Atlas Shrugged: Trust-Busting

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter VI

As Hank finishes dressing and goes downstairs to the party he’s dreading (which is being thrown, remember, to celebrate his wedding anniversary), his mind is elsewhere. He’s dwelling on a newspaper editorial he read earlier, about a proposed “Equalization of Opportunity” bill:

The editorial said that at a time of dwindling production, shrinking markets and vanishing opportunities to make a living, it was unfair to let one man hoard several business enterprises, while others had none; it was destructive to let a few corner all the resources, leaving others no chance… The editorial predicted the passage of a bill which had been proposed, a bill forbidding any person or corporation to own more than one business concern. [p.125]

He doesn’t believe the bill will pass. He’s “incapable of believing” that something he considers so obviously preposterous could ever happen, and Wesley Mouch has assured him it will be defeated. But when he gets downstairs, he finds that everyone at the party is discussing it. To his shock, his wife’s guest list is a veritable rogues’ gallery of Atlas bad guys, whom Rand refers to as “intellectuals of the looter persuasion” [p.143].

First, there’s Dr. Simon Pritchett, who’s recently become head of the philosophy department at Patrick Henry University. He’s a philosopher who doesn’t believe in logic, reason, or meaning:

“Reason, my dear fellow, is the most naive of all superstitions. That, at least, has been generally conceded in our age.” [p.127]

There’s also a writer named Balph (yes, Balph) Eubank, who proposes that there should be a law limiting the total print run of any book to ten thousand copies. It’s implied that he says this because that’s approximately how popular his own books are:

A very young girl in a white evening gown asked timidly, “What is the real essence of life, Mr. Eubank?”
“Suffering,” said Balph Eubank. “Defeat and suffering.” [p.128]

Just to drive home the point that Ayn Rand’s villains are all clones with identical worldviews and no distinct personalities, she even has them echo each other’s dialogue:

“Plot is a primitive vulgarity in literature,” said Balph Eubank contemptuously.
Dr. Pritchett, on his way across the room to the bar, stopped to say, “Quite so. Just as logic is a primitive vulgarity in philosophy.”
“Just as melody is a primitive vulgarity in music,” said Mort Liddy. [p.129]

But the biggest villain present is a journalist named Bertram Scudder. Like all Atlas villains, you can tell he’s a bad guy from the moment you meet him because he’s ugly:

Bertram Scudder stood slouched against the bar. His long, thin face looked as if it had shrunk inward, with the exception of his mouth and eyeballs, which were left to protrude as three soft globes. He was the editor of a magazine called The Future and he had written an article on Hank Rearden, entitled “The Octopus.” [p.129]

Rearden thinks of that article as “not an expression of ideas, but a bucket of slime emptied in public… a stream of sneers”. When he realizes that his wife invited Scudder, he’s furious with her:

“It’s the first time you’ve invited that…” he used an obscene word with unemotional precision, “to my house. It’s the last.”
“How dare you use such -”
“Don’t argue, Lillian. If you do, I’ll throw him out right now.” [p.134]

OK, time out. Yes, Hank is upset because Lillian invited so many ugly, soft-faced looters to his house. And yes, the text implies that this is due to inexplicable malice on her part. But really, what would you expect? Hank refused to play any part in organizing this party. We were just told that he’s kept her at arm’s length throughout their marriage, that he takes no interest in her life and won’t tell her about his. Is it any wonder that he doesn’t like the party she planned? Or, to put it in terms Rand would understand: If you hire someone and then refuse to tell them anything about their role or what their duties are supposed to be, would you be surprised or blame them if they don’t do a good job?

We’re not told what the thesis of Bertram Scudder’s criticism was, but the title of his article is obviously reminiscent of the famous political cartoon of Standard Oil as an octopus, its tentacles curling around government and industry. (Personally, I always imagine him as Matt Taibbi, who even more vividly compared Goldman Sachs to “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity” – and who I like to think would be flattered by the comparison.) And if that’s the case, then the Equalization of Opportunity Bill is probably Rand’s version of the Sherman Act, the antitrust law that was used to break up the Standard Oil monopoly.

Rand’s view, of course, is that any law which prevents people or companies from consolidating too much power can only be the brainchild of evil looters who hate success. In fact, the legal theory of antitrust is based on a pro-capitalism rationale: it’s better for consumers if there’s competition, which keeps prices low and encourages innovation and good quality. Without competition, a monopoly has a much easier time abusing or manipulating the market: for example, by buying up a natural resource or a crucial piece of infrastructure to prevent others from using it, or blackmailing other companies they work with into shutting out competitors.

And, let’s not forget, a single ultra-wealthy monopoly has much greater power to buy and sell politicians who will do its bidding, dictating the passage of laws which are favorable to it and harmful to potential competitors. This could take the form of burdensome regulations which serve as artificial barriers restricting entry into the market, or even using violence to frighten off potential competitors and then bribing governments to look the other way. That’s not a danger Rand would ever imagine, since in her worldview all evil starts and ends with the government, and giant corporations are purely innocent entities that can do no wrong. In the real world, it’s not hard to see why unchecked corporations can pose just as much of a threat to liberty as unchecked governments.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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