Atlas Shrugged: The Fires of Kuwait

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter X

While Dagny has been criscrossing the country seeking the inventor of the motor, she learns from Eddie Willers that the looters are once again making absurd demands, this time clamoring for new laws that would kill the John Galt Line and strangle the industry of Colorado:

The Union of Locomotive Engineers was demanding that the maximum speed of all trains on the John Galt Line be reduced to sixty miles an hour. The Union of Railway Conductors and Brakemen was demanding that the length of all freight trains on the John Galt Line be reduced to sixty cars.

The states of Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona were demanding that the number of trains run in Colorado not exceed the number of trains run in each of these neighboring states.

A group headed by Orren Boyle was demanding the passage of a Preservation of Livelihood Law, which would limit the production of Rearden Metal to an amount equal to the output of any other steel mill of equal plant capacity. A group headed by Mr. Mowen was demanding the passage of a Fair Share Law to give every customer who wanted it an equal supply of Rearden Metal.

A group headed by Bertram Scudder was demanding the passage of a Public Stability Law, forbidding Eastern business firms to move out of their states. [p.279]

But she’s still too consumed by her quest for the inventor of the magic motor to worry. Following Ivy Starnes’ directions, she arrives at the house belonging to William Hastings, the former chief engineer of the Twentieth Century Motor Company, only to find that he died five years ago. His widow knows about the motor, which her husband told her was invented by a young man on his staff, but other than that she knows nothing about his work or his coworkers. She’s able to give Dagny just one more clue, which is that she once saw her husband meeting with a man who works at a roadside diner in the Rocky Mountains. Dagny heads promptly to the diner and finds the man:

She studied the man behind the counter. He was slender and tall; he had an air of distinction that belonged in an ancient castle or in the inner office of a bank; but his peculiar quality came from the fact that he made the distinction seem appropriate here, behind the counter of a diner. He wore a cook’s white jacket as if it were a full-dress suit. There was an expert competence in his manner of working; his movements were easy, intelligently economical. He had a lean face and gray hair that blended in tone with the cold blue of his eyes… [p.306]

Dagny strikes up a conversation with the cook and finds out, to her astonishment, that he’s Hugh Akston, the philosopher who was Robert Stadler’s frenemy at Patrick Henry University. She offers him a job, but he declines, which Dagny finds inexplicable:

“Dr. Akston, I… it’s inconceivable, it’s… You’re… you’re a philosopher… the greatest philosopher living… an immortal name… why would you do this?”

“Because I am a philosopher, Miss Taggart.” [p.309]

She leaned forward, both forearms braced firmly against the counter, feeling calm and in tight control again, sensing a dangerous adversary. “Did you know, about ten years ago, a young engineer who worked for the Twentieth Century Motor Company?”

…He had listened without moving, looking straight at her; the attentiveness of his eyes seemed to take hold of every word and store it carefully away, giving her no clue to his purpose. He did not move for a long time. Then he said, “Give it up, Miss Taggart. You won’t find him.” [p.307]

Akston flatly refuses to tell her anything, and she leaves, though not before vowing she won’t give up the search. But on the way back, she glances at a newspaper, and learns to her horror that the socialist government has issued all the directives Eddie told her about, the ones that will spell doom for Colorado.

The only consciousness the pictures left her was the feeling of the approach of some unthinkable disaster, and the feeling that she had to outrun it. She had to reach Ellis Wyatt and stop him. She did not know what it was that she had to prevent. She knew only that she had to stop him. [p.312]

In a panic, she commandeers a train and races to Wyatt’s refinery, but she’s not in time:

The sudden jolt of brakes on wheels threw her upright. It was an unscheduled stop, and the platform of the small station was crowded with people, all looking off in the same direction. The passengers around her were pressing to the windows, staring. She leaped to her feet, she ran down the aisle, down the steps, into the cold wind sweeping the platform.

In the instant before she saw it and her scream cut the voices of the crowd, she knew that she had known that which she was to see. In a break between mountains, lighting the sky, throwing a glow that swayed on the roofs and walls of the station, the hill of Wyatt Oil was a solid sheet of flame.

Later, when they told her that Ellis Wyatt had vanished, leaving nothing behind but a board he had nailed to a post at the foot of the hill, when she looked at his handwriting on the board, she felt as if she had almost known that these would be the words: “I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It’s yours.”

I doubt that Colorado’s oil wells were on fire when Ellis Wyatt found them, but never mind that. Rand sees this as a grand gesture of defiance, a metaphorical middle finger extended to the looters. But what would happen if someone did this in real life?

During the 1991 Gulf war, Saddam Hussein’s retreating military set hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells on fire, in a Wyatt-like act of spite toward the alliance that expelled them. The wells burned for months before they could be extinguished and caused havoc throughout the Middle East, in the form of choking clouds of smoke, toxic black rain that poisoned water and killed animals, a vast slick of crude in the Persian Gulf, and oily fog that seeped into people’s lungs. As a contemporary report stated:

Thick soot from the endless plumes of black smoke choking the skies over Kuwait is making breathing difficult and fouling water sources. The sun is so heavily obscured by the smoke that motorists must use headlights at noon.

Time magazine ranks the Kuwaiti oil fires the third worst environmental disaster in history, behind Chernobyl and the Bhopal chemical spill:

[T]he fires — literally towering infernos — burned for seven months. The Gulf was awash in poisonous smoke, soot and ash. Black rain fell. Lakes of oil were created. As NASA wrote, “The sand and gravel on the land’s surface combined with oil and soot to form a layer of hardened ‘tarcrete’ over almost 5 percent of the country’s area.” Scores of livestock and other animals died from the oily mist, their lungs blackened…

In 2003, more than ten years later, Kuwait was still suffering from the aftermath, with increased incidence of cancer and respiratory illness.

But in Rand’s mind, this kind of environmental mass destruction is heroic. She treats Wyatt’s act as a valid and proportional response to laws that decrease his access to rail shipping. Even if he blankets Colorado in toxic fog and poisons its air and water, we’re meant to conclude, that’s no more than the looters deserve.

This supervillain-esque act is an assault on innocent people by any reasonable definition, and if any further proof was needed, it puts the lie to Rand’s claim that she’s against initiation of force. Her real position is clearly that, if you make it harder for an Objectivist to make money, they’re justified in causing indiscriminate destruction as payback.

We’ve come to the end of Part I. Stay tuned for my review of the first Atlas Shrugged movie, starting next week!

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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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.

  • Flex

    But clearly everything was planned to only damage the surface machinery and leave the underlying shale unburned. Because ubermench are just that good.

    I’ve been enjoying your series, it’s been many years since I read Atlas Shrugged, and I read it twice because I couldn’t believe what I read the first time.

    But this passage, even then, struck me as odd:

    The states of Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona were demanding that
    the number of trains run in Colorado not exceed the number of trains run
    in each of these neighboring states.

    By the middle of the twentieth century most rail commerce was not intrastate, but interstate. Colorado had a period where a lot of local trains ran only within the state, during it’s mining and logging boom, but by the time this was written trains had largely become long-distance haulers. Automobiles had largely supplanted trains for intrastate personal and holiday travel and trucks had supplanted trains for short distance commercial travel. This was why the interstate highway system because such a big deal under Eisenhower.

    Since most trains were long-distance haulers, the number of trains run in Colorado would automatically be roughly the same as in the neighboring states because they would pass through all of them.

    Sure, it can be hand-waved away by suggesting that the state legislators in the book were idiots. But even when reading it the first time, many years ago, it was an incongruity which suggested to me that Rand didn’t have any knowledge of how commerce or railroads actually worked.

    I know, straining at gnats and all that.

  • Space Blizzard

    “In the instant before she saw it and her scream cut the voices of the crowd, she knew that she had known that which she was to see”

    “she felt as if she had almost known that these would be the words”

    She had known that the thing she knew would be the thing she knew she would have known

    There are times reading these quotes when Rand’s prose seems quite good, and then there are clunkers like this.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    “I’ll show you, I’ll kill me!”

    This is one of the stock phrases that was in use back when I went to AA regularly. Generally, I have little use for AA, but this phrase stuck with me. It’s a cry of resentment at not getting your own way, similar to “I’m taking my marbles and going home.” Despite the heroic garb Rand puts around her heros, I can’t get over the feeling that they are just having a massive temper tantrum.

    On another note, I’ve started rereading Atlas for the last week, and my main impression is how straw-many the villains are. The actions of the heros are understandable *only* if you buy into the villains. But they don’t exist in the real world. I can see how this world view makes sense if you haven’t had much real experience in the world.

  • Huckster Sam

    I’m struck by how much Elias Wyatt and his actions resemble Andrew Kehoe.

    Kehoe was a man who liked to tinker with machines, bore a grudge against government interference in what he felt was his money and success, and eventually burned his farm, the equipment and animals to the ground while leaving behind a wooden sign attached to a fence reading “Criminals are made – not born”.

    Of course, he also murdered his wife and committed the largest act of school violence in the history of the United States by blowing up the Bath, Michigan school house; directly causing the deaths of 44 people, mostly children.

  • Loren Petrich

    I think that Ayn Rand wanted to make an analogy with Soviet collectivization of agriculture around 1930, when many peasants killed their farm animals rather than turn those animals over to the authorities and their collective farms.

    But killing livestock doesn’t have the side effects of setting oil wells on fire.

  • Nemo

    Isn’t Colorado supposed to be one of the few good states in America? Isn’t this kind of environmental destruction going to hurt the very people that Ayn just spent so much time promoting? Just…. just… ugh.

  • Loren Petrich

    Even worse about trains is that when she wrote, most of the nation’s more active railroad lines had been built some decades earlier, in the middle to late 19th century. So why build a new line when one can buy some failing railroad’s line and improve it?

  • skyblue

    I like how Rand just presents all the demands together as ridiculous. When the union wants trains limited to 60 mph (and these are the train engineers saying this, perhaps they know something about train speeds), or trains limited to 60 cars, those sound like reasonable demands, or at least, we should hear some background on them – are they for safety reasons or is staffing at the railroad insufficient to deal with longer trains perhaps?

    But then stuff like “no more trains in this state than in neighboring states”? Just nonsense, and seems to be in there to make that point that any criticism of business practices of her heroes is ridiculous, no matter what the reasoning behind it might be.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    I’m sure we are meant to understand that these are arbitrary demands based on the idea that fast trains with a lot of cars are really successful, and therefore make it impossible for mere mortals to compete with them. Obviously you know that a common line among libertarians is that liberals “hate success” and want to punish it out of jealousy, and this seems to be the ultimate motivation of every Rand villain. Within the context of the story, these laws aren’t motivated by anything as mundane as safety; their ONLY intent is to throttle the inherent excellence of Our Heroes.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    Captain Amazing: “Really? I’m not so sure about that. Your first night of freedom, and you blow up the asylum. Interesting choice. I knew you couldn’t change.”
    Casanova Frankenstein: “I knew you’d know that.”
    Captain Amazing: “Oh, I know that. And I knew you’d know I’d know you knew.”
    Casanova Frankenstein: “But I didn’t. I only knew that you’d know that I knew. Did you know that?”
    Captain Amazing: “…

    …Of course.”

  • busterggi

    “But in Rand’s mind, this kind of environmental mass destruction is heroic. ”

    Seems to me that Randians and Republicans are the same but they like different labels to make them seem diversified.

  • busterggi

    The Sphinx: “We are number one. All others are number two, or lower.”

    Love that movie!

  • eyelessgame

    You’re expecting that a person who made a big deal of exalting the objective virtues of smoking – of inhaling the smoke from burning materials – would consider the damage done to people by inhaling the smoke from burning materials?

    Perfectly spherical humans in a vacuum.

  • eyelessgame

    The Republican Party is an alliance between (count them off on your right hand) big business (the thumb), militarists (index finger), libertarians (middle finger), religious right (ringfinger), and racists (pinkie). Not every Republican belongs to every group. But they’ve banded together because they each have a minority position that they’re terrified will be consigned to the trash heap of history, and they’re so convinced of the rightness of their idea that they can’t imagine the world surviving without it. So despite the contradictions, they all put up with one another’s positions, even though if you sit a particular Republican down he’ll usually agree with you that three or four of those fingers are complete whackjobs and he’s not really like that.

    Randians are the thumb and middle finger.

  • X. Randroid

    Adam: “I doubt that Colorado’s oil wells were on fire when Ellis Wyatt found them, but never mind that.”

    Ah, but I do mind that. This is where the story falls apart, even taken on its own terms. The story Rand claims to be telling amounts to Galt and his friends running an “experiment” of sorts on society. Their hypothesis, we are told (repeatedly), is that if the “men of the mind” simply stop doing what they’re doing and vanish from the world, in a slow-motion Rapture, then everyone else will burn in the hellfire of their own incompetence … unless they save themselves by embracing Reason. Wyatt, presumably, has been persuaded to help in the experiment by passively withdrawing.

    But Wyatt commits a glaring (pun intended) violation of the experimental protocol. He doesn’t just stop working, and there’s no colorable argument that setting fire to the wells is merely withdrawing “the products of his mind” from society. We’ve been told the state in which Wyatt “found” his oil field, and it wasn’t “a sheet of flame”:

    The oil field had been only a rocky patch in the mountains of Colorado, given up as exhausted long ago. Ellis Wyatt’s father had managed to squeeze an obscure living to the end of his days out of the dying oil wells. … [Wyatt] had discovered some way to revive exhausted oil wells and had proceeded to revive them.

    Leaving it as he found it, then, would mean just tearing out and destroying whatever special equipment he had invented to extract the oil, leaving behind a seemingly exhausted rocky field. By setting fire to the wells, he makes life a lot harder for the next would-be oil extractor. Instead of leaving the “looters” alone to die of their own ineptitude, he’s made it harder for them to survive. That’s not how the experiment is supposed to proceed; when passive withdrawal turns to active destruction, the experiment becomes unable to prove its hypothesis.

    Wyatt’s Torch gives the lie to the whole novel … even ignoring the environmental consequences (which I agree would be dire).

  • X. Randroid

    Good point. Even Rand’s fictional John Galt/Rio Norte Line is interstate — from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Wyatt Junction, Colorado. Which makes me wonder how it’s mathematically possible that Wyoming isn’t already served by at least as many trains as Colorado, since Wyoming is where the Rio Norte joins the main Taggart line. (And thanks to the Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Rule, we can be sure Taggart trains are the only trains in Colorado.) But I digress.

    Another weird thing about this is why states would care about the sheer number of trains. In reality, to get a state to “demand” more trains, you’d have to have some pretty powerful business concern(s) with an unmet need for rail transportation. Of course, that kind of business concern would probably just be able to work out a deal with a railroad to meet that need rather than lobbying the state to lobby for a federal law about number of trains.

  • Infophile

    There’s certainly a lot of truth to the idea that it’s an alliance of separate interests, but there are some common ideological threads tying the party together:

    -Authoritarianism (unites all but the libertarians)
    -Tribalism (unites all but big business and libertarians)
    -Just-world fallacy (unites them all, to one extent or another)

    The libertarians don’t fit as well as the others, and they often end up opposed to some of the other aims of the Republican party. In another world, it’s quite possible they could have ended up as a wing of the Democratic party. I suspect the indirect involvement of big business is the key factor here. They’ve managed to convince libertarians that they’re just temporarily-inconvenienced millionaires, which keeps them voting along the same lines as big business.

  • X. Randroid

    Rand tells us why the unions want the speed and train-length restrictions, and it’s (unsurprisingly) not about safety. This is how Jim Taggart explains it to Dagny when the proposal first comes up:

    “Well, there’s something to be said for the unions’ viewpoint, too. With so many railroads closing and so many railroad men out of work, they feel that those extra speeds you’ve established on the Rio Norte line are unfair–they feel there should be more trains, instead, so that the work would be divided around–they feel that it’s not fair for us to get all the benefit of that new rail, they want a share of it too.”

    In other words, it’s just unions being evil moochers. Business as usual in Rand-world.

  • J-D

    ‘He had an air of distinction that belonged in an ancient castle or in the inner office of a bank.’

    I wouldn’t expect to find the same thing in an ancient castle and in the inner office of a bank.

    I wouldn’t expect to find an ‘air of distinction’ in either.

    What I would think likeliest to find in both is arrogant thugs. But different kinds of arrogant thugs.

    I understand why Rand would imply an approving attitude toward banks, but why toward ancient castles? Weren’t the people in ancient castles all looters?

  • Azkyroth

    …Libertarians aren’t authoritarian?

  • J-D

    If Rand were right about people and their motivations, then there would be groups demanding things like the Preservation of Livelihood Law, the Fair Share Law, and the Public Stability Law.

    But there aren’t. So she was wrong (as if we didn’t already know that).

    But how, I wonder, would a Randian explain the fact that there aren’t groups demanding such laws?

    Probably by pointing to significantly different demands that people really are making and obstinately insisting, in defiance of the evidence to the contrary, that they are ‘practically’ the same thing.

  • arensb

    Not as a rule, no. I understand “authoritarian” in this context to mean someone who likes there to be a well-defined hierarchy, likes there to be hard and fast rules, and someone who’s definitely in charge.
    In my experience, there are a lot of individualist libertarians, people who don’t feel the need for a rigid hierarchy, who like to march to their own drummer.

  • skyblue

    That’s a good point. I should know better than to look for reasonable explanations for the actions of Rand’s villains! (or, to suggest that her heroes might not be correct in all things)

    Come to think of it, even when concerns were raised about Rearden Metal with safety specifically mentioned, it was still just looters hating Rearden for being so unfairly awesome.

  • Infophile

    To an extent, it depends how you define authoritarianism. There’s the definition given in arensb’s post, and one could also look at it from the moral perspective – an authoritarian is one who considers respecting authority to be the most important part of the moral compass (or at least, up there in importance with the other major prong, avoiding harm to others). A good way to gauge authoritarianism is by a person’s answer to the question, “If your president/boss/commander ordered you to kill a person you believe to be innocent, would you?”

    One catch is that the authority has to be “legitimate” in their eyes, which usually goes hand-in-hand with tribal instincts. So most present-day Republicans don’t see Barack Obama as a legitimate authority, as he isn’t seen as one of them. George Bush Jr., meanwhile, presented himself as “one of the guys” in his campaigning and wore all the right tribal markers to get authoritarians to rally behind him and march gleefully into two wars.

    Okay, getting off-topic. If we go with the moral compass definition, then libertarians are generally those who value the freedom prong more than others. There are branches with authoritarian tendencies though, such as many Randians. They’re hardly a homogenous group.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    “libertarians (middle finger)”

    I’m with you so far.

  • eyelessgame

    “Libertarians” as instantiated in the US, as opposed to the philosophy of libertarianism, tend to be propertarians. A cartoonish Baghdad of the popularized imaginings of the Arabian Nights would be a propertarian’s paradise – everything for sale at the bazaar, no rules to keep any kind of deal from beign made; ruled over by a sultan, who is invisible to the masses but for his men, who catch thieves and chop their hand off on the spot. I would call that both libertarian and authoritarian.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Despite the heroic garb Rand puts around her heros, I can’t get over the feeling that they are just having a massive temper tantrum.

    There really is something remarkably adolescent about Rand’s protagonists, in the sense that they value independence to the detriment of all else: they can fend for themselves, they don’t need anyone, and everyone else can go to hell. I think most people go through this phase; it’s only Rand who built an entire political philosophy on it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Within the context of the story, these laws aren’t motivated by anything as mundane as safety; their ONLY intent is to throttle the inherent excellence of Our Heroes.

    Yep, that sums it up. According to Rand, the looters hate success, reason, and life itself, and their sole purpose is to ruin and destroy anyone who’s good at anything. There’s actually a passage near the end of the book where Rearden says to them that he knows they don’t truly want to live, because if they did, they wouldn’t have tried to pass so many regulations on capitalism.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Holy cow. I’d never heard that story, but Kehoe seems eerily reminiscent of a Randian protagonist, right down to his murderous rage at everyone who isn’t him. I may have to use this later on. Thanks for the tip!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Instead of leaving the “looters” alone to die of their own ineptitude, he’s made it harder for them to survive. That’s not how the experiment is supposed to proceed; when passive withdrawal turns to active destruction, the experiment becomes unable to prove its hypothesis.

    See also: Ragnar Danneskjold, who’s actively committing acts of terrorism against the looters in the most literal sense. And although the other heroes in Galt’s Gulch are reluctant to support his plan, Rand herself is clearly on his side: she grants him the same plot armor that protects all her protagonists from any harm, even while all the world’s militaries are trying to hunt him down.

  • Azkyroth

    (Bleh. Glad that was cleaned up. Intimidation attempt by doxxing, over being asked to not engage in ableism? I have a disability; that, however, is sick).

  • X. Randroid

    Yep. When you get down to it, Ragnar is stealing goods produced by others and reselling them on the black market to fund the strikers’ “experiment,” a blatant violation of the protocol if ever there was one. The gift cargoes are portrayed as voluntarily donated by the companies that produced them, so how does he claim the right to interfere in a voluntary transaction?

    It’s also telling that the other strikers’ reluctance to support Ragnar’s plan isn’t based on any sense that it might not be right. We’ll find out in Part III that they all agree that “in our age” he has the “moral right” to be a pirate; their only objection seems to be that he’s risking his life needlessly.

  • X. Randroid

    Probably by pointing to significantly different demands that people really are making and obstinately insisting, in defiance of the evidence to the contrary, that they are ‘practically’ the same thing.

    Exactly. For example, Detroit is just like Starnesville, and Obama allowing the top marginal tax rate to go up by a few percent is exactly like the Starnes heirs’ plan.

    I’m cringing now, since I remember when I thought this stuff made sense.

  • Science Avenger

    “The gift cargoes are portrayed as voluntarily donated by the companies that produced them.”

    They are? Isn’t there a passage (perhaps when Ragnar confronts Rearden on the road, my favorite scene in the book) where he explicitly says that he leaves military ships alone, because they are performing a legitimate government function, but he sinks the welfare ships because they are filled with stolen (via the tax-is-theft mentality) goods? Thus, when he sells what he steals, and gives the money to the strikers, he’s really just returning the goods to their rightful producers/owners.

  • Science Avenger

    “Leaving it as he found it, then, would mean just tearing out and destroying whatever special equipment he had invented to extract the oil, leaving behind a seemingly exhausted rocky field. By setting fire to the wells, he makes life a lot harder for the next would-be oil extractor.”

    I think Rand’s vision was that Wyatt set fire to the extracted oil as a way to deny the looters their booty, and that once that was all burned, it would be back to its “rocky patch” status. Granted, that would probably put Rand’s knowledge of the oil business at about the same level as most other subjects, but I find that more plausible than your interpretation. The resulting contradiction is a bit much to be missed, even for Rand.

  • Science Avenger

    Rand presumed to be showing us what the results would be if the looters acted out the implications of their “pro death” philosophy fully. Their failure to do so was attributed to their lack of awareness of what their philosophy was. That was, in part, what she was writing the book for, to show the looters the naked ugliness of their world-view.

    Of course, IMO dictating to others what they believe is the height of arrogance, and Rand had no shortage of that.

  • Science Avenger

    “Her real position is clearly that, if you make it harder for an Objectivist to make money, they’re justified in causing indiscriminate destruction as payback.”

    That’s just not accurate, and you’ve been through way too much of her material to be making mistakes like this. You yourself highlighted an exchange between two business people in the Book (Dagny and Macnamera maybe?) discussing how they were going to try to destroy each other, which would obviously constitute making it harder to make money, and nobody caused any indiscriminate destruction on anyone. It’s because they were playing by Rand’s rules.

    Her real position is clearly that if you act against an Objectivist in contradiction to Objectivist principles, this constitutes an initiation of force on your part and that warrants defense on theirs. It’s not about making money, that’s a feature but its not the objective. Freedom (her strangely defined version) is the objective.

    I cannot emphasize enough that misrepresenting Rand in this fashion is the surest way to feed into the Objectivist persecution/nobody-understands-me complex and defeat ANY chance you have to reach them. Now maybe you don’t care, and that’s cool, its your blog. But if so my presence and X Randroid’s ought to give you pause, We could be reached, so surely there are others, and is it really so damned hard to avoid these misrepresentations?

    This shit is important. Just the other night I saw some idiot on the news wave his free-market magic wand at concerns about potential Jim-Crow level discrimination resulting from Arizona’s potential religious-freedom-gay-discrimination.law. What do you think is fueling this shit? AS still consistently rates as one of the most influential books in our culture. Rand may have been a philosophical and literary lightweight, but she’s a cultural heavyweight for sure. We’ve got to stamp this shit out.

    Sorry for the lengthy rant, attribute it to the passion of a recovering cultist.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    Despite the heroic garb Rand puts around her heros, I can’t get over the
    feeling that they are just having a massive temper tantrum.

    When I read AS at 16 it greatly amused me how it brought back so many memories of when I was 6 and believed that my threat to run away from home was such a devastating argument whenever I felt my mom was being unfair. That stopped when she called my bluff one day and pointed out where the door was.

    Now when I run across someone extolling the prophetic power of AS and how “makers” (of which they always are) should just leave us “takers” to it I use my mom’s tactic. It’s amazing how quickly they start backtracking.

  • X. Randroid

    Rand definitely did not understand the oil business. As Adam pointed out, she blithely ignored all the environmental consequences of Wyatt’s fire, none of which could possibly qualify as “leaving it as I found it.” And we’ll be told in the next chapter, apparently as evidence of the incompetence of the State Science Institute, that seven months later, they haven’t managed to get the “rocky patch” back into production.

  • X. Randroid

    I think all the gift cargoes that are specifically identified are voluntary. Orren Boyle donates steel at one point, and there’s no evidence of coercion in that transaction. Rand’s theory seems to be that since Boyle and his ilk (who are invariably the people/companies making the donations) are beneficiaries of the looters’ government, anything they produce is “stolen goods.”

    But that is an awfully broad definition. I benefitted immensely from government-subsidized education. Does that mean everything I produce or own is “stolen goods” and therefore any morally upstanding Objectivist has the right to seize my car or my computer?

  • X. Randroid

    Thanks for this.

    One thing I’ve noticed in discussing Rand with those who are not and have never been Objectivists is that they don’t get the extent to which she saw government as a gunman and nothing but a gunman. Government, in her view, has exactly one power: to point a gun at people and make them do things. The government gunman differs from a thug only in that the government gunman doesn’t have to fear retaliation. This makes government potentially dangerous. She didn’t think the solution was to take away the gun; she was not an anarchist. But she did think the gunman’s actions needed to be strictly limited to retaliation against those who initiated force against others. Any form of regulation (or taxation) against someone who hasn’t initiated force constitutes initiation of force by the gunman and is unacceptable. The victim in such a case is morally justified in retaliating.

    For instance, it would be wrong for the government to impose any kind of safety regulations or mandatory inspections on Wyatt’s oil field. That would be initiation of force, and Wyatt would be justified in retaliating with force. But if Wyatt had an oil spill that damaged his neighbor’s property (which he wouldn’t because accidents don’t happen in Atlas Shrugged), and if he refused to pay just compensation (which he wouldn’t because he lives by the Trader Principle), then the neighbor would be justified in suing for damages … and in sending the sheriff over to collect if Wyatt refused to pay. In that case, Wyatt would not be justified in resisting.

  • J-D

    What I like to say is that it is, obviously, much easier to win an argument if you get to decide the other side’s case as well as your own. But it’s cheating.

    I still don’t see any reason to support anything like the Preservation of Livelihood Law, or the Fair Share Law, or the Public Stability Law, and I don’t see how they are in any way an implication of my philosophy.

  • J-D

    To my way of thinking, a position that says that the government should be restricted to retaliation against those who initiate force raises three kinds of questions.

    The first is about what constitutes ‘an initiation of force’. You’ve just suggested that an accidental oil spill might count as that, which seems an odd way of defining it to me. Does embezzlement count as an initiation of force? How about identity theft? For that matter, does boxing count as an initiation of force? What about beating animals?

    The second is about what sort of retaliation is justified. If I have initiated force against you–if I’ve walked up to you in the street and punched you, say–is the government justified in whatever retaliation it may take, or are there limiting principles?

    But the most important is the third, which is about why the government should be restricted to retaliation against those who initiate force. What’s the justification for retaliation anyway? Is it supposed to be protective? Protective or not, why should the initiation of force be the only thing that justifies whatever kind of retaliation it is that’s at issue? People who want to protect themselves against, for example, being burgled, may resort to preparing for the use of retaliatory force, for example, by keeping a gun or a baseball bat handy, but they may also put deadbolts on the doors and bars on the windows. Why is the government not justified in actions analogous to installation of deadbolts and window bars?

  • Pierre Cloutier

    “Her real position is clearly that if you act against an Objectivist in contradiction to Objectivist principles, this constitutes an initiation of force on your part and that warrants defense on theirs. It’s not about making money, that’s a feature but its not the objective. Freedom (her strangely defined version) is the objective.”

    Oh so if you violate Objectivist principles than someone is justified in carrying out indiscriminate, vicious retaliation that causes mass havoc, illness, destruction and death. The whole point is that the retaliation is brutal and indiscriminate, – people who have nothing to do with the “force” you are “retaliating” against will suffer and suffer badly. To say nothing of the local animals and plants, ecosystems. That is of course exactly what a mass firing of oil wells will cause.

    I can’t say this is any improvement over:

    “”Her real position is clearly that, if you make it harder for an Objectivist to make money, they’re justified in causing indiscriminate destruction as payback.”

    Are Objectivists really so picayune to clutch at differences that in the end don’t mean much in order to preserve the notion that Ayn Rand was unproblematic?

  • X. Randroid

    Excellent questions, J-D.

    Rand regarded “force” in this context as referring to any form of unconsented-to and harmful touching of a person or his property. That’s how spilling oil that damages someone’s farmland is force. She regarded fraud as a species of force, on the theory that the victim would not have consented had he known the actual state of affairs; the fraudster’s deceit makes his actions unconsented-to. And animals, being incapable of “reason,” have no rights in Objectivism, so as long as you own the animal, you can do whatever you want, but beating someone else’s animal would be illegal, except in self-defense. That said, most Objectivists do regard animal cruelty as immoral (because it shows that the perpetrator doesn’t value life), and many will sigh and wish their philosophy allowed them to support laws against it.

    As to the second category, Rand never said much about proportionality, but she did seem to assume it, at least as to individual crimes. Interestingly, any such notion goes out the window in foreign policy. Following her reasoning, many leaders in the Objectivist movement think the US would be morally justified in nuking Iran into oblivion in “retaliation” for their support of terrorism against US targets.

    I think you’re right that the third category is most important for understanding what’s wrong with Rand’s theory. As specific examples in this category, why is it better to wait until after the oil spill and make Wyatt pay for the damages than to put some protections in place that would make the spill less likely? Similarly, Objectivists claim that the answer to pollution is basically nuisance law. But why is it better to build your power plant and then find out it’s a nuisance than to be told in advance what the acceptable levels of emissions are?

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    If so, that would apply to most of them too. I don’t know about Rand, but some libertarians have said that firms which take tax subsidies (also must of them) should be expropriated by their employees and tax payers. I suppose a similar logic may be at work here.

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    Most (American) libertarians believe in the authority of the employer and property owner very heavily.

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    Given Rand’s love for the psychopathic murderer William Edward Hickman, it doesn’t seem out of the question that this incident was modeled on another crazed killer’s actions. In Hickman’s case Rand felt he was provoked due to a world that hated him-no doubt she felt the same here. Both their murders also occurred in 1927-Rand had immigrated to the US the previous year. Kehoe had fought to lower taxes when treasurer of the Bath Consolidated School board, and grew furious when he was outvoted, then lost reelection. Of course we know Rand would agree with that proposal.

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    Which movie, for the uninitiated?

  • Christopher Mauney

    “Because I am a philosopher, Miss Taggart.”

    This has to be a joke, right? One of those “Because I couldn’t get a job teaching philosophy” things, because this makes no sense whatsoever.

  • eyelessgame

    Interesting – I really appreciate the viewpoints of the ex-Randroids on this series, because I’m very interested in what can be done to help make more of you. I’ll hope our host listens as well; this segment seemed a little less convincing/compelling than some of his articles (to me, though I know my perspective is limited – I know some Randroids but have never been contaminated by the ideas myself).

    So “harder to make a paycheck” isn’t the thing – it’s “restricting their actions in any way or restricting their use of any portion of their property” that is being objected to, yes?

  • X. Randroid

    eyelessgame, “restriction” is on the right track, but the key thing is the initiation of force. In the case of private actors, restriction on another’s action without force is a possible scenario. For instance, suppose Wyatt wants to buy a plot of land from Taggart Transcontinental to drill for oil, but Jim and his Board of Directors flatly refuse to sell it to him (or even sell the oil rights). The effect is to restrict Wyatt’s actions, since it’s restricting him from getting to the oil. But a private actor’s refusal to trade isn’t a use of force, so Wyatt doesn’t get to blow up the Taggart Building or assassinate Jim or hold Dagny hostage until the Board relents.

    That’s true for private actors. Government is different because, in Rand’s view, anything government does implies the use of force (or threat of force, which she regarded as just as bad). So unless the person initiated force, any governmental restriction on that person’s action or use of his property — such as telling Wyatt he can only produce X barrels a day — is objectionable.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    “Mystery Men”. I loved that movie.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Let me say a couple of things about this:

    1. Rand says her heroes would destroy each other through fair competition given the opportunity, but she arranges events so that this never actually happens. No two of her protagonists are in the same industry. The closest we ever see is when Dagny is going head-to-head against the Phoenix-Durango and threatens to ruin Dan Conway, but then the looters conveniently pass a law so that he’s put out of business and Dagny never has to make good on her threat.

    Likewise, in Galt’s Gulch, she conveniently sets things up so that no one ever wants to build anything that anyone else has a reason to oppose. No one wants to build a railroad or canal through property that someone else already owns; no one’s pig farms or coal plants emit pollution that wafts onto anyone else’s land. The only opposition her heroes ever have to confront is from socialist governments, not from each other. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that she flinched a bit from showing the full implications of her philosophy.

    2. When given the chance, her heroes frequently act in ways that contravene the no-initiation-of-force principle. Besides Wyatt’s blowing up his wells, which can’t possibly be construed as “defense”, there’s Nathaniel Taggart’s “never accept[ing] the creed that others had the right to stop him” (again, Rand conveniently sets things up so that no private landowner ever gets in his way).

    See also pretty much every sex scene with Dagny, where first Francisco, then Hank slap her, drag her around, twist her arms, bloody her, and generally treat her as an object whose consent is not required. When she stumbles into the valley, John Galt tells her that because she came there without their consent, he’s going to hold her prisoner for a month. He says, “by forcing your way here, you’ve given me the right to any choice I make” – except she didn’t force her way into anywhere, she landed in what she thought was desolate wilderness.

    3. It’s true that Rand said you wouldn’t be justified in initiating force against another Objectivist. But her definition of what counts as a “true Objectivist” is astonishingly narrow, to the point where no real person could ever be likely to qualify. It includes never accepting any help from the government or otherwise dealing with them in any capacity (as X. Randroid said above, if you go to a tax-funded public school, are you a looter for life?). It includes not just how you run your business, but what kind of art you like, what kind of music you listen to, how you dress.

    And if you contravene her philosophy in any particular, Rand says, you are “anti-life”. Even her own heroes don’t always qualify: when Dagny makes a joke about getting bad grades on purpose, Francisco slaps her hard enough to dizzy her. In real life, don’t forget, Rand was fully supportive of the European settler genocide against the Native Americans, because they weren’t capitalist enough and therefore had no rights to the land they were living on.

  • Doomedd

    I guess that SA’s post isn’t about
    giving a better answer. SA seem to try to explain rand “philosophy”
    and let us criticize it.

    Is it important to attack the actual
    idea, not the strawman. It doesn’t matter if rand idea isn’t better
    than a strawman. Admittedly hard when the philosophy is full of straw.

  • Doomedd

    It reminds
    me of many drivers that grumble about traffic laws. They tend to see
    speed and alcohol limits as arbitrary and mean.

    Many are
    hopelessly naive about driving. Few understand E=mv^2/2. Most drivers
    think they have 40% more kinetic energy if the drive at 70 kph
    instead of 50 kph. Fact is, they have to deal with (or crash) 96%
    more energy.

    Is the same physics with trains. I’ll give an
    extreme example. The train at Lac-Mégantic
    may have gone at 63 mph in a 10mph curve. That train had 40 times the
    kinetic energy it should have to pass safely. Or if you prefer, a
    naive driver needs to imagine the train going at 400mph(640 kph) to
    understand how dangerous that train was.

    Common sense don’t help here.

  • Sue White

    I just love all this dramatic hyperbole. A guy behind a counter who might or might not tell her the name of Mystery Motor Guy is a “dangerous adversary”.

  • VilcMania

    There is also a scene in Galt’s Gultch where Dagny meets Andrew Stockton and learns that he bankrupted a competitor when he came into the Gulch. But, as it happily turns out, his bankrupted competitor went to work for him, where he made more money in shorter hours–so it was actually a good thing he was bankrupted and nobody was hurt. Hurray!

    Granted, not realistic. But hurray!

  • X. Randroid

    Yep. Remember that Rand believed that “there are no conflicts of interest among rational men.” In free and fair competition, the best producer and the best product will win (and of course the best producer will make the best product!) and everyone will be better off for it. It’s completely at odds with reality, but it’s what she believed.
    I think this is why she never showed her heroes competing against each other. She knew enough about the craft of fiction to know that conflict is what drives a story, and since there is no conflict in free, fair competition among rational men, there’s no story.

  • X. Randroid

    Re #3: Just for the record, what Rand actually asserted as her view is that no one (Objectivist or not) is ever morally justified in initiating force against anyone (Objectivist or not). For instance, suppose there’s a business owner who refuses to serve black customers or hire black employees. Rand would say that he is being irrational (therefore anti-Objectivist), but if it’s his business, he has the right to run it as he sees fit, and you can’t initiate force (either vigilante action or lawmaking) to make him change. She also thought the market would put him out of business soon enough for his irrationality … although I think history provides ample evidence that it doesn’t work that way.

    That said, does Atlas Shrugged actually illustrate Rand’s assertion that the “non-initation of force” principle applies to everyone alike? I think not. There are too many instances in which her heroic strikers go beyond retaliation into initiation of force. Things like Wyatt’s fire, Ragnar’s piracy, and Francisco’s (repeated) defrauding of his investors are not retaliation unless you assume that (a) any acceptance of any government assistance makes one a looter-for-life and (b) proportionality is not a constraint on retaliatory use of force force.

    What Atlas Shrugged actually depicts is not the passive withdrawal Rand claimed it was; it’s an active war by the strikers against a society whose rules they’ve decided not to accept.

  • J-D

    I mentioned all the kinds of questions I did as a way of indicating how much further discussion is necessarily opened up if Rand’s position is taken seriously (even for the sake of argument). I could comment further on some of the points you have made, and perhaps you would then have further responses, and so on, but I’m not really trying to settle those issues, only to point out how they involve significant complexity.

    Anybody who thinks that adopting the general principle ‘the government should be restricted to retaliation against those who initiate the use of force against others’ provides a simple algorithmic decision procedure that will easily settle all the boundaries of the role of government is mistaken. If Randians think that application of that principle could quickly and expeditiously resolve every disputed case, they’re dreaming (as if we didn’t already know that).

  • J-D

    Apparently a philosopher with a different view from Aristotle, who wrote:

    ‘… There are two sorts of wealth-getting, as I have said; one is a part of household management, the other is retail trade: the former necessary and honorable, while that which consists in exchange is justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another. The most hated sort, and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term interest, which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent. Wherefore of all modes of getting wealth this is the most unnatural.

    ‘Enough has been said about the theory of wealth-getting; we will now proceed to the practical part. The discussion of such matters is not unworthy of philosophy, but to be engaged in them practically is illiberal
    and irksome. …’

  • Loren Petrich

    The problem in the derailment case is not kinetic energy but centrifugal force, the force of trying to go in a straight line rather than in a curve. That force is
    F = m*v^2/r
    where r is the radius of the curve. That’s 40 times the safety limit for that force on the curve.

  • Azkyroth

    Since force is the rate of change of kinetic energy over distance, these statements are loosely equivalent.

  • X. Randroid

    True. And for those who want to make more ex-Randroids, yours are the kinds of questions to be asking current Objectivists. You will not get far pointing out the logical inconsistencies in Rand’s arguments; she invented a number of new “logical fallacies” that provide cover for Objectivists to dismiss any criticism on that front.

    If you stick to the empirical problems, and keep reminding the Objectivist that she’s supposedly committed to going by facts and evidence, then you might eventually open a crack. Along the way, you can count on being accused of being “concrete-bound” and/or “anti-conceptual,” which is Objectivist code for “don’t bother me with inconvenient facts.” If they go there, I”d suggest telling them you’re just trying to understand how their theory would play out in the real world. Maybe it’ll work, with time and patience and repetition.

  • Jeff

    Rand’s antagonists are so cartoonish and oversimplified that I’m reluctant to call them straw men, because that’s just being too generous.

  • SmogMonster

    It’s that “air of nobility/look of a king” nonsense you get in stuff written by royalists and people who still believed in the divine right of kings. People who are meant to rule, in this view, are noticeably different and better than the rest of us ordinary peasants. Nevermind that actual royalty has historically tended to look more like people who have been marrying their aunties and cousins for umpteen generations.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    Not only that, but “leaving it as he found it” would require putting back the oil he had already extracted.

  • J-D

    On rereading more carefully, I suppose what was in Rand’s mind was the idea that there’s a certain air of distinction that _belongs_ in an ancient castle or in the inner office of a bank, although in practice one would often _find_ something different there (in either place, that is).

    I still don’t agree, but at least it seems more consistent with Rand’s general views.

  • A Real Libertarian

    Note that motivation was that his farm was failing and his mortgage was overdue.

    He had more then enough crap in his barn (before he set it aflame anyways) to pay off that mortgage.

    Also, the bombs he set in the south wing fail to explode.

  • A Real Libertarian

    “some libertarians have said that firms which take tax subsidies (also must of them) should be expropriated by their employees and tax payers.”

    It’s “corporations must be expropriated by their workers, because the bosses are thieving capitalists who appropriate the workers surplus value”.

    Interestingly enough, a slogan used during the Russian revolution was “Loot the looters!”

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    Yes, the similarities are ironic.

  • Josh

    Too bad we don’t have more middle fingers….

  • Joshua Derke

    I’m actually alive because the dynamite he set in the South Wing didn’t explode. My great-grandmother survived the explosion because of that. Her sister, Emma, was in the part that did get destroyed, however, and didn’t make it.

    From what I know of Kehoe, though, is that he was a jack-of-all trades handyman. In fact, he was able to plant the dynamite over the course of several days because he was the trusted handyman.

    When I was in high school, I drove past the land his house was built on every day. It’s less than half a mile from where am now. It’s all still farmland.


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