Atlas Shrugged: The Code of Competence


Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter V

One thing about Atlas Shrugged that’s very handy for a review like this is that there’s never any ambiguity about which characters embody the author’s views. Her characters are all black-and-white, either fully consistent capitalists who are always right or fully consistent looters who are always wrong. That means that when Francisco, or Dagny, or Hank Rearden makes some bold proclamation, we can be certain that Ayn Rand is speaking through them.

And we can use that, in turn, to glean something truly horrifying about how Rand sees the world. Witness these lines from today’s scene, wherein Dagny is still recalling her college days with Francisco:

It was days later, when they were alone, walking through the woods on the shore of the river, that she asked:
“Francisco, what’s the most depraved type of human being?”
“The man without a purpose.” [p.98]

Really? Because I’d have said the most depraved type of human being is the one who deliberately inflicts harm on the innocent: the murderer, the rapist, the war criminal. Compared to those monsters, I’d gladly choose someone who has no purpose, who aimlessly drifts through life without any real long-term goal other than getting by. But Rand seems to be saying that this type of person is morally worse than one who actively makes it his purpose to cause havoc and destruction, and who pursues that goal with vigor and dedication.

OK, maybe I’m reading too much into one sentence. I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill here. I mean, it’s important to be fair to Rand. Is it possible that she wrote that dialogue without fully realizing the implications?

Nope. In the next passage, she not only restates that point emphatically, she drives it in with a sledgehammer:

“Dagny, there’s nothing of any importance in life – except how well you do your work. Nothing. Only that. Whatever else you are, will come from that. It’s the only measure of human value. All the codes of ethics they’ll try to ram down your throat are just so much paper money put out by swindlers to fleece people of their virtues. The code of competence is the only system of morality that’s on a gold standard.” [p.98, emphasis added]

Francisco’s “code of competence” gives you some idea of who, in Rand’s eyes, are the heroes and who are the villains. I already wrote about the tobacco companies that did their utmost to conceal proof of smoking’s danger from the public. Presumably, according to this view, what matters isn’t whether the cigarette companies tried to cover up the danger, but only whether they succeeded at it and thus safeguarded their profits.

But why stop there? I can think of lots of other companies that are ripe for judging by Francisco’s code of competence. Let’s look at a few, shall we?

The fast-food and processed-food companies are big winners in the game of capitalism. They’ve grown their market and boosted their profits by doing what heretofore seemed unthinkable: persuading Americans, over a period of decades, to sharply increase the amount of calories we consume on a daily basis, well beyond what’s necessary for survival, by discovering and exploiting the human brain’s addictive weakness for fat, sugar and salt. Sure, the other side of this equation is skyrocketing rates of obesity, childhood diabetes, and heart disease, to the point where average life expectancy is actually falling in some places for the first time in two centuries. But who cares about that? The job of those food-company marketers is to get people to eat more, and they’re clearly very good at it!

And how about gun manufacturers? The heads of these companies must be very valuable human beings – after all, they’ve time and again beaten back laws that would have reduced their profits by, say, restricting the sale of military-style assault weapons to convicted felons, people on terrorist watch lists, or the mentally ill. In Ayn Rand’s world, that’s exactly what marks out the brave heroes of capitalism: they’re bravely and heroically resisting efforts by evil government bureaucrats to impose laws that would prevent them from running their businesses as they see fit.

The lesson here ought to be that competence matters, but only competence directed toward good ends. Being competent at evil makes you worse, not better. I would have thought this too obvious to need defending, but, incredibly, Rand seems to deny it.

An example of being highly competent at evil. Credit: xkcd, released under CC BY-NC 2.5 license

Unfortunately, like it or not, our economy is organized at least in part along the lines of Francisco’s philosophy. The only legal responsibility of a publicly traded corporation is to deliver a profit to its shareholders, regardless of what harms or costs it imposes on anyone else. In fact, a company can be sued for doing anything else.

If there’s any reason for hope, it’s that many states now support a new form of incorporation: the B-corp, which has a dual mission of delivering profits while also pursuing the common good (something I mused about in my 2009 post “Benevolent Business“). A B-corp is run to make a profit like any other business, but can also choose not to make a decision that would deliver short-term profit if doing so would, say, sicken or kill people or allow guns to pass into the hands of criminals. It allows a broader perspective than the next quarterly filing to be taken into account.

There are now hundreds of B-corps: for example, Ben & Jerry’s is one. It’s going to take a lot more than ice cream to change the world, of course, but any legal recognition that corporations can and should be good public citizens is a great improvement over Rand’s pinched and callous worldview and a positive first step.

Other posts in this series:

Weekend Coffee: February 22
Book Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Atlas Shrugged: Sixteen Tons
I Get Religious Mail: If Wishes Were Airplanes
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.

  • Michael

    Traditional corporations still have a duty to follow the law in addition to delivering profit for their shareholders, however much they may seem to act otherwise.

  • Andrew T.

    Ben & Jerry’s might claim to be a “B-corp,” but the enormous corporation they are a subsidiary of (Unilever) most definitely is not.

  • Eric Riley

    Thank you – I have long heard that ” The only legal responsibility of a publicly traded corporation is to deliver a profit to its shareholders…”, but never with any citation of law or court decision to go along with it. Although – even here, this is a court decision about fiduciary responsibility and does not seem to imply that delivering a profit to shareholders is the *only* responsibility, but rather a major responsibility among many.
    That said – if enough people believe it is true, then in the world of law, it must be so.

  • Alex SL

    I guess the point is that there is a lot of damage that one can do while still following the law. All the more if you have your lobbyists write the laws for you in the first place…

  • jayemel

    You’re dropping a lot of context here by building off of the premise that the characters are black-and-white, when they’re not.

    Francisco is the one saying the most depraved type of human being is the man without a purpose, not Rand. Francisco is one character created to demonstrate a certain archetype–the brilliant and passionate business mogul who is forced to use his passion to sabotage his company’s future. Of course he is going to say productivity is the ultimate ideal–for him it is (because harming other people would never ever enter his mind).

    Also, I have to ask, is destruction (of any kind, including human life, a purpose or an anti-purpose). Technically, by its definition it could be called a purpose, as it is an objective or goal a person is striving for, but can you strive toward a negative? Destruction is the negation of a value, not the achievement of it, so it is the path toward nothing. Can (general) you be said to have a purpose when you are striving toward nothing?

    I don’t have the answer to this complex linguistic, philosophical, and psychological question about the concept of “purpose,” so my point is simply that to look at one statement by one character in one scene and extrapolate the meaning of the book and the author’s philosophy is poor literary analysis.

  • ZMiles

    As to whether or not Rand preferred the unrepetant murderer, kidnapper, and all-around criminal to the loafer and idler — yes, without a question. She was particularly fond of William Hickman, as Michael Prescott analyzed (

    Hickman infamously abducted a young girl, demanded $1500 in ransom, received it, and then revealed that she’d been dead all along, and badly mutilated as well. He later revealed he’d been behind several armed robberies and killings.

    Rand’s opinion on Hickman:

    “And when we look at the other side of it — there is a brilliant, unusual, exceptional boy turned into a purposeless monster. By whom? By what? Is it not by that very society that is now yelling so virtuously in its role of innocent victim? He had a brilliant mind, a romantic, adventurous, impatient soul and a straight, uncompromising, proud character. What had society to offer him? A wretched, insane family as the ideal home, a Y.M.C.A. club as social honor, and a bank-page job as ambition and career…

    “If [Hickman] had any desires and ambitions — what was the way before him? A long, slow, soul-eating, heart-wrecking toil and struggle; the degrading, ignoble road of silent pain and loud compromises….

    “A strong man can eventually trample society under his feet. That boy was not strong enough. But is that his crime? Is it his crime that he was too impatient, fiery and proud to go that slow way? That he was not able to serve, when he felt worthy to rule; to obey, when he wanted to command?…

    “He was given [nothing with which] to fill his life. What was he offered to fill his soul? The petty, narrow, inconsistent, hypocritical ideology of present-day humanity. All the criminal, ludicrous, tragic nonsense of Christianity and its morals, virtues, and consequences. Is it any wonder that he didn’t accept it?”

    So, basically, she saw Hickman as a tragic heroic genius who found no place in a society that hates genius and glorifies mediocrity. And thus Howard Roark, John Galt, Dagny Taggart, and all the others were born.

  • smrnda

    Anybody who can’t conceive of a purpose to life outside of work has to have zero imagination and no ability to have fun.

    Anybody who wants to say that there’s One And Only One Real Purpose In Life is an obnoxious know-it-all blowhard who should be told to take their opinions and insert them up their posterior. Life is about too many things for you to be able to reduce it to one ‘purpose.’ Anybody who says work is the purpose is just trying to screw you out of a vacation. Outside of a tiny % of privileged people, most ‘work’ is just routine stuff that shouldn’t dominate anybody’s life. If my life is dominated by writing code, that’s okay but the people waiting tables are entitled to a life outside of it.

    When ‘work is your purpose’ it’s just saying ‘your purpose in life is to be a slave to your boss’ ambitions’ for most people.

    People have some entitlement to choose their own purposes, the rules that should govern our society should be built to accommodate as many chosen purposes as possible.

    In related news, I’ve never met a Rand fan who was anything but a terrible bore at parties. They’re all just haters – they have to show contempt for everyone and everything to boost their fragile little egos.

  • smrnda

    Is Rand admitting that society offered no options to someone so they resorted to crime? Is she suggesting that if Hickman had been able to become a CEO he wouldn’t have been a killer?

    One can see a criminal as a person who became a criminal for lack of other options, but rarely are criminals praised in this fashion. Would Rand then have to acknowledge that capitalism creates crime because not everybody can be in the 1%? It’s people like her that create a world where desperate people have no options, feel they have no stake in society, and act out violently.

  • Science Avenger

    …t Rand seems to be saying that [someone who has no purpose] is morally worse than one who actively makes it his purpose to cause havoc and destruction, and who pursues that goal with vigor and dedication.

    OK, maybe I’m reading too much into one sentence

    Yes you are. This is a trap Objectivist critics sadly fall into all too often, a sort of self-imposed obtuseness to what Rand is saying in order to go for the “Damn, this is crazy shit” easy shoot.. I give you major props, you’ve lasted longer without doing this than any critic I can recall.

    But no, Rand didn’t promote anything remotely like that. You’ll notice she has no love for Orren Boyle, despite his apparent success. To her, “success” as many of us might measure it was a mirage if it wasn’t obtained “rationally”, a concept that she was never able to fully flesh out. Real success was obtained the way her heroes acted.

    The problem with Rand’s view of success wasn’t that it allowed for anything. It was that the arguments she made to keep it from doing so weren’t up to the task. It’s similar to how all her heroes like Richard Halley’s music. She couldn’t conceive of a Dexter, someone coming, via completely rational means as the dictionary defines the term, to a chosen lifestyle that she’d definitely describe as anti-man and anti-life.

  • Science Avenger

    I don’t see how you can take that from what she wrote, which with small edits could be any of a dozen articles I’ve read explaining the effects that living in poverty and crime-ridden areas can have on an otherwise brilliant person. She does call him a purposeless monster after all, hardly heroic. Martyr maybe, but even that seems a stretch.

  • Science Avenger

    Although I will agree that Rand preferred the criminal to the loafer, inasmuch as it is better to have taken the most basic step in responsibility for one’s life by choosing a path, albeit a wrong one, then to abdicate that responsibility. And I think its pretty clear from her writings that the reason she thinks that is because she sees a person with no purpose to be easy prey for someone evil who will happily give them one. When she starts talking about blanking out, this is what she is getting at.

  • Science Avenger

    It’s not being in the 1% that she’s after, but being free to create and keep the results. ***spoiler alert*** This is what she goes on about when Dagny visits the Valley, and laments how little many there are producing compared to what they did on the “outside”. “But here it is all ours” is the response.***

    She believed that it was moral too fight, with violence, against a society that (here we go with that magic phrase again) initiates violence against you. That’s what Ragner Danneskjold’s character is all about, and its explicitly stated.

    Again, its the premises that get Rand in trouble (the idea that collectivist taxes are an attack) not the general principle (its OK to defend yourself).

  • Science Avenger

    You went to the wrong parties. ;) Ours were anything but dull, even if they did have way more than an optimal amount of intense argumentation. But one could easily argue that as we did so, we were acting outside our Randian personas. She certainly never struck me as anything but a terrible bore socially.

  • Science Avenger

    what’s the most depraved type of human being?

    See, at my Objectivist parties, the answer anyone would get asking this would be “people who ask stupid fucking questions”.

  • J_Enigma32

    Huh. Her idolization of William Edward Hickman suggests that Adam isn’t reading too far at all.

    Here’s a real man, she says, not necessarily a man with a purpose but a man who displays the psychology of a real man.

    The psychology of a real man is, for those not willing to click the link, a child murderer, who dismembered the body of a little 11 year old girl. Yes, Rand was a character, wasn’t she?

  • smrnda

    The problem is that a society’s ruling class got where it is from violence in the past and because society is set up to protect their interests with violence. The stupidest place in the world for a person to argue that ‘it’s wrong to use aggressive violence to take other people’s things and kill people you don’t like’ is the US, since the whole nation was founded by white people who used violence to take what they wanted, and who then decided to go on about the sacredness of private property.

    Of course, we already know Rand has a convenient justification for killing natives unprovoked…

  • smrnda

    Just my take:

    People who want some Well Defined Purpose are going to be generally worse morally since they need to be Big And Important and to be Heroes In Some Grand Narrative. People who don’t care, who just want to say, kick back and enjoy a beer after work and watch some TV might not be very good, but they’d at least avoid being terribly bad. The easiest way to manipulate people is to feed them some Huge Purpose they can be a part of – that’s the trick religion, totalitarian regimes, and terrorist groups pull. They find people who need some Big Purpose and tell them to pick up a gun and be part of something Big, not just an Ordinary Person kicking back after work in the pub.

  • James_Jarvis

    Fundamentalism of any strip be it religious or philosophical leads to the to same place. If you believe you have found the one true answer to life’s questions you are definitely asking the wrong questions. The great flaw in Rand’s thinking is that humans are capable of totally rational behaviour.

  • Michael

    How true.

  • Jason Wexler

    This is not a particularly relevant comment but I thought many people here may find this as amusing as I did.

    I was scrolling through Netflix looking for something to watch and I noticed that Atlas Shrugged was filed under Fantasy Films. I think the only more appropriate category would have been Horror.

  • Brian Utterback

    In addition, the Dodge decision doesn’t say that harms and costs to others are not important. The point with Dodge is that the shareholders bought their stock in one kind of company and Ford tried to change it into another type of company unilaterally. And to make matters worse, Ford was acting specifically to reduce shareholder profits.

  • J-D

    If ‘how well you do your work’ is ‘the only measure of human value’, then the only measure of the human value of official government torturers, or of private-sector free-enterprise contract killers, is how well they do their work.

    And if that’s not what Rand meant, and if she were a good writer and the book a good book, then some character would have made this suggestion so that it could be argued against.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    As a writer myself, I’m not satisfied with the premise that the characters are necessarily mouthing her views. I put words in the mouths of my characters which have nothing to do with my own views.

  • Snoof

    When you write a character who says something you personally disagree with, do you let it stand, or do you challenge it? J K Rowling wrote the line “There is no good and evil: there is only power, and those to weak to seek it.” but over the course of the book, she attacked that idea, both with dialogue from other characters and from the structure of the narrative itself.

    If we want to see whether Francisco’s line represent Rand’s views, we should look at what else she wrote. Do other characters call him out? Does the narrative prove him wrong? Does he change his opinion due to experience or other character development?

  • Science Avenger

    Absolutely. To Rand, any “savage” who is merely occupying land instead of exploiting it, and who doesn’t recignize human rights, doesn’t have legitimate ownership rights to it.
    I’m reminded of a priceless piece by Larry Wilmore on the Daily Show where, in response to a Teapartier whining about wanting “her America back”, responded: “She wants *her* America back? Please…go tell that to the Indians. Nobody gives America back. You keep it until someone takes it from you.”
    It’s an unspoken assumption among Objectivists/libertarians that the past is either irrelevant or outside the scope of government to do anything about, thus we should just start doing things correctly now, with everyone starting with whatever they already possess. A fine proposal if you won the birth lottery and are on the historically winning side, otherwise, not so much.

  • Science Avenger

    From the “Tao of Steve”:
    “Accomplishing things is overrated. Hitler accomplished a lot. But wouldn’t we all be better off if he had just sat around getting stoned?”

  • Science Avenger

    It’s not. Rand had an annoying habit of defining words idiosyncratically. She would dismiss the counter examples you gave as being “anti-work”, because work is production of a value, not the negation of one. It’d be interesting to see how she’d have dealt with Ingersoll’s comment that “a destroyer of weeds, thickets and thorns is a benefactor to mankind whether he soweth grain or not”.

  • Science Avenger

    Rand definitely believed personally what Francisco said, she goes on about that at length in many other books. Howard Roark in The Fountainhead also makes many comments to the same effect. Without productive work, we are all mere moochers.

  • Adam Lee

    Certainly, most authors write sympathetic characters who hold viewpoints they don’t personally share. Ayn Rand is not one of those authors.

  • Adam Lee

    I wouldn’t have come down so hard on this point if Rand herself didn’t spend so much time emphasizing it. I agree that the philosophy Francisco espouses here seems strange compared to the totality of her work – I would have thought that she’d treat the looters, the people who want to subsist on the productivity as others, as the worst kind of human being. But if we go by the argument given here, we’d have to conclude that even that purpose is better than none at all.

    Anyway, even if we set that point aside, there’s still the problem of what happens when a person engages in a heroically capitalist private-sector job that causes harm to others as a byproduct: like a factory that pumps pollution over its neighbor’s yard. As far as I’m aware, Rand never really did address the problem of externalities.

  • Science Avenger

    I think Rand would say something like this: man needs purposeful behavior to live, since we lack instincts or photosynthetic cells that would automatically provide for our needs. Thus, anyone living without purpose is by definition living as a moocher or looter, and anyone living with the purpose of mooching off others is not living as a man.
    Externalities? They don’t exist, don’t you read any libertarian literature? ;) I can only recall one instance where Rand addressed this issue, and comically it was to address positive externalities. She called them a “bonus”. As for the negative ones, remember that Rand defines good and bad in terms of her free market vision, so anything that results from that can only be called “bad” via subjective value judgements, thus making it a personal problem for those opposed to factory-polluted yards.
    ***Spoiler Alert*** It is one of the great dodges of the book when she claims that the judge in Galt’s Gulch never had to resolve a dispute. Here she had a great opportunity to illustrate the superior way of living that would spring from her philosophy, and instead of giving us even one example (say a dispute over who’s land ended where, or who gets to use the lake when, and for what purpose), she just pretends that somehow, rational people will agree on everything. Talk about blanking out.***
    I am most anxious for you to get to that section of the book (as well as Ragnar’s Robin Hood speech), but at the rate you’re going (no fault of yours) it looks like I’ll have to wait years.

  • J-D

    Maybe she would say that only the production of value defines work and only the performance of work defines value. I don’t know. But I know that if she did say that the circularity would make her position fatuous.

  • Adam Lee

    Hmm. You may well be right about that, although it’s amazingly circular, even by Rand’s standard, to insist that by definition the only thing that can possibly count as “purpose” is the purpose of following Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

    I’ll get to Galt’s Gulch, yes. Even if it takes me a few years to do it! Heck, Fred Clark has been running his Left Behind reviews for more than a decade at this point, and I doubt this will take me anywhere near as long.

  • Science Avenger

    Amazingly circular? Oh not at all. Aside from Rand’s penchant for circularity, it’s a great tradition among philosophers to declare that philosophy is the highest calling (going back to Socrates if not earlier), and to solipsistically accuse their critics of using philosophy in attempting to refute them. Rand’s playing the same game, just not as well.
    Remember, the goal of Objectivism (and a noble one IMO) is to derive, from nonarbitrary premises and logic, a moral system for humans, by which to live their life. This is the appeal it has to many – finally a moral system not dependent on whim or religion or tradition. Well if one succeeds at this, there can be no other proper way to conduct one’s life.

  • Science Avenger

    For her, when one speaks of “value” the questions are “to whom? For what?”. Value is defined by man’s goals, and productive work is the means to that end.
    One of the big holes in her philosophy was the problem of how one chooses among the many goals available after one eliminates those that could be called “anti-life”. Should one be a plumber or an electrician? Should I jog today or lift weights? Once she jettisoned emotional preferences from the picture, it left her no way out of what Star Trek fans might recognzie as “the Vulcan problem”. Logic alone is a poor fountainhead for action.

  • David Simon

    Hm, my answer would’ve been more along the lines of “people who give pointlessly nasty, snarky responses to potentially interesting philosophical questions”.

  • J-D

    If work is the means to an end of value defined by man’s (or, I presume you also mean, woman’s) goals, then the goals of official government torturers and private-sector free-enterprise contract killers (and they do have goals) can define values which are the ends to which their work is a means. Logic alone is insufficient, as you correctly observe, to exclude their goals and the values which might arise from them. As David Hume observed, ‘reason is, and ought to be, only the slave of the passions’.

  • Science Avenger

    Point taken. That was my clumsy attempt to illustrate that Objectivists (say sitting around the poker table swilling some brew)aren’t necessarily the bores that Rand and most of her characters seem to be.

  • David Simon

    Can (general) you be said to have a purpose when you are striving toward nothing? I don’t have the answer to this complex linguistic, philosophical, and psychological question about the concept of “purpose,” [...]

    The word “purpose” is like most words in that its meaning is fuzzy and context-dependent. Philosophy gets a bad name when people use it to pretend that colloquial words are precision mathematical instruments, or that values like “destructiveness” are objectively measureable.

  • Bdole

    When I was a kid I wrote out some points for myself to live by. One of them was that a person should always do what they do best and to the best of their abilities and keep at it, getting better and better. I had the presence of mind to actually stipulate, and I quote, “with the usual exceptions of course” by which I meant criminal activity, or just general “douchebaggery” – though that word was not in existence at the time.
    So, an actual writer really has no excuse.

  • Don Sakers

    In Rand’s world, the Competent People like Francisco, Dagny, and Galt would never do anything evil. By definition. Since they’re the Good Guys, nothing they do can be evil.