Atlas Shrugged: Job Satisfaction

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter VIII

The day has finally come for the maiden voyage of the John Galt Line, and Dagny and Hank are on the platform in Cheyenne, beaming with pride, amidst a scrum of reporters and spectators. The one person who isn’t there is James Taggart, even though he wanted to come, because Dagny forbade it: “If you come, Jim… I’ll have you thrown out of your own Taggart station. This is one event you’re not going to see.” [p.222]

Jim is Dagny’s boss and the head of the company, so it’s not clear how she manages to make this stick or why he doesn’t punish her for this blatant act of insubordination. (OK, according to the legal fiction that the John Galt Line is a separate company owned by Dagny, she may still technically own the track. But the station is Taggart property, as Dagny says herself.) As always, when Rand’s heroes really want something, they can get it through pure willpower, even when that makes no sense.

As she started up the rungs on the side of the engine, a reporter thought of a question he had not asked.

“Miss Taggart,” he called after her, “who is John Galt?”

She turned, hanging onto a metal bar with one hand, suspended for an instant above the heads of the crowd.

We are!” she answered. [p.224]

What follows is a long, triumphant descriptive sequence, spanning several pages, of the train racing through towns, around mountainsides, and across the bridge, while all the time Dagny and Hank exult at their success and contemplate how awesome capitalism is. Here’s a small excerpt:

She had been aware for some time of the human figures that flashed with an odd regularity at the side of the track… She had had the track guarded since completion, but she had not hired the human chain she saw strung out along the right-of-way. A solitary figure stood at every mile post. Some were young schoolboys, others were so old that the silhouettes of their bodies looked bent against the sky… They were the sons of Taggart employees, and old railroad men who had retired after a full lifetime of Taggart service. They had come, unsummoned, to guard this train. [p.227]

This passage raises a few questions: Does Taggart really have that many “old railroad men”? Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to lay off employees when they start to age, and replace them with younger ones who’ll work harder for less? Also, for the ones who do last, what’s their retirement plan? Do they get pensions? It seems improbable that a Randian hero would approve of such a plan. (You can just hear Dagny’s incredulous tones: “They expect to still get paid when they’re too old to work?”)

Following its far-too-fast-to-be-safe journey, the train rolls into Wyatt Junction to a hero’s welcome:

[Dagny] was halfway down when she felt the palms of a man’s hands slam tight against her ribs and waistline, she was torn off the steps, swung through the air and deposited on the ground. She could not believe that the young boy laughing in her face was Ellis Wyatt. The tense, scornful face she remembered, now had the purity, the eagerness, the joyous benevolence of a child in the kind of world for which he had been intended. [p.232]

At this point, I have to highlight something that doesn’t seem to have occurred to the author. This idea of Rand’s that achievement is its own highest reward, that everyone should enjoy their job for its own sake and take joy and pride in doing it… that idea is very, well, communist.

Look, it’s a great thing to have a job you genuinely enjoy, and some people do. There are a lucky few who get up each morning and can’t wait to go in to the office. But work is often boring, stressful, taxing, or otherwise unpleasant. That’s why they pay you for it, after all. But in Rand’s view, the money is almost beside the point; all good capitalists love their jobs, and the only reason anyone might not like their job is because they’re one of the evil socialists who hate all accomplishment.

Ironically, by erasing this distinction, Rand elides one of the clearest differences between capitalism and communism. If there’s one area in which capitalism is clearly superior to communism, it’s that capitalism has a clear answer to the question of how we motivate people to do jobs that are unappealing but necessary. The theory of a communist utopia, by contrast, is that serving the state is its own reward, that everyone will be motivated to succeed at their jobs by a selfless desire to work for the benefit of one’s fellow citizens, and that the praise and adulation of others should be all the compensation anyone needs.

You can draw your own conclusions about how likely it is that this would work in reality. But with a few minor alterations (like substituting “corporation” for “state”), this could be Rand’s view as well. It just goes to show, again, that extreme views on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum have a strange tendency to loop back around and meet each other.

So much for the train ride. Now, for a little levity, let’s read this classic column by conservative writer George Will about why liberals love trains. It turns out that it’s because we’re all villains from Atlas Shrugged:

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

…the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

You see, when you ride the railroads, you have to travel when and where the people who set the schedule want you to travel, which is just Step One in our evil scheme of reducing people to sheeplike conformity! (Insert villainous, mustache-twirling laugh here.) It would doubtless have come as a great shock to Ayn Rand to find out that Dagny Taggart, her heroic, hard-driving railroad executive hero, was in fact a sinister agent of collectivism all along.

Image credit: A Soviet locomotive, via Shutterstock

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