Atlas Shrugged: You’ll Never Fail Like Common People

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter V

America loves rags-to-riches stories. The idea of the U.S.A. as a land of opportunity is deeply ingrained in our national self-image – we want to believe those Horatio Alger fairytales about how any poor-but-honest young boy with pluck, grit and spunk can start out by sweeping floors and rise to the executive boardroom.

No surprise, Ayn Rand is a passionate devotee of this idea. But this does make it all the more surprising that she chooses to write her story so that most of her protagonists don’t come from humble backgrounds. Instead, she makes them the millionaire scions of industrialist families, from whom they inherited enormous wealth and control of their giant corporations. It seems incongruous, but Rand is anxious to prove that one’s background doesn’t matter in the slightest, because real talent will always shine out no matter where it’s found.

This chapter is her argument for that principle. Still on her way to visit Francisco, Dagny is reminiscing about her memories from when the two of them were sixteen, just before he went away to college:

Francisco went to a great American school, which his father had chosen for him long ago. It was the most distinguished institution of learning left in the world, the Patrick Henry University of Cleveland. [p.96]

That must have been the most surprising issue of U.S. News and World Report ever. Yale? Harvard? Princeton? Columbia? MIT? All those august institutes of learning no longer measure up, apparently – they’ve been toppled by a new intellectual heavyweight, one that resides in the Enlightenment capital of the world: Cleveland, Ohio. (Ironically, there’s now a real Patrick Henry College in Virginia, and it’s a private fundamentalist Christian school that’s best known for churning out ultra-conservative evangelical Republicans.)

Francisco seems unusually driven and worn out by his four years of college, and Dagny later finds out that he was burning the candle at both ends the whole time:

[H]e told her that he had taken two courses of education during the last four years: one at the Patrick Henry University, the other at a copper foundry on the outskirts of Cleveland… He had started working at the foundry as furnace boy, when he was sixteen – and now, at twenty, he owned it. [p.107]

When Francisco’s father finds out, he’s both proud and a little shocked:

“Isn’t it a little too soon?” his father asked.
“I couldn’t have stood four years of nothing but lectures.”
“Where did you get the money for your first payment on that property?”
“By playing the New York stock market.”
What? Who taught you to do that?”
“It is not difficult to judge which industrial ventures will succeed and which won’t.” [p.107]

Rand intends us to take away from this that Francisco’s family connections had nothing to do with his success, that he would have prospered thanks to his own business savvy (and magically infallible stock-picking ability) even if he hadn’t come from a wealthy and privileged background. But when I read this, I took away exactly the opposite message!

Of course Francisco’s college business was a success. After all, he made no effort to hide his identity: he even called his own small foundry “d’Anconia Copper”. Everyone would have known that he was the heir to a far vaster and more powerful multinational company, owned at that time by his father. Why wouldn’t people have done business with him, just to curry favor either with Francisco’s father or with Francisco himself? This is a possibility that clearly never even occurs to Rand. (Just the same way, if Georgina Bloomberg started up a business, I’d expect she’d have no trouble attracting attention from people who wanted to help it become a success.)

This is apropos because of the recent publication of an enormous, comprehensive nationwide study of intergenerational social mobility in the United States, dedicated to answering the question: To what extent does your parents’ income predict your income as an adult? What percentage of children who grow up in poverty rise to success?

It turns out that, to answer this question, location matters enormously. The highest rates of intergenerational mobility are in a north-to-south band across the middle of the country, followed by New England and the metropolitan areas of the east and west coasts. The lowest rates are in the Rust Belt of the midwest and the Old Confederacy states of the deep south. In fact, the county of Cleveland, where Francisco would have studied and worked in real life, has one of the lowest rates of upward mobility in the country: the odds that a child born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution will rise to the top fifth are a pitiful 5.2%.

How do we explain this – by the genetic endowments of the people in these regions? Do all the brilliant, dashing Francisco d’Anconias and Dagny Taggarts of today gather in the midwest and in the coastal metropolises, while all the untalented and lazy moochers congregate in the south? It seems implausible that the genes for talent would sort out so neatly by state lines.

What the evidence shows, instead, is that intergenerational mobility is determined not just by the atomistic choices of individuals but by broader aspects of one’s surroundings: the quality of local schools, the availability of mass transit and affordable housing, and, yes, your parents’ wealth and connections. (Children from affluent families have much better odds of remaining rich than children from poor families have of becoming rich, one of the few findings that held true across the country.) That’s not to say that individual talent is irrelevant – just that it’s far from the only thing that matters. The fictional Francisco d’Anconia is meant to refute this conclusion, but ironically, Ayn Rand’s depiction of him only reinforces it.

Image credit: Tony Vincelli, released under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

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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.

  • Ruminant

    Good observations. But consider this: Rand’s point may have been that Dagny and Francisco needed their elite pedigree to succeed because the corrupt, “anti-dog-eat-dog world” they lived in prevented people of ambition and mobility from rising out of the lower classes. For example, Dagny’s brother befriended one such young lady who might have thrived in Rand’s ideal world, but once she realized the system was rigged to keep her down, she could no longer be a part of it.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    I don’t know if this is in this books, but in the movies, the government passes a law declaring that nobody can be fired or quit their current job, and freezing everyone’s wages where they were during the past year, which I guess would do a pretty good job of preventing class mobility. (Why anybody at all would want such a system was never explained in the film.)

  • badgerchild

    The prevention against quitting was an extreme measure to keep the ongoing “brain drain” from happening (as we’ll see later on in the series).

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    My best recollection is that Statler, the scientist, reveals himself as a mustache-twirling cartoon villain in the final act by hating money and loving to have power over people. “Ah yes, I promote altruism because it ultimately makes people miserable! Muha ha ha!!!” or something to that effect.

  • Guest

    Or maybe that was Mouch…

  • Cobwebs

    It’s the “It is not difficult to judge which industrial ventures will succeed and which won’t.” line that I think is particularly telling. Sure, for the *common* person it might be hard to tell at a glance what industrial ventures are sure to prosper, but Rand’s heroes have special powers. A business’ potential for success is obvious to them.

  • James_Jarvis

    The Cherryl Brooks character was the only character in the book I actually liked. She is destroyed in the end because made the mistake of falling in love with Dagney’s brother James. The viciousness with which Ryan destroys her sicked be. A better writer would have made her a hero who did great things with her life. Ironically she could have been a character in an anti-capitalist morally tale. This is what what capitalism does to people.

  • Adam Lee

    For the record, if anyone’s curious to know how they can be banned from commenting on my site, this is one way. Goodbye.

  • Azkyroth

    At least SOMEONE in the atheosphere takes out the trash once in a while. >.>

  • Science Avenger

    I think you are referring to Elsworth Toohey, the villain in The Fountainhead. Pity there was no equivalently competent villain in Atlas.

  • Science Avenger

    What’s especially amusing about that is Rand firmly believed we were all born tabula rasa, molded by our own will.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Actually it’s Ivy Starnes, one of the three owners of the Twentieth Century Motor Company. Rand basically states that the driving motivation of Communism is sadism:

    “She had pale eyes that looked fishy, cold and dead. And if you ever want to see pure evil you should see the way her eyes glinted when she watched some man who’d talked back to her once and who’d just heard his name on the list of those getting nothing above basic pittance. And when you saw it, you saw the real motive of any person who’s ever preached ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

  • Nancy McClernan

    LOL – I guess that’s what we call going Galton.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    You are absolutely right. It WAS Toohey! Thanks for reminding me.

    Well, I think we can assume that all Rand’s cardboard cutout villains think alike to some extent.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    Apparently in Rand’s books pretty much everybody thinks alike, but some of them are lying about it because they’re evil. It’s the sensus divinatus applied to economic policy.

  • Adam Lee

    Heh. Yeah, it’s an easy mistake to make; all Rand’s villains are exactly alike. So are her heroes, for that matter.


    The delicious irony about Rand’s writing is; had her characters been real people, it’s most unlikely any of them would have allowed Ms. Rand into their homes through the servant’s entrance.

  • Paladinlost

    Eh. They’re all a bit different.

    The Council in Anthem were eroded – they rejected individuality because out of ignorance and fear.

    The various governments of Atlas Shrugged were run by unintelligent looters – they wanted to get wealthy on the backs of others, and then passed more and more restrictive laws to keep themselves in power and hopefully keep the money flowing. Galt’s revolution is what made them cross the line into malevolence. Otherwise, they’d just be petty and overly fond of taxes.

    Peter Keating was just a pawn. He didn’t have a morality – in fact, he likes and admires Roark, but he has a different agenda – he’d rather be wealthy and well-liked then respected. Ultimately, he’s kind of a tragic character, because Toohey and both Falcone’s rather enjoy throwing him under the bus for his very human desires.

    Ellsworth Toohey is our actual villain, because unlike any of the others, he completely and totally understands what he’s doing, and does it regardless. Oddly enough, it’s because Rand’s system is just as caste driven as anyone else. Toohey had no shot at Rand’s Engineer-Philosopher Brahmin class, having absolutely no creative ability, and so he having no shot at heroism and no desire to be a plebe, he became a villain.

    I often feel that in another world, Toohey would have been an excellent movie producer or murder mystery writer, but being one of the few people who can truly see how the auteur has sculpted this world, realizes that those positions will have no value, and decides voluntarily to break it instead.

    I’ve always found Rand’s villains sort of engaging in an odd way, because without Rand’s iron-clad philosophy, most of them would come across as misguided.

  • smrnda

    Rand makes a few ‘rags to riches’ stories (Reardon seems like the other example) but she completely avoids giving the reader anything but the vaguest *details* of how this happens. “I played the stock market” – might as well have said “I won big in Vegas.” This is at the level of plausibility of a bad 80s or 90s action film, where somehow one gun-slinging protagonist can eliminate an entire army.

    Connections are *everything* when it comes to success. The children of privileged people (like me, for example) get all sorts of enriching, useful experiences early in life while other kids worry where their next meal will come from. During college, I took a pretty demanding schedule but this was possible since I didn’t need to worry about busting my ass at some minimum wage job to pay the bills. I’d already ‘worked’ at internships since I was in my early teens, when most other kids would have had paper routes.

    So… later in life, I’m doing better, with nothing due to my own merit, but only because of luck. My parents actually did work harder than me, because back when they were young, a state university wasn’t so far outside the reach of a non-wealthy family.

  • Science Avenger

    The other great benefit that comes with being raised with wealth is the abilitiy to fail. When you live in the slums, one mistake can destroy your entire life, whether financial, legal, or personal. One bad business deal, one arrest, or one unwanted child can spell doom for the life of someone with no resources. By contrast, as Mitt Romney revealed so eloquently, the biggest problems a rich kid has can be washed away with a “loan” from his parents.

  • John Alexander Harman

    I find that absolutely hilarious, since Karl Marx started from the same utterly absurd fantasy about human nature and reached opposite (though equally wrong) conclusions.

  • John Alexander Harman

    I think that “I won big in Vegas” with an explanation about counting cards at blackjack or mastering the art of spotting the rich, drunk sucker in the poker room would have been more plausible than “It is not difficult to judge which industrial ventures will succeed and which won’t.”

  • Science Avenger

    ***spoiler alert*** And that in turn is far more plausible than “I figured out, all by myself, how to extract infinite power from the air.
    And whence did Francisco get his starting capitol? That’s not a trivial detail.

  • smrnda

    Rand seems pretty light on the details of her heroes’ amazing rise to the top. If her work was simply pulp fiction, that would be alright, but she expects people to take it seriously.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    any poor-but-honest young boy with pluck, grit and spun…

    Not unless he’s got moxie.

  • Adam Lee

    Our national moxie reserves are severely depleted. The government recommends using gumption as a substitute.

  • Don Sakers

    I think part of this whole thing is Rand’s attempt to set up two parallel trinities among the superior characters, each character displaying a different source of success/purity. The primary trinity is Francisco (inherited success/purity), Ragnar (intellectual success/purity), and Galt (self-made success/purity). The second trinity is Dagny (inherited), Quentin Daniels (intellectual), and Reardon (self-made). There’s a similar trinity of “failed” characters who betrayed their promise: Jim Taggart (inherited), Stadler (intellectual), and Boyle (self-made).

    It’s worth noting, from Rand’s perspective, that the greatest of all is Galt, the self-made man.