Atlas Shrugged: The Invention of Fire

Atlas Shrugged, p.63-64

To finish out this section, there’s a short scene in the Taggart Terminal at night (the same place where the statue of Nat Taggart stands that Dagny uses for ancestor worship). She’s leaving work after an argument with Jim, who’s found out that she’s only running a few old and broken-down trains on the San Sebastian Line, but who, as always, refuses to take the responsibility of changing anything when she invites him to.

In the corner of the concourse, by the main entrance, there was a small newsstand. The owner, a quiet, courteous old man with an air of breeding, had stood behind his counter for twenty years… He had a hobby which was his only pleasure; he gathered cigarettes from all over the world for his private collection; he knew every brand made or that had ever been made. [p.63]

Dagny stops at his stand to buy a pack of cigarettes, and we hear the usual laments about how all the cigarette companies in the world are going out of business. Then:

“I like cigarettes, Miss Taggart. I like to think of fire held in a man’s hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips… When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind – and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression.” [p.64]

This is an even better example than the one I discussed last time of how Rand sought to elevate her own subjective preferences into universal logical laws. Rand herself was a heavy smoker – in fact, she contracted lung cancer later in life – and it’s a good bet that she was addicted to tobacco. But it clearly wasn’t enough for her to smoke just because she liked it. She had to work it into her philosophy, finding a reason to treat smoking as heroic, even rationally obligatory.

And since this is a good opportunity here, let’s take this time to discuss the tobacco business. Here’s something that Rand’s massive magnum opus in praise of capitalism never addresses: when a product turns out to be harmful, who, if anyone, should bear the responsibility?

Atlas was published in 1957, a few years after doctors began publishing statistical evidence of the cancer link. Certainly, you could argue that if smokers were aware of this information and chose to continue smoking, then they freely assumed that risk upon themselves and no one else should be held responsible.

The only problem is that many of them didn’t know about it, because when this evidence started coming out, the tobacco companies went to great lengths to sow uncertainty and confusion. In an infamous 1969 memo, an executive at Brown & Williamson wrote that “doubt is our product”, and that cigarette advertising should aim at “establishing a controversy” in the public mind to fight back against what they called – in language strikingly reminiscent of Rand’s – an “insidious and developing pattern of attack against the American free enterprise system, a sinister formula that is slowly eroding American business with the cigarette obviously selected as one of the trial targets.”

This PR campaign went on despite substantial evidence that the tobacco companies themselves were well aware of the health risks of smoking (see also). According to testimony presented in a class-action lawsuit, some went so far as to deliberately destroy internal research that could have proved damaging in court.

Objectivism exalts reason above all, but reason requires an informed decision. I can’t act in my best interests if someone conceals information from me that would have changed my choice if I’d known about it. And as much as any libertarian may decry “anti-smoking paternalism“, the truth is that the tobacco companies did try for as long as possible to keep the public unaware of information relevant to the health risks of smoking. Shouldn’t they be liable for this, in the same way that anyone who was poisoning me without my knowledge should be liable for that harm?

Even if the tobacco companies hadn’t made any attempt at a cover-up, even if they’d been completely honest from the start, shouldn’t the manufacturers of products that are intrinsically harmful bear some responsibility for that harm? If I hit someone with my car, I ought to be liable for the injuries they suffer, even if I had no intent to injure them. Just the same way, when a product turns out to be harmful, it seems only fair that the people profiting off the use of that product should contribute to repairing that harm. (And how does addiction play into the Objectivist worldview of people as pure reasoning machines?)

As I said, this is a subject that Rand steers clear of, in keeping with her view that capitalists are the exalted ones who can do no wrong, and that government is the only cause of any bad thing that ever happens. But readers ought to be left asking why it is that a book written to sing the praises of capitalism has to avoid even the most obvious critique of its argument.

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