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:

About Adam Lee

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

  • LouisDoench

    Adam, have you ever read Larry Niven’s “A Gift from Earth”? The story revolves around a similar situation to the one you describe here;

    “. 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.”

    The story is one of a colony world settled by ramjet ships. The crew flew the ship while the colonists slept in stasis. Unfortunately they arrive at mt lookithat to discover that the remote probe that had found their landing site had not realized that the entirety of the habitable surface of the planet was the small plateau at the top of the universes tallest mountain. The crew, realizing that they are now trapped in a tiny space institutes an immediate military dictatorship, crew on top, colonists on the bottom.

    The crew’s outlook is very Objectivist at first. They took the risks of interstellar travel. They control the colonies only power supply to start with, the fusion reactors on the landing ship. They control the body banks that allow replacement of aging and failing organs.

    Fast forward a couple centuries and the Crew have become an aristocracy, with fascist regime level control over the colonists. What may have been earned privilege at first has ossified into unearned privilege passed to ones descendants. And this in a highly technologically savvy populace.

    Aristocracy is an issue that Rand absolutely refuses to deal with in this book. Even when its obvious that Dagny Taggart is a scion of an aristocratic family.

  • Brian Utterback

    Perhaps Reardon metal is so strong and yet malleable that chicken wire can be made from much thinner strands?

  • Loren Petrich

    This issue reminds me of Isaac Asimov in “Best Foot Backward” in “The Planet That Wasn’t”:

    Someone once told him “How pleasant it would be if only we lived a hundred years ago when it was easy to get servants.”
    IA: “It was be horrible”
    That someone: “Why?”
    IA: “We’d be the servants”

    So it is with Ayn Rand’s followers, it seems.

  • Figs

    It seems that Rearden’s business model needs a little thinking through. He’s producing a product that’s basically perfect and will never in the foreseeable future need to be replaced, right? After the initial glut of production subsides and orders slow to a trickle, what’s his plan?

  • busterggi

    “it seems Rand means readers to conclude that threats and violence are permissible against people who don’t share her vision of economic policy.”
    Now we know what Dr. Doom, Magneto, Lex Luthor and a trainload of other comic book villains were inspired by.

  • badgerchild

    No, it will cost a few pennies per mile because once the market is saturated, the bottom will drop out of the price structure.

  • tehsilentone

    Rearden owns it. They can take it back.

  • Science Avenger

    I wonder if that means we’re meant to consider Wyatt’s [and Nat's and Ragnar's] behavior sympathetic or acceptable…it seems Rand means readers to conclude that threats and violence are permissible against people who don’t share her vision of economic policy.

    Almost. It’s permissible (per Rand) against people who’s different vision of economic policy involves using the power of government to initiate force against you. The libertarian definition of “initiate force” is frought with difficulties, but it’s important (assuming you want to have productive discourse with them) that it’s acknowledged as the basis for their view, and that it is not merely due to a difference of opinion.
    As for Dagny’s restrained reaction to Wyatt’s threats, I think it’s intended to illustrate her empathy. She knows she’d be just as pissed if she were in his situation (or what he thinks it is), so she gave him the answers she’d want, as a courtesy to a fellow traveler. It’s also part of the “I know more than you do” meme Rand enjoys employing. We see more of the same later when Rearden dresses down Francisco and the latter’s reaction is complete politeness.

  • Jason Wexler

    Some of those villains have more character development then that, and don’t deserve to be insulted by having their legitimate gripes dismissed so casually as being Randian.

  • smrnda

    I wanted to start off with a few facts about me. First, I actually am an entrepreneur whose a part owner of 2 tech startups. I’m a software engineer who has written *lots and lots* of code. I’m also female and disabled – someone like me *could probably* be a model for a Rand protagonist.

    And yet, I find her writing to be so silly and absurd that I think taking it seriously should be considered a mental illness. Capitalists do scheme, but they don’t do this comic-book theatrical macho-posturing that this Wyatt guy is doing. Nobody could act like that and keep a straight face.

    The other thing is civilization is a collective effort. It works because none of us are irreplaceable, even the most talented of us. If a small number of people were so relevant, the moment they went to sleep something would crash. A complicated system can’t work if it has too many critical points – a complicated system that’s emerged without conscious design can’t be working unless there’s a lot of redundancy and no one component is vital enough that it’s failure will take the system down.

    I mean, the technologies that sustain us are usually ones that we’ve ceased to be amazed by. We won’t be truly dependent on bleeding-edge technologies until they’ve become popular, and by that time, they won’t be bleeding edge. It’s kind of impossible to be person that we can’t imagine civilization without unless you’ve been dead for a while…

    The other thing is that any great innovation would have probably been produced by someone else if its creator hadn’t lived, just perhaps longer in coming. A few people, like Alan Turing, end up being incredibly relevant just since his technological advancements came at a critical time in history, but that’s incredibly rare. Other people had similar ideas for building computers, just he happened to pull it off, partly since it was important to the war effort.

    I have met few Objectivists in real life, it’s typically just run of the mill technocrats or management types who imagine that they’re 10 times more valuable than the peons below them. The problem is, most of them aren’t really that much more talented than usual, they just want an ideology that tells them they’re worth more than others. Most genuinely talented people I’ve encountered know enough to know that the fate of civilization can’t possibly rest on the shoulders of too few people.

  • Boudica

    I initially read Magneto as Mr. Magoo…..

  • Loren Petrich

    I may have posted on this earlier, but this seems like a convergence of Randism and Marxism. Marxism states that there is a working class, and also an exploiting class that lives off of the labors of the working class. Randism also posits a working class and an exploiting class, but with different identifications of the members of those classes. One can recognize members of the exploiting class in Ayn Rand’s writings; she called them “looters”.

  • Adam Lee

    Yes, this is true as long as you remember that “initiate force” is a term of art in libertarian circles. For instance, Rand considers a democratically elected government passing an income-tax law to be an initiation of force.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    That’s when you start selling Rearden Chicken — strong, self-sufficient uberfowl that produce ten times the weight of their feed in eggs every single day. (The rest of the mass is generated through sheer force of will.) Of course, with their mighty, gorgeous angularly-planed beaks, Rearden Chickens can’t be contained even with Rearden Chicken Wire, so everyone needs to upgrade to Rearden Chicken Wire 2.0. Then come Rearden Chickens 2.0, who eat air, crap buffalo wings, and kill second-handers with their minds, and they can teleport right through fences, so you need Rearden Chicken Teleportation Blockers, and so on.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    If anything, her view of wealth seems to be rather Scrooge McDuckian–he made his entire fortune by pulling gold out of the ground, fighting mummies, etc, with very few people helping him. Of course Scoorge cared about his family, even that looter Donald, so it’s not a perfect parallel.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    The other thing is that any great innovation would have probably been produced by someone else if its creator hadn’t lived, just perhaps longer in coming.

    Or maybe not even longer really. Also, we might have had greater innovations had it not been for the people that are now household names getting theirs out before the public first, thus making something that’s actually better seem redundant.

  • Alex Harman

    I don’t think Rand could ever have written a disabled protagonist, any more than she would have written a physically unattractive one; I know of at least one speech as well as a passage in The Fountainhead where she expressed an absolutely pathological loathing of people with disabilities.

  • smrnda

    Her views on people with disabilities aren’t that far from just demanding that the disabled be exterminated. The only difference is she’d encourage the loathing of such people combined with the eradication of any system meant to assist them. It’s just using a ghetto instead of a concentration camp as the tool to destroy a group of people.

    It’s also a severe misunderstanding of ability/disability. I mean, what about someone like me? I’m legally blind, but with some degree of assistance and accommodation I’m able to work.

    All said, the ‘defenses’ or Rand on those threads were disgusting. “Rand doesn’t hate the mentally handicapped! She just hates them being elevated above the super-producers!” Like anybody actually did that?

  • Jeff

    Isn’t the Marxist view you’re talking about here actually his observance of a capitalist system?

  • Science Avenger

    “Rand doesn’t hate the mentally handicapped! She just hates them being elevated above the super-producers!” Like anybody actually did that?

    That could very well refer to things like school programs that place a class for the disadvantaged higher on the priority list than one for the gifted-and-talented.

  • Science Avenger

    I’d call it loaded rather than a term of art, because it is fairly clear in many cases what it means as long as one makes the same initial implicit (and sometimes difficult to defend) assumptions. For example, if striking workers are locked out of a business by the CEO, and those workers block the path of scabs hired by the CEO, both would seem to be initiating force by any objective reckoning. But to Rand, the CEO’s behavior doesn’t qualify because he’s rightfully in charge of the business, wheras the striking workers are not. She implicitly assigns a sort of righteousness to the current state of affairs, as well as an almost “possession is 9/10ths of the law” attitude.

  • Science Avenger

    I have met few Objectivists in real life, it’s typically just run of the mill technocrats or management types who imagine that they’re 10 times more valuable than the peons below them. The problem is, most of them aren’t really that much more talented than usual, they just want an ideology that tells them they’re worth more than others.

    There is also the variety that is more talented than others, and who for a variety of reasons may have had to “go it alone” a lot in life, resulting in an attitude that places too much emphasis on the self and not enough on cultural elements that still helped them along the way. This was more-or-less my experience as a child who moved every year or two early in life. When one is perpetually cut off and excluded from social support systems, and succeeds anyway, its easy to rationalize that those systems exist only to help along those too inferior to go it alone.

  • smrnda

    I had a similar childhood, but I’m obviously where I am because my parents are privileged college professors. I know what I know the same way I know English, so whatever I did in life is really totally unremarkable.

  • smrnda

    In that case, she reminds me of snotty white people I encountered when I lived near Chicago. They wanted *all* the resources devoted to their ‘gifted and talented’ kids, and they took offense at the mention of any other group of kids with any other issues (like say, free food in school for poor kids.) The problem with these people is they’re not acknowledging that they are already sucking up more resources than anyone else.

  • Science Avenger

    Let’s put aside snotty rich people with an overdeveloped sense of their own kids’ value, I think we can all agree where they need to shove their attitudes. The situation I was thinking of was the two 150+ IQ kids in the small country junior high school who were relegated to a corner of the class attempting to educate themselves from a high school text because the teacher didn’t know what else to do with them. Meanwhile, the school’s program for the, shall we say, “academically underdeveloped” kids, was running strong.
    I don’t mean to imply this was typical, it certainly was not, and one can also argue that $1 invested into a handicapped child, especially with one of your obvious talents, would benefit society far more than $1 invested in someone like I was. But I don’t think her “elevated above” comment can be treated like an absurdity that never happened. It certainly did.
    Of course, in this analysis I am generously making assumptions about what Rand meant, and in the end, her writings clearly indicate she would still put “investment into handicapped programs” in the “if you want to do so, no one will stop you” bin, (along with public schools in general), so on that we agree that her position was unreasonable.

  • smrnda

    I actually wasn’t disabled at that point, but the fact that it eventually happened to me is what made me think about the issue more and more. Plus, having extremely bad eyesight is at least a fairly easy to accommodate disability. I also did not attend school until fairly late, so I didn’t spend that much time in school.

    On your own experience, that’s kind of a travesty. It’s one thing to balance different students with different needs, and its another to abdicate all responsibility for educating anyone. With stuff like that going on, it seems ridiculous to even demand kids go to school when the school isn’t teaching them. I’m also suspecting that small, rural areas don’t quite have the resources to provide more enriching programs. I mean, when I was in high school I just took a bus to the community college for most of the day, but this is in an urban area where there’s probably always a community college a bus ride away.

  • Loren Petrich

    Yes, that’s Karl Marx’s view of capitalism and other non-socialist systems.

  • Alex Harman

    Hence the famous line from Whittaker Chambers’ scathing review of Rand’s magnum opus: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber — go!’”

  • Lagerbaer

    You probably find her writing silly because, in contrast to her, you actually run a business and achieve things.