Atlas Shrugged: Burma Shave


Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter IX

Hank comes to Dagny’s apartment to celebrate the success of the John Galt Line, which is now back under the ownership of Taggart Transcontinental. Hank has an extra reason to be pleased with himself: his sexual conquest of Dagny, a term I use advisedly since he now thinks of her as as “a woman he owned” [p.261]. (Because when you put your penis in someone else’s vagina, that makes them your property?)

Now that the virtues of Rearden Metal have been proved, Hank has customers beating down his door, and he’s quite smug about it. But when Dagny lets him in on her plan to build a transcontinental track of Rearden Metal, his smugness turns abruptly to sexually predatory creepiness:

“Did you say you wanted a transcontinental track of Rearden Metal, Mr. Vice-President?” he asked. “What if I don’t give it to you? I can choose my customers now and demand any price I please. If this were a year ago, I would have demanded that you sleep with me in exchange.”

“I wish you had.”

“Would you have done it?”

“Of course.”

“As a matter of business? As a sale?”

“If you were the buyer. You would have liked that, wouldn’t you?” [p.261]

This is your regular reminder that Hank is one of the heroes of this novel. If Rearden Metal had been a runaway success when Dagny first approached him to buy some, he says, he would have demanded she have sex with him as the price. Dagny seems charmed and amused by this blatant sexual-harassment scenario, rather than treating it as the horrifying revelation into her boyfriend’s character that it is. (For example, it never occurs to her to ask, “And did you ever demand that anyone else have sex with you as the price of fulfilling their order for steel?”)

Hank asks how long it’s been since she took a vacation. When Dagny says it’s been several years, he proposes one:

“Dagny, let’s take a vacation together. Let’s take my car and drive away for a few weeks, anywhere, just drive, down the back roads, where no one knows us.” [p.260]

Has he forgotten he’s still married to someone else? A secret tryst is one thing, but this is a weeks-long absence he’s proposing. No business trip lasts that long. It’s not clear how he explains to Lillian where he’s going, or why she doesn’t want to accompany him. After having sex with Dagny the first time, he said he’d have to “lie” and “sneak” to hide the truth from his wife, but this seems like the least sneaky thing imaginable. But he obviously comes up with something, because when we see Hank and Dagny next, they’re on their road trip:

* * *

The earth went flowing under the hood of the car. Uncoiling from among the curves of Wisconsin’s hills, the highway was the only evidence of human labor, a precarious bridge stretched across a sea of brush, weeds and trees. The sea rolled softly, in sprays of yellow and orange, with a few red jets shooting up on the hillsides, with pools of remnant green in the hollows, under a pure blue sky.

…”What I’d like to see,” said Rearden, “is a billboard.” [p.262]

See, you intellectuals of the looter persuasion might think that when a majestic natural vista is slathered with advertising signage, that disfigures and degrades it. But that’s just because you hate the Industrial Revolution. When we look through the lens of capitalism, we can see what the billboard makers are actually doing to these pristine landscapes: they’re improving them. After all, what’s the point of just looking at trees all day? Trees don’t even try to sell you stuff!

All it’s missing is some billboards for McDonald’s.

The part of Wisconsin where they’re traveling is abandoned and reverting to wilderness: the road is cracked and faded, and weeds are encroaching upon it. Hank and Dagny muse about the implications of this:

Then she smiled. “But think how often we’ve heard people complain that billboards ruin the appearance of the countryside. Well, there’s the unruined countryside for them to admire.” She added, “They’re the people I hate.” [p.262]

These passages are an illustration of something I mentioned earlier: Rand’s philosophy makes environmental preservation impossible, except perhaps at the whim of a wealthy landowner. To her mind, nature is valueless unless it’s being clear-cut, strip-mined, or plastered with ads.

And it’s not as if we have no idea what this would look like in practice. Only a few years after the Yosemite Valley was discovered by white Americans, entrepreneurs were painting garish messages touting patent medicines on its cliffs. This sort of nuisance was a chronic problem in the earlier days of the republic, before the establishment of the national parks:

At Niagara, the visitor found both the American and the Canadian sides of the falls disfigured with huge ads for Herrick’s Pills and Lightning Oil. There was worse to come: “the nuisance culminates at Chicago,” Marshall noted, “for here is the paradise of white-paintism.” Yet the railroad routes to the farther West were almost as bad, with a certain variation introduced by Merchant’s Gargling Oil, for which the outdoor lettering, like the medicine itself, was yellow. Echo Canyon on the Union Pacific had garish ads “daubed up against the red sandstone precipices just in the most striking part of the whole gorge.” Nearing San Francisco, the English traveler noted down that “VINEGAR BITTERS IS ALL THE GO FOR LOVE!” and “YOSEMITE BITTERS GOOD FOR BELLY AKE.”

…The minions of P.H. Drake chopped down an entire mountainside forest so Pennsylvania Railroad passengers could read about Plantation Bitters in letters four hundred feet high. Yellowstone Park and the California redwood forests were likewise invaded. One promoter bought a Mississippi stern-wheeler, painted it bright red, added the name of his nostrum in letters twelve feet tall, and ran it up and down the river. Another medicine man got himself a steamship, bedecked it with advertising for a liniment, and let it float to destruction over Niagara Falls. Still another offered to pay for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty if he could use it as a base for his advertising posters.

Now obviously, commerce has its place in a free society. But just as obviously, most people find advertising a necessary evil at best, an obnoxious and aggravating nuisance at worst. And if we object to plastering patent-medicine slogans all over a striking landscape or gorgeous natural formation, there are reasons for that which don’t include a love of communism.

There’s something in us that responds to untouched natural beauty: spending time in nature reduces stress – even Dagny and Hank wanted to go away somewhere rural, after all – and fosters a sense of peace, relaxation, and well-being. But because these benefits are harder (not impossible) to quantify, Rand declares that they don’t exist. It’s the kind of thing she’d dismiss as “spiritual”, which in her philosophy is a term of abuse. But not everything that matters to human beings, not everything that makes life meaningful and fulfilling, can be traded for cold hard cash.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

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

  • Tova Rischi

    Where is the panorama image from? It says inspiration point but I’m getting multiple places named that. It kinda looks to me like El Capitan and Half-Dome much farther back but I could be very wrong.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Yay, we’ve reached the Hangny road trip!

    Excellent essay. And I’d forgotten Dagny would have exchanged sex for financial opportunity. Hm… I think there’s a word for that…

  • Adam Lee

    No, you’re right, that’s Yosemite Valley. I took that picture in 2009 on a road trip through California.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    I guess that Rand would think that a business park, or Versaillies for that matter, has too much vegitation for her taste.

    Does she ever have a screed against Central Park?

  • beardedbeard

    Yeah damn thoes trees and their stupid oxygen!

    I can’t connect with Rand on any topic but environmentalism is where I really get off the bus. Sure trees and unspoiled wilderness are nice to look at and you may not beable to quanitfy that value but thoes spaces also do the main work of keep all of us alive. That has to have some value even in Rands crazy wonder land.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Government Declares State of Emergency After West Virginia Chemical Spill

    The emergency and accompanying ban were issued after the toxic chemical
    4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which is used to process coal, leaked from
    a tank at a Freedom Industries plant in the capital city Charleston and
    spilled into the Elk River…

  • Jim Baerg

    This reminds me of an incident from Heinlein’s story _The Man Who Sold the Moon_.

    Here is Wikipedia’s summary of that part:

    “To solve the tougher financial problems, Harriman exploits commercial and political rivalries. He implies to the Moka-Coka company, for example, that rival soft drink maker 6+ plans to turn the Moon into a massive billboard, using a rocket to scatter black dust on the surface in patterns. To an anti-Communist associate, he suggests that the Russians may print the hammer and sickle across the face of the Moon if they get to it first.”

    So Harriman, who is trying to fund a private moonshot (the story was written in 1949) uses the common distaste for advertising marring natural wonders to help fund his project. Heinlein also reminds us that commercial enterprises aren’t the only source of such blots on the landscape.

  • Elizabeth

    Adam, slow down! You’re almost to the point where I stopped reading and was waiting for you to catch up….dang, now I’m going to have to pick up this vile thing again and continue :-)

  • Tommykey69

    Sounds like Rand would have loved Ridley Scott’s depiction of Los Angeles in Bladerunner.

  • John

    Bah, until you can sell oxygen it isn’t worth anything. Clearing forests will increase its scarcity.

  • ahermit

    And this the man who was irritated at having to take time off work to spend with his wife on their anniversary…

  • J-D

    What We Have Come To, by Lord Dunsany

    When the advertiser saw the cathedral spires over the downs in the distance, he looked at them and wept.

    “If only,” he said, “this were an advertisement of Beefo, so nice, so nutritious, try it in your soup, ladies like it.”

    (published in Fifty-One Tales, 1915)

  • UWIR

    Is it prostitution to accept financial compensation for sex you would have engaged in absent the compensation?

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    You do know what the definition of prostitution is, right?

  • sealiagh

    But Ayn Rand sure would have approved of the name “Freedom Industries”…..and why is the government getting involved here at all surely capitalism will clean up West Virginia’s water!

  • Nancy McClernan

    Here’s how it would have gone down if Dagny was NOT comfortable with prostituting herself:

    Did you say you wanted a transcontinental track of Rearden Metal, Mr. Vice-President?” he asked. “What if I don’t give it to you? I can choose my customers now and demand any price I please. If this were a year ago, I would have demanded that you sleep with me in exchange.”

    “I wish you had.”

    “Would you have done it?”

    “Of course.”

    “As a matter of business? As a sale?”

    “No! Because I thought you were hot and I wanted to screw you. Damn Rearden, you’re creeping me out.”

    “I was just kidding Dagny. Of course I would never seriously suggest you’d prostitute yourself. Would you like to sample more of my Rearden Metal?”

    “I thought you’d never ask!”


  • Jared James

    Nope, in Rand’s crazy wonderland, the curse of the Commons amounts to a net zero value. Air, worthless. Water, worthless. Uninhabited or undeveloped land, completely without value until someone sells it to someone else for a profit and the buyer develops it.

  • Antigone10

    Actually, advertising is at worst something that contributes to unrealistic expectations as to how everyone lives their lives and how we look. There’s men and women who are killing themselves to look literally impossible, and a massive urge to consume pointless crap to keep up with other people who are consuming pointless crap and you are a failure if you haven’t. THAT’S advertising at it’s worst.

  • smrnda

    Maybe this is why libertarians like Ron Paul view sexual harassment legislation as an infringement on liberty. Think of all the great sex that’s had when someone *has to do so* for *business reasons.* Ugh.

  • smrnda

    Yes, Rand’s protagonist HATES people who like to see nature without billboards. Given that most people find billboards to be an eyesore, this hatred is clearly directed at almost everybody. This is something I never get – about any Randoid, at least if they were described on paper, Rand would find someway to hate that person, yet people are attracted in some sense to Rand. To me, her idea of a ‘moocher’ is no different than Mao’s idea of a ‘counter-revolutionary.’ No matter what your credentials, one false move and you’re a worthless moocher.

  • ChaosEngineer

    Eh. Prostitution is a noble profession. I’m more concerned about the misuse of company resources.

    In Hank’s hypothetical, he admits that he would have turned down the deal if Dagny had refused to sleep with him, and presumably sold the metal to the second-highest bidder. Or maybe another company would have been the highest bidder, but Hank would deliberately passed them over in hopes of getting Dagny to sleep with him. What do the shareholders think of this plan? Were they even informed?

    The only ethical thing for Hank to do is to negotiate the best possible deal for the metal. Then, after he got off work, he could negotiate a separate deal for Dagny’s companionship using his own money.

    Anyway, to get back to your question: “What if Hank had been willing to pay money to sleep with Dagny, but Dagny had been willing to sleep with Hank for free?” This is a called a Marshellian surplus and there’s a lot of debate over the fairest way to handle those. In this case I think Hank should give the money to Dagny, but Dagny should use it to buy something that they could both enjoy like maybe some theater tickets.

  • Nancy McClernan

    In mainstream economics, economic surplus (also known as total welfare or Marshallian surplus (named after Alfred Marshall)) refers to two related quantities. Consumer surplus or consumers’ surplus is the monetary gain obtained by consumers because they are able to purchase a product for a price that is less than the highest price that they would be willing to pay. Producer surplus or producers’ surplus is the amount that producers benefit by selling at a market price that is higher than the least that they would be willing to sell for.

    What is the “product” in your opinion? Dagny? Or the sexual encounter that Dagny would provide for cash?

    Why is prostitution a “noble” profession? Are there any other noble professions, in your opinion? What makes them noble?

  • Science Avenger

    “”What if Hank had been willing to pay money to sleep with Dagny, but Dagny had been willing to sleep with Hank for free?” This is a called a Marshellian surplus and there’s a lot of debate over the fairest way to handle those.”

    Meh, not much debate on this specific scenario, it makes them friends with benefits rather than Ho and John.

  • fuguewriter

    California’s project is one of several lingering on drawing boards since being promoted by President Obama’s first-term stimulus bacchanal. To call these projects “high-speed rail” is to stretch a concept. They involve dollops of federal money dangled in return for states agreeing to talk about high-speed rail, draw up plans for high-speed rail, conduct studies of high-speed rail, pour concrete and move earth around in ways vaguely suggestive of high-speed rail at some point in the future. – One obvious risk of playing this game too long is that some poor state’s taxpayers might end up with a white-elephant rail system that will require operating subsidies till the end of time. Florida was one of several states that waved off the initial dollop for exactly this reason, for what most knew was a nonsensical Tampa-Orlando bullet train. Thereupon something interesting happened: Private investors stepped up with a rail vision of their own, aimed at making money rather than spending it. – Their brainchild, All Aboard Florida (the train will get a new name this year), is not designed to push political buttons. It won’t go to Tampa. It will zip past several aggrieved towns on Florida’s Treasure Coast without stopping. –

  • Nancy McClernan

    What does this have to do with anything being discussed here? Or did you just have an excess of right-wing bile you needed to disgorge somewhere?

  • GCT

    Don’t you know? Fuguewriter complaining about the government and pointing out one instance that he feels he can make people agree with him on means that the government is evil and has to be abolished.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Yes, I was amused by “Obama’s first-term stimulus bacchanal” – considering government spending has dropped under Obama, and you have to question that choice – it’s detrimental to the cause of much-needed economic stimulus and on top of that he doesn’t even get any credit for it from right-wingers who just cannot process any factual information about Obama due to their rage-fueled derangement.

    Here’s an article from the end of Obama’s first term in Forbes laying out the details:

  • Nancy McClernan

    Yes, this is more evidence that “Atlas Shrugged” is not in any way a coherent critique of economic systems but rather a collection of Ayn Rand’s preferences and peeves. Because some of those feelings coincide with right-wing feelings (government is bad, capitalism is good) the book is mistaken for a serious work of political philosophy. But the truth is revealed in moments like these – even most right-wingers don’t have such an antipathy towards nature, even on the political grounds of hating environmentalists. It’s just like Rand’s homicidal hatred for rail passengers – it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with Rand’s own eccentric personality.

    One evening I casually mentioned that I liked to look at mountains and the ocean, that the sight of them gave me a special feeling of peace. “Why?” she demanded, a slight edge in her voice. “Because they’re beautiful, and, I suppose, because they never change, they’re always just what they are.” “And human beings?” she asked. I shrugged. “Human beings change constantly, they shift, they seem to dissolve from one identity to another.” The edge in her voice was sharper as she said, “That’s always why people prefer nature to man.” And she began to speak of skyscrapers, of city pavements, of giant industries, of all the mighty creations of the human mind – almost as if I had been denouncing man’s achievement. “It’s a ‘malevolent universe’ emotion – it’s the subconscious belief that man’s life is inevitably tragic – that makes you prefer nature to the man-made,” she told me, and I saw, bewildered, that she was deeply angry.

    Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, page 242


    I remember reading Rand in my late teens and thinking her brilliant. In my sixties, she makes me cringe. How did such an awful writer manage to get published at all, let alone come to influence so many politicians?

  • Nancy McClernan

    I am so bummed out I missed John Hodgman’s show (it’s running until Saturday but it’s sold out):

    The show’s most potently funny segment arrives when Mr. Hodgman strikes out for loopier territory, in an impersonation of Ayn Rand, whom he recalls watching with fascination on the “Phil Donahue Show” (of all things) in the late 1970s.

    Stripping down to his underwear (thanks!) to don a hilariously fusty frock, Mr. Hodgman employs a thick pseudo-Russian accent to impersonate Rand in a role she never played, as advice columnist for Parade magazine, the middlebrow Sunday newspaper supplement. In between urging readers to live up to their birthright, the right to be utterly selfish, she makes cranky comments about the difficulty of opening soda cans and the cultural scourge that is Alan Alda.

    Even Mr. Donahue’s wife, Marlo Thomas, must be upbraided for spreading an evil philosophy: that popular self-esteem-boosting children’s album she produced would not be so bad, Rand insists, if only she’d called it “Free to Be … Only Me.”

  • smrnda

    Rand seems to be some kind of phony Vienna-school psychoanalyst who is pretending to read *deep and penetrating insights* into the psyches of others, when it’s really nothing but projection. I know that there’s a Rand-fan who posts here who actually thinks she *did have such insights* but these seem pretty laughable to me.

    Honestly, as a long time urban dweller, I’m not big into nature and landscapes myself because (most of all) I can’t see very well and have health issues, so being out in the wilderness is rather stressful to me. I view this as mostly habit and pragmatic, not some indicator of what is supremely valuable, nor of anything about my view of life.

  • Nancy McClernan

    That’s one of the reasons (among many, I hope) that you are not a cult leader – you don’t mistake a collection of your personal preferences as a philosophy, or as the standard by which everybody else should live.

    Rand was so extreme that for her young fan Barbara (as she was when the above excerpt happened) to enjoy the beauty of mountains and oceans wasn’t merely a difference of aesthetic appreciation – it was a denouncement of man-made things, and an indication of a “malevolent universe emotion.” That was a favorite invented concept of Rand’s, which she applied to any art she didn’t appreciate, including the work of Beethoven.

    And like all other preferences of Rand’s it was an essential component of her “philosophy” – if you disagreed with Rand about aesthetics it was as bad as if you disagreed with her about capitalism – you could not be a true Objectivist unless you agreed with Rand about virtually everything. Which is why she hounded old friends of hers for enjoying the work of Beethoven and Rembrandt among other aesthetic crimes, until they couldn’t stand it any more and stopped being her friend.

  • Flying Squid with Goggles

    I agree – it looks like El Cap on the left, Cathedral spires on the right, I’d guess it was taken from the Wawona Road on the western end of the valley.

  • Robin Lionheart

    Or the highways walled by endless billboards in Terry Gilliam’s _Brazil_ (1985).

  • Josh

    Do you understand why they want a train to go from Tampa to Orlando? Tampa really does have a lot of tourism that would be reciprocated with Orlando. It would seriously improve tourism for both cities, especially if it went from Tampa, stopped in Orlando, and went on to Daytona. You’d have countless locals using it, too, including those who are voting against it…