Atlas Shrugged: The Social Atom

Atlas Shrugged: The Social Atom May 8, 2015

Solitude

Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter I

After breakfast, Dagny asks John Galt if he’ll take her out to see the valley. He agrees to give her the grand tour:

He got up, went to the telephone and dialed a number. “Hello, Midas? … Yes… He did? Yes, she’s all right… Will you rent me your car for the day? … Thanks. At the usual rate — twenty-five cents… Can you send it over? … Do you happen to have some sort of cane? She’ll need it… Tonight? Yes, I think so. We will. Thanks.”

He hung up. She was staring at him incredulously.

“Did I understand you to say that Mr. Mulligan – who’s worth about two hundred million dollars, I believe – is going to charge you twenty-five cents for the use of his car?”

“That’s right.”

“Good heavens, couldn’t he give it to you as a courtesy?”

He sat looking at her for a moment, studying her face, as if deliberately letting her see the amusement in his. “Miss Taggart,” he said, “we have no laws in this valley, no rules, no formal organization of any kind. We come here because we want to rest. But we have certain customs, which we all observe, because they pertain to the things we need to rest from. So I’ll warn you now that there is one word which is forbidden in this valley: the word ‘give.'”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re right.”

Despite John Galt’s claim that they have no laws, he says the word “give” is forbidden to utter in the valley. It’s not that it’s discouraged, or that it’s not customary; the concept itself is taboo, to the point where Dagny commits a faux pas just by speaking it. This seems to be the one exception Rand is willing to countenance to her otherwise ironclad law that the rich should be permitted to do anything they choose with their wealth or property: the only thing they’re not allowed to do is give it away.

As we’ll see, Galt’s Gulch is a place where nearly every human interaction is governed by money and payment. As the social scientist Alan Fiske would put it, it’s a place where three of the four models of social relations – Communal Sharing, Equality Matching and Authority Ranking – are diminished almost to the point of nonexistence, whereas the fourth, Market Pricing, swells to gigantic proportions.

What implications does this have for the Gulcher society? The field of social psychology has done extensive research into this very question, and while Rand wouldn’t have been troubled by what they’ve found, the rest of us might feel some uneasy rumblings of conscience. Study after study finds that wealth has an isolating effect, making people less compassionate, less likely to help someone in need, and more likely to break the rules and seize whatever advantage they can get, whether by fair means or foul.

For instance, a study in the journal Science in 2006 found, as one report puts it, that just thinking about money can turn the mind stingy. It’s a classic priming study, where participants are prompted with words or concepts that unconsciously affect their behavior. Those who were primed with the idea of money were less likely to both ask for and offer help on a difficult logic puzzle, and less willing to volunteer time or donate money to a worthy cause:

Having money on the mind even caused the students to put more distance — literally — between themselves and others. Instructed to place two chairs together to meet another student, they put the chairs about 47 inches apart, compared with 31 inches for the students who had not been prompted.

… “We know there is a civilizing side to money, that people acting in a self-interested fashion depend on fellow humans in a community and tend to treat them fairly,” said George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “But this study shows its pernicious side, how the pursuit of money can be isolating.”

The obvious rejoinder is that there are many rich people who engage in great works of philanthropy, which is of course true. But the surprising fact is that, pound for pound, the rich are less generous than the poor:

One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income. In 2011, the wealthiest Americans — those with earnings in the top 20 percent — contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid — those in the bottom 20 percent — donated 3.2 percent of their income.

What’s more, when the rich give money, they tend to favor elite universities, museums and symphonies – institutions that, however worthy they may be, can’t possibly compete in a strictly utilitarian sense with charities that serve those in the direst need:

Of the 50 largest individual gifts to public charities in 2012, 34 went to educational institutions, the vast majority of them colleges and universities, like Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley, that cater to the nation’s and the world’s elite. Museums and arts organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art received nine of these major gifts, with the remaining donations spread among medical facilities and fashionable charities like the Central Park Conservancy. Not a single one of them went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed.

Consistent with the Science study about the isolating effect of wealth, a paper in the Chronicle of Philanthropy replicated these results by looking at charitable giving by ZIP code. Across the U.S., the less affluent areas gave more as a percentage of their total income, despite the fact that wealthier areas could theoretically give away a greater percentage without crimping their lifestyles. One proposed explanation is that lower-income givers, who are more often personally acquainted with the consequences of poverty, feel greater empathy for others in that situation.

What’s more, being wealthy seems to make people more likely to believe they’re exempt from the rules we’re all supposed to follow. Paul Piff, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, conducted a remarkable field experiment in which he observed whether drivers yielded the right-of-way to pedestrians, cross-referenced with how expensive their cars were:

“In one experiment, Piff’s group got a confederate to try to cross at a pedestrian crossing while the psychologists scored the class of the car and whether the driver stopped for the pedestrian… In both experiments none or very few of the poorer cars behaved badly, while the drivers of the more expensive cars were far more likely to cut off other drivers or not stop for pedestrians.”

Still, an Objectivist might respond, so what? Even if the rich are stingier, or less likely to help others, it doesn’t matter, because what people do with their money is their business. And as we’ve seen many times throughout this book, Rand thought the wealthy were amply justified in breaking any rule that might impede their success.

It’s true that none of the findings I’ve discussed so far would be likely to give a super-capitalist second thoughts. But maybe this might: thinking in terms of service to others, rather than selfishness, makes people more productive and better at their jobs:

Call centers, even on college campuses, are notoriously unsatisfying places to work. The job is repetitive and can be emotionally taxing, as callers absorb verbal abuse while also facing rejection (the rejection rate at that call center was about 93 percent).

…Now, at the call center, Grant proposed a simple, low-cost experiment: given that one of the center’s primary purposes was funding scholarships, Grant brought in a student who had benefited from that fund-raising. The callers took a 10-minute break as the young man told them how much the scholarship had changed his life and how excited he now was to work as a teacher with Teach for America.

The results were surprising even to Grant. A month after the testimonial, the workers were spending 142 percent more time on the phone and bringing in 171 percent more revenue, even though they were using the same script. In a subsequent study, the revenues soared by more than 400 percent. Even simply showing the callers letters from grateful recipients was found to increase their fund-raising draws.

Contrary to the Randian worldview in which humans should aspire to become perfectly selfish, profit-maximizing automatons, the evidence shows that human beings derive purpose and fulfillment from generosity and service to others. Practicing these virtues doesn’t just improve our individual lives; it circles back around and assists with the one thing Rand said was more important than anything else, namely how good you are at your job. And being generous toward others makes them more likely to do the same, in a self-perpetuating chain of selflessness.

It works the other way around, too: constantly reminding people of the tangible rewards for performing a task can crowd out their intrinsic motivation (the so-called “overjustification effect“). This means that large financial incentives can undercut effort and creativity, paradoxically making people worse at their jobs. Thus, it’s quite possible that in Galt’s Gulch, the ultimate capitalist society where every interaction is based on money and none on benevolence, people will be less innovative and productive than in the world outside!

Evidence like this would have been disturbing to Rand, but only because her philosophy requires that human beings be blank slates, imperturbable engines of pure reason. The reality is that human beings, like every other species of animal on the planet, have a long, complex and contingent history which has shaped us in innumerable ways. Evolution has prepared us to thrive best in environments that are most like those our predecessors lived in, and one constant of that ancestral community is the presence of other people, whose good will and assistance were crucial for survival. Objectivism (and many forms of libertarianism) don’t acknowledge this. Instead, they begin with an idealized and unrealistic scenario of one person, living by himself in the wilderness, and assume that what holds true in this extremely simplified case can scale up to encompass any society, however large. Given this starting point, it’s no wonder that they so often end up with conclusions that jar against human nature.

Image credit: Hendrik Dacquin, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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