Atlas Shrugged: Unfortunate Implications

Atlas Shrugged: Unfortunate Implications May 24, 2013

Atlas Shrugged, p.54-55

I’ve said that Ayn Rand, although she never misses an opportunity to tell us that her characters are bold and heroic, only rarely shows us what it is they actually do on a day-to-day basis. We have to glean what her worldview would mean in practice from the little details that slip in around the edges. The next scene, with Dagny, is thick with these implications:

Dagny Taggart was nine years old when she decided that she would run the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad some day. She stated it to herself when she stood alone between the rails, looking at the two straight lines of steel that went off into the distance… What she felt was an arrogant pleasure at the way the track cut through the woods: it did not belong in the midst of ancient trees, among green branches that hung down to meet green brush and the lonely spears of wild flowers – but there it was. [p.54]

Notice that Dagny takes “arrogant pleasure” at the thought of a railroad cutting through an old-growth forest (“ancient trees”). It seems fairly safe to say that, in an Objectivist world, there wouldn’t be any such thing as national parks. Any preservation of wilderness would only come about because of the benevolence of wealthy landowners – except that Rand’s characters take an almost dominionist pleasure in “subduing the earth” by damming rivers, excavating mines, and cutting roads and rails through unspoiled territory. In their eyes, a piece of land with industry and business carved out of it is always better than that land left unimproved.

She was fifteen when it occurred to her for the first time that women did not run railroads and that people might object. To hell with that, she thought – and never worried about it again. [p.55]

I’ll give Rand credit for one thing: she consistently depicts her female characters as being just as capable, motivated, and intelligent as the male ones. (Her depiction of sex is a very different matter, which we’ll come to later.)

However, her treatment of sexism is missing something. To wit, it’s missing any actual sexism. Dagny thinks in a throwaway line that a woman running a company isn’t done; then she does it, and nothing further is said on the matter. That’s the extent of the book’s discussion of prejudice. Dagny never encounters a boss who refused to promote her because he thought that running a railroad was a man’s job. She never has a supervisor who threatens to fire her unless she has sex with him. In fact, she never encounters a barrier of any kind that can’t be surmounted by simply making a choice to work harder.

This is in line with Rand’s theme that the grit and determination of her heroes can overcome all obstacles. But it carries the definite whiff of an implication that anyone who can’t do the same in the real world must just be lazy, that they must not want it enough.

Although Rand herself doesn’t put it in these terms, this is the same crude apologetic that’s often used to explain away the pervasive underrepresentation of women and minorities in the upper echelons of business. If they were as smart and put in as much effort as competent, hardworking white men, the argument goes, they’d be rewarded and promoted just the same! Therefore, complaining about prejudice must be something that only lazy looters do, because they want to subvert the meritocracy and be promoted based on their race or gender and not their performance.

But the reality is that the free market isn’t even close to a perfect meritocracy, because few if any people are perfectly impartial judges. Workers are often rewarded based on factors that have nothing to do with talent. And these biases are all the more difficult to combat because they’re often unconscious, affecting the judgment of people who don’t even think of themselves as racist or sexist.

I’ve mentioned some of these studies before: orchestras which hold “blind” auditions, with the candidates playing behind a curtain, find that the rate of acceptance of female musicians shoots up. Social-science studies which mail out large numbers of resumes that are identical except for the name find that “white” names get more callbacks than “black” names, and male candidates are rated more competent and offered better salaries than female candidates. (Another example along the same lines is the fact that taller-than-average people are dramatically overrepresented in executive jobs, apparently from an unconscious belief that height equates to better leadership skills.)

There’s also explicit bigotry. It’s not as common as it once was, but it still does come to light on occasion, such as in the 1990s when Texaco executives were caught on tape joking, in regard to their company’s hiring policies, about how “all the black jelly beans seem to be glued to the bottom of the bag”. Predictably, a huge lawsuit ensued, which the free-market Ludwig von Mises Institute called a “mugging” and a “legal race riot” and wrote the following apparently sincere passage:

Let’s say that blacks as a group are advancing on the corporate ladder more slowly than whites. There are any number of possible explanations for this fact, other than a gigantic conspiracy to keep blacks in their place.

You may notice that they don’t expound on what these other, non-racist explanations are.

This is why libertarians have an image problem. All too often, they go out of their way to send the message that their highest concern is defending the right of rich business owners to be bigots, and that they have no sympathy left over for the people who suffer from unjust discrimination. In fact, they often argue that victims of discrimination should blame themselves for not surmounting accumulated centuries of prejudice all on their own. A person who truly believed in meritocracy would support legal efforts to curb harmful discrimination, so that talented people of any race or gender could rise to the top. Opposing these efforts sends the message that they’re more in favor of preserving a skewed status quo where the contributions of women and minorities are undervalued.

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