Atlas Shrugged: Fiat Motors

Atlas Shrugged: Fiat Motors May 22, 2015


Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter I

Dagny and John Galt set off on their tour of the valley. They drop Quentin Daniels off at Midas Mulligan’s house (“the only one built two stories high, an odd combination of fortress and pleasure resort, with stout granite walls and broad, open terraces”), then drive on:

Abruptly, behind a turn of the road, she saw the green acres of pastures stretching to a distant farmhouse. There were herds of sheep, some horses, the fenced squares of pigpens under the sprawling shapes of wooden barns and, farther away, a metal hangar of a type that did not belong on a farm. A man in a bright cowboy shirt was hurrying toward them. Galt stopped the car and waved to him, but said nothing in answer to her questioning glance. He let her discover for herself, when the man came closer, that it was Dwight Sanders. “Hello, Miss Taggart,” he said, smiling.

She looked silently at his rolled shirt sleeves, at his heavy boots, at the herds of cattle. “So that’s all that’s left of Sanders Aircraft,” she said.

“Why, no. There’s that excellent monoplane, my best model, which you flattened up in the foothills.”

“Oh, you know about that? Yes, it was one of yours. It was a wonderful ship. But I’m afraid I’ve damaged it pretty badly… I think I’ve ripped the bottom. Nobody can fix it.”

“I can.”

These were the words and the tone of confidence that she had not heard for years, this was the manner she had given up expecting — but the start of her smile ended in a bitter chuckle. “How?” she asked. “On a hog farm?”

“Why, no. At Sanders Aircraft.”

“Where is it?”

… “Wherever I am.”

This is the first hint that just being in Galt’s Gulch has boosted the capitalists’ already vast talents to beyond the impossible levels. Dagny, who ought to know something about motor vehicles, believes she’s damaged the plane in a way that’s impossible to fix even with all the industrial capacity of the outside world. But Dwight Sanders is confident not only that it can be done, but his presence is all that’s needed. Maybe we should be thinking of the Gulchers less as brilliant engineers and more as patron saints of technology, who can fix broken devices with the healing touch of their hand.

He pointed across the road. Glancing down through the tops of the pine trees, she saw the concrete rectangle of an airfield on the bottom of the valley.

“We have a few planes here and it’s my job to take care of them,” he said. “I’m the hog farmer and the airfield attendant… Since the time I saw you last, I have designed and manufactured just one new tractor. I mean, one — I tooled it by hand — no mass production was necessary. But that tractor has cut an eight-hour workday down to four hours on” — the straight line of his arm, extended to point across the valley, moved like a royal scepter; her eyes followed it and she saw the terraced green of hanging gardens on a distant mountainside — “the chicken and dairy farm of Judge Narragansett” — his arm moved slowly to a long, flat stretch of greenish gold at the foot of a canyon, then to a band of violent green — “in the wheat fields and tobacco patch of Midas Mulligan” — his arm rose to a granite flank striped by glistening tiers of leaves — “in the orchards of Richard Halley.”

I’m amused that while the capitalists in this hidden valley are still living at a subsistence level, one of the first crops they choose to grow is tobacco. That magical immunity to disease and injury may be tested when they start coming down with emphysema and lung cancer.

But the larger problem with this passage is Dwight Sanders’ tractor. We’re told that he built an entire tractor from scratch – apparently, just by hand-tooling pieces of raw metal into the right shapes and sizes to make all the parts. This is nowhere near as plausible or as easy as Rand makes it sound.

To make an internal-combustion engine, you start with an engine block, the housing which has however many cylinders you want your vehicle to have (usually four to eight). Each cylinder contains a chamber where fuel is ignited by a spark plug powered by an electric ignition coil. The force of combustion pushes a piston, which is attached to a connecting rod that transforms reciprocating (back-and-forth) motion into rotary motion, which is used to drive a crankshaft. Every part of this assembly has to be machined with great precision to fit together, especially the piston rings which form a tight seal within the cylinder. A deviation of even a few thousandths of an inch can cause the pistons to seize, badly damaging the engine.

And that’s just the engine. Once you have that, you also need all the other parts of the chassis, most of which are complex machines in their own right: a carburetor to regulate air and fuel flow into the combustion chamber, a gearbox which controls the speed and torque output, an oil pump to keep the engine lubricated, an exhaust manifold to collect and vent the toxic gases resulting from combustion, the axles and wheels (where did he get the rubber?), a suspension, a steering system, accelerator and brakes, clutch, gas tank, battery… and we haven’t even gotten to the plows, harrows, rollers, seed sowers, and all the other agricultural tools that the tractor is actually used to pull. Is it plausible that a single person could make all this by hand, starting from raw materials, in any reasonable amount of time?

Ayn Rand was unfazed by all this complexity because of her method of “thinking in essentials“. In her view, the only thing that’s “essential” to build a tractor, a railroad or an airplane is a rational mind. And since the Gulch has plenty of those, every other complication can be handwaved aside. It’s as if her capitalists can just will complex machines into existence.

But no matter how smart or talented a person might be, those intermediate steps aren’t irrelevant, and can’t be glided over as lightly as Rand does. That’s the point of this long, excellent comment by Kenneth John Taylor about what it would take for John Galt to build another of his magic motors using only the raw materials in the valley:

I’ve ruminated about what it takes to build something modern/technological on a level of Galt’s motor, completely from scratch with no outside help. What does it take for Galt’s Gulch to be truly independent and self-sufficient?

Well, for starters Galt would have to go into the hills and mine his own ore. But just ore by itself isn’t very useful. He needs to smelt it to separate the iron, copper and tin, and to do that he needs to construct a special firing kiln because regular fire is not hot enough. To get a super hot furnace, he needs coke. No not the drug or the soft drink — it’s super carbonated ash and the best coke is actually man-made highly refined petroleum coke, but since Galt doesn’t have access to a petroleum refinery, he’s going to have to find some natural sources of bituminous coal, which isn’t as high quality but it’ll do. Failing that, he can always make charcoal by cutting down some trees and burning them but it’s even worse quality.

Fortunately, coal can be found all over the place but Galt has to know how to find it, how to mine it, how to purify it, and how to transport it. All these things require access to technology and distribution channels that he doesn’t have.

But let’s say he does. So Galt has the ore for smelting and he has the coke for burning. Oh, and he also needs some limestone flux as a fuel agent, but let’s say there’s all sorts of it lying around Galt’s Gulch anyway.

Now, Galt has to construct an airless blast furnace to get temperatures hot enough (up to 2000 degrees) to smelt the ore. I won’t go into the details of the different types of furnaces he’s going to need to extract different metals like tin, lead and iron, so let’s just focus on one for now. He also needs to construct a smokestack (preferably out of refractory brick) for ventilation, bleeder valves to protect the top of the furnace from sudden gas pressure surges, a dust catcher to protect coarse particles from escaping and killing everyone in the enclave, and a few rail cars for delivery, waste, and disposal of elements (because the thing is damn hot and you can’t get near it), a casthouse at the bottom of the furnace, a bustle pipe, copper tuyeres (at least four) and the equipment for casting the liquid iron and slag. And also tapholes (preferably more than one), skimmers, and a cooling system (water-based of course).

This is not a one-man job. He’s going to need the entire population of Galt’s Gulch x5 to construct it. I don’t know what he could possibly construct it out of, but let’s pretend his hands can punch granite into concrete. And that no one minds manning the thing in perpetuity afterward.

All of this, just to turn his iron ore into pig iron. It’s not even steel yet. Or anything useful.

There are still hundreds more steps to go. Once he’s got the steel, then he needs to make the casts. Then he pours the steel into the casts to create tools. He uses the tools to create machine tools (I’m glossing over this part, but the construction of machine tools is more complicated than smelting the ore. In fact, machine tools is probably the most important facet of industrialization. Without machine tools, you have no industrial society). He uses the machine tools to design, shape, and fabricate identical metal parts for his devices (nails, screws, nuts, bolts, rivets, etc… who knows if they’re ISO compliant but let’s pretend Galt invented a new standard called the GSO and everyone in the Gulch accepted it because that’s what Objectivists do — follow others).

Then he can get down to actually inventing his static electric engine devices and building them with his bare hands. But he first needs to create — from scratch — about a dozen highly complex industries, and he needs a chain of workers to keep them functioning all the time. Galt’s Gulch is simply not built for that level of industrialization. It doesn’t have the resources, it doesn’t have the manpower, and it certainly doesn’t have the industrious infrastructure.

Making even basic machines, much less advanced technology like John Galt’s motor and hologram generators, isn’t a one-step process. It requires a huge and complex industrial infrastructure, which in the real world took millions of people many generations of slow refinement to develop. Each new invention, each stepwise increase in power and precision, only becomes possible once all the previous steps have been scaled and the many dependent technologies recreated.

Along the same lines, there’s a famous essay by Leonard Reed, “I, Pencil“, which points out that no one person can single-handedly make something as seemingly simple as a pencil. It takes complex supply chains and distributed know-how of a kind that can only exist in an industrial society with a high degree of specialization.

The ultimate Randian hero: he can start with sand and sticks and make a working computer in a few hours.

From the lumberjacks that cut the trees, to the ships and railroads that transport the lumber, to the saw mills that cut logs into thin slats, to the miners who dig up the graphite, to the chemists who make the lead and the lacquer, to the machinists who make the machines that glue all the parts together, every person along the way knows only one small part of the total process. (Max Brooks’ zombie novel World War Z makes a similar point about a bottle of root beer.)

Reed wrote this essay to support a libertarian position, arguing that no central planning body could match the distributed competence of the free market. Ironically, it also goes to show the impossibility of the omnicompetent Prime Mover human beings that Rand imagined. Even the smartest and most capable human beings in the world, if they were set back to square one, wouldn’t be able to recreate a modern industrial society overnight. By all rights, Galt’s Gulch ought to be at a medieval level at best.

The obvious dodge is that Galt’s Gulchers can buy from the outside world, and there’s a later scene where Midas Mulligan does say that he has an agent on the outside who obtains anything they can’t produce on their own. On the other hand, Mulligan also says that the valley is “almost self-supporting” – which implies that they do somehow have a more-or-less complete industrial infrastructure. No matter what Ayn Rand might have imagined, bootstrapping this into existence is nowhere near as easy as a capitalist saying, “Let there be tractors!”

Header image: Totally reasonable to make by yourself in your spare time. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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