Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter VII
Stuck on a train in the middle of nowhere, Kip Chalmers is furious, and is inundating the head office with telegrams demanding that he be given transportation or else. In New York, James Taggart is woken out of bed late at night, and like any good boss, responds by spreading the misery around to his subordinates. The order goes down the chain, and a curt message is sent to the superintendent of the Colorado Division, Dave Mitchum:
“Give an engine to Mr. Chalmers at once. Send the Comet through safely and without unnecessary delay. If you are unable to perform your duties, I shall hold you responsible before the Unification Board.”
Mitchum, like most of the incompetents now working for Taggart Transcontinental, owes his job to someone calling in a favor. Specifically, it was a deal struck between James Taggart and Wesley Mouch. (Mitchum “was the brother-in-law of Claude Slagenhop, who was the president of the Friends of Global Progress, who were regarded by Mouch as a valuable influence on public opinion.”) And he’s terrified of the consequences if he angers his benefactors:
“I don’t know!” moaned Mitchum. “Kip Chalmers? You see his name in the newspapers all the time, right in with all the top-level boys, I don’t know what he is, but if he’s from Washington, we can’t take any chances. Oh Christ, what are we going to do?”
Mitchum realizes that he’s being given an impossible order: there’s no engine he can safely send into the tunnel, but he also can’t delay the train until one is available. Either way, he’d be brought up on charges by the Unification Board, and without “powerful friends”, he knows he’d have no chance. He’d either be imprisoned or fired, and since no one can hold a job anymore without government permission, being fired is tantamount to a sentence of death by starvation.
Under the looters’ unspoken protocol, there’s just one thing to do, which is to pass the buck to someone else. Mitchum ostentatiously leaves to “look” for another diesel engine and too-casually tells his staff to send the train into the tunnel with a coal-burning engine if they don’t hear from him soon, knowing that the fatal order will be sent while he’s gone and he’ll be able to deny responsibility.
Mitchum’s second-in-command, the chief dispatcher Bill Brent, realizes in horror what’s about to happen:
It was not the sight of Mitchum that made him sit still in horror. It was the realization that there was no one whom he could call to expose this thing and stop it — no superior anywhere on the line, from Colorado to Omaha to New York. They were in on it, all of them, they were doing the same, they had given Mitchum the lead and the method. It was Dave Mitchum who now belonged on this railroad and he, Bill Brent, who did not.
Brent declares he’s quitting and walks out, while Mitchum screams abuse and threats at him. Then Mitchum tries the same ploy again on a young boy working as a night dispatcher, and this time it works:
The responsibility… now rested on the shoulders of a trembling, bewildered boy. He hesitated, then he buttressed his courage with the thought that one did not doubt the good faith and the competence of railroad executives. He did not know that his vision of a railroad and its executives was that of a century ago.
I’m confused. Unethical behavior by executives is a modern invention? No one ever got made to take the fall by their boss a hundred years ago?
Rand’s idea of a mythical Capitalist Golden Age when capitalism was untrammeled and everything was perfect clashes with her insistence there were evil looters and socialists even in the days of Nat Taggart. It seems that history, in this book, is highly malleable and can be reshaped at will to support whatever principle the author wants to defend at any given moment.
In any case, the order is sent out. The station agent at Winston, where Kip Chalmers’ train is parked, sees it and realizes what it means:
He thought of the passengers — the three hundred passengers aboard the Comet… He asked himself whether he could deliver his children to the fate of the children of the unemployed, as he had seen them in the blighted areas, in the settlements around closed factories and along the tracks of discontinued railroads. He saw, in astonished horror, that the choice which he now had to make was between the lives of his children and the lives of the passengers on the Comet. A conflict of this kind had never been possible before. It was by protecting the safety of the passengers that he had earned the security of his children; he had served one by serving the other; there had been no clash of interests, no call for victims.
“I would have fought you, and if I could make my road better than yours, I’d have broken you and not given a damn about what happened to you.”
If that isn’t a clash of interests, nothing is. The political system where there’s truly no conflict of interest is the one that institutes a social safety net to protect the lives and well-being of its citizens, so that losing out in the competitive game of capitalism doesn’t mean starving to death in the street. By contrast, the philosophy of Objectivism is premised on merciless, law-of-the-jungle competition. It demands that in order to safeguard your well-being and the lives of your loved ones, you have to destroy your competitors. It has no pity for the weak, no sympathy for failure, and no concern for anyone except the tiny minority of successful capitalists, who deserve to have all their wants fulfilled.
I realize Rand is using “clash of interest” in her own peculiar, idiosyncratic sense. What she means is that it’s not really in your interest to have something unless you’re “rationally” entitled to have it, and if the market doesn’t give it to you, that means you weren’t rationally entitled to it. If you lose your job and your home because a competitor ruins your business, or if you’re plunged into poverty because of an illness, the fact that this happens means you deserved it.
In other words, the only “interests” Rand considers to be real are the ones that she agrees with. If she doesn’t think you deserve to live, then it’s not in your “interest” to continue living, as far as her philosophy is concerned. That’s why she says there are no clashes of interest in Objectivism: because the only interests whose existence it acknowledges are the interests that flow from a single mind, hers.
There had been a time when he had been required to do his best and rewarded accordingly. Now, he could expect nothing but punishment, if he tried to follow his conscience. There had been a time when he had been expected to think. Now, they did not want him to think, only to obey. They did not want him to have a conscience any longer.
Rand’s regard for “conscience” is highly selective. When Dagny’s train was stopped at a red light and the crew thought it was too dangerous to proceed, she didn’t reward them for following their consciences, she yelled at them until they obeyed her. And don’t forget, Rand also thinks conscience should be thrown on the trash heap if it tempts you to feel pity for lesser mortals.
The coal-burning engine is duly procured and the train starts up again, heading for the Taggart Tunnel:
“See?” said Kip Chalmers triumphantly to Lester Tuck, as the wheels under their feet shuddered forward. “Fear is the only practical means to deal with people.”
We’re speeding ever closer to disaster now. Next week, we’ll see the denouement.
Other posts in this series: