Atlas Shrugged: The Gini Coefficient

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter I

After Hank chases off the government crony who wants to buy his metal, the chapter shifts to a series of vignettes with him and Dagny. They’re arranging increasingly frequent liaisons whenever Hank is in New York, and as the looter-run economy contracts around them, Dagny looks forward to her time with him more and more:

The only pride of her workday was not that it had been lived, but that it had been survived. It was wrong, she thought, it was viciously wrong that one should ever be forced to say that about any hour of one’s life.

If I didn’t know better, I’d think that Ayn Rand had just made an argument for living-wage laws. Of course, she would’ve supported no such thing – but it really is remarkable, the childlike naivete with which she assumes benevolence on the part of employers. For all that she cheers on laissez-faire capitalism, it never even crosses her mind that there could be such a category as the working poor: people whose employers exploit them as viciously as possible while paying as little as possible – often bare subsistence wages, and sometimes not even that. It’s of a piece with her belief that if all government regulation and protection of the economy ceases, everything will just work out, somehow.

As their affair continues, Hank starts buying Dagny extravagant gifts. He’s still the same rapey, controlling, possessive Hank, though, acting as though he owns her body just because he buys her things and treating her as if “consent is not required”:

She thought of the evening last winter when he came in, took a small package from his pocket and held it out to her, saying, “I want you to have it.” She opened it and stared in incredulous bewilderment at a pendant made of a single pear-shaped ruby that spurted a violent fire on the white satin of the jeweler’s box….

He led her to the bedroom, he took off her clothes, without a word, in the manner of an owner undressing a person whose consent is not required. He clasped the pendant on her shoulders. She stood naked, the stone between her breasts, like a sparkling drop of blood.

…”Do you think a man should give jewelry to his mistress for any purpose but his own pleasure?” he asked. “This is the way I want you to wear it. Only for me. I like to look at it. It’s beautiful.”

On the evening of a blizzard, she came home to find an enormous spread of tropical flowers standing in her living room against the dark glass of windows battered by snowflakes. They were stems of Hawaiian Torch Ginger, three feet tall; their large heads were cones of petals that had the sensual texture of soft leather and the color of blood. “I saw them in a florist’s window,” he told her when he came, that night. “I liked seeing them through a blizzard. But there’s nothing as wasted as an object in a public window.”


Just another mooching socialist who wants to put expensive things in museums.

It’s a waste of beautiful flowers to put them in a public window, where just anyone can enjoy looking at them! Instead, like all beautiful and valuable things, they should be sold off to the highest bidder and shut up in a private, climate-controlled vault, where only those with the proper level of wealth can gaze pleasurably upon them. As for the poor, their lives should be bleak, dreary and grey, because capitalism. If they don’t like that, well, they should have chosen to be born into a wealthy and privileged family instead.

“I like giving things to you,” he said, “because you don’t need them.”

“No?”

“And it’s not that I want you to have them. I want you to have them from me.”

“That is the way I do need them, Hank. From you.”

“Do you understand that it’s nothing but vicious self-indulgence on my part? I’m not doing it for your pleasure, but for mine.”

“Hank!” The cry was involuntary; it held amusement, despair, indignation and pity. “If you’d given me those things just for my pleasure, not yours, I would have thrown them in your face.”

“Yes… Yes, then you would – and should.”

This is one of the strangest outgrowths of Rand’s all-selfishness-all-the-time moral philosophy: the idea that giving gifts to someone for their enjoyment is evil. To do that would be an immoral sacrifice: giving up something you value more (your money) for something you value less (the happiness of a person who isn’t yourself). Instead, you should only give gifts to others for your enjoyment, which is presumably the enjoyment of knowing you’re a rich, high-status person who can buy expensive presents for your friends and lovers.

Hank sneers at the idea that “enjoyment of material pleasures is evil”, calling it “vicious” and a “perversion”. I can only assume his private security threw out the protesters telling him this halfway through their speech, because I’ve never heard anyone say that material things themselves are evil. The real criticism is of people who value material pleasures more than the lives of human beings – as in Peter Singer’s famous thought experiment about a drowning child. (One gets the impression that no self-respecting Randian hero would rescue the child if it got his nice shoes muddy.)

The precise way to measure the inequality between Hank and Dagny and the people starving in the snow outside is a statistical measure called the Gini coefficient. A society with a Gini coefficient of 0 has perfect equality (everyone has the same income), while a Gini value of 1 means perfect inequality (one person controls all income, everyone else has nothing). Compared to most Western countries, the United States has one of the highest Gini values, and is by far the highest when inherited wealth and capital gains are taken into account. What’s more, this is a recent development: American inequality has soared since the late 1970s (note: page has sound), approaching levels not seen since the Great Depression.

From a Randian perspective, of course, the suffering and deprivation of the poor is beneath consideration. But even from a coldly logical, capitalist perspective, severe inequality is a bad thing. A highly unequal society is bad for meritocracy and class mobility: it’s harder for poor people, however talented, to advance when education and enrichment are available only to the children of the already wealthy. A highly unequal society holds back economic growth: corporations can’t profit and won’t invest if their customers have no money to spend. And a highly unequal society leads to panics and crashes by fueling debt bubbles as people borrow in an attempt to keep from falling behind.

In a society where everyone’s basic needs were provided for, I doubt anyone would begrudge the rich their luxuries. There’s no question that we could design such a society if we wanted to: we’re more than wealthy enough, as a civilization, to see that no one falls below that baseline. But instead, what we’ve designed is a society where some have fur coats and lavish dinners while others go without food and medicine, and we have writers like Ayn Rand to thank for it.

Other posts in this series:

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.

  • Elizabeth

    I suppose this is how I am an objectivitst. I really like buying people presents.

  • duke_of_omnium

    But you have to buy the presents for your own selfish gratification, not because the presents will make the recipients happy.

  • Alex SL

    She hated communism, but instead of rejecting what is bad about communism and keeping commonsensical aspects it shares with most other ideologies, she decided that she must adopt the exact opposite of her warped understanding of it. Commies want things to be public, so private ownership must always be good. Commies want equality, so inequality must always be good.

    If she had been traumatized by Christians in her youth, she would by the same logic have become a Satanist, not an atheist.

  • Benn

    I started reading “Atlas Shrugged” back in January. By early February, I got to this point in the book and had to stop. The “romantic” dialog between Rearden and Dagny was so horribly unbearable, I had to quit reading it. I had to read other books and magazines to remind myself what good, or even decent literature/writing was like.

    (A couple of days ago, I started back on reading “AS”. I didn’t get but three pages in further along than Ayn Rand provided more incredible stupidity which reminded me why I stopped reading the damn book in the first place. I have finally come to the conclusion that the biggest flaw with the book is that it’s written like it was a Silver Age comic book. It has that much intelligence, logic and depth of characterization. It’s a literary comic book.)

  • Benjamin Fox

    This is the most bizarre, awkward, cringe-worthy, unromantic passage I’ve ever seen. Seriously. Passages from the John Norman Gor books are better than this.

  • Sue White

    But, what if making someone else happy makes *you* happy? You’re screwed!

  • Sue White

    “Do you understand that it’s nothing but vicious self-indulgence on my part? I’m not doing it for your pleasure, but for mine.”

    Geez, it’s awfully important to him to make absolutely sure she knows he’s an asshole.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    The “selfishness” of Rand’s philosophy reminds me of nothing so much as the evil alignments in D&D. If you kill someone, that’s evil. Help them out instead, and you’re good. What if you’re utterly selfish, and only helped them on a whim, because that’s what you felt like doing? Doesn’t matter, it’s still “good”, and being evil means lockstep obedience to doing whatever’s defined as evil, not just doing whatever the hell you what with no regard for anyone else’s opinions. That’s how selfishness works in Rand’s world. In the real world, if I’m completely self-centered, maybe one day I want to make someone happy because that’s what I feel like doing. Who’s gonna tell me I can’t? You? Fuck you, doing it anyway. In Rand’s world, being selfish means diligently monitoring your behavior to make certain you don’t accidentally act out of alignment, because if you’re not Selfish Neutral you lose access to your spell-like abilities (Fire At Fingertips 40/day, Transmute Air to Electricity at-will, Dominate Person 3/day, Heat Metal 5/day)

  • Lagerbaer

    In a social experiment, people were given $100 each. One group of them was asked to buy something for themselves, the other group was asked to buy something for someone else, like a family member of a friend. It was then determined that the group who bought for someone else felt overall happier about their day.

  • Chaos Engineer

    The sad thing is that he’s ineptly trying to flatter her. He wants to say, “I’m giving you this because it makes me happy to see you happy. Not like with my wife. I don’t care if she’s happy or not, so I only do the minimum for her in order to meet my obligations.”

    Dagny responds diplomatically: “I’d be insulted if I found out you were only giving me gifts out of obligation.”

    But what Dagny hasn’t foreseen is what’s going to happen on Valentine’s Day. Hank won’t give her anything, which would be OK, except that she’s also going to have to listen to a hundred-page monologue about how evil Valentine’s Day is: “The candy shops and the flower shops and the card shops and the fancy restaurants all have their hands out for cash, and if I don’t fork out enough, they all scream that I’m a terrible person who hasn’t met his ‘obligations’. Who came up with this holiday, anyway? I bet it was the Communists!”

  • Ash Bowie

    Um, not to be all nitpicky, but Hank makes it explicitly clear that he doesn’t care whatsoever for Dagny’s happiness. He wants her to wear the jewelry because he likes to see it on her, not because she herself enjoys it. Her pleasure is irrelevant to Hank. Dagny even says that she wouldn’t accept it if her own joy was in any way a consideration of his gift. I suppose she might be flattered that he considers her body to be an adequate mannequin to display the jewelry upon, but certainly any pride she might feel in this dubious honor lies completely outside of Hank’s motivation. It is quite astounding how inhuman Rand’s characters are.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    “Hank sneers at the idea that “enjoyment of material pleasures is evil”, calling it “vicious” and a “perversion”. I can only assume his private security threw out the protesters telling him this halfway through their speech, because I’ve never heard anyone say that material things themselves are evil.”

    What I’m guessing she has in mind is extreme asceticism, whereby any enjoyment in this world temps the spirit away from the next, or whatever. I’m thinking of monks wearing hair shirts and things like that.

  • Sue White

    And he makes *such* a point of it. People in Rand World can’t even give someone a gift without it being a lecture on the evils of giving a shit about anyone else.

  • J-D

    When everything clicks just right, your pleasure is my pleasure and my pleasure is your pleasure. It makes me happy that I make you happy, and it makes you happy that it makes me happy that I make you happy, and so on in a virtuous spiral of positive feedback.

    Sadly, things often don’t work out this well, but the surest way I can think of to guarantee failure to achieve this pinnacle is to insist on the absolute distinction that everything I do is only for my pleasure and not for yours.

  • Alex SL

    Thanks for developing this awesome analogy. I can see the similarity…

  • http://gophergold.wordpress.com/ Dave Lerner

    The Eiger Sanction:

    Dr. Jonathan Hemlock: [to his class] Some of you will continue in your education. Some of you will continue with your interest in art. Some of you will have interests other than that. If we’ve learned nothing else this year, I hope you’ve learned the stupidity of the statement that art belongs to the world. ‘Cause art belongs to the cultivated who can appreciate it. The majority of the great unwashed does not fit into this category… and neither, I’m sorry to say, do most of you.

  • http://gophergold.wordpress.com/ Dave Lerner

    In an issue of the Thing, reprinted in Marvel Pet Avengers, the incredibly rich Reed Richards gave his son Franklin a thousand dollars w/ the proviso that he must only spend it on himself. At first young Franklin thought it was the “coolest thing ever”. But at the end of the day he felt guilty for not sharing it and helping people. A good lesson for an heir to a fortune to learn.

    BTW, Ayn Rand must have hated superheroes:

    1 Risking their lives
    2 To help other people
    3 For no reward

    Steve Ditko is an Objectionist, and his superhero character Mr. A is supposed to be a reflection of his philosophy.

  • JohnE_o

    Sorry if this has been posted before…

    “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real
    world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

    [Kung Fu Monkey -- Ephemera, blog post, March 19, 2009]”


    John Rogers

  • Jason Sartin

    At this point, it really looks like Rearden would be happiest with a rubber doll. Just think, he could dress it up however he liked, he could stuff it in his closet when he’s not using it, and he would never, ever have to concern himself with its pleasure or its dignity or its independence or anything else that might inconveniently remind him that it’s an actual human being.

    Of course, all that is true of Dagny, as well.

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

    In Rand’s world, being selfish means diligently monitoring your behavior to make certain you don’t accidentally act out of alignment, because if you’re not Selfish Neutral you lose access to your spell-like abilities (Fire At Fingertips 40/day, Transmute Air to Electricity at-will, Dominate Person 3/day, Heat Metal 5/day)

    This comment wins the internet for today.

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

    First of all, I like the coinage “Objectionist”. :)

    Second: wait, seriously? An Objectivist superhero? Does not compute. Even if he gives moralizing Randian speeches to the people he saves, he’s still altruistically endangering his own life by fighting criminals, all for no reward! That’s the antithesis of what Rand’s philosophy commands. She explicitly says that it’s immoral to put your own life at risk for the sake of a stranger.

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

    The remarkable thing is that Rand’s characters can’t tolerate even being mistaken for altruists. When they do something that might be perceived as benevolent or generous, they have to accompany it with a condescending lecture about how they’re really doing it for the sake of pure selfishness, just so everyone knows they’re not one of those disgusting socialists who care about people besides themselves.

  • http://gophergold.wordpress.com/ Dave Lerner

    Wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Ditko

    Ditko also began contributing to small independent publishers, where he created Mr. A, a hero reflecting the influence of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.

    And I meant Objectivist. Oh, well…

  • X. Randroid

    One other oddity in the necklace passage is this:

    It [the ruby] was a famous stone, which only a dozen men in the world could have properly afforded to purchase; he [Rearden] was not one of them.

    Isn’t it rather irrational of Hank to spend more on a gift than he can “properly” afford?

  • X. Randroid

    I think this is right. Rand’s usual pattern is to mostly engage only with the extreme version of any opposing position.

    This facilitates her favorite method of reasoning, which is basically the false dichotomy. In this case, the mainstream view is roughly that, while there’s nothing wrong with material things, they also have relatively little to do with happiness or a good life. But that sort of nuanced thinking doesn’t lend itself to dichotomizing, so Rand ignores it and pretends the debate is between her view and that of some extreme ascetics who imagine they can and should become beings of pure spirit and that material pleasure is an impediment to that.

  • X. Randroid

    Yep. When Galt touches on charity in his endless speech, he says that it is only proper to help someone if you know the person is worthy and it doesn’t involve any sacrifice on your part. Even giving someone “a smile he has not earned” is an act of injustice.

    So yeah, Objectivist superhero isn’t a convincing thing.

    But I have seen some of the “Mr. A” stuff. It is so painfully bad that I’m not going to provide a link (you can find them via your favorite search engine).

  • X. Randroid

    Funny, and accurate! Rand’s ethics at some level is less about anything recognizable as egoism (on an ordinary definition) and more about “if you want to live in a manner proper to a rational being, you must scrupulously adhere to this set of principles in everything you do.”

    The resulting “diligently monitoring” of one’s behavior reaches a pinnacle of bizarreness with the doctrine of Not Sanctioning Evil. Which some have extended to “Don’t sanction the sanctioners of evil.” Which in turn leads to things like virulent Facebook unfriending wars, where the participants could easily be mistaken for thirteen-year-olds. (“He’s sanctioning evil by not unfriending her, so if you don’t unfriend him, then I’m going to unfriend you!”)

  • Omnicrom

    And just like DnD alignments Rand’s philosophy is rigid, unrealistic, and largely unworkable if examined carefully or put in the context of our Earth.

    Of course the difference is that DnD is world where there are gods of rigid Goodness and gods of rigid evil who award divine power to people who worship them properly, there are entire species and races genetically devoted to an extremist ideology, and there’s magic that can identify and delineate people as “Good” or “Evil”.

    Of course had Rand included overt magic like this in her novels they would be no less realistic, so once again we’re back to that old John Rogers quote about Rand and Tolkein.

  • A Real Libertarian

    In the real world, if I’m completely self-centered, maybe one day I want to make someone happy because that’s what I feel like doing.

    In the real world, if I’m completely self-centered, I’d make people happy because people who are happy because of me, are likely to like me, and thus are easier to manipulate.

    But then I’d be Neutral Evil, not Stupid Evil:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StupidEvil

  • A Real Libertarian

    Mr. A is Rorschach with a double helping of crazy and absolutely none of the sympathetic traits.

    Blame Alan Moore’s overdeveloped talent.

  • SmogMonster

    I’d heard of Singer’s drowning child idea but hadn’t read the essay. Thanks!

  • Paul S
  • Paul S

    Mr. A is representative of Ditko’s beliefs in Objectivism and moral absolutism. Good and evil is black and white with no shades of gray. That which is good is preserved, evil is left to die. There are no second chances, reformation and redemption are impossible.

    Ditko would later create a less extreme version of Mr. A in the form of The Question, published by Charlton Comics. The rights of which would be bought by DC Comics in 1983 and then revised and made part of their ongoing universe in 1985.

    It should be noted that The Watchmen was originally meant to use the Charlton Comics superheroes in the early concepts. However, when DC decided to revise these characters in their mainstream line, Moore and Gibbons decided to create their own version of the characters. As mentioned by others here, Rorschach is Moore’s take on The Question, and by extension, Mr. A and Ditko’s moral absolutism.

    Incidentally, Ditko’s Objectivist evangelizing would extend into to his other works, even tie-ins to awful toy lines. Such as an issue of “Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos,” where all the characters gush over James
    Clavell’s “The Children’s Story,” a book loved by Objectivists. See for yourself: http://www.misterkitty.org/extras/stupidcovers/stupidcomics102.html

  • 8DX

    Well, satanists actually *are* atheists. Actual “satan-worshippers”, as in people who believe in God and Jesus and Satan, and choose the latter to worship are fictional nonexistant groups that feed into the centuries of religious paranoia where people believed in devils and witches and necromancy (and satan-worshippers).
    ‘s far as I can tell.

  • 8DX

    Yes! Some people feel empathy, they’re trapped, I know!

  • Science Avenger

    So that’s why I hate getting presents so much, everyone who gives them to me are secret Objectivists.

  • Science Avenger

    Sounds like she used her time-travel time to read “The Celestine Prophecy”, a book that makes Atlas Shrugged look like War and Peace.

  • KennethJohnTaylor

    I can only imagine what an Objectivist Christmas would look like.

    “Honey, I got you a new drill and a basketball for my enjoyment, not for yours. Your happiness with your presents means nothing to me.”

  • RedneckCryonicist

    Of course, Paul Krugman can write that he became an economist because he read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels as a child, and he thought he could invent a real version of Asimov’s fictional “psychohistory.” Funny how Krugman can get a pass on his admiration for Asimov, while the people who credit inspiration to Rand receive contempt and mockery.

  • James Yakura

    Among other things, Asimov was writing fiction with very little real-world relevance, and he knew it, and child-Krugman probably knew it as well, and adult-Krugman almost certainly knows it.

  • J-D

    There’s nothing peculiar about it if Asimov was a better writer than Rand, and if Asimov didn’t adopt notions as contemptible as Rand’s. If you want to make a case that Rand doesn’t merit mockery, you have to make the case, not just covertly insinuate it by indirectly suggesting that there’s something automatically wrong about mockery that always justifies its target.

  • Benn

    Asimov was not writing a novel (or series of novels as it turned out) that was supposed to be his socio-political manifesto. “The Foundation” was a What If? concept. “What if somebody could scientifically predict the future?” (I am simplifying here.) The series was not meant a guideline to living of any sort.

    Unlike Randroids, Paul Krugman did not try to live his life according to any principles to be found in “The Foundation Trilogy” or its subsequent books. He found one part of it – psychohistory – and was inspired to try to make it a reality. Science Fiction has a long history of providing readers with such inspirations.

    The bottom line is Isaac Asimov has a different motivation and goal when he wrote “The Foundation Trilogy”. Primarily, he sought to entertain while exploring a certain concept. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” was written to be a paean and guide to Objectivism. That someone might be inspired by his work was not something not necessarily a goal of Papa Ike. Ayn Rand, on the other hand, was certainly trying to aim in that direction.

  • Alex Harman

    She sort of did anyway; LeVey’s Satanic Bible is basically Objectivism with a patina of mysticism to make it more appealing to his hippie target audience.

  • Science Avenger

    I thought the same thing when I read LeVay. It’s the same “what you call faults we call virtues” mentality.


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