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

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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.

  • Michael

    Well, as you mentioned in “The Problem of Private Armies” some libertarians have in fact advocated private armies and police forces, while Rand rejected the idea. That would seem to imply some restrictions, though as you say it’s unclear just how far they apply. From what I’ve read, she did appear to believe the government should have a monopoly on police and military power, so presumably there would be a law against a private party instituting their own, but beyond that it was never explicitly stated.

  • busterggi

    I don’t get why companies that need THE METAL (well misc. use of caps also confuses me) can’t buy it? Even if Reardon has to sell it to all buyers doesn’t he have to choice in the sequence in which orders are filled?

  • B-Lar

    …but that would go against his “principles” which are clearly so unimpeachable and well thought out that SHUTUPANDOBEYMYWISHES.

  • Niek Beaujean

    “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.”

    This is exactly the point that I keep coming back to. The system doesn’t seem stable. After you eliminate government, it will simply be reinvented.

  • Gideon

    I sorta admire Rearden’s demand for transparency. I like when market participants, ultimately consumers, know more (and care) about the larger effects of their choices.

    But it also seems to me that it goes against the Randian spirit of individual sovereignty and autonomy. Whenever one Randian asks another Randian about their plans or goals, shouldn’t the proper reply be, “Buzz off. That’s not a question you’re entitled to ask me. I’m accountable to no one but myself.”

  • Alex SL

    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

    I am not actually sure whether that is the communist view of human nature. Real life communist practice was certainly not quite so naive, and even going back to Marx his view was that humans are mostly engaged in conflicts of interest, i.e. class struggles. Admittedly, Rand’s view of human nature likewise seems to include that most people IRL aren’t perfectly moral and prone to working together peacefully (after all, most of us are “looters”).

    So there is a parallel in that they both envisioned utopias in which people would be moral and cooperative, but communists argue that it could be achieved by building an economic system in which the source of conflicts of interest (the existence of different classes) has been removed whereas objectivists basically only have the option of arguing that it could be achieved by most people becoming objectivists.

    One may certainly argue that the communist utopia was naive and is unattainable, but it would be so for practical reasons of economic dynamics and not, as in the case of the objectivists, for reasons of necessitating a change in human nature.

  • Korey Peters

    And reinvented in a horrible and tyrannical fashion…

  • eyelessgame

    I attended a talk by David Brin at his and my alma mater, way back in about 1985, and among the things Brin said (it was a wide-ranging speech, and I remember a huge number of the details, thirty years on; he was almost creepily prescient) was how similar libertarians and communists turned out to be, in their simplistic views of human nature and desires for entirely explicit social contracts.

  • Jason K.

    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.”

    It’s interesting to me that Objectivists don’t seem able to resolve the issue themselves, either. I mean, if Objectivism really is a coherent philosophical system, then even if Rand herself never gave the issue much thought, other Objectivists should be able to apply her philosophy consistently in her absence.

    But the “Objectivism Reference Center” seems content to merely quote Rand’s conflicted statements on the subject and leave it at that. Who knows whether gun control is consistent with Objectivism? Certainly not Objectivists themselves. Without their charismatic leader available to issue a pronouncement one way or the other, the issue remains unresolvable.

  • Anna

    Any reason you keep saying men instead of people?

    Good post otherwise; Rand is full of contradictions.

  • Adam Lee

    In this case, I’m using it intentionally: Rand thinks men should be able to trade with each other. In her philosophy, it’s safe to say, women are at best an afterthought.

  • Jeff

    Similar to the recent cases in which a religious businessperson refused service to gay people on the grounds that they’re gay. There’s all sorts of flimsy and entirely legal pretexts one can use to refuse service to a person, yet these people shoot themselves in the foot on the principle that *one* of those flimsy pretexts is no longer allowed.

  • Nathaniel

    Its precisely because of the sort of problems outlined above that I have always considered Rand’s Objectivism to be Nietzsche’s Nihilism’s stupider and meaner cousin.

  • X. Randroid

    For some Objectivists, it is a point of pride that Rand never resolved this issue. They get to show off their independent reasoning by figuring it out themselves, and they love to point to it as proof that they aren’t just a bunch of brainwashed lockstep Randroids. “See, we allow disagreement! This guy thinks he should be allowed to keep a nuclear warhead in his backyard because owning a nuclear warhead isn’t initiating force. I disagree because I think just having the thing in your backyard is an implied threat of force against your neighbors, and that’s not okay.” (Yes, these are real arguments put forth by Objectivists.)

    They rationalize their inability to resolve such questions by claiming that they agree on the principles, not the application. They don’t pick up on the fact that their inability to agree on how to apply the principles might be a clue that there’s a problem with the principles.

  • X. Randroid

    Short answer is that Rearden isn’t given a choice. The Wet Nurse decrees that the law requires him to deliver 500 tons to each customer “in the order of the dates of their applications.” And the “applications” far outstrip supply, so the companies that need THE METAL are at the back of a very long queue.

    Longer answer is don’t think about it too hard. If you live in reality, you’ll probably never really get it. Rand tells us that “Nobody had known how [the Fair Share] law was to be observed.” In the real world, that would be Rearden’s cue to call in the lawyers, with the goal of getting the regulation thrown out. At the very least, they’d get a preliminary injunction, then drag out the litigation for years while Rearden continued with business as usual. But I guess we’re to assume that the courts in Atlasstan are too corrupt for that to work, or else Rearden is too stupid to think of suing. So instead of acting like a real corporate executive, he just suffers in silence and does what the Wet Nurse says, all so that Rand can show us how victimized poor Hank Rearden is.

  • Tova Rischi

    Full disclosure: I’m a filthy red. Sorry for the ramble too, but I don’t think Lee’s really wrong.

    There’s been many different kinds of communists. The socialist movement that we know well today originated amongst a group of utopian communists, who sought to make the structure of society reflect that of the early Christians and the Paris commune. There were and still are many religious communists, who cannot divorce their pet sociological constructs from theological obligation, and project their heavens into it.

    Marx’s greatest contribution to the modern era (I don’t think there’s disagreement but I’m not citing an expert on this opinion) was the momentum he added to the initiative to approach history and economics with a strictly materialist perspective; his theories are mostly secularized, grounded versions of Hegel’s view of the world, and many of his views and ideas were articulated in response to and grew from Auguste Comte’s positivism (basically (and crudely I’m no expert), the idea that the gaps in a particular science would be filled so much that we don’t need to rely on gods). He’s recognized as a founding father of sorts of social science, along with Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, largely because he did help to ground it outside of biblical interpretations and because much of the framework he helped to establish does function, despite the unsophistication and falsities in many of his particular views.

    Marx’s communism was an echo of the Paris Commune, which collapsed due to mixture of inner turmoil and outer persecution; he sought to eliminate the mistakes it made so that it could become a viable model. The reason is, because of its origin as a negation of the values that plunged France into the revolutions to begin with, it was seen as a just alternative. But because of its short lived existence, he was unable to see data that would plunge his own idea into utopianism.

    Namely, he predicted that productivity would be so heightened (by prosperity, by the fat and happy producers in a free society) that scarcity would disappear. Certainly in this idea, he was utopian.

    But because of Marx’s central prediction, that the contradiction (of interests) between classes can be marginalized and eliminated, bringing up the average quality of life of society, many desperate people latched on to the idea and made it dogma. Lacking a broader concept of what he was trying to say, they oversimplified an already incomplete and oversimplified theory past the point of comprehensibility. Many non-sequitur and badly construed arguments spewed forth and the ideology became a religion, with communism the Heaven thereof, despite even the efforts of the communists themselves.

    Now obviously as a communist I don’t see communism as against human nature (indeed, I don’t even believe that there is a meaningful thing), but I disagree with many definitions of communism – and it might be that I have a very poor definition of it. For me it’s sort of a relic name – I don’t think it necessarily entails any of the features of the Paris Commune. I don’t think we will ever (or should) get rid of markets. But I do think a society can achieve without a loss of prosperity a meaningful elimination of classes, something I think capitalism has already partially managed but won’t complete unless it becomes in places radically different. The rest is details to me, details that are in different cases right, wrong, meaningless, misunderstood or inaccurate.

    According to a dialectical view of things (one of Hegel’s ideas, and never articulated as such but underlying many of Marx’s ideas), an idea put forth (thesis) competes against others with competing interests (antithesis). The system together is called synthesis. These can put their differences aside (altruism) to compete for common interests, acting as a single thesis, and other syntheses can act as antitheses. Anything short of the whole of everything can be a thesis technically; a religion, a species, a word, a worker, a union, a nation, etc.

    A class to me meaningfully defined is a synthesis of many sub groups defined by their relation to the means of production. It acts as a thesis against other classes. When there is equitable access to the MoP there is only one thesis left because there is no more difference in definition, logically eliminating the conflict of interest regarding the MoP. This is communism to me; note that at all time there is no homogenization of the classes. Contradictions and conflicts of interest will arise along other grounds, and society will need to be analyzed along different lines.

    But it is true that a communism that requires a vanguard underestimates the temptation of power. It is true that a communism relying solely on the power of an all-encompassing state, union, or party in effect follows Marx’s model and merely takes another step in the cycle of revolutions and fails to create a two class society with a self-eliminating upper class. It’s true that a society governed by (a group of) thinkers that can act irrationally can not allocate resources efficiently. It’s true that a society based solely on chrematistics (as opposed to economy) cannot produce enough of a surplus to really maintain itself. It’s true that nothing possesses enough intelligence to assess any situation with complete accuracy. It’s true that a society sustained solely by its own productivity cannot meet its own demands because humans are not yet effective enough at capturing energy and reducing the effects just plain physics has on our bodies (I’m not going to say it’s impossible because I think it’s the same as saying life can’t evolve because thermodynamics but it certainly isn’t feasible in the short term).

    In that sense, he’s right.

  • Adam Lee

    The amusing thing is that even the Objectivist page I linked to at the end of the article admits this. The author says that he regularly gets e-mail from people saying that even though Rand didn’t state a position on gun control, it’s obvious from her other principles what the answer is… and people who say that split almost 50/50 on whether they’re for gun control or against it.

  • Pierre Cloutier

    So some Objectivists are in effect supporters of Feudal tyranny. After all if Police forces / mi8litaries are privatized just how will contracts be enforced? After all if I have a army under my command and someone I screwed over in a contract I broke does not, just how will the contract be enforced against me? So aside from so many Objectivists & Libertarians supporting vastly increased powers for the Judiciary, under the rubic of if your rights are violated you can just sue, we have a barely disguised call for the establishment of Feudalism.

  • James Jarvis

    The obvious answer to the question of why Rearden refuses to sell his metal to the State Science Institute because like all of Rand’s heroes he is wise and knows all things. Once they get the Readen metal they will give to the moochers to use for their evil altruistic and anti-capitalist projects.

  • Michael

    That does indeed seem to be what it work out as. It’s kind of ironic that libertarians/Objectivists (rightly) criticize Marxists for having a ridiculously idealistic view of human nature, as theirs is equally absurd. In fairness, however, Ayn Rand rejected the idea, saying government must have a monopoly over force, so she wasn’t so off the deep end as some, surprising as it may seem.

  • Michael

    I think that can be clearly inferred from her articles like “Why I Won’t Vote for a Woman President” in which she stated her views on the subject very explicitly-that is, women should serve men.

  • Michael

    Although she never admitted the fact later, from what I’ve read Rand was first an adherent of Nietzsche’s philosophy, then (sort of) came up with her own over time, so that isn’t surprising.

  • UnsaltedSinner

    This is the first time I can remember seeing a quote where Ayn Rand says she doesn’t know the answer to a question.

  • Donalbain

    The argument is sometimes that an individual will be free to hire the services of another armed group to enforce their rights. As a result of the magical free market and the fact that there can be no disagreements between the rational people who run these armed groups, everything will work out just fine.

  • Adam Lee

    Yep. That said, I appreciate Anna calling me out on this! I could have been clearer about why I was doing it.

  • Adam Lee

    What I meant by this is that capitalism, for all its flaws, has a clear answer to the question of how to motivate people to do work that’s unappealing but necessary. In a communist utopia, who would be the janitors, the farm workers, the garbage collectors, the coal miners?

    For people to volunteer for this work in sufficient numbers, I think, would require a higher level of commitment to the common good than has ever been observed in any human society. I just don’t believe people are cooperative to the degree that a true communist society requires. On the scale of a small commune, where all the members know each other and are self-selected for their willingness to join such a project, it could probably be made to work. On the scale of a society of millions of people, I doubt it ever would.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    Another real world possibility would be that a legitimate need for such legislation/ regulation was seen but the variables involved in determining the real boundaries of it would require an “on the ground” viewpoint which would be beyond the scope of what a legislative body could accomplish without rendering the law overreaching, unenforceable, and/ or ineffective. So lawmakers would enact the law to the extent possible and leave it the courts to figure out the particulars of applicability in large part and adjust where and as needed. So Rearden would either need to lawyer up himself, wait for someone else to do so, or join up with others in the same boat as him to see if and how it applied to his industry in general and company specifically.

  • Alex SL

    I see. But at a minimum one would have to consider that “communism” is much more heterogeneous than objectivism (perhaps more akin in scope to all of libertarianism together), and thus includes many more different utopias and views of human nature.

    For example, if one were to consider the abolishment of private property of the means of production to be the core of the communist agenda, then a society could be considered communist while still using money and differential salaries to motivate people.

  • X. Randroid

    tt’s a rare thing for her. Evolution is the only other example that comes to mind.
    In both cases, I suspect Rand may have sensed that they raised serious questions about her “philosophical system.” The question of gun control points to internal inconsistencies, as Adam has noted, while evolution points to inconsistencies with the empirical reality of human nature. Rather than confront the problems, she punted.

  • X. Randroid

    As I recall, later in her life she admitted to having gone through a Nietzsche phase in her youth, but she insised that she was completely over him by the time she started The Fountainhead (which came before Atlas Shrugged). Yet another thing she was wrong about.

  • Michael

    Not surprising.

  • J_Enigma32

    I had a chance to bring this up to a libertarian anarchist the other day — a reminder that the CNT-FAI and the Free Territory in Ukraine did not fair very well against Franco or Stalin. The response I got was:

    “Pure guesswork. The only threat to diversity of law is a monopoly of law and the only cure for monopoly is to keep breaking it apart.”

    I’m still curious how Franco stomping out the CNT-FAI is “pure guesswork” rather than “historical fact,” but it’s like I said when I kicked the conversation off: “they deal with political theory. And everything looks good in theory, but as anyone who’s ever dealt with theory can tell you, it doesn’t survive impact with reality.”

    Anarchism yields eventually to tyranny of some sort. It’s a truism as long as you have humans who don’t all believe the same thing.

  • Hawker40

    Communists and libertarians both believe in a system that requires perfect people; the difference is that communists believe that The State can train/create such people, while libertarians believe that if The State would stop interfering such people would already exist.

  • Science Avenger

    She had the same problem with government funding. She essentially threw up her hands, mentioning a national lottery (yeah, that’s got a great track record) and then blanking-out by suggesting that was a question for future political philosophers to hash out.

  • Science Avenger

    We really need to stop calling it “gun control”. The issue is really weapons control. And the reason Objectivism stumbles on this is because they don’t recognize accidents, nor do they honestly tackle the problem of collateral damage. Rand’s excuses for why everyone deserved to die in the tunnel collapse illustrates this to a tee. Having one innocent Objectivist worker, say Mike from the Fountainhead, who just happened to board the death train on his way to grand productive behavior, blows up the whole facade. Objectivism treats every weapon-wielder as a perfect shot, both physically and morally. We wouldn’t need to worry about weapons in that world.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    Maybe it’s just me, but I found Rand’s ambiguity on gun control far more sensible than that of, say, the NRA, who seems to believe that no weapon is too deadly to be owned by vast swaths of people, and that the people need to be kept in a constant state of fear and paranoia in order to want such weapons. At least Rand admitted that registering guns is not a serious threat to anyone’s freedom, whereas the NRA seems willing to start a war over it. Yeah, I’m grading on a curve here.

  • Doomedd

    What I meant by this is that capitalism, for all its flaws, has a clear answer to the question of how to motivate people to do work that’s unappealing but necessary.

    If you can negotiate with the employer, it work well. Problem is, when the employer is far more powerful than the worker, you have a situation that not unlike slavery (working poor). It can go as far as actual slavery if the production is outsourced where there is no worker protection,

  • KennethJohnTaylor

    It’s the failure of all great “isms” and their devote followers: The inherent socio-political/ideological belief that their system works so long as everyone just behaves the way the system says they ought to (cf. naturalistic fallacy).

    This ideal — the super honor system — has never been known to work in any open government, location or culture in the history of the world.

    Any philosophy (whether its political, or moral, or economic) that doesn’t start with the basic premise that people are unpredictable assholes is fundamentally flawed.