Atlas Shrugged: The Ruling Class

Atlas Shrugged, p.56-66

I’ve lingered on this section for a while, but the few brief scenes in these pages provide a wealth of unintentional insight into Rand’s thinking and her ideas about what motivates her characters. There’s one more insight I think we can glean, and it comes in the form of our introduction to a character who’ll be important later on, Francisco d’Anconia:

At the age of twenty-three, when he inherited his fortune, Francisco d’Anconia had been famous as the copper king of the world. Now, at thirty-six, he was famous as the richest man and the most spectacularly worthless playboy on earth. He was the last descendant of one of the noblest families of Argentina… His financial talent was called phenomenal; no one had ever beaten him in any transaction – he added to his incredible fortune with every deal he touched and every step he made, when he took the trouble to make it. [p.56]

It transpires that d’Anconia has bought land in Mexico to start a new copper mine, and Jim Taggart, Orren Boyle and others have invested heavily in him. Because he wants his investment to pay off, Jim is diverting badly needed resources from the repair of the Rio Norte Line to build a new railroad into Mexico, the San Sebastian Line, to connect to d’Anconia’s mines. Dagny fights back, but is repeatedly overruled at the Taggart board meetings, where the other executives

…spoke about the future importance of the trade with Mexico, about a rich stream of freight, about the large revenues assured to the exclusive carrier of an inexhaustible supply of copper. They proved it by citing Francisco d’Anconia’s past achievements. They did not mention any mineralogical facts about the San Sebastian Mines. Few facts were available; the information which d’Anconia had released was not very specific; but they did not seem to need facts. [p.57]

Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute. When Dagny made the unilateral decision to rebuild the Rio Norte Line with Rearden Metal, she didn’t cite any metallurgical facts either! She pushed that plan through based only on her own judgment, without consulting anyone else or presenting any evidence to justify her decision. Why is it OK when one of the protagonists does it, but not OK when the bad guys do it?

Now, we know the answer: because in Rand’s world, True and Heroic Capitalists are infallible; only looters and parasites can be tricked or make mistakes. It will turn out later on that the San Sebastian mines are a very bad investment, and even though Dagny has no way to know this yet (why doesn’t d’Anconia’s record of past success count for anything with her?), she fiercely opposes them and will be proven right in due course, because Rand has so arranged the world that her heroes can never be wrong.

The other noteworthy thing is that d’Anconia, like Dagny, is the head of a family-owned business, one that’s been run by his ancestors for generations and that he inherited a controlling interest in. This isn’t impossible, even for a large multinational corporation (South Korea’s chaebol are a real-life example), but you do have to wonder how it fits with Rand’s stated devotion to meritocracy. How has a world-spanning conglomerate stayed in the hands of the same bloodline for an unbroken span of centuries? Have the owners refused to promote anyone to management except one of their own descendants?

Rand is trying to have it both ways here. She advocates a capitalist worldview in which talent and ambition are the only things that matter, yet she’s also drawn to the romantic notion of companies that have been in the same family for generations and have survived and thrived through successive descendants. There’s only one way to reconcile this, and that’s if capitalist aptitude is literally in the blood: not the result of education or upbringing, but a genetic endowment inherited from one’s parents. (Presumably, this would make Jim Taggart the family black sheep who missed out on the capitalist gene.)

To put it another way, Rand is (unintentionally?) arguing for a modern version of aristocracy. Her characters embody the notion of a hereditary upper class. Dagny, Francisco, and others are the offspring of noble lineages that have the right to rule, not due to any advantages gained by the immense wealth and power of their upbringing, but simply due to an inherent deservingness by virtue of their birth. I don’t want to stretch the metaphor too far, but one could even make the case that in the world of the book, their upbringing makes them the beneficiaries of divine favor – the divinity in question being the author, who ensures that all their decisions turn out correctly – just as God was once believed to guide the decisions of kings.

In the real world, things usually don’t turn out as well. Whether for monarchs or CEOs, hereditary rule rarely proves to be an effective management principle. It may well be human nature for people to want to leave whatever they possess to their children, that’s likely to be a result of evolution – but if you’re a devotee of reason, you ought to recognize that this tendency should be resisted, not mythologized.

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