unhappy about!

Again, this is a dispute that has real-life implications. It matters for surgeons, pilots, truck drivers, and any job that requires a minimum amount of alertness (predictably, the trucking industry is suing over an Obama administration rule to shorten drivers’ maximum weekly hours and mandate occasional rest periods, and deadly plane crashes have been caused by fatigued pilots).

It matters for restaurants and other jobs where employee health is crucial: in New York City, a bill to mandate a minimum amount of paid sick time for employees became a political flashpoint that threatened to derail City Council speaker Christine Quinn’s mayoral campaign. It matters for parents who might occasionally have to take time off work to care for a sick child. And it matters for the economy as a whole, since “presenteeism”, where people come to work when they’re sick and infect co-workers, is estimated to cost over $180 billion annually.

The purpose of the government is to protect its citizens – even Rand admits that, in later chapters where she talks about the necessity of armies and police. But once you accept that, how can you justify the claim that only external threats matter? There’s equally good reason to set basic rules for working conditions to reduce the risk of people (or innocent bystanders) being hurt or killed by their jobs. There are real-world Hank Reardens, no doubt, who fight these rules in the name of slightly increasing their own profit (here’s one of them in Seattle), bellowing about how five days of paid sick time per year puts us on a greasy slide to communist dictatorship and how their lazy, loafing employees need to get back to work and quit whining about their aching knees, their slipped discs and their carpal tunnel syndrome. But it’s only Atlas Shrugged that teaches that this behavior is the noble resistance of a brave hero, rather than the callous selfishness it is.

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Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    It amazes me that anyone would be against sick leave for restaurant workers. Isn’t having your food handled by sick people against your “rational self-interest”?

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Rand doesn’t spend much time dwelling on what exactly her protagonists do behind their desks day-to-day

    That’s because Rand herself never, to my knowledge, ran a business. She extolled an ideal of a heroic capitalist businessman that had no connection to reality because she didn’t have a clue about what the job entailed.

  • Azkyroth

    But once you accept that, how can you justify the claim that only external threats matter?

    Well, it’s really hard to explain while kicking and holding one’s breath on the floor at the same time.

  • Jason

    Leeloo,
    They aren’t against sick leave, they are opposed to having to offer paid time off to sick employees, or holding jobs for them.

  • A Hermit

    Bangladesh. Building codes.

    Need we say more?

  • Azkyroth

    Leeloo,
    They aren’t against sick leave, they are opposed to having to offer paid time off to sick employees, or holding jobs for them.

    And this is different how?

  • smrnda

    I once read that a good writer doesn’t tell you ‘so and so is brave, daring and brilliant’ but they provide you with enough facts about the character so that the reader comes to that conclusion. Rand just keeps slapping adjectives onto her protagonists and *telling* us how great they are without anything of substance existing in the story ,outside of unprecedented technologies she doesn’t expend a single word to make plausible.

    Also, people who start working 14 hours in mines don’t typically end up becoming CEOs – I’d venture that in places where 14 year olds go down into mines, most people wouldn’t live long enough to climb the ladder.

    This is just clear, blatant propaganda, and given how false to life it is it should really just be termed “lies and dishonest” – Rand believes that there’s no reason to complain about a 14 hour day in a mine (I’m SURE Rand never did physical work in her entire life) and that it’s simply a question of willpower.

    On the notion of governments protecting citizens – citizens should be protected from anything that might threaten their welfare, but Rand basically thinks that only physical threats of explicit violence count, and that workplaces are the property of their owners and that all workers *voluntarily* work there, that it’s not really violence or even endangerment, since it’s a choice. This tends to be the thing that irritates me about libertarians – it’s like governmental power is bad, but private power is just okay no matter how much it pisses and shits on people.

    I’m aware that I’ll get the retort that people can choose to work elsewhere, but the government has a monopoly. However, this seems like a pretty weak case to me since the difference is that government grants you a right to have a say in how it is run, and workplaces don’t. You get more freedom for a democracy than from just getting to pick which from a number of dictatorships you’ll submit. Political power should be used as a counterbalance against economic power, otherwise you just have some sort of feudalism.

  • Paul S

    I’ve recently been pulling off some six and seven day work weeks. Granted, the work isn’t anything near the level of intense labor and hazard of mining, but it’s not simple work either. In any event, any time I do get a day off I end up sleeping through most of it, and in all other days I wake up early, still having dreams where I’m still at work and worrying if I’ve done all the steps and procedures properly.

    But I need the job, so I keep at it. But naturally I wonder about what long-terms effects this will have on my physical and mental health. So I know I need time to myself, time to rest my body and allow my mind to focus on other things. I am not lazy, I work when I am asked to. I do the work to the best of my ability. If I’m doing something wrong, I ask how I can improve my performance. I am not a parasite upon my employer. Just wishing for the chance to go home at a sane hour and to have some time to myself does not make me entitled.

    And there are people out there who have it far worse then me. Who do more work for less pay. I can’t begin to comprehend what they might be going through.

    So, I guess my point is that anyone who says I, or anyone in situations like or worse then mine, just asking for sane hours and benefits are entitled and lazy… those people need to shut the hell up.

  • Azkyroth

    I’m aware that I’ll get the retort that people can choose to work elsewhere

    Although the rat fucks can always fix THAT by crashing the economy, as we’ve been recently reminded.

  • Jason

    Azkyroth,

    I agree it is a distinction without a difference to those of us who aren’t already Libertarians (or in my case no longer are). In their view a sick worker costs them money because of lower productivity or lost future business because customers don’t want sick waiters. So yes they want the sick worker to stay home, but they don’t want to have to pay the cost of their wages while they aren’t being productive. In their view if they have to pay the person to be unproductive while they are becoming healthy, they might as well pay them for lower productivity or fire them to prevent the lost business in the future.

    Of course anyone who has real world experience (and in my experience Libertarians rarely do), knows that the actual cost benefit analysis is very different, because you have to factor in being shorthanded, or paying overtime etc…. Businesses aren’t private fiefdoms which is a theme a number of posters here are making, and something most people in business know (sometimes I wonder about Donald Trump though). Even in the absence of any government regulation regarding employment, a real business is going to have to make these kinds of calculations, because while there is a slave like nature to employment, if the slave nature of employment becomes to severe or obvious many people will not put with it, and they will warn others about it.

  • smrnda

    I think the big difference in libertarians is that they don’t believe that people should be held accountable for the negative externalities of their actions. If workplace policies make workers miserable but make bosses happy, this means a positive benefit for employers but a negative externality for workers. In my opinion, if the actions you’re taking in your own self-interest cause enough negative externalities, then your actions need to be regulated, else you end up taking society for your own benefit.

    On the businesses and independent fiefdom, I think it depends a lot on the type of businesses. I’m a software engineer so I’m not easy to replace, and my business partners have to put up with a LOT of behaviors from e that they might now really want to, and they have to give me what I want, since I have a lot of leverage. But there is always a need for unskilled labor, and unskilled workers can pretty much be chewed up and spit out. The problem is, as more workers get squeezed, you get less and less consumer demand. Everybody is hoping someone *else* is paying workers good money but doesn’t want to do it themselves – it’s kind of the central paradox of capitalism – the demand for low wages and high consumer demand.

    Overall, I find libertarians provide very simplistic and incomplete economic analyses, mostly since they fail to look beyond the results actions have FOR THE INDIVIDUAL and not for society. Yeah, low wages make sense for one business, but as overall economic policy it’s a disaster.

    All said, I’ve never been able to read much of Rand. Her work feels false the way reading a story set in Paris by a writer who lived their whole life in West Texas and who knows Paris only through postcards would seem false – nothing in her writing is ever true to life since she knows nothing of business, industry, scientific research, engineering or much of anything else.

  • http://limpingtowardsgrace.wordpress.com James Jarvis

    The two most amazing things about Rand. How some “atheists” treat her writings a holy writ. When it comes to defending their holy scripture, Rands followers sound like right wing fundamentalists defending biblical inerrancy.

  • http://limpingtowardsgrace.wordpress.com James Jarvis

    The second most amazing thing about Rand is that she has followers who call themselves Christians. A group she clearly hated.

  • smrnda

    @Jarvis

    True, neither of those things add up.

  • Martin Penwald

    If I undertstand correctly, a worker should give all his workforce (and, I guess, loyalty and so on) to the Company, for the glory of All-Mighty Company. And he should be proud of that. Am I correct ? It remembers me something called Stakhanovism.
    Funny.

    By the way, the ATA (American Trucking Association) is very close from the Republican. And they are really stupid on this. As a truck driver, the new rules will absolutely not change anything for me, since 5 years I drive in North America, I almost work within the limits of the new coming rules. And I highly doubt that there are a lot of drivers really working 84 hours a week (the article is wrong, it is 84, not 82), even if it´s possible. I have the feeling that ATA is suing current administration just because it´s not a Republican one. Not very bright.

  • David Naas

    Sorry, but I find myself in perpetual amazement that so many people misconstrue Ayn Rand. she was not what she proclaimed herself to be, a Rational Individualist. Her mindset was formed in the throes of the Russian Revolution, and she was forever a Bolshevik, with Bolshevik attitudes toward anyone who even slightly disagreed with her. Like Nietzsche, she had minimalist experience of struggle, and so exalted the Ubermenschen who stomped over everyone else so easily. Her so-called philosophy, like that of Adolf the Aryan, was ignorant, irrational, and incoherent by any *objective* standards.
    So, I quite agree with Martin Penwald — her heroic Capitalist is a Stakhanov.

  • Robert

    I’m really not sure what this series of Atlas Shrugged posts has to do with Daylight Atheism, and I’m sad to say it lowers my opinion of this blog. I’m not an Ayn Rand fanatic by any means. She was human and had her flaws. There were even flaws in the ideas she espoused — but if one strives for complete perfection before creating something, one will never accomplish anything. And people who blindly take everything she said as correct and follow all her ideas as a way of action are in for trouble (one could argue Greenspan fell into this trap). But that does not mean that she did not have good ideas, and that everything she wrote should be dismissed. I’m an atheist and a skeptic but I also think Rand’s work was important — but not as a “bible.” Sadly, among many smart people these days, it’s become the “in thing” to bash Rand, and the quality of this blog post is indeed lower than I’ve come to expect from this blog. I could dissect the logical fallacies in this blog post just as an atheist could dissect the logical fallacies made by those arguing religious views. But it’s not worth my time. I may continue to visit this blog, but since time is scarce, it’s definitely lower on my reading list, and I’d be more hesitant to recommend it.

  • Paul S

    @ James Jarvis
    She hated libertarians as well. In fact, she wasn’t too fond of most anyone.

    But you are right about her followers. As comments from earlier posts in this series show, some Objectivist zealots will show no mercy or tolerance to anyone who dares question their sacred texts and the blessed prophet who wrote them.

  • smrnda

    @Robert

    I think a critique of Rand is pretty on topic for an atheist blog. She was a vocal atheist who, at the same time, had some pretty bad ideas and a fanatical belief in her own virtue and brilliance, and has a rather slavishly devoted fan base. At the same time, in the States, she might very well be one of the most influential atheists given how many politicians take her views seriously. It’s also rather surprising how, despite being vocally anti-Christian, many American Christians profess to believe in Rand as much as they believe in Jesus. Rand might not be one’s cup of tea, but she’s regrettably got cultural capital far beyond what she deserves. It’s like blogs that take-down advertizing. Yeah, adverts are idiotic, but they do wield a lot of influence.

    As for good ideas, Rand’s bad ideas far outnumber her good ones, and her good ideas are hardly unique. The German philosopher Max Stirner pretty much came up with all the same ideas a long time before she existed (and even before Nietzsche had some of them) but was a far better educated, more erudite and more consistent thinker. If anything, Rand’s popularity, to me, is like looking at the popularity of shitty mass market beers.

  • Azkyroth

    I’m really not sure what this series of Atlas Shrugged posts has to do with Daylight Atheism, and I’m sad to say it lowers my opinion of this blog.

    Damnit, I was hoping we’d leave this shallow, ignorant, narcissistic excuse for a trope behind after the move from “What Are You Doing Challenging My Preconceptions and Making Me Uncomfortable – This is Supposed To Be ‘Big Think’!?”

    But that does not mean that she did not have good ideas

    Such as?

    I could dissect the logical fallacies in this blog post just as an atheist could dissect the logical fallacies made by those arguing religious views.

    Consider your bluff called.

    But it’s not worth my time.

    And yet this constipated little temper-post is?

    I may continue to visit this blog, but since time is scarce, it’s definitely lower on my reading list, and I’d be more hesitant to recommend it.

    I suggest you skip straight to holding your breath on the floor.

  • Jason Wexler

    During the last American Presidential election cycle, I heard someone snarkily refer to Newt Gingrich as a dumb person’s idea of a smart person; I think the same description may apply to Ayn Rand as well.

  • Demonhype

    I’ve heard it said that there should be severe penalties, maybe criminal conviction, for any food workers who knowingly report for work while feeling ill, but reject the idea that the employer has a responsibility to make sure those people are able to do so without losing their jobs or vital pay (made even more vital by the abysmal slave-wages they’re paid) because that would be Rank Communism.

    Basically, they don’t think that low-paid food workers should have to choose between losing a day’s pay/losing their jobs vs. coming in sick. They think low-paid food workers should have to choose between losing a day’s pay/losing their jobs vs. getting a criminal conviction (and losing their jobs anyway). Food workers shouldn’t just be overworked and underpaid, but they should also be in constant danger of losing their jobs, not being able to pay their rent, and possibly getting a criminal conviction for the heinous crime of not being able to afford getting sick.

    So yeah, some benighted self-centered Randroids do consider their own self-interest in the situation. Just not to the point where they think anything should be done to help the poor if it might cost the rich a single cent–because what is that starving family compared to the tragedy of a bazillionaire maybe not being able to afford a seventh summer mansion and a fifth private jet?

  • Demonhype

    Bull to “people can choose to work elsewhere”. When companies are allowed to treat their workers like livestock, they all end up doing it and then there is nowhere to go–not unless you can somehow train your biological body not to need food, anyway. The supposed power we have to work elsewhere is eliminated and neutralized by the fact that they are all mistreating their employees, and the idea that it’s somehow “voluntary” is neutralized by the simple fact that eating is not optional. They KNOW that is a BS retort, but they make it anyway, which drives me crazy. How DARE you suggest that it’s okay to be mercilessly flogged for the “privilege” of just-barely not starving, so long as I get a choice as to who holds the whip?

    This is a very suitable subject for an atheist blog, BTW–Rand was an atheist with a religion, an economic one based entirely on personal prejudice and pure fantasy, portraying her personal fantasy as true regardless of the fact that her ideas are demonstrably wrong and have been proven such continually throughout history. Like many religions, it is an attempt to create a respectable philosophy of the attitude of a spoiled two year old who never learned the value of sharing or cooperating with others: “Screw you, I got mind and I’m taking yours too, and I deserve it because from my POV I’m better and more important than you are.” Like most religions, it is a Mary Sue power fantasy, creating a magical world in which the author’s power fantasies work as beautifully as they fail in the real world, that someone lacking in reality-awareness and self-awareness had the temerity to inflict on the outside world. And equally self-centered people lacking in all awareness of reality leaped on eagerly, as it told them what they wanted to hear: That they are better people who are less fortunate, that any good that happens to them is their desert even if they gut someone else to get it, and that anything bad that happens to them is the fault of those Undesirables who just keep leeching off of them.

    And like many religions, there is quite a divide-and-conquer element to it, as you get some people who are at the end of their rope who will still vote the food out of their own mouths to screw over those thieving “Others” and to support the ideology at all cost. You get a load of poor people all being screwed by the upper class but, thanks to their economic religion, never blaming the upper class because the Upper Class is Morally Superior (the way the religious never blame their god for anything either) and always blaming each other for their problems. You and I are both destitute, and we both hunch over our respective ever-dwindling grubby crusts of bread snarling at each other, each of us convinced that our crusts are getting smaller because of the wicked laziness and shiftlessness of the other and never because our corporate lords are greedy and sociopathic and regard the both of us as little more than disposable livestock or farm equipment. And we HAVE to believe that, because if we do what Randianism tells us to and behave properly, we will get to be bazillionaires too and everything will balance out, because such morality is always rewarded with great wealth and the Magic Hand of the Free Market is Wise and always knows best, the same way a god-fearing religious person must always trust god, never question god, and if we do we will get to go to Super Fun Land in the Sky when we die, because God is Wise and always knows best. Don’t let reality get in the way, just believe harder and keep banging your head against the wall, because your ideology teaches that if you are Moral and Industrious etc. etc. you can never get a concussion or a severe skull fracture or die from it, that only happens to Bad People and you are Good, and any head trauma you might be feeling is just an illusion or a test and if you keep banging everything will work out for the best, or your head trauma is the fault of the guy next to you who isn’t banging his head just right, or that other guy who has declared the entire effort to be futile and stupid, and if they would all just fall into line then everything would fall into place and the Wisdom and Glory of Banging One’s Head Against a Brick Wall would be Obvious to Everyone. But under no circumstances can the ideology fail or be seen to fail–it is entirely unfalsifiable, and if it appears to fail it is always someone else’s fault and never because the ideology was ill-advised or just plain wrong.

    So yeah, Rand was an atheist but she was also pretty darn religious, IMO.

  • pbrower2a

    The real heroes of our economic system — at least as entrepreneurs — are the small business owners who can’t pay off lobbyists and make huge contributions to political campaigns. These people must be more attentive to the customer than some giant chains with locations everywhere but rely upon extremely-unskilled help.

    Try finding someone who knows anything about a product at Wal*Mart.

  • pbrower2a

    She’s best described as a mirror-image of Karl Marx, even down to being a shrill, godless apostate from Judaism. She simply glorifies the capitalists that Marx shows as villains for being ultra-capitalist brutes, indeed praising the cruelty of plutocrats. Her philosophy is similarly doctrinaire and intolerant.

    The irony is that she wrote a good novel in Anthem, which could be a ‘happy ending’ to 1984, in which assertion of the Self is the cure to a totalitarian order. Authoritarian regimes of all kinds do what they can to destroy individuality in all but the elite whether those regimes have racism, slavery, peonage, plutocracy, or rabid nationalism at the core. Assertion of the Self is essential if one is to have any understanding or empathy for others, but such implies a prerequisite for altruism (the great vice that Ayn rand excoriates).

    I see no reason to believe that the ‘paradise’ that Rand offers in Atlas Shrugged would not degenerate into the sort of order that requires a scenario analogous to that of Anthem.


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