Atlas Shrugged: Bonsai People

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter X

Although Hank is back at his mills, Dagny hasn’t given up searching for the inventor of the motor. Her latest clue takes her to Oregon, where she’s looking for Lee Hunsacker, the president of a shell company that owned the Twentieth Century Motor Company when the Community National Bank of Madison made the loan that failed and resulted in the collapse of both bank and factory. Dagny finds him living in poverty in a filthy hovel:

“I never had a chance!” said Lee Hunsacker.

He sat in the middle of the kitchen, at a table cluttered with papers. He needed a shave; his shirt needed laundering. It was hard to judge his age: the swollen flesh of his face looked smooth and blank, untouched by experience; the graying hair and filmy eyes looked worn by exhaustion; he was forty-two. [p.292]

As always, Randian villains are rotund, fleshy and unattractive, whereas her heroes are a sexy collection of planes and acute angles. (I sometimes wonder if Rand had some kind of geometry fetish.)

Hunsacker took over the factory after it collapsed due to the mismanagement of Jed Starnes’ heirs (about which more later), scraping up some money together with his friends to buy the property. He was excited to run the factory, calling it “the kind of opportunity I was entitled to” [p.294], but when he applied for several additional loans, he was turned down flat. The factory failed soon afterward, which Hunsacker is extremely bitter about, calling the bankers who refused him “greedy, entrenched vultures of privilege”:

“How were we to succeed in life if nobody would give us a factory? We couldn’t compete against the little snots who inherit whole chains of factories, could we? Weren’t we entitled to the same break?” [p.294]

Dagny presses him about whether he knew any of the engineers, but he’s uninterested in talking about anything except how unfair his life is and how nothing that went wrong was his fault:

“I didn’t have much money to spend on such things as laboratories, when I never had enough funds to give me a breathing spell. I couldn’t even pay the bills I owed for the absolutely essential modernizing and redecorating which I’d had to do – that factory was disgracefully old-fashioned from the standpoint of human efficiency. The executive offices had bare plaster walls and a dinky little washroom. Any modern psychologist will tell you that nobody could do his best in such depressing surroundings… Furthermore, I spent a lot of money on a new cafeteria and a playroom and rest room for the workers. We had to have morale, didn’t we?” [p.298]

As we’ve already seen, in Rand’s ontology, there’s no such thing as people who have the potential to succeed but lack the resources to make it happen. In her view, individual talent and ambition will always reveal itself; people who deserve to be rich will succeed regardless of whether they come from humble backgrounds or ultra-wealthy lineages, and people who deserve to be poor will fail no matter how much help they’re given. Either way, help from others is unnecessary at best, delaying the inevitable at worst.

But that neat, ideologically satisfying conclusion is set within the world of this book, where Rand can script events so that everything turns out the way her political theories predict. Reality, as is usually the case, tends to be messier and less amenable to tidy philosophical explanations.

Conservatives like Rand imagine that the way to create a meritocracy is to terminate all government assistance and intervention, and then the talented, like cream, will naturally rise to the top. Based on natural experiments along these lines, what actually happens is that people born into wealth and privilege tend to become rich themselves, while people born into poverty tend to stay in poverty. And that’s no surprise, since the children of privilege have countless advantages. They can attend an elite college or buy a home without taking on crippling debt; they can weather a job loss or a health crisis without becoming destitute; they’re more likely to have family connections who can help them find employment; and so on and so on. (Suggest your own examples of this privilege in the comments.)

The numbers bear this out. The U.S., whose social welfare programs are threadbare compared to most European countries, also has significantly lower rates of social mobility (again, see also). Ironically, for all our praise of capitalism and our national image as a land of boundless opportunity, our society in practice is becoming more and more like a hereditary class system, where your lot in life is largely determined by the income of your parents. Even Forbes magazine, no bastion of socialism, has noted this worrying trend.

What we liberals advocate, as a means of reversing this slide, is a society that guarantees equality of opportunity: one where everyone has access to the basic prerequisites of success, so that whatever talent they possess has a chance to flourish, and no one is held back by accidents of circumstance like being born to a poor family or living in a bad neighborhood. Among these basic prerequisites are things like free and equitably funded public schools; access to affordable health care; and anti-discrimination laws so that no one is held back by barriers of prejudice. This is just what I said in my “Why I Am Not a Libertarian” series.

Mohammed Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning founder of Grameen Bank, has called the world’s poorest “bonsai people” – in reference to the fact that bonsai trees are the same species as regular trees. Their dwarfism isn’t because they have different genes, but because the way they’re potted constrains their growth. Human society works the same way. Not everyone has the same talent or ambition, but any halfway realistic view of human nature must admit that there’s immense talent latent in the world’s billions of poor people, bottled up by chronic lack of opportunity, but ready to be unleashed if given the right assistance. The truest kind of meritocracy is the one that recognizes this and guarantees all its people an equal chance to achieve their greatness.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Objectivist Batman
Atlas Shrugged: The Social Atom
How We Built the Ghettos, Why We Built the Ghettos
Atlas Shrugged: There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom
About Adam Lee

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


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