Atlas Shrugged: Black Lung

Atlas Shrugged: Black Lung May 16, 2014

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter II

Because of the looters’ Fair Share Law, Hank Rearden can no longer choose his customers. In particular, he can’t legally sell to Ken Danagger, the owner of Danagger Coal in Pennsylvania, who badly needs Rearden Metal to brace the shafts of his coal mines. But Hank knows that Danagger needs the metal more than the looters’ crony businesses do, so he decides to sell to him illegally:

They had had to meet furtively, like criminals who could not be seen together. They could not meet in their offices or in their homes, only in the crowded anonymity of a city, in his suite at the Wayne Falkland Hotel. There could be a fine of $10,000 and ten years of imprisonment for each of them, if it became known that he had agreed to deliver to Danagger four thousand tons of structural shapes of Rearden Metal.

They had not discussed that law, at their dinner together, or their motives or the risk they were taking. They had merely talked business. Speaking clearly and dryly, as he always spoke at any conference, Danagger had explained that half of his original order would be sufficient to brace such tunnels as would cave in, if he delayed the bracing much longer, and to recondition the mines of the Confederated Coal Company, gone bankrupt, which he had purchased three weeks ago – “It’s an excellent property, but in rotten condition; they had a nasty accident there last month, cave-in and gas explosion, forty men killed.”

When their deal is done, Danagger and Rearden go their separate ways, but not before agreeing on what they’ll do if their deal is found out:

At the end of the dinner, Danagger had said in the same precise, impassive tone, the tone of a man who knows the exact meaning of his words, “If any employee of yours or mine discovers this and attempts private blackmail, I will pay it, within reason. But I will not pay, if he has friends in Washington. If any of those come around, then I go to jail.” “Then we go together,” Rearden had said.

This is a reiteration of Rand’s argument that industrial disasters are only ever caused by government interference, that these things would never happen if business owners were left alone to do as they think best. When a Randian industrialist drives a train at a hundred miles an hour through densely populated areas on rails made of a new and untested metal to show off his awesomeness, there’s no danger at all. But as soon as one government bureaucrat enters the picture, telling capitalists what they can and can’t do, people start dying left and right.

I earlier mentioned the oddity of Ayn Rand’s choice of career for Dagny Taggart. Out of all the industries Rand could have picked to showcase the heroism of capitalists who built their business from the ground up with their own two hands, she chose railroads – an industry that could never have existed without major government financing, land grants and eminent domain.

But this is an even more ridiculous example of historical illiteracy. Out of all the industries Rand could have used to make her argument that private enterprise would be safe and humane if not for government meddling, she chose coal mining. I can only conclude that this choice was made out of a willful perversity to fact. Not even Ayn Rand could possibly believe that coal mining only became hazardous when the government got involved.

Coal mining has always been a dangerous profession, as we saw just this week in Turkey with the worst mining disaster in that country’s history. And while there’s no doubt the job is intrinsically dangerous, that danger has historically been accentuated by greedy owners who sent workers into unstable shafts or ignored buildups of explosive gas and dust. Until they were forced to take heed of safety by the government, mine owners often reasoned that dead miners could always be replaced.

For half of the 20th century, miners dying on the job was a regular occurrence. Coal mining deaths began to decline in the 1950s, and fell even more steeply in the 1970s, after OSHA was created. By Rand’s reasoning, those deaths should have spiked, not nosedived, when bureaucrats and lawmakers started enforcing safety regulations. And when lethal accidents do happen today, they’re often provably caused by negligent mining companies that cut corners in the name of profit.

One example is the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010, where an explosion killed 29 miners, the worst accident in the U.S. in forty years. A report on the cause of the tragedy said that the mine owner, Massey Energy, “operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk taking”. Among other things, the report said that Massey had an inadequate ventilation system that let flammable gases build up.

And just this week, two U.S. miners died in an accident in a mine run by Patriot Coal, a company with so many safety violations that OSHA deemed it a “pattern violator”. The fatal accident happened during “retreat mining”, a risky and dangerous method that entails pulling down pillars of coal that had been left in place to support the ceiling, then withdrawing from the area before a cave-in happens.

The danger from coal mining isn’t just from cave-ins and explosions. There are chronic hazards, especially respiratory disease from inhaling coal dust. But here, again, corporate greed makes an intrinsic danger even worse: in one notorious case from 2007, the coal-mining giant Peabody Energy spun off its pension and health obligations to retirees into a designed-to-fail shell company, which promptly declared bankruptcy and went to court asking for those obligations to be dissolved. That company was Patriot Coal – yes, the same pattern violator.

In an Objectivist utopia, nothing would prevent companies from pulling sleazy stunts like this, or from treating workers as replaceable commodities whose lives can be gambled in pursuit of profit. (If they’re killed on the job, they obviously didn’t love capitalism enough.) In their conversation, Danagger castigates the government for “[not] seem[ing] to have a clear picture” of what would happen if Taggart Transcontinental collapsed for lack of fuel, implying that they’re blind to the consequences of their own ideas. But it’s Rand, in her naivete, who doesn’t have a clear picture of what would happen if all supervision and safety regulation were annulled.

Other posts in this series:

Browse Our Archives