Atlas Shrugged: Job Creators

Atlas Shrugged: Job Creators November 20, 2015


Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter V

Hank Rearden has moved to Philadelphia, seemingly to live on the grounds of his steel mill, and hasn’t seen or spoken to his family in months. But he’s still paying their bills, which makes no sense given his attitude at this point. He decided two chapters ago that he should run his personal life the same way he runs his business, meaning that he owes his family nothing and has no reason to support them. But Rand inexplicably has him put off acting on this decision to set up a confrontation, which comes when Hank sees his brother Philip lurking around the gates of the plant:

Philip had not called for an appointment — but now there he was again, slouching among the giant shapes of the furnaces, with an air of guilt and snobbishness together, as if he were both snooping and slumming.

“But I do have something to say! I do!” he cried hastily, in answer to the angry frown on Rearden’s face. “…I need a job.”

He said it belligerently and drew back a little. Rearden stood looking at him blankly.

“Henry, I want a job. I mean, here, at the mills. I want you to give me something to do. I need a job, I need to earn my living. I’m tired of alms.” He was groping for something to say, his voice both offended and pleading, as if the necessity to justify the plea were an unfair imposition upon him. “I want a livelihood of my own, I’m not asking you for charity, I’m asking you to give me a chance!”

If you thought this might be the rare case of a Randian villain turning good, guess again. Even though Philip wants to earn a living rather than subsist on handouts, that’s not good enough in the author’s eyes, because he’s not doing it in the right way (i.e., groveling at Hank’s feet). Instead, he insists that he should get a job just because he needs one, and that his “friends” in Washington will grant the necessary permission if Hank will agree to take him on:

He said, in the soft, stubborn whine of a voodoo incantation, “It’s a moral imperative, universally conceded in our day and age, that every man is entitled to a job.” His voice rose: “I’m entitled to it!”

“You are? Go on, then, collect your claim.”


“Collect your job. Pick it off the bush where you think it grows.”

“I mean—”

“You mean that it doesn’t? You mean that you need it, but can’t create it? You mean that you’re entitled to a job which I must create for you?”

I have to admit, “pick it off the bush” made me laugh. Rand’s main characters almost never use sarcasm (that’s reserved for the second-tier ones like Eddie Willers). Most of their dialogue has all the wit and humor of a corporate balance sheet. It’s too bad she doesn’t write lines like this more often. Granted, that would run the risk of making them sympathetic, rather than vehicles for the didactic delivery of philosophy lectures.

Hank says that Philip would be totally useless; he doesn’t have any skills that are suited to a steel plant. Philip angrily blusters that he could have his political friends force Hank to give him a job, but flinches away in fear when he sees Hank looking flatly at him with the smoke and flame of the mills as a backdrop:

…he knew how easily the man he was proposing to compel could let a single bucket of metal tilt over a second ahead of its time or let a single crane drop its load a foot short of its goal, and there would be nothing left of him, of Philip the claimant – and his only protection lay in the fact that his mind would think of such actions, but the mind of Hank Rearden would not.

It’s not clear whether this is Philip’s thought or the narrator’s voice, but either way we know it’s not true. Hank has contemplated murder on at least one occasion. For that matter, so has Dagny. Giving serious thought to committing murder is practically the defining trait of a Randian protagonist!

If anything, it’s the heroes of Atlas Shrugged who are willing to use violence to get their way, far more so than the bad guys. There are really only two times in which the villains resort to brute force – the riot they instigate at Hank’s mills and the torture of John Galt, both still to come – whereas on the other side of the ledger, there’s Ragnar Danneskjold’s one-man guerrilla war, Ellis Wyatt and Francisco d’Anconia blowing up their mines and oil fields to deny others the use of them, Nat Taggart murdering a legislator and throwing a loan officer down the stairs, all the gross rapey sex scenes, and many more I could name.

Later that day, Hank has a run-in with the Wet Nurse, the boy assigned by the government to supervise his business. It turns out he’s grown tired of working for the looters:

It was on the same afternoon, at the mills, that he saw the Wet Nurse hurrying toward him — a gangling, coltish figure with a peculiar mixture of brusqueness, awkwardness and decisiveness.

… “Mr. Rearden, would you give me a job?” It was the effort to sound normal that betrayed the days of struggle behind the question. “I want to quit what I’m doing and go to work. I mean, real work — in steel making, like I thought I’d started to, once. I want to earn my keep… I don’t know that I’d be of much use to you, I’ve got a college diploma in metallurgy, but that’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. But I think I’ve learned a little about the work in the two years I’ve been here — and if you could use me at all, as sweeper or scrap man or whatever you’d trust me with, I’d tell them where to put the deputy directorship and I’d go to work for you tomorrow, next week, this minute or whenever you say.” He avoided looking at Rearden, not in a manner of evasion, but as if he had no right to do it.

“Why were you afraid to ask me?” said Rearden gently.

The boy glanced at him with indignant astonishment, as if the answer were self-evident. “Because after the way I started here and the way I acted and what I’m deputy of, if I come asking you for favors, you ought to kick me in the teeth!”

Hank gently reminds the boy that it’s not up to him anymore: “But have you forgotten the Unification Board? I’m not allowed to hire you and you’re not allowed to quit. Sure, men are quitting all the time, and we’re hiring others under phony names and fancy papers proving that they’ve worked here for years. You know it, and thanks for keeping your mouth shut. But do you think that if I hired you that way, your friends in Washington would miss it?”

The Wet Nurse reluctantly agrees that it probably wouldn’t work out, or that if it did, they’d send someone worse to oversee Hank’s mills, and he doesn’t want that.

He turned brusquely and started off, but stopped. “Mr. Rearden, if it were up to you, you would have hired me?”

“I would have, gladly and at once.”

“Thank you, Mr. Rearden,” he said, his voice solemn and low, then walked away.

Rearden stood looking after him, seeing, with a tearing smile of pity, what it was that the ex-relativist, the ex-pragmatist, the ex-amoralist was carrying away with him for consolation.

The contrast of these two cases is instructive. Neither of them has any real qualifications to work at a steel mill, as they both admit, so what it comes down to is aptitude. It’s true that a person with a spoiled, entitled attitude like Philip’s probably wouldn’t make a good employee. But it’s hard to escape the suspicion that the real difference Rand wants us to notice is that the Wet Nurse is willing to grovel about how unworthy he is and how great Hank is, while Philip isn’t.

This is in tune with the rest of Rand’s philosophy, where it’s not enough for her plutocratic heroes to be wealthy and successful; they demand worship and adulation from everyone else. They want to be acknowledged as the keystones upon whom the rest of us are abjectly dependent. And because they aren’t getting that recognition, they plan to destroy society in a fit of pique.

This mentality isn’t confined to the pages of Atlas Shrugged. Among some conservatives, it’s a leading theory about why the U.S. recovery from the 2008 crash has been so slow and uneven: that business owners and the rich resent President Obama’s being insufficiently deferential to them, and that they’re deliberately holding back on investment and job creation as a punishment. If we want our economy to boom, the thinking goes, we have to placate them and kiss their feet, and then they’ll deign to put us all to work again.

Many of the people who say this insist that it’s literally impossible for the government to create jobs,* and that government spending and regulation can only hurt the economy, never help it. But the evidence doesn’t bear this out. Conservatives who warn about social programs leading to idleness and dependency rarely acknowledge that countries with a strong social safety net tend to have higher labor force participation, not lower.

How can this be? One plausible answer is that if you want to boost the economy, it’s better to give money to the poor since, by necessity, they’ll spend most of it, and that consumption will spur hiring and investment. By contrast, if you give money to the rich, they’ll hoard it (because they’re probably already spending and consuming as much as they want to), taking it out of circulation, reducing demand and further causing economic activity to dry up. All else being equal, then, greater economic equality should lead to faster growth. And that makes sense. It’s customers who drive the economy, not business owners! The best management or most efficient production means nothing if no one wants to buy what you’re selling. But that moral isn’t nearly as flattering to the egos of the so-called job creators.

* At least, until someone proposes cuts in military spending.

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