Atlas Shrugged: World-Movers

Atlas Shrugged, p.80-88

No sooner has Dagny returned from her meeting with Dan Conway than a stranger bursts into her office:

He was young, tall, and something about him suggested violence, though she could not say what it was, because the first trait one grasped about him was a quality of self-control that seemed almost arrogant. He had dark eyes, disheveled hair, and his clothes were expensive, but worn as if he did not care or notice what he wore.

“Ellis Wyatt,” he said in self-introduction. [p.81]

Wyatt is an oil baron, one of the industrialists of Colorado. He’d been using the Phoenix-Durango railroad to ship his oil, but thanks to the newly passed Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule, that’s going to close in a few months and he’ll be forced to rely on Taggart Transcontinental, which he doesn’t trust. Not surprisingly, he assumes Dagny is part of the plot against him and berates her:

“You can listen to an ultimatum.” He spoke distinctly, giving an unusual clarity to every syllable. “I expect Taggart Transcontinental, nine months from now, to run trains in Colorado as my business requires them to be run. If the snide stunt you people perpetrated on the Phoenix-Durango was done for the purpose of saving yourself the necessity of effort, this is to give you notice that you will not get away with it.”

Dagny wants to protest that she had nothing to do with that, but she doesn’t (because Real Capitalists don’t make excuses). Instead, she keeps her cool and promises Wyatt that he’ll have his railroad when he needs it. But he’s not done:

“We both know that if Taggart Transcontinental runs trains in Colorado the way it did five years ago, it will ruin me. I know that this is what you people intend to do. You expect to feed off me while you can and to find another carcass to pick dry after you have finished mine. That is the policy of most of mankind today. So here is my ultimatum: it is now in your power to destroy me; I may have to go; but if I go, I’ll make sure that I take all the rest of you along with me.”

This is a pretty unmistakable threat, on the level with “Nice place, would be a shame if something happened to it” – and Wyatt clearly intends it to be taken that way. Rand takes pains to telegraph that he’s a violent man, dangerous when angered. But Dagny doesn’t respond even to this provocation, saying only, “You will get the transportation you need, Mr. Wyatt.”

I don’t quite get what principle Rand was trying to impart with this. Fine, Objectivists don’t offer excuses – but do they approve of intimidation and threats? Is that a rational way to run a business? If this were a dramatic Hollywood scene, I would’ve expected Dagny to tell Wyatt she doesn’t appreciate his tone, or to say something like, “I’ll do everything in my power to get you the transportation you need, Mr. Wyatt, but I won’t sit here and listen to you threaten me. If that’s all you came here to say, you can get out; I have work to do.”

But there’s nothing like this, and I wonder if that means we’re meant to consider Wyatt’s behavior sympathetic or acceptable. After all, it would be in line with Dagny’s illustrious and murderous ancestor Nat Taggart, who’s described as heroic because he violently assaulted and killed people who stood in the way of him completing his railroad. When you put that scene together with this one – as well as with the scenes involving Ragnar Danneskjold, whom we haven’t met yet – it seems Rand means readers to conclude that threats and violence are permissible against people who don’t share her vision of economic policy.

After Wyatt leaves, Dagny has an emergency meeting with Hank Rearden:

“That’s the story, Hank. I had worked out an almost impossible schedule to complete the Rio Norte Line in twelve months. Now I’ll have to do it in nine. You were to give us the rail over a period of one year. Can you give it to us within nine months?”

…Rearden sat behind his desk. His cold, blue eyes made two horizontal cuts across the gaunt planes of his face; they remained horizontal, impassively half-closed; he said evenly, without emphasis:

“I’ll do it.” [p.83]

He charges her an extra $20 per ton for the rush job, but no more, because, as Dagny says, he needs the railroad to be finished as much as she does; he wants it to demonstrate the usefulness of Rearden Metal. Once the world is convinced of its value, he’s confident that there will be countless practical applications: more durable motors, lighter airplanes, improved communication lines, and oddly enough, better chicken wire (“plain chicken-wire fences, made of Rearden Metal, that will cost a few pennies a mile and last two hundred years,” Hank rhapsodizes) – thus proving his status as a Heroic Prime Mover by solving the world’s crippling chicken-wire shortage.

What I don’t get is, even if Rearden Metal alloy is super-strong, why does that it also make it super-cheap? It’s made of iron and copper, and neither of those things cost “pennies per mile” separately. Possibly Hank’s business acumen extends to the alchemical knowledge of how to create new elements from base materials.

“Dagny,” he said, “whatever we are, it’s we who move the world and it’s we who’ll pull it through.” [p.88]

They are the world-movers – not the people who labor for them, not the people who mine the ore, pour the steel, or lay the tracks. Those people are replaceable at best. No, the real heroes are the brave corporate executives and super-genius one-percenters, who alone know how to give orders and make decisions, and without whom everyone else would be helplessly bewildered and lost.

Once you understand that this is how Rand sees herself, you get a much better understanding of her worldview. And once you understand that this is how Rand’s fans see themselves, you get a much better understanding of their worldview. They really do believe, not just that they have the talent to do well under one particular economic system, but that they’re the sole torchbearers of reason and that civilization would collapse without them.

When you start thinking of yourself in such exalted, nay godlike, terms, I think it’s easier to understand how Rand’s philosophy can be so seemingly cavalier about violence against outsiders. If you believed that your individual existence was a cornerstone for the survival of the human species, wouldn’t you, too, do anything necessary to vanquish the lesser souls who tried to prevent you from achieving your destiny? (It’s a very Nietzschean view, and indeed Rand was a devotee of Nietzsche.)

The fault in this isn’t with the reasoning, but with the premises. If it were true that there were a small number of people on whom everyone‘s survival depended, then we’d be justified in doing anything necessary to stop anyone from interfering with them. But there isn’t such an extreme variance in natural talent, and Objectivists aren’t the superheroes they picture themselves as, however self-flattering that fantasy may be. It follows that there isn’t such an extreme variance in moral worth either.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Motive Power
Atlas Shrugged: Rise of the Machines
Atlas Shrugged: Kinder, Küche, Kirche
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 14
About Adam Lee

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