Atlas Shrugged: Make the Trains Run on Time

Atlas Shrugged: Make the Trains Run on Time September 19, 2014

AtlasLocomotive

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter V

The band of crossties swept in wide curves around granite corners, clinging to the mountainsides of Colorado. Dagny walked down the ties, keeping her hands in her coat pockets, and her eyes on the meaningless distance ahead; only the familiar movement of straining her steps to the spacing of the ties gave her the physical sense of an action pertaining to a railroad.

Dagny and Hank have traveled to Colorado. Ostensibly it’s to buy and ship out any usable machinery they can find before the John Galt Line closes down forever, but really it’s because they both want to see the last train run on the line they worked together to build, “as one cannot resist the desire to give a last salute by attending a funeral”.

The last stop on the line is Marshville (named after another vanished capitalist), service to Wyatt Junction having been discontinued; the looters have given up on trying to put Ellis Wyatt’s oil fields back into service. The town is a ghetto of boarded-up shops and decaying hovels, and now that train service is ending, everyone is trying to get out while they still can:

The platform of the railroad station was crowded. The glaring arc lights seemed to pick it out of the mountains, to isolate and focus it, like a small stage on which every movement was naked to the sight of the unseen tiers rising in the vast, encircling night. People were carting luggage, bundling their children, haggling at ticket windows, the stifled panic of their manner suggesting that what they really wanted to do was to fall down on the ground and scream with terror. Their terror had the evasive quality of guilt: it was not the fear that comes from understanding, but from the refusal to understand.

Pay close attention to that last sentence: it highlights what Rand has in common with fundamentalist Christianity. Common among evangelical proselytizers is the belief that everyone really knows that God exists, but some people just deny this because, well, they’re bad people. Similarly, Rand wants us to believe that her villains aren’t well-intentioned, that they know exactly what they’re doing even if they won’t admit it; and that all of them, from the lowliest slum inhabitant to the highest government official, are working together in a conscious conspiracy of evil to ruin capitalism, even at the cost of their own lives.

She saw an old woman with a ragged shawl on her shoulders and the graph of a lifetime’s struggle on the cracked skin of her face; the woman’s glance was a hopeless appeal for help. An unshaved young man with gold-rimmed glasses stood on a crate under an arc light, yelling to the faces shifting past him, “What do they mean, no business! Look at that train! It’s full of passengers! There’s plenty of business! It’s just that there’s no profits for them — that’s why they’re letting you perish, those greedy parasites!”

…Dagny found herself pushing people out of the way, fighting to reach the end of the train — but an emaciated man, with the staring eyes of years of malicious futility, rushed at her, shouting, “It’s all right for you, you’ve got a good overcoat and a private car, but you won’t give us any trains, you and all the selfish—”

He stopped abruptly, looking at someone behind her. She felt a hand grasping her elbow: it was Hank Rearden. He held her arm and led her toward her car; seeing the look on his face, she understood why people got out of their way. At the end of the platform, a pallid, plumpish man stood saying to a crying woman, “That’s how it’s always been in this world. There will be no chance for the poor, until the rich are destroyed.”

Although we’re obviously not supposed to share the viewpoint that Dagny is abandoning these people to perish, Rand doesn’t try very hard to refute it. Notice that even though the train is packed full, she doesn’t even consider sharing her private car with ordinary passengers. Nor, as far as we’re told, did she discount the tickets for people who want to get out of the town while they still can. (An Objectivist ought to respect people’s desire to live, after all. And since they’re already closing the line, it’s not as if they can lose more money on it at this point.)

In fact, Dagny’s never even tried to defend or explain herself to the people of Colorado. She’s never, for example, placed ads or billboards saying that Taggart Transcontinental is being hamstrung by bad government policy. She’s never urged them to contact their elected officials to demand the repeal of the directives making it unprofitable to run trains there. She simply expects them all to understand who the real villains are, and faults them when they don’t.

Like all of Atlas‘ protagonists, Dagny believes that popular sentiment is beneath her notice (unless she’s deliberately spiting it). Rand’s philosophy is that the elite should be maximally selfish and unencumbered, that they should do whatever they want and accumulate as much wealth as they can, and whatever happens to the rest of us, too bad.

But you can’t create a stable, lawful society by ignoring the majority indefinitely. As economists like Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson argue in their book Why Nations Fail, political institutions that protect democracy and ensure fairness are the cornerstone of a free society. A society of extreme inequality, governed by an elite who drain economic productivity to use as unproductive “guard labor” for their own assets, is bound to lead to stagnation, corruption, and kleptocracy.

What’s worse, the greater the gap is between rich and poor, the more people will suspect that the game is rigged against them, and the more appealing radical ideas, up to and including violent revolt, will become. This isn’t just a late-night fantasy of college Marxists; it’s the viewpoint of Christine LaGarde, head of the International Monetary Fund:

Countries that are more unequal tend to be less stable and have lower economic growth, according to the IMF. Income disparity can bring more dire consequences too. “Disparity… brings division,” LaGarde said. “History… teaches us that democracy begins to fray at the edges once political battles separate the haves against the have-nots.”

It’s also the viewpoint of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, an annual gathering for the globe’s super-ultra-wealthy:

The forum’s 14th annual assessment of risks, issued just ahead of the Davos gathering, makes clear that social instability, whether measured in mere riots or in bloody revolutions, is the likely outcome of increasing inequality.

…”An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics,” Plutarch wrote two millennia ago.

…Jennifer Blanke, the World Economic Forum’s chief economist, warned that “disgruntlement can lead to the dissolution of the fabric of society, especially if young people feel they don’t have a future. This is something that affects everybody.”

What she described is how revolutions start — when young people conclude that the risks and costs of destroying the society they were born into are preferable to letting things continue as they are.

The more that people feel they have a stake in society, the more they’ll value it and want to defend it. And the converse is also true. Again, Rand never fleshes out the details of how the world got to be in such a sorry state. Could it be that it happened because her capitalists became too successful, came to control too much of the world’s wealth for themselves, and never stopped to ask themselves why they expected everyone else to meekly accept permanent destitution and powerlessness?

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