Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand vs. Carl Sagan

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter II

The decay of Colorado is accelerating. Men that Dagny knows personally, men who love their jobs and swear that they’ll never leave, that they’ll resist whatever blandishment or temptation is claiming their fellows, or at the very least that they won’t disappear without an explanation, are vanishing one after another without a word. Since I’m nothing if not scrupulously fair to Ayn Rand, I’ll cite this passage as a well-executed example of building suspense:

One by one, the men who had built new towns in Colorado, had departed into some silent unknown, from which no voice or person had yet returned. The towns they had left were dying. Some of the factories they built had remained ownerless and locked; others had been seized by the local authorities; the machines in both stood still.

…It seemed to her that some destroyer was moving soundlessly through the country and the lights were dying at his touch – someone, she thought bitterly, who had reversed the principle of the Twentieth Century motor and was now turning kinetic energy into static.

While the economy teeters on the brink, Dagny has staked everything on her quest to reconstruct the magic motor, now with the help of Quentin Daniels, the young scientist Robert Stadler recommended to her as someone who might be able to accomplish the deed.

She had liked Quentin Daniels from the moment he entered her office on their first interview. He was a lanky man in his early thirties, with a homely, angular face and an attractive smile. A hint of the smile remained in his features at all times, particularly when he listened; it was a look of good-natured amusement, as if he were swiftly and patiently discarding the irrelevant in the words he heard and going straight to the point a moment ahead of the speaker.

“Why did you refuse to work for Dr. Stadler?” she asked.

The hint of his smile grew harder and more stressed; this was as near as he came to showing an emotion; the emotion was anger. But he answered in his even, unhurried drawl, “You know, Dr. Stadler once said that the first word of ‘Free, scientific inquiry’ was redundant. He seems to have forgotten it. Well, I’ll just say that ‘Governmental scientific inquiry’ is a contradiction in terms.”

Notice: it’s not just that government-funded scientific inquiry is slower, or more bureaucratic, or less efficient than the private sector. Rand calls it a contradiction in terms, like a square circle or a married bachelor. This fits with her earlier expressed view that everyone who works for the government is a stooge or an incompetent, though not with the inconvenient fact that it was government-sponsored research that gave us radar, space flight, GPS, nuclear energy, computers, and the Internet.

If you think I’m putting too much weight on three words, then I say that we see this attitude bleeding into the real world. Witness Michele Bachmann ludicrously claiming the free market could cure Alzheimer’s disease in ten years flat, if only the government would stop providing all that research funding. It’s not clear to me what argument she thought she was making: was it that there’s a cure waiting in the wings that’s being held back by evil Rand-villain bureaucrats? But then why wouldn’t it be ready immediately, if the government backed off? Or is it that government money somehow makes scientists stupid? Even if that were true, it says nothing about the intrinsic difficulty of the problem, so where did that timetable come from?

Daniels explains that he’s officially working as a night watchman at the Utah Institute of Technology, which was shuttered for lack of funds. He’s the only person left on the abandoned campus, doing his own experiments in the laboratory, just for pleasure:

“What do you intend to do, if you discover something of scientific importance or commercial value? Do you intend to put it to some public use?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“Haven’t you any desire to be of service to humanity?”

“I don’t talk that kind of language, Miss Taggart. I don’t think you do, either.”

She laughed. “I think we’ll get along together, you and I.”

It sure is a good thing that Daniels isn’t quite as much of an Objectivist superman as Francisco d’Anconia, or else he might have punched her just for saying that.

You may notice that Daniels, toiling by himself in an abandoned lab, is another example of how Rand believes scientific progress happens. Her ideology requires that all great discoveries be the handiwork of individuals. Hank Rearden invented Rearden Metal apparently by himself – as we find out later, he’s the sole holder of the patent – not to mention his revolutionary bridge design, which came to him ex nihilo, in a single flash of genius. John Galt likewise created the perpetual-motion motor with no help or advice from anyone, not building on any prior research. Rand recoils from the idea of science as a collaborative, incremental process, even though that’s the way it usually happens, not through a string of isolated geniuses.

Now, let’s revisit that claim that government-funded science is a contradiction in terms. I can’t think of a better counterexample than NASA’s Voyager spacecraft. Here’s Carl Sagan, in his book Pale Blue Dot, explaining what the Voyagers accomplished:

Before their launch, in August and September 1977, we were almost wholly ignorant about most of the planetary part of the Solar System. In the next dozen years, they provided our first detailed, close-up information on many new worlds – some of them previously known only as fuzzy disks in the eyepieces of ground-based telescopes, some merely as points of light, and some whose very existence was unsuspected.

It’s thanks to the Voyagers that we discovered the rings of Jupiter and the volcanoes of Io, proved that the Great Red Spot was an anticyclonic storm, saw hints of an ocean beneath the ice of Europa and the dense hydrocarbon atmosphere of Titan, got our first close-up glimpses of Uranus and Neptune, and spotted geysers on Neptune’s moon Triton. Though they were only designed to survive as far out as Saturn, the Voyagers are both still functioning, and Voyager 1 has crossed the heliopause and is returning data from interstellar space.

To the list that begins with the Voyagers, we could add many more: the Mars rovers Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity; the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan; the Hubble Space Telescope; the Kepler planet-finder; the WMAP satellite; the Large Hadron Collider that proved the existence of the Higgs boson; the BICEP2 experiment that may have found primordial gravitational waves; and more. All of these have increased our knowledge of the cosmos immeasurably, bringing back evidence of wonders we could scarcely have imagined, and none of them could have been created by one man working by himself in an abandoned lab. Then again, since their purpose was “service to humanity” rather than to bring back something that could be packaged and sold, perhaps Rand’s characters would disparage them as mere “abstract science”.

Image credit: NASA

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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.

  • Alex SL

    These exchanges between Taggart and Daniels would make a bit more sense if they went “no, of course I will patent any inventions I make and earn money, because that is how it should work so that people have an incentive to invent things for the good of humanity in the first place”.

    But it sounds more as if the point of scientific and engineering innovations, to those two, is to actively hide them from the rest of the world. Anything that helps humanity is bad. What, then, are innovations good for? So I assume that that isn’t what is meant, but in that case it is badly expressed.

  • eyelessgame

    “It seemed to her that some destroyer was moving soundlessly through the country and the lights were dying at his touch – someone, she thought bitterly, who had reversed the principle of the Twentieth Century motor and was now turning kinetic energy into static.”
    Scalzi’s comment about intelligent cups of yogurt is apropos here.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    “Haven’t you any desire to be of service to humanity?”

    “I don’t talk that kind of language, Miss Taggart. I don’t think you do, either.”

    One thing I’ve noticed is that on those occasions when Randian heroes are asked directly whether they care at all about the good of humanity, they tend to evade the question. They either go with something akin to the above, or they pretend not to understand what it means.

    I guess we’re supposed to assume that our superheroes don’t even conceptualize what it means to care about other people, but it’s a pretty basic concept and these are otherwise straight-shooters who are direct and to-the-point, unlike the villains, who are always being vague and changing the subject. Was Rand was just a teensy bit embarrassed by their attitude such that she couldn’t just have them say “No”?

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    Witness Michele Bachmann ludicrously claiming the free market could cure Alzheimer’s disease in ten years flat, if only the government would stop providing all that research funding.

    Well, according to the article, Bachmann blamed it on “overzealous regulators, excessive taxation and greedy litigators.” She didn’t directly blame government funding. It’s still unclear what she could possibly be talking about (money spent on research is tax deductible, and who exactly sues Alzheimer’s researchers?). I suspect she just threw together typical right-wing buzzwords, and, being a true believer, combined them with her belief in magic.

    If there is one thing that that pharmaceutical industry really wouldn’t want, it’s reduced government funding of research. That funding acts as an effective subsidy for their own efforts and is how they get their scientists trained. Anyone who thinks that government and industry have an adversarial relationship here doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

  • raylampert

    Did Rand actually believe that a person couldn’t be both socially conscious as well as competent? How would she view things like the many voyages of discovery undertaken by great explorers? Sure, the royals who sponsored them were mainly in it because “more land = more wealth”, but a lot of explorers went into it because of curiosity, or adventure, or prestige, or any number of reasons aside from personal profit. What about when Volvo literally gave away its patent on the three-point seat belt so everybody could build safer cars?

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    That passage — and pretty much every other one I’ve seen mentioned — describes the disappeared as exclusively men. Are there any women in Galt’s Gulch? Don’t any of the disappeared industrialists have wives? Or children or other relatives that they want to rescue from the coming apocalypse, for that matter–it’s kind of odd that it’s not industrialists AND their families disappearing. Or are they all, to a person, supposed to be miserable mooches and leeches and better left to die? And why isn’t it harder to get men to move to a place that’s apparently almost totally male? From what I’ve heard Rand’s ideology doesn’t allow for the magical industrialists to be gay, so they’re not going to have much in the way of love lives.

    And they makes me curious about what happened to anyone who turned down Galt’s offer. Surely there had to have been at least a few. I’m guessing they still “disappeared”, but in a different way.

    Also, for anyone who wants a much better take on the ‘lone inventor transcends known laws of science’ idea, I suggest Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio.

  • TBP100

    Yes, it’s telling that virtually none of Rand’s heroes is married, and the handful that are are married to evil people they can cheat on and/or abandon in good conscience. For that matter, most of the heroes seem to spring from nowhere; parents and geographic origins are seldom if ever mentioned. As far as I remember none of them have kids. Having children means, at least to some extent, voluntarily putting the welfare of others ahead of your own, at least for a certain number of years (or it should; I’m not so naive as to think that’s actually universal practice). That would be very awkward to work around in the world of her books. Back in the days long past when I read a lot of Rand (actually I was a bit of a Randroid, I’m sorry to admit), I don’t remember her ever dealing with what Objectivist child-rearing would look like.

  • nfq

    I was intrigued and googled this, so here’s a link for others who were similarly in the dark on the yogurt bit:

  • Alex SL

    Leeloo, TBP,

    I seem to remember that the problem of children has been mentioned before on this blog. They are one of those issues that, when thought about even for a bit, make her ideology fall apart. Her brand of libertarianism (as well as most others, it seems) only makes sense if we assume all people to be created fully developed. But if much of their fate depends not on their own decisions and innate capabilities but instead on how much their potentially impoverished, potentially wealthy, or potentially neglectful parents selflessly invested in them while they were kids, how can anybody claim that outcomes under a libertarian system would be fair and just, or that selflessness is not crucial to maintaining humanity?

    Another thing, by the way: “a homely, angular face”? Isn’t that a contradiction in itself? Surely her sense of aesthetics must differ from mine. Which, according to her, of course proves that I’m objectively wrong. Hm.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    Here’s that weird gnosticism showing up again. I think those evasions you mention aren’t really “evasions,” but rather an appeal to the secret knowledge of what people “really” mean and that, somehow, all of our heros can detect.

  • Benjamin Fox

    Maybe it’s just a function of this blog series having gone on for so long, but it seems to me that we’re late in the book to start introducing new characters. Having not read Atlas Shrugged myself, I have no idea how far along we actually are in relation to the plot as a hole, but it seems like we’re well into the second act. Though I am pleased that my Rand-heroic-detector rightly pegged Quentin Daniels as a hero (being a good looking man, after all), it just seems like the plot is spinning its wheels and not really going anywhere.

  • X. Randroid

    Rand said very little on the subject of children or child-rearing, and it’s pretty clear that she had little interest in (or understanding of) the subject.

    There is a brief passage in Part III where we find out that “motherhood” is the “chosen profession” of one of the female strikers in Galt’s Gulch. She’s the wife of another striker, and they have two children. (It’s stated that wives are not automatically admitted; they have to be on strike themselves. Apparently if both parents strike, the children get to join them.) The mother utters a couple of sentences to the effect that the proper way to raise a child is to protect them from any hint of anything irrational.

    Apart from that, Rand had pretty much nothing to say on children. She made a few uninformed pronouncements about child psychology in her book on epistemology, and she wrote an essay (“The Comprachicos”) on corrupt, child-warping educational programs. But that’s about it.

  • Sue White

    I can’t figure out what Rand thought *anything* was good for. What is the point of building steel mills or oil wells or railroads? What if all the consumers decided to go on strike – how would her capitalist heroes make any money?

  • X. Randroid

    Not to mention the question of whether it is ever in a prospective parent’s rational self-interest to have and raise a child. Given the amount of “investment” required and the extreme uncertainty of any “return,” it’s hard to see how it could be. That said, many of Rand’s followers come up with creative rationalizations and have kids anyway.

  • RedneckCryonicist

    John Galt likewise created the perpetual-motion motor with no help or advice from anyone, not building on any prior research.

    You haven’t read the novel that carefully, have you? When Dagny and Hank discover the remains of Galt’s motor in the abandoned factory, Dagny states that she recognized it immediately because she likes to stay current on engine technology (Why not? She runs a railroad), and she remembered an article she read some years previously about a failed attempt by someone other than Galt to derive power using Galt’s physics hack. Galt must have read about the same research, only he got it to work.

  • David Cortesi

    Her description of Daniels (lanky, angular, homely) reminded me of Philo T. Farnsworth, who would have been quite well-known as an anti-establishmentarian scientist at the time.

    [1] real pic:

    [2] Heroic statue practically out of Rand’s prose:

  • Cactus_Wren

    I suspect that there’s an element of, “If I pretend not to know what you’re talking about when you say X, I can make out that X doesn’t exist or at least is not worth discussing.” Witness Margaret Thatcher’s “society does not exist” dictum. (Or Kent Hovind’s “Show me some gravity. Bring me a jar of it, and paint it red while you’re at it.”)

  • Loren Petrich

    Adam Lee tells us where he’s at in his posts. Table of Contents for Atlas Shrugged » ÆtherCzar also includes short plot summmaries.

  • James Jarvis

    You most likely meant to write the plot as a whole but “the plot as a hole” works pretty well to describe Atlas Shrugged.

  • James Jarvis

    The main problem with Atlas Shrugged is that it sees any attempt to protect people from bad design or dangerous products as somehow stifling innovation. Thus there is no need for safeguard or testing. So Rand’s hero can build bridges, railroads or perpetual motion machines and never have to worry about engineering studies or testing. A true innovator can never fail and if you get killed by something built by a self proclaimed innovator its your fault for trusting someone who was not a true innovator.

  • J-D

    In many human societies, the balance of economic costs and benefits is strongly in favour of having children. They start contributing household labour once they’ve passed the toddler stage, by the beginning of adolescence they can produce more than they consume, and by the time they reach adulthood the odds are that the parents will have more than recouped their economic investment.

    This is of course not true in modern industrial societies, a fact it seems reasonable to connect with our low birth rates.

  • X. Randroid

    That’s one of Rand’s problems. She objected on principle to any notion of redistribution of wealth. And she apparently had heard redistribution justified in terms of putting money into the hands of consumers, to increase their purchasing power and spur economic growth. From this she reasoned that “consumers” must be nothing but evil moochers who can’t live except by seizing the wealth of producers (whom the consumers wrongly denounce as evil in order to justify seizing their wealth).

    Her solution: allow the producers to produce as much of whatever they want as possible, and a market for whatever it is will naturally arise. (And if it doesn’t, well, the producer will just have to find something else to produce.)

    What this leads to in Atlas Shrugged is the spectacle of Hank Rearden producing at full plant capacity long after all the industries that might consume his product are defunct or (as in the case of Dagny’s railroad) not investing in infrastructure. And Ellis Wyatt in Galt’s Gulch producing way more oil in a day than the strikers have any conceivable use for. And Andrew Stockton declaring that Rearden will “triple everyone’s production,” apparently just because he’s so productive himself. Production is good, period; everything else will take care of itself.

    I think of it as yet another false dichotomy: in this case between producers and consumers. In a functioning economy, everyone is both … and if theres’ not enough consumption going on, production is going to decrease, no matter how capable or brilliant the “producers” may be.

  • Adam Lee

    But it sounds more as if the point of scientific and engineering innovations, to those two, is to actively hide them from the rest of the world. Anything that helps humanity is bad.

    Yes, that’s precisely what they’re doing, and it’s what the Galt’s Gulchers are doing as well. Their argument is that, if society refuses to pay them what they believe they deserve for their effort, they should withdraw the products of their mind from the outside world so as not to help the unworthy. There’s a doctor living in the Gulch who’s invented a cure for stroke, but refuses to tell anyone in the outside world what it is because he doesn’t think the world deserves to have it. Not kidding.

  • Adam Lee

    If I were going to steelman Bachmann’s argument, I’d probably say that government money comes with burdensome regulation that’s holding back promising lines of inquiry and hampering the pace of discovery.

    But for that argument to work, you’d have to identify which lines of inquiry are being blocked by red tape – and no Alzheimer’s researchers that I’m aware of are claiming that a cure is in sight but that the government is keeping us from reaching it.

    You’d also have to explain why withdrawing government funding would result in research continuing under fewer restrictions, as opposed to the work just being halted entirely for lack of funds. After all, even money with burdensome strings attached is better than no money at all. Does she think free private funds would just materialize if government funding ceased?

  • Adam Lee

    This is skipping ahead a bit, but we do eventually meet the people living in Galt’s Gulch. Out of all the Gulchers that Rand names and describes, I believe precisely four of them are women (one of whom is Dagny), whereas if I recall correctly, there’s somewhere between twenty and thirty men. As you note, this implies some extremely obvious problems which never seemed to occur to Rand.

    And they makes me curious about what happened to anyone who turned down Galt’s offer. Surely there had to have been at least a few. I’m guessing they still “disappeared”, but in a different way.

    As far as we’re told, no one ever turns down Galt’s offer. It’s one of the most extravagantly ridiculous of Rand’s paradoxes that she envisions a society of fierce individualists who are nevertheless all in perfect agreement.

  • Sue White

    She only asked that question to verify his credentials as One of Us. Nobody talks that kind of language.

  • Adam Lee

    To be precise, what Rand says is that earlier attempts to create Galt’s motor never worked and were eventually given up as impossible. Dagny claims that the idea was “forgotten for generations” and that “I didn’t think that any living scientist ever thought of it”. It’s obvious that Rand means us to conclude that Galt deserves 100% of the credit for making it work.

  • X. Randroid

    You haven’t read the novel carefully, have you? What Dagny says is that she noticed the coil because “I had seen drawings like it, not quite, but something like it, years ago, when I was in school—it was in an old book, it was given up as impossible long ago …. It was forgotten for generations. I didn’t think that any living scientist ever thought of it now.” So this thing is far from current engine technology, which tells us Galt is not collaborating with anyone.

    As far as whether he built on prior research, Stadler tells us that Galt “quietly performed a major revolution in the science of energy,” which was necessary to make the “impossible” motor possible. (Rand, being a rigid foundationalist, assumes that in order to build a working motor, one must first understand the physical theory that makes it possible, which is probably not true in reality, but never mind that.) Stadler is unaware of anyone making any efforts in this theoretical field; otherwise, he’d presumably have more names for Dagny. So the prior attempts were not an attempt to use “Galt’s physics hack,” as the prior attempters were not even thinking of such a hack.

    So, at most, the “old book” inspired Galt to try to make a static-electricity motor, but everything else came from himself. The “prior research” was all wrong, as it was on the wrong foundation; Galt threw it out and started over from the foundational question of what is energy.

    That is as Rand intends: all great ideas come from a single human mind, and there is no such thing as creative collaboration.

  • Adam Lee

    I hadn’t heard that story about Volvo giving away its patent, but yep, here it is. Fascinating story, and I imagine it’s the kind of altruistic act that Rand would have found inconceivable.

  • J-D

    Consumption is an end in itself, but production is not. Consumption is the only end that production can serve. Production of goods or services with no prospect of any chance that they will be consumed can serve no purpose.

  • Benjamin Fox

    That can’t be true. Please tell me you’re making this up.

  • J-D

    When Michele Bachmann states that ‘government … has created … overzealous regulators, excessive taxation and greedy litigators’, it’s the third point that puzzles me most. Government does in fact create regulators (even if we disagree with her about whether they’re overzealous) and taxation (even if we disagree with her about whether it’s excessive). But how does the government, even in her dreams, create litigators? (‘In her dreams’ is the only possible way that scientists told her that Alzheimer’s could be cured within ten years, if we assume that she’s complying with the laws about consumption of psychoactive drugs.)

  • J-D

    If, in Rand’s utopia, motherhood is a profession that women can choose, among others, isn’t it likely that only a minority will choose it? Was Rand forecasting a society in which the majority of women will remain childless?

  • RedneckCryonicist

    How could Dagny readily recall something which had allegedly fallen into oblivion generations ago? She clearly exaggerated in the heat of the moment.

    BTW, the novel also indicates that Galt had a colleague in the factory’s laboratory who joined him on his strike but died before the events in the novel. Presumably he must have worked with Galt on the new motor. Dagny and Hank inferred as much when they tried to find the guy, only to hear of his death from his widow.

  • RedneckCryonicist

    A recent Salon article says that Atlas Shrugged promotes the belief that “All natural resources are limitless.”

    Again, I have to wonder about people’s reading comprehension. The novel states that many of Francisco d’Anconia’s mines in South America had played out, but he pretended to run them at a loss any way to deplete his fortune and keep the socialist governments in Chile and Argentina from confiscating it.

    The striker who abandoned his coal mine and went to Galt’s Gulch tells Dagny there that he thought about giving iron mining a go as his new career, but he hadn’t found any iron ore. In this example, Rand’s heroes don’t have genie-like superpowers to create natural resources from nothing.

    And the novel’s advocacy of the gold standard also makes the Malthusian assumption about the scarcity of element number 79 in the periodic table. I’ve wondered how libertarians who advocate the gold standard on the one hand, and resource cornucopianism (of the late Julian L. Simon sort) on the other hand, can juggle these two ideas’ contradictory assumptions. Gold standard advocates have to assume that no Man of the Mind will ever figure out how to increase the gold supply enough to turn it into a throwaway commodity, as had happened in the 20th Century to another element listed in the periodic table, namely aluminum.

    If anything, Atlas Shrugged these days reads like Peak Oil survivalist porn. The heroes have to retreat to their doomstead in Colorado to wait out an inevitable Malthusian crash in the U.S. caused by resource depletion. After the crash runs its course, they plan to rebuild a more sensible economy on the wiped slate of the former United States.

  • Charles Dabove Gutierrez

    What this leads to in Atlas Shrugged is the spectacle of Hank Rearden producing at full plant capacity long after all the industries that might consume his product are defunct or (as in the case of Dagny’s railroad) not investing in infrastructure. And Ellis Wyatt in Galt’s Gulch producing way more oil in a day than the strikers have any conceivable use for. And Andrew Stockton declaring that Rearden will “triple everyone’s production,” apparently just because he’s so productive himself.

    I’m reminded of the production targets under the Soviet Union. I guess this might be another point where Objectivism makes sense as a fun house mirror version of Soviet Communism.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    It’s hard to imagine any possible universe in which government funding with “burdensome regulations” attached is worse than no funding at all. You can always turn down the funding, so by logical necessity, any researcher accepting government funds thinks that the benefit exceeds the cost.

    Again, I don’t think Bachmann was making a coherent argument at all. Her party has been throwing around these aphorisms forever, but she’s not smart enough to know that it’s propaganda meant for the masses, and that no one really believes that tax cuts or deregulation are going to unleash an era of super economic growth and magical new drug discoveries (or if anyone ever did, the Bush presidency should have disabused them of that notion for good).

  • Alex SL

    I see the point for the people in the Gulch, but Taggart and Daniels aren’t Galtians yet, right? They still try to work within the system, they don’t even know an alternative exists.

    So from that perspective, their insistence that one should never communicate any innovations seems really bizarre. It means that all inventions ever made and all insights ever gained should be made and gained by every individual human in parallel and separately, everybody re-inventing the wheel to show their own worth. In other words, that it is moral to throw out the greatest advantage that humanity has – cultural transmission.

    Objectivist logic means we should all still be sitting in a cave and dig for grubs in the field because the first people to invent housebuilding and agriculture should have taken those secrets to their graves.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    Wait a sec. The woman who chose “motherhood” as her profession is on strike? Who exactly is she striking against?

  • Snoof

    Maybe Rand just had an industry fetish.

    Maybe she got off on the idea of factories churning out products and trains chugging through tunnels and pistons pumping and molten steel spraying and tall, proud smokestacks pouring out thick, dark smoke…

    (Hey, it’s no sillier than some ideas I’ve seen.)

  • Omnicrom

    I think the reason all the hyper-individualists agree goes back to the Smoking thing: Rand imagines all the hyper-individualists as super-smart hyper-rationalists and all super-smart hyper-rationalists will agree with her because she’s a super-smart hyper-rationalist and her super smarts and hyper-rationalism tell her that her philosophy is the only smart and rational philosophy. If you conclude you are absolutely infallibly correct because of your hyper-individualist awesomeness than all awesome hyper-individualists will use their smarts and rationalism to march in lock-step with you.

    Rand’s world is Manichean. You’re right or wrong, maker or taker, producer or parasite. No one passes up Galt’s offer because obviously they’re right, maker, producers and it’s the right, maker, producer choice.

  • Azkyroth

    But for that argument to work, you’d have to identify which lines of inquiry are being blocked by red tape – and no Alzheimer’s researchers that I’m aware of are claiming that a cure is in sight but that the government is keeping us from reaching it.

    And ironically, the most likely avenue for something like this to actually happen would be via government restrictions on the use of embryonic stem cells, which Bachmann and other right-wing kooks generally enthusiastically support.

  • Azkyroth

    Ditto the guy who pointedly refused to patent Polarfleece.

  • Azkyroth

    How could Dagny readily recall something which had allegedly fallen into oblivion generations ago? She clearly exaggerated in the heat of the moment.

    Are you seriously arguing from the assumption, this far into the deconstruction blog series, that Rand couldn’t possibly have meant to assert a given idea via her characters because it doesn’t make sense?

  • Azkyroth





    as with any audience with a large number of nerds in it, a non-trivial number of Atlas Shrugged readers are possibly far enough along the Asperger spectrum that they don’t recognize humanity does not in fact easily suss out into Randian capitalist superheroes on one side and craven socialist losers on the other

    This must be what being a “tranny” in gay spaces is like.

  • Alex SL

    Honestly, I doubt that first part. Raising children is a huge amount of effort, and what was the pay-off, traditionally? Being cared for in your dotage, essentially, if your children are willing to do that that is. Now I am not saying that that is not a major concern, but I would be surprised if millions of teens and twens throughout history thought that far ahead. What is more, women historically decreased their likelihood of getting old rather considerably by having children, as untold numbers of them died in childbirth.

    No, it seems much more plausible that humans traditionally had so many children not because of economic calculus but because of a combination of other factors: sex drive; lack of reliable contraceptives; a desire to raise children and transmit one’s values that evolution built into us; and social pressure.

  • X. Randroid

    The educational system. According to this character, schools expose children to so much irrationality that it stunts their development and makes them believe their minds are impotent to understand reality, thereby inculcating a state of “chronic terror.”

  • Adam Lee

    At the risk of pointing out the obvious, Azkyroth, this time no one is posting objectionable material equating Ayn Rand with autism except you. If you take issue with something said in the linked post, I suggest you take it up with the author of that post.

  • PhiloKGB

    I’m persuaded by the evo-psych argument that, historically, infant and child mortality rates were high enough that having large broods was the best way to ensure that the parents were replaced in the next generation and then some.

  • Donalbain

    Dick move Adam. Someone posted a link, Azkyroth commented on the contents of that link. Perfectly sensible sequence of events.

  • Donalbain

    If available energy is limitless thanks to the magic motor then all resources are limitless.

  • Psycho Gecko

    “The hint of his smile grew harder and more stressed; this was as near as he came to showing an emotion; the emotion was anger.”

    To quote the Robot Devil: “Your lyrics lack subtlety! You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!”

    Still, you’d think government research would provide even more incentive for private research endeavors. Companies would be racing to patent and sell a cure for Alzheimer’s before the government could figure it out and just give it away. Too bad the money is too often in treatment rather than a cure.

  • Psycho Gecko

    Let them find the materials to make their own darn power cords then.

  • Psycho Gecko

    Um…the man?…wait a minute…

  • Azkyroth

    No idea what happened to the “reply to comment” links.

    Someone posted a link, Azkyroth commented on the contents of that link.

    Yeah, that.

    Being exposed to casual bigotry even in things that are nominally completely unrelated to one’s oppression isn’t fun. (Though I note, somewhat encouragingly, that Scalzi at least received enough pushback to close comments on the linked thread over it, though skimming it looks like a couple people who objected at the time were made to apologize over not being sufficiently considerate of his “intent”).

  • Science Avenger

    In Randworld, “being of service to humanity” means being a slave.

  • Science Avenger

    You guys are trying to logically interpret Michelle Bachman’s blatherings? Really? She doesn’t know what she means, why should we?

  • Bdole

    Voyagers? Mars rovers? Baah! If the free market were given truly free reign we’d have already colonized the galaxy by now donchano.

  • Bdole

    What happened to this site – the ads are on turbo. Half the page is repetitive ads. And now there’s a side ad that I have to close each time. Is Patheos hurting for cash?

  • J-D

    In _Our Kind: Who We Are, Where We Came From, Where We Are Going_, anthropologist Marvin Harris writes as follows:

    ‘In preindustrial farm families, children start to do household chores when they are still toddlers. By age six, they help gather firewood and carry water for cooking and washing; take care of younger siblings; plant, weed, and harvest crops; grind and pound grains; peel and scrape tubers; take food to adults in the fields; sweep floors; and run errands. By puberty, they are ready to cook meals, work full-time in the fields, make pots, containers, mats, and nets, and hunt, herd, fish, or do almost anything that adults do, although somewhat less efficiently. Studies carried out among Javanese peasant families by anthropologist Benjamin White show that boys of twelve to fourteen years of age contribute thirty-three hours of economically valuable work per week and that girls nine to eleven contribute about thirty-eight hours. Altogether, children perform about half of all work done by household members. White also found that Javanese children themselves do most of the work needed to rear and maintain their siblings, freeing adult women to engage in income-producing tasks. Meade Cain, a researcher for the Population Council, came to similar conclusions about the benefits of child labor in rural Bangladesh. Male children begin to produce more than they consume by age twelve. By age fifteen they have already made up for all the years during which they were not self-supporting.’

  • J-D

    You shouldn’t be, given the evidence that infant and child mortality rates were directly increased by parental behaviour in many human societies: sometimes by the intentional killing of infants; sometimes, particularly where intentional killing of infants was not socially acceptable, by the abandonment of infants (as in the practice of ‘exposure’ by classical Greeks and Romans); sometimes, particularly where openly permitting the death of infants was not socially acceptable, by surreptitious neglect.

  • J-D

    I had a similar reaction to Azkyroth’s (does it make a difference that there isn’t any personal dimension to mine?). I scrolled down to the comments solely to see whether anybody had tried to pull John Scalzi up on the issue. They had, and he’d argued back in defence of his usage, unpersuasively to my mind. I think John Scalzi had a mostly valid point to make which he could have made just as effectively without the ‘Asperger’ reference and it’s a pity he didn’t. There’s no point saying Azkyroth should take it up with him: people did at the time and it didn’t change his mind (well, not as far into the comments as I read).

  • Christopher R Weiss

    Adblock is available for IE, Chrome, and FF. I highly recommend it. I see no ads on this page. 8-}

  • Alex SL

    Thanks, I had already figured out that children must be a worthwhile investment for their parental generation, not least because otherwise, that is if they would always consume more resources than they contributed, our lineage would have gone extinct many generations ago. But that does not mean that people have children because they think they are a good investment.

    I mean, I am sure that if I went to my wife and presented her with a nice little calculation demonstrating, beyond reasonable doubt, that additional children would always constitute a good investment, and that we should therefore have another seven or so, she would still say no.

    If, on the other hand, she were raised without any education, she had no access to contraceptives, she were entirely under the power of an authoritarian husband who wanted more children, and her status in the community depended entirely on the number of babies she produced, then… you see where I am going with this?

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    It’s not necessary for people to conscientiously decide that more children are in their economic self-interest. All they have to do is observe that larger families are more prosperous, and that children are useful, and they get the idea that more babies are good. And of course this gets culturally reinforced such that everyone just “knows” that having lots of children is desirable.

    The same thing happens in our culture but with opposite results. Few people need to perform a literal calculation to understand that kids are burdensome and that having too many not only makes you poor but is also deviant.

  • J-D

    No, I don’t see where you’re going with this, because your scenario does not provide an adequate explanation of why the authoritarian husband wants more children, or of why the uneducated woman’s status in the community should depend entirely on the number of babies she produces.

    If the average lifetime result for a human being were to consume more resources than generated, the species would have gone extinct. Obviously that’s not the case. However, in prosperous modern industrial societies, it’s a common pattern for more resources to be invested in the rearing of a child than it generates for the household in which it is reared — and where that’s the case, fewer children are being raised. In societies where, on average, a child generates an economic return to the household in which it was reared that exceeds the investment in rearing it, more children are being raised. Why would you argue that’s a coincidence?

    It may be that in low-technology societies, or at least in some of them, there’s also, as you suggest, a pattern of emphatic male dominance, and that as part of this the economic benefit of rearing children is largely or wholly appropriated by the fathers, who take the decision in favour of large families and enforce it on women while returning to them little or none of the economic benefit. But if this is true in some cases it is still the economic benefit which is the principal motive for the decision in favour of high birth rates and large families; all your scenario means is that in such cases the mothers have little or no part in that decision,

    The decision which faces people in modern conditions of prosperity is typically not ‘Should we raise children (or, more children) for the economic benefit they will provide?’ but rather ‘Should we raise children (or, more children) despite the economic costs?’ Maybe you and your wife have never personally thought about it in those terms, but that doesn’t affect the likelihood that there are many similar households where people are making the decision not to raise children (or, more children) because they can’t afford it, and equally it doesn’t affect the likelihood that there are (and have been in the past) many differently circumstanced households where the decision has been made (whether by men alone, or by women alone, or by men and women together) to raise children (or, more children) because of the economic benefits.

  • Alex SL

    I don’t think that your considerations change much. Children are always necessarily a good investment for society as a whole. (The question could only be how the benefits are distributed. As you pointed out, it could be that men control all economic activity; more crucially, and as I pointed out above, traditionally women ran a great risk of dying in childbirth.)

    There is simply no good reason to assume that the same benefits for society as a whole don’t accrue today. As a reductio ad absurdum, we could consider what would happen if nobody had children. That also shows immediately that the benefits are not monopolised by a few people, meaning that everybody should still have the same incentives as two thousand years ago. So we would have to wonder why the mechanisms that made people have children don’t work any more, be they individual economic calculus or the observation that children make for a prosperous community. Even if an individual does not see the benefit, they could still be pressured by the community if everybody else does.

    So faced with that situation, it seems more parsimonious to me that women never wanted to have eight children but can today vote with their uteruses, now that they have the option to do so. And it will be hard to demonstrate that women in poor, ignorant, contraceptive-free present or historical societies really wanted so many children because they are/were not empowered to make such a decision in the first place.

  • J-D

    I am not persuaded that the concept of ‘good investment for society as a whole’ or ‘benefits for society as a whole’ is a coherent one. There are few if any things that benefit everybody in a society; it’s much more common, if not universal, for things that benefit some people in a society to make no difference to others, or even to be costly for them. And even if there is such a thing as a ‘good investment for society as a whole’, I don’t see how the birth of a child can be calculated to represent one. In any case, your explanation requires a focus on individual calculation to make it work. The way you see it, low birth rates in prosperous modern societies are the product of decisions by individual women not to raise children. It’s more parsimonious to attribute high birth rates in those societies that have them to individual decisions as well. Even if there’s some way of making sense of the idea that it’s society as a whole that wants more children to be reared, in most societies there is no effective mechanism that society as a whole can use to implement such a decision.

    The rearing of large numbers of children per couple is not, in any case, anything like a universal feature of poor, pre-modern, or low-technology societies. In many cases, the number of children reared was directly lowered by parental action, and whether this happened, the extent of it, and specific variations all reflected economic circumstances. I quote again from _Our Kind_:

    ‘Anthropologists have only recently awakened to the likelihood that a large portion of infant and child deaths formerly attributed to unavoidable starvation and disease may actually represent subtle forms of de facto infanticide. Indirect, surreptitious, and unconscious denials of nurturance to infants and children are extremely common … Research carried out by Nancy Scheper-Hughes in northeast Brazil, where 200 out of 1,000 babies die within the first year of life, provides insights into the complex psychological nuances that affect a mother’s decision to rear or not to rear a particular baby. … Children … whose mothers perceived them … as having a “ghostlike” or “animallike” appearance received less food and medical attention and were in fact likely to become ill and die within the first year of life. …

    ‘… Joseph Birdsell estimated that the Australian Aborigines destroyed as many as 50 percent of all infants. Various samples drawn from preindustrial societies indicate that between 53 percent and 76 percent practiced direct forms of infanticide. …
    ‘The first European explorers to reach China … were … shocked when … census figures … indicated that in some regions boys outnumbered girls four to one. The greatest imbalance coincided with regions of rural poverty and landlessness … In Fukien province as a whole, between 30 percent and 40 percent of female infants were not permitted to live, while in particular villages, rates of direct or indirect infanticide could range from 10 percent to 80 percent of live female births.
    ‘Northern India was another region where people systematically killed unwanted infants, especially females. … British administrators were astounded by recurrent reports of castes and villages that prevented even one female baby from surviving past infancy.
    ‘Europeans expressed horror when they found out how common infanticide was in Asia. They seemed oblivious to the fact that it was was almost as common in Europe … One peculiarly European form of indirect infanticide was called overlaying. Mothers took their nursing infants to bed and “accidentally” rolled over on them, suffocating them. Europeans also made much use of “wet nursing” to rid themselves of unwanted babies. … The low fee and the poor condition of … wet nurses guaranteed that life would be brief for the unwanted. Europeans also rid themselves of large numbers of infants by abandoning them in front of government foundling hospitals … the French installed revolving night depositories … with 336,297 infants legally abandoned during the decade 1824 – 1833. … Between 80 percent and 90 percent of the children in these institutions died during their first year of life.
    ‘… On the basis of his intensive study of birth records in two nineteenth-century Japanese villages, G William Skinner of Stanford University estimates that one-third of all couples destroyed their firstborn child. Another researcher, Susan Hanley, states that infanticide was so prevalent in premodern Japan that it became the custom not to congratulate a family on the birth of a child until it was learned whether or not the child was to be raised. …

    ‘Third World parents also take into account the different kinds of costs and benefits that can be expected from rearing male children versus female children. Where men make a more critical contribution to agricultural production than women, Third World couples prefer to rear boy babies rather than girl babies. … This is true of wheat-growing north India, where peasant couples set their sights on rearing at least two boys … and are quite happy not to have … daughters … In southern India and most of Southeast Asia and indonesia, the principal crop is … rice. … the most critical operations are … tasks women … perform as well as men. In these regions parents … rear as many girls as boys.
    ‘… During the nineteenth century, Japanese farm couples precisely fitted the size and sexual composition of their broods to the size and fertility of their land holdings. … they were able to achieve these precise reproductive goals only by practicing systematic infanticide.
    ‘… If … expected economic returns from parental investment in children can be increased by sending them to school and training them to get white-collar jobs, birth rates may fall very rapidly. Parents, in effect, substitute a strategy of rearing only a few well-educated but potentially well-paid and influential children for a strategy of raising a lot of poorly educated farm hands. … In the 1960s, Harvard University researchers selected a village called Manupur … as the site of a project … In a follow-up study, Mahmood Mamdani reported that the villagers accepted sterilization and contraceptives only after they had reached their target of two survivable males. “Why pay 2,500 rupees to an extra [hired] hand?” they wanted to know. “Why not have a son?” Fifteen years later, researchers … were astonished .. that the number of sons desired per couple had fallen considerably. … after the first study had been completed, the villages became involved in a number of technological and economic changes that … had greatly reduced the value of children as farm hands. At the same time, Manupur villagers were becoming aware of opportunities for employment in commercial and governmental firms and offices. … Many parents now want to keep their children in school rather than have them contribute manual labor. …

    ‘… The examples I have been discussing show that parents adjust their investment in childrearing to bring about improvements in the net contribution that children make to their well-being. …’

  • Benn

    After a three month break, I started back to reading “Atlas Shrugged” with this chapter. Three pages into the chapter and some questions starting cropping up. Questions like:

    If the lab Daniels works as a night watchman in shut down due to lack of funding, why would the owner(s) of the building need a watchman? Wouldn’t they have sold any lab equipment off or at least sent it to another lab?

    If Daniels is conducting his own experiments in the lab, doing his own research, wouldn’t that cause a bit of a spike in the electric bill? Wouldn’t the owner(s) notice that? Daniels is hired to be a watchman, not a scientist. Isn’t he cheating his bosses by doing research? How much time, if he’s actually doing a watchman’s job does he have to devote to scientific research? And just what exactly is he researching that he doesn’t need a team? Is the Utah lab so fully equipped that Daniels has all the supplies (including materials directly related to his area of research) he needs are there and he needn’t order or obtain anything else?

    At this point, I remembered why I needed a break from Ayn Rand’s, er, “classic”. I’ve since spent a week reading a bunch of comic books and am now reading the current issue of “Analog”. I finish that, I’ll dive back into AS. Reluctantly.

  • Alex SL

    Ye gods. Sorry, but I don’t have the time to wade through all this. Let me just say that “I am not persuaded that the concept of ‘good investment for society as a
    whole’ or ‘benefits for society as a whole’ is a coherent one” is just what Ayn Rand would have said, although probably with more conviction… But yes, whether people can be made to do what is good for society as a whole is the problem with my argumentation.

  • J-D

    I assert that people’s decisions to raise children, and also their decisions not to raise children, are frequently affected in a major way by economic considerations. (Please note that I do not assert that they are determined entirely by economic considerations.)

    You have expressed doubt about that assertion.

    So I have quoted descriptions of a variety of cases in which people’s decisions about raising children (whether, how many, and which) have been demonstrably affected by economic considerations, buttressed by descriptions of other cases that further confirm the point that raising children _is_ a choice and not just an automatic default, since people have often chosen not to raise their children (by direct or indirect infanticide).

    You choose not to inform yourself of these facts. Well, they’re still there for anybody else who’s interested.

    If your alternative explanation is that people raise children because it’s for the good of society as a whole, you are right that there’s a problem with that argument in that you haven’t explained how society makes people serve its purposes, but that’s not the only problem. How is it good for society as a whole? You haven’t explained that. And what about societies with high rates of infanticide? How do you explain that? Have you got some reason why in those societies it’s not for the good of society as a whole to raise more children? or some explanation of how those societies fail to get people to serve their social purposes where other societies succeed?

  • Alex SL

    > You choose not to inform yourself of these facts.

    Yes, so sorry for having work to do instead of wading through a J-D Jallop.

    > I assert that people’s decisions to raise children, and also their decisions not to raise children, are frequently affected in a major way by economic considerations. (Please note that I do not assert that they are determined entirely by economic considerations.) You have expressed doubt about that assertion. [...] If your alternative explanation is that people raise children because it’s for the good of society as a whole..

    I have no idea where you get all that from. My assertion is that (a) the decision to have children is not entirely determined by economic considerations (note in my very first reply how I pointed out that we aren’t very economically rational in the first place) and (b) I am not sure whether the economic considerations have changed as much today as you claim.

    My alternative explanation is that many people, and in particular women, would always have preferred to have fewer children but had less control over the number. Partly because of higher child mortality (meaning more children needed to be born to produce the desired number of adults), partly because they were ignorant and lacked access to contraceptives, partly because women did not have the right to decide for themselves.

  • J-D

    Modern societies with modern contraceptives are _not_ the only ones that have had small families as typical and low rates of natural population increase. Many premodern societies had the same. People have _always_ had power to control how many children they rear. Modern contraceptives are important in making this decision easier and cheaper, but many premodern societies achieved the same effect by killing infants either outright or by abandonment or neglect, sometimes on a large scale. If people wanted fewer children they could (and did) have fewer children; that’s not a recent development. The contrast is not between prosperous modern societies with modern contraceptives (and modern notions of women’s rights) and small families, and all other societies with large families and rapid increase of population.

    The contrast is between some societies where many households raise large numbers of children and other societies where most households raise few children. People who have investigated some of these societies have been able to draw specific connections between their patterns of child-rearing and economic conditions. If you doubt this, it seems natural to me to cite some of the evidence. Why you treat it as a failing on my part to introduce these facts into the discussion is beyond me.

  • James Yakura

    No government = no courts = no litigation. Since litigation can only exist with government, government therefore causes litigation.

  • J-D

    That’s true, but doesn’t explain Michele Bachmann’s position unless she advocates the total abolition of all government.

  • James Yakura

    Bachmann logic. If something cannot exist without some level of government, it stands to reason that more government means more of it.

    (Never mind that different kinds of government and different policies tend to produce different results, or that some things are based on a Boolean government-function-exists/government-function-does-not-exist state, or that litigation is usually a good thing since it provides a way to hold irresponsible producers accountable…)

  • aa

    It’s fiction. Anyway, Galt did not make the offer unless he’s sure the person is ready to accept it. In the book he works in the railroad to be close to Dagny to monitor when she’ll be ready to “stop working” and “give up Taggart Transc”. Rearden evolution in the book is a good example of this “change”. Galt’s offer are “after” the producer “changes” and it’s ready to stop producing at gunpoint.

  • GCT

    Yes, it’s fiction, but a lot of people (including Rand) seemed to think that it bears quite close resemblance to real life, and many people seem to think that this is guidebook to life. Secondly, you’re reinforcing Adam’s point by claiming Galt can’t be wrong when he invites others to his gulch.

  • J-D

    It is a legitimate criticism of a work of fiction that the behaviour of the characters is paradoxical and implausible. ‘It’s fiction’ is not an adequate defence. If characters in a work of fiction behave in a way that real people would never behave, that’s a flaw in the work of fiction, unless it’s a deliberately intended feature of the work to show characters behaving as real people never would: but we’re not talking about a work like _Alice In Wonderland_ here, are we?