Atlas Shrugged: How to Build a Railroad

Atlas Shrugged, p.62-63

I’m going to skip ahead a bit, because this next section has a connection to my previous post about Dagny’s reminiscences. Dagny is leaving work at night after another long day (“She resented the small defeat of being tired”) and passes through the main concourse of the Taggart building:

Dominating the concourse, but ignored by the travelers as a habitual sight, stood a statue of Nathaniel Taggart, the founder of the railroad. Dagny was the only one who remained aware of it and had never been able to take it for granted. To look at that statue whenever she crossed the concourse, was the only form of prayer she knew. [p.62]

And who was this heroic ancestor?

Nathaniel Taggart had been a penniless adventurer who had come from somewhere in New England and built a railroad across a continent, in the days of the first steel rails… He was a man who had never accepted the creed that others had the right to stop him. He set his goal and moved toward it, his way as straight as one of his rails. He never sought any loans, bonds, subsidies, land grants or legislative favors from the government.

Of all the businesses Rand could have chosen for her heroes, I always thought that railroads were a bad choice to show the superiority of laissez-faire capitalism. After all, railroads, like other forms of infrastructure, almost always take major government support and investment to build.

But, like many other real-world complications, this is something Rand brushes aside. She insists that Nathaniel Taggart was able to build a railroad across the entire breadth of North America without ever having to deal with the government. That presumably means that the path of his railroad never crossed any public land that he’d have had to seek legislative permission to build on. It also means that his route never crossed any private land whose owners were unwilling to sell to him, since he never had to rely on eminent domain or any of those other evil looter tricks. He was able to cross a continent without ever once encountering anyone who refused to sell him the land he needed at a price he could afford.

You can judge for yourself whether this is even slightly believable. In reality, the first American transcontinental railroad required major government financial
support
– to the tune of $16,000 per mile, rising to $48,000 per mile over the Rocky Mountains – plus extensive land grants. Modern engineering projects of similar scope, like the Keystone XL pipeline, have been embroiled in court fights with dozens of private landowners who don’t want to sell, and Keystone’s builders have been extremely aggressive about invoking eminent domain. For someone who claims to be so exclusively concerned with what’s real and possible, Rand’s handwaving dismissal of all these problems isn’t very impressive.*

Yet no penny of his wealth had been obtained by force or fraud; he was guilty of nothing, except that he earned his own fortune and never forgot that it was his.

So, Nat Taggart was guilty of nothing, Rand tells us. In literally the next paragraph, she writes this:

It was said that in the wilderness of the Middle West, he murdered a state legislator who attempted to revoke a charter granted to him, to revoke it when his rail was laid halfway across the state; some legislators had planned to make a fortune on Taggart stock – by selling it short. Nat Taggart was indicted for the murder, but the charge could never be proved. He had no trouble with legislators from then on.

I had one of those jaw-dropping moments when I read this. Whether or not Taggart murdered an elected official – and the text goes out of its way to imply that he did – let’s stipulate that he went to trial and was acquitted. Why did he have “no trouble with legislators from then on”? Would they henceforth be eager to grant charters and permission to someone who they believed murdered one of their number? (How often does someone kill a member of Congress and then get special favors and privileges from the rest of Congress?) Or is Rand saying, as she seems to be saying, that legislators did what he wanted after that because they were all afraid he’d kill them too if they refused?

OK, you might say, maybe his murder was committed in a moment of passion, a violent reaction against the scoundrels who plotted to ruin him. You might think that, except that in the very next paragraph, Rand writes:

It was said that Nat Taggart had staked his life on his railroad many times; but once, he staked more than his life. Desperate for funds, with the construction of his line suspended, he threw down three flights of stairs a distinguished gentleman who offered him a loan from the government.

He was merely offered a government loan, and responded by flinging the man down three flights of stairs, essentially implying that it’s acceptable to commit violence against the government under any circumstances. The text never breathes a hint of condemnation of this. In fact, Dagny all but worships him. Although she resents the idea of loving anyone just because she’s related to them (“unchosen family affections”, it’s called), we’re told that “had it been possible to choose an ancestor, she would have chosen Nat Taggart, in voluntary homage and with all of her gratitude”.

The message being sent here is that the desire to start a business entitles you to do anything you want, and if you can’t get your way through democratic means, you’re permitted to use violence against the people who are impeding you (remember, Taggart “had never accepted the creed that others had the right to stop him”). Rand treats this as noble and heroic behavior, worthy of praise.

* Rand claimed a real-world inspiration for Taggart Transcontinental: the Great Northern Railway, built from St. Paul to Seattle by the 19th-century railroad tycoon James J. Hill, without government investment. That would be just the sort of capitalist morality-play Objectivists so love – except that Hill put together his transcontinental span by buying and merging other railroads, such as the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, that were built with land grants and state financial backing.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

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.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    Well, you see, ol’ Nat Taggart was never guilty of “force,” and in objectivist lingo that means “INITIATING force.” Now, the first government guy was trying to prevent him from making money, and that is of course the very worst kind of violence, so clearly this was self defense. But then again, the mere fact that governments exist constitutes a use of force against Nat, hence all is permitted. The guy who offered the loan should just be grateful that Taggarts are generous and forgiving souls, because otherwise he would have been justifiably murdered too.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    I’d heard she drew inspiration from the Great Northern Railroad, but they left out how it was built from the government-funded St. Paul and Pacific. Convenient.

  • Elizabeth

    It was said that in the wilderness of the Middle West, he murdered a
    state legislator who attempted to revoke a charter granted to him,

    I thought he *didn’t* have any government help? Wouldn’t applying for a charter be lazy leech behavior?

  • BrandonUB

    That would be just the sort of capitalist morality-play Objectivists so
    love – except that Hill put together his transcontinental span by buying
    and merging other railroads, such as the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, that were built with land grants and state financial backing.

    This reminds me of the legalistic skirting of stringent Shabbat rules through some pretty impressive machinations. Another way that Objectivism is just another religion? No way!

  • busterggi

    Objectivistically murder is not a crime, its just an occassional annoying necessity.

  • GCT

    I hear ya! It’s not like Nat ever tried to tax anyone, amiright?

  • http://twitter.com/ImprobableJoe Improbable Joe

    It really is not much more than “The Secret” for sociopaths, is it? On top of the irrational, near-mystical way that people are completely self-made in Rand’s fairy tale, this is also indicative of the real thinking of objectivist/libertarian types: it isn’t that their pseudo-philosophy leads to positive or ethical outcomes, it is that the outcomes resulting from their sociopathy are “positive” and “ethical” by definition. Whether it is destroying the environment, murdering government officials, or dismembering children for fun, the Randian worldview is that whatever Randians want to do is the right thing to do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/peter.moritz.351 Peter Moritz

    Never interested in reading crappy prose – and that is what Rand tries to smear onto her pages.

    It is sociopathic drivel with no correlation to any economic or political reality. The wet dreams of a person disillusioned by what the big unwashed still call “communism” in the former USSR, which it never was and never will be, despite the clueless contentions of those who are brainwashed by capitalist ideology and mouth predigested untruth because it is convenient for those in power..

  • http://twitter.com/ImprobableJoe Improbable Joe

    I wonder… is there some sort of pattern to the amount/type of comments that each of these entries gets?

  • James_Jarvis

    Where did Nathaniel Taggart get the money to build the railroad? Some projects involve such a massive amount of capital that only governments can fund them. A railroad involves extremely large outlays of money and it reaches maximum utility only when completed. I sometimes get the impression that Nat Taggart personally laid ever inch of track with his own two hands,

  • Jonathan Roth

    I just saw an MRA type screaming about how feminism allows women to commit “financial rape” on men. Seen through the idea of “initiating force” and conflating financial and physical aggressions, it now makes a horrible kind of sense, with pretty terrifying implications.

  • smrnda

    I think Rand is avoiding telling us how this guy got the capital to build the railroad. He got zero government money. She mentions no loans but she says that’s specifically from the government, leaving open the possibility of private loans.

    The problem is if he needed private loans, then he isn’t and wasn’t a self-made man. Plus, this makes the ability of any MOVER and DOER contingent on finding someone willing to extend credit.

    Apparently you can commit unprovoked violence against government officials who are only doing their jobs. Of course, Rand thinks that government just existing IS an act of violence.

  • smrnda

    That’s about it. Libertarians conveniently ignore externalities when it comes to deciding that an action is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it just has to be good for the rich person doing it, not for everybody.

    Sometimes they tell me free markets lead to more money for everyone, except when they don’t, and then they’re just intrinsically good.

  • busterggi

    Why Taggart was just a stooge for the real railroad building genius Hedy Lamar.
    That’s Hedley.

  • http://twitter.com/ImprobableJoe Improbable Joe

    They do flip back and forth, don’t they? They’ll claim that their pseudo-philosophy leads to better outcomes, but their definition of “better” shifts between sociopathic and non-sociopathic meanings. They’ll claim that following their nonsense will “solve Problem X” until backed into a corner, at which people they change to “since Problem X isn’t solved by our BS, it can’t actually be a problem that needs solving.”

  • smrnda

    I do notice that certain things that most people consider problems, like widespread poverty, lack of upward mobility, shoddy infrastructure can just get declared to be ‘not problems’ within the ideology. The whole ideology is built on circular reasoning.

  • Heisenberg

    Well, the whole point is that there’s no rational reason to subvert your own interests to someone else’s. When you start from that point, what do you expect? The viewpoint is almost patholoigcally logical from its flawed premise.

  • Figs

    How exactly do you hurl somebody down three flights of stairs? I’m trying to picture this logistically. If you’re in a stairwell, do you throw them down the first flight, and then walk down the stairs, retrieve them, throw them down the next flight, walk down those stairs, retrieve them, and throw them down the next flight? Did Nat Taggart give this guy a chance to revoke his offer of a government loan in between flights of stairs? If so, why would the guy keep offering after the first? This just makes no effing sense.

  • Loren Petrich

    A flight of stairs is an uninterrupted sequence of them (Stairs – Wikipedia). So what Ayn Rand had been imagining is that unfortunate gentleman rolling down one flight, keeping on rolling on the floor where it ended, then rolling down the next flight, then rolling on the next floor, then rolling down the third flight. Except that there’s a difficulty for most indoor staircases. Their flights change direction, meaning that that unfortunate gentleman would have come to rest against a wall after rolling down the first flight. Of course, Mr. Taggart could have followed him and pushed him down the next flight.

  • Arakasi_99

    Maybe he threw the guy down the center of a 3-story stairwell. Which would qualify as attempted murder, at least.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    As with all things in life, YouTube has the answer!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYEfUclbneI

  • J_JamesM

    How’s that for internal consistency… Anyway, you’re right about railroads being extremely government-intensive infrastructure. Arguably, even moreso than automobiles, proportionally speaking.

  • smrnda

    There seem to be two types of Rand apologists who stop by. One type actually argues for what she said. The other types argue that she’s being ‘misinterpreted’ and was never advocating for sociopathic behavior and never said everyone who wasn’t a wealthy industrialist was a worthless parasite.

  • Bdole

    “Where did Nathaniel Taggart get the money to build the railroad?”

    What a silly question. Naturally, like any mover and shaker, he used his ingenuity and sweat-equity within a fully developed and innovative synergistic paradigm of his own rending, which allowed him to maximize the market capitalization of his intellectual and real assets apropos of his can-do attitude and indomitable character.

  • fuguewriter

    Incorrect about the Great Northern: The Great Northern was built in stages, slowly to create profitable lines, before extending the road further into the undeveloped Western territories. In a series of the earliest public relations campaigns, contests were held to promote interest in the railroad and the ranchlands along its route. Fred J. Adams used promotional incentives such as feed and seed donations to farmers getting started along the line. Contests were all-inclusive, from largest farm animals to largest freight carload capacity and were promoted heavily to immigrants & newcomers from the East. **The earliest predecessor railroad to the GN was the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, a bankrupt railroad with a small amount of track in the state of Minnesota.** – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Northern_Railway_(U.S.)

  • unbound55

    That was my first thought and was surprised that Adam didn’t bring that to light first. The protagonist was “…a penniless adventurer…” who was able to build a railroad?

    I guess he found free trees with no landowners (government or private) to cut the railroad ties, and the same with the substrate used under the ties and rails.

    More troublesome is that he must have been someone well-versed in mining his own raw material to create the massive amounts of steel needed for such an undertaking, as well as building his own foundry to form the steel in the needed shapes.

    So, understanding that he couldn’t have made more than a few miles of a railroad on his own, where did he get the money to accomplish all that work? I’m going with counterfeit money myself since the character doesn’t appear to have any other morals…

  • TBP100

    “Of all the businesses Rand could have chosen for her heroes, I always thought that railroads were a bad choice to show the superiority of laissez-faire capitalism. After all, railroads, like other forms of infrastructure, almost always take major government support and investment to build.”

    And her other magnum opus features a brilliant uncompromising artist who is an architect. Architecture is one of the most collaborative art forms in existence. From start to finish, there are usually dozens, in some cases hundreds or even thousands, of people involved in putting up a building. Not to mention that many buildings are built and paid for by government entities.

    Buildings are commissioned, for specific purposes, by people who pay to have them designed and built, and who have a right to have their wishes, both aesthetic and practical, respected. Any potential building has lots of constraints that the architect must honor. A library will look and function radically differently than a concert hall, for example, and both of those will be different from an apartment building; a new building in an old neighborhood may be required to conform to the style of the buildings around it (the Pompidou Centre notwithstanding). People actually live and work in buildings, and the artistic sensibilities of the designer aren’t the only factor to be taken into consideration, although I certainly think that aesthetic qualities matter. The architect is, of course, free to turn down any commission for artistic or other reasons, but isn’t free to accept a commission and then ignore the agreed-upon parameters.

    Once the building is designed, someone else has to figure out plumbing, electrical, HVAC and other mechanical systems and someone else has to make sure it won’t fall down. And finally, someone has to build the damn thing. I will admit that Rand does acknowledge that architects need to know some engineering and should design buildings that can actually be built, but otherwise I don’t see anything at all in The Fountainhead that recognizes any of this, or that designing a building is any different from going into your studio and painting a landscape or writing a string quartet (actually, even those are sometimes commissioned and so come with some conditions attached).

  • Nancy McClernan

    I can’t believe you stopped short of presenting Nat Taggart’s solution to the loan problem – offer to stake his wife as a sex slave to a millionaire – with her consent of course:

    It was said that Nat Taggart had staked his life on his railroad many times: but once, he staked more than his life. Desperate for funds, with the construction of his line suspended, he threw down three flights of stairs a distinguished gentleman who offered him a loan from the government. Then he pledged his wife as security for a loan from a millionaire who hated him and admired her beauty. He repaid the loan on time and did not have to surrender his pledge. The deal had been made with his wife’s consent…

    Those were the days of true Libertarians.

    http://mcclernan.blogspot.com/2013/05/atlas-shrugged-chapters-1-3.html

  • gilgit

    Yes, but in context the idea that a bunch of independent business men build a transcontinental railroad by themselves is nonsense. The fact that they first bought a bankrupt railroad is the key. That it had only a small amount of track is irrelevant. It’s the fact that it connected the NW to the rest of the railroads and by extension the rest of the country.

    Without all those other railroads that got build WITH government help, the Great Northern couldn’t have been built. Once connected to the rest of the country they could make money shipping goods out and industry in. I could also throw in that without the previous 50+ years of building railroads with government help, the building techniques and equipment that built the Great Northern wouldn’t have existed.

    Oh, and some of the other railroads they bought also had previously been given land grants and other help. So it is stretching things to say they did it without government help.

    I’d also throw in that 19th century railroads had terrible records of treating their employees. It was just taken for granted that dozens or even hundreds of employees would be killed and even more maimed. The idea that no matter what business you ran, you didn’t let your employees lose fingers, legs, or lives – that idea didn’t exist. So pointing to 19th century railroad owners as people you think are the height of humanity says something about Randians.

    I can admire the great achievement of building a railroad and still think Rand was a jackass.

  • James Yakura

    My guess:

    Not a penny of his money was made by force. All of his violence was done out of spite. So, it’s technically okay, since he didn’t intend to actually profit from any of it.

  • Inquisitive Raven

    One detail that you left out: the building has to conform to assorted government codes, e.g. the fire code. The codes don’t exist just to make life difficult for architects; there’s reasons for them. (http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/012875.html)

    Someone on a (pre-Patheos) Slacktivist comment thread noted that if you’re going to be a prima donna artist, architecture is the wrong field to go into. While the original post, “Honors English” made the transition to Patheos, the comment thread didn’t.

  • northierthanthou.com

    You have more courage than I do plowing through Rand’s tripe. Wow!

  • $90142399

    Can’t resist pointing out that:

    Architecture is one of the most collaborative art forms in existence. From start to finish, there are usually dozens, in some cases hundreds or even thousands, of people involved in putting up a building. Not to mention that many buildings are built and paid for by government entities.

    and the rest is almost word for word the first part of my first lecture in the Intro to the Profession class I used to teach in architecture school–were you in my class? :)

    One year for a term-end treat I arranged for a local pub to show The Fountainhead movie on a wall, and we all had a great time MST3King it and throwing popcorn.

  • Don Sakers

    Isn’t the implication that Taggart got millionaires to invest, on the promise that they would make a profit on the investments?

    Oh, and government charters. Which apparently aren’t “land grants” from the government, since Nat didn’t take any of those.

    Obviously, he threw the government guy down the stairs because the government was trying to invest in his railroad the same his his millionaire friends did. He couldn’t let that happen, because then some of the fruit of his efforts would go to the government, and we can’t have that, can we?

  • Jason Sartin

    I know I’m late to the party on this one, but the Nat Taggart passage was jaw-dropping indeed. Like you pointed out in the scene where Hank Rearden’s family is introduced, Ayn Rand is so in love with her protagonists that she never imagines how ANYONE could possibly find them repulsive.

    Really, throwing a guy down a flight of stairs merely for _offering_ Nat a government loan. Just like Rearden’s family scene, the other side could easily have been rewritten to make Nat’s reaction more understandable. Like have the guy barging in with the government’s jack-booted thugs on a trumped-up charge, or (since reverse regulatory capture is a thing in Randworld) have him offering Nat a sleazy bribe to abandon his dream for a cushy government job. But no, instead we’re left with a scene where the hero has a psychopathic overreaction to a mere suggestion.

    It’s amazing. Rand painted her world in black and white, and she couldn’t even get THAT right.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X