Atlas Shrugged: One Steve Limit

Atlas Shrugged: One Steve Limit June 12, 2015

AvenueStrongest

Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter I

At the bottom of the valley, John Galt and Dagny drive into town, where she meets another old capitalist friend:

Galt stopped the car in front of the first structure on a ledge above the roofs, a brick building with a faint tinge of red trembling over its smokestack. It almost shocked her to see so logical a sign as “Stockton Foundry” above its door.

… “Hi, Dagny!”

The smiling face that approached her out of the fog was Andrew Stockton’s, and she saw a grimy hand extended to her with a gesture of confident pride…

She clasped the hand. “Hello,” she said softly, not knowing whether she was greeting the past or the future. Then she shook her head and added, “How come you’re not planting potatoes or making shoes around here? You’ve actually remained in your own profession.”

“Oh, Calvin Atwood of the Atwood Light and Power Company of New York City is making the shoes. Besides, my profession is one of the oldest and most immediately needed anywhere. Still, I had to fight for it. I had to ruin a competitor, first.”

You may have noticed that Galt’s Gulch is a remarkably harmonious place. Everyone knows each other, and what’s more, everyone likes each other. There are no enemies there, no rivalries, no grudges. This is, of course, a common feature of utopias – but it’s downright strange in a laissez-faire fantasy premised on ruthless competition. What businessman welcomes a potential competitor? When every newcomer could threaten your livelihood, and therefore your life, shouldn’t the natural reaction be wary suspicion or even hostility?

Rand skirts this problem by arranging things so that all the main characters work in different industries, so they never have to compete directly with each other. This section might seem to be an exception – but look again, as Andrew Stockton explains who his competitor was and what happened to him:

He grinned and pointed to the glass door of a sun-flooded room.

“There’s my ruined competitor,” he said.

She saw a young man bent over a long table, working on a complex model for the mold of a drill head. He had the slender, powerful hands of a concert pianist and the grim face of a surgeon concentrating on his task.

“He’s a sculptor,” said Stockton. “When I came here, he and his partner had a sort of combination hand-forge and repair shop. I opened a real foundry, and took all their customers away from them. The boy couldn’t do the kind of job I did, it was only a part-time business for him, anyway — sculpture is his real business — so he came to work for me. He’s making more money now, in shorter hours, than he used to make in his own foundry.”

Remember Dagny’s diatribe against Dan Conway, the owner of the Phoenix-Durango railroad? She threatened to drive him out of business, to crush him and break his spirit. That’s the way real capitalists should act towards each other – only Conway was conveniently put out of business by a government-imposed law, so Dagny never had to make good on her threats.

But in this scene, the heroes’ attitudes are strikingly different. When Rand can’t avoid showing actual competition, it’s not the merciless war that Dagny promised, it’s an amiable, low-stakes game where the runner-up gets hired by the victor as a consolation prize.

Again, it’s Dagny’s attitude toward Dan Conway that seems more realistic given the circumstances. After all, who could be a greater threat to your business than your chief competitor? If you hire him, what would stop him from learning what you did better and then leaving to compete with you again? (Keeping employees from leaving to start their own companies is a chronic problem in the real world.) In a ruthless laissez-faire society, Prisoner’s Dilemma logic rules; when you have a competitor at your mercy, the sensible step should be to crush him and not to help him. But despite Rand’s bluster, she shrinks from actually depicting that, almost as if she couldn’t bear to face the logical consequences of her own beliefs.

Even more jarringly, in the rare cases where there’s competition in Galt’s Gulch, there’s no acrimony, no hard feelings. Each capitalist instinctively recognizes his superior and willingly steps aside for him without a fight, as Dagny finds out:

“Then somebody could put you out of business, too?”

“Sure. Any time. I know one man who could and probably will, when he gets here. But, boy! — I’d work for him as a cinder sweeper. He’d blast through this valley like a rocket. He’d triple everybody’s production.”

“Who’s that?”

“Hank Rearden.”

The car-rental company Avis’ famous slogan was “We’re #2 – we try harder”, but the Randworld version of that is “We’re #2 – we surrender”. In the Objectivist cosmos, every capitalist is ranked along a strict hierarchy of merit which everyone perceives, and if you’re “rational”, you’ll voluntarily bow down to your betters. The community spirit of these supposedly fierce individualists is a thing to behold.

There’s one more familiar face in this section, whom Dagny sees working in Stockton’s foundry:

A sheaf of sparks went up in the depth of the fog — and she saw the broad back of a foreman whose arm made the sweeping gesture of a signal, directing some invisible task. He jerked his head to snap an order — she caught a glimpse of his profile — and she caught her breath.

Stockton saw it, chuckled and called into the fog: “Hey, Ken! Come here! Here’s an old friend of yours!”

She looked at Ken Danagger as he approached them. The great industrialist, whom she had tried so desperately to hold to his desk, was now dressed in smudged overalls.

“Hello, Miss Taggart. I told you we’d soon meet again.”

… “Is this, then, the end of your road?”

“Hell, no! The beginning.”

“What are you aiming at?”

“Mining. Not coal, though. Iron.”

“Where?”

He pointed toward the mountains. “Right here. Did you ever know Midas Mulligan to make a bad investment? You’d be surprised what one can find in that stretch of rock, if one knows how to look.”

Rand at least realizes, as she didn’t seem to with Ellis Wyatt, that there’s no need for coal here. You might worry that this would put Ken Danagger, expert coal miner, out of a job – but what luck! It turns out he’s happy to change careers. Even more luckily, it just so happens that John Galt hasn’t recruited anyone who was already an expert at iron mining, even though you might think that’s one of the first commodities you’d need if you were trying to rebuild the world’s industry.

Stockton’s case aside, another strange fact about this place is that there’s virtually no actual competition. It seems as if the Gulch has an economic version of the One Steve Limit. There’s only one fisherwoman, one hog farmer, one shoemaker, one lumberjack, one composer, one doctor, one judge, one banker. Even more weirdly, people seem to know in advance what careers others are going to take up and politely leave a clear path for them. For instance, no one even tries to build a railroad before Dagny arrives. And although Ken Danagger came late and then switched to iron mining, there was no one there who was already doing that. (As we’ll see, Francisco is here too, but he’s respecting the invisible lines of capitalist demarcation and sticking strictly to copper.)

The whole point of capitalism, especially Rand’s style of capitalism, is supposed to be intense competition! That’s the goad that drives all this hard work and innovation, the incentive that makes the system work. Galt’s Gulch should be a churning maelstrom of creative destruction. We should see newcomers taking up the same jobs as established residents and trying fiercely to supplant them. We should see high-pressure sales tactics, vicious, elbow-throwing combat for market share, and bankruptcies and failures galore. Instead, what we have is a sedate, pastoral utopia where everyone has their own place which suits them perfectly and which they occupy with total contentment. Not even a planned economy could slot people into jobs as neatly and precisely as this.

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