Atlas Shrugged: Second Amendment Remedies

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter I

The government has passed a so-called Fair Share Law which requires Hank to sell Rearden Metal to anyone who wants it. In practice, this means that politically connected businesses can buy it in quantity, while industries that desperately need it, like Ken Danagger’s coal mines, are being left empty-handed. To make it worse, the government has sent a young flunky, whom Rand nicknames the Wet Nurse, to oversee Rearden’s mills:

“Mr. Rearden,” he had said once, “if you feel you’d like to hand out more of the Metal to friends of yours – I mean, in bigger hauls – it could be arranged, you know. Why don’t we apply for a special permission on the ground of essential need? I’ve got a few friends in Washington. Your friends are pretty important people, big businessmen, so it wouldn’t be difficult to get away with the essential need dodge. Of course, there would be a few expenses. For things in Washington. You know how it is, things always occasion expenses.”

This is obviously an outrage, because of the impeccable moral standards of Randian businessmen. As we all know, Hank Rearden would never debase himself by applying for government permits or doing anything else that would tarnish his spotless record of demanding sex from his female customers as payment.

The State Science Institute has put in an order for ten thousand tons of Rearden Metal for a secret project, strongly implied to be military, which under the Fair Share Law Rearden isn’t permitted to refuse. Nevertheless, he turns them down flat:

The man who came to see Rearden a week later was youngish and slenderish, but neither as young nor as slender as he tried to make himself appear. He wore civilian clothes and the leather leggings of a traffic cop. Rearden could not quite get it clear whether he came from the State Science Institute or from Washington.

“I understand that you refused to sell metal to the State Science Institute, Mr. Rearden,” he said in a soft, confidential tone of voice.

“That’s right,” said Rearden.

“But wouldn’t that constitute a willful disobedience of the law?”

“It’s for you to interpret.”

“May I ask your reason?”

…Rearden glanced at him and asked, “Why does the State Science Institute need ten thousand tons of metal? What is Project X?”

“Oh, that? It’s a very important project of scientific research, an undertaking of great social value that may prove of inestimable public benefit, but, unfortunately, the regulations of top policy do not permit me to tell you its nature in fuller detail.”

“You know,” said Rearden, “I could tell you – as my reason – that I do not wish to sell my Metal to those whose purpose is kept secret from me. I created that Metal. It is my moral responsibility to know for what purpose I permit it to be used.”

So, this exchange raises an interesting question: How does it work in Rand’s world to be a weapon manufacturer?

We earlier read about Rand’s insistence that the only standard of value is how good you are at your job. By that standard, it would seem, the goal of a firearms company in an Objectivist world ought to be to get as many guns as possible into the hands of as many people as possible, and to beat back any legislation that would prevent them from selling weapons to anyone, like convicted criminals or the mentally ill.

There’s an unresolved contradiction in Objectivist philosophy here. One of the (very few) functions that Rand grants to the government is instituting a police force, to enforce contracts and protect people’s property (even though there’s no crime in Rand’s world). If government is the sole repository of that right, then private ownership of deadly weapons ought to be forbidden. On the other hand, it’s a core tenet of Objectivism that men have the right to trade freely with each other, that no one has the right to stop me from engaging in any commerce I choose with anyone who’s willing to sell to me. So why shouldn’t I be able to buy a handgun or a semiautomatic rifle – or even a machine gun or a grenade launcher?

Where does this right stop? Would Rand grant to private companies the right to manufacture tanks, or land mines, or nuclear bombs, or nerve gas, or weaponized anthrax, all to sell to the highest bidder? (Remember, if the only thing that matters is how good you are at your job, presumably that’s fine as long as you make good nerve gas!) Does the right to free commerce give men the right to purchase weapons of mass destruction and hire private armies answerable only to them? If not, why not?

In a devastating irony, Objectivism has the same unrealistic view of human nature as communism: to create a stable society, both require perfectly moral human beings who will always cooperate and work together peacefully. Specifically, Objectivism has to assume that even when the most powerful weapons in existence are freely available, men will remain peaceful, none of them attempting to impose their will on others. In reality, what would almost certainly happen is either the breakdown of society into anarchy, the war of all against all, or the reemergence of autocracy under the fist of whatever warlord can build up the biggest armed gang. This doesn’t seem to have occurred to Rand herself: as her defenders recognize, she never addressed the subject of guns and gun control in any meaningful way, other than to say, “I don’t know how the issue is to be resolved.”

Image: An AR-15 assault rifle, via Shutterstock

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: The Jolly Roger
Atlas Shrugged: Bare Branches
Atlas Shrugged: The Problem of Original Property
Atlas Shrugged: Missing and Presumed
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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