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Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter V

America loves rags-to-riches stories. The idea of the U.S.A. as a land of opportunity is deeply ingrained in our national self-image – we want to believe those Horatio Alger fairytales about how any poor-but-honest young boy with pluck, grit and spunk can start out by sweeping floors and rise to the executive boardroom.

No surprise, Ayn Rand is a passionate devotee of this idea. But this does make it all the more surprising that she chooses to write her story so that most of her protagonists don’t come from humble backgrounds. Instead, she makes them the millionaire scions of industrialist families, from whom they inherited enormous wealth and control of their giant corporations. It seems incongruous, but Rand is anxious to prove that one’s background doesn’t matter in the slightest, because real talent will always shine out no matter where it’s found.

This chapter is her argument for that principle. Still on her way to visit Francisco, Dagny is reminiscing about her memories from when the two of them were sixteen, just before he went away to college:

Francisco went to a great American school, which his father had chosen for him long ago. It was the most distinguished institution of learning left in the world, the Patrick Henry University of Cleveland. [p.96]

That must have been the most surprising issue of U.S. News and World Report ever. Yale? Harvard? Princeton? Columbia? MIT? All those august institutes of learning no longer measure up, apparently – they’ve been toppled by a new intellectual heavyweight, one that resides in the Enlightenment capital of the world: Cleveland, Ohio. (Ironically, there’s now a real Patrick Henry College in Virginia, and it’s a private fundamentalist Christian school that’s best known for churning out ultra-conservative evangelical Republicans.)

Francisco seems unusually driven and worn out by his four years of college, and Dagny later finds out that he was burning the candle at both ends the whole time:

[H]e told her that he had taken two courses of education during the last four years: one at the Patrick Henry University, the other at a copper foundry on the outskirts of Cleveland… He had started working at the foundry as furnace boy, when he was sixteen – and now, at twenty, he owned it. [p.107]

When Francisco’s father finds out, he’s both proud and a little shocked:

“Isn’t it a little too soon?” his father asked.
“I couldn’t have stood four years of nothing but lectures.”
“Where did you get the money for your first payment on that property?”
“By playing the New York stock market.”
What? Who taught you to do that?”
“It is not difficult to judge which industrial ventures will succeed and which won’t.” [p.107]

Rand intends us to take away from this that Francisco’s family connections had nothing to do with his success, that he would have prospered thanks to his own business savvy (and magically infallible stock-picking ability) even if he hadn’t come from a wealthy and privileged background. But when I read this, I took away exactly the opposite message!

Of course Francisco’s college business was a success. After all, he made no effort to hide his identity: he even called his own small foundry “d’Anconia Copper”. Everyone would have known that he was the heir to a far vaster and more powerful multinational company, owned at that time by his father. Why wouldn’t people have done business with him, just to curry favor either with Francisco’s father or with Francisco himself? This is a possibility that clearly never even occurs to Rand. (Just the same way, if Georgina Bloomberg started up a business, I’d expect she’d have no trouble attracting attention from people who wanted to help it become a success.)

This is apropos because of the recent publication of an enormous, comprehensive nationwide study of intergenerational social mobility in the United States, dedicated to answering the question: To what extent does your parents’ income predict your income as an adult? What percentage of children who grow up in poverty rise to success?

It turns out that, to answer this question, location matters enormously. The highest rates of intergenerational mobility are in a north-to-south band across the middle of the country, followed by New England and the metropolitan areas of the east and west coasts. The lowest rates are in the Rust Belt of the midwest and the Old Confederacy states of the deep south. In fact, the county of Cleveland, where Francisco would have studied and worked in real life, has one of the lowest rates of upward mobility in the country: the odds that a child born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution will rise to the top fifth are a pitiful 5.2%.

How do we explain this – by the genetic endowments of the people in these regions? Do all the brilliant, dashing Francisco d’Anconias and Dagny Taggarts of today gather in the midwest and in the coastal metropolises, while all the untalented and lazy moochers congregate in the south? It seems implausible that the genes for talent would sort out so neatly by state lines.

What the evidence shows, instead, is that intergenerational mobility is determined not just by the atomistic choices of individuals but by broader aspects of one’s surroundings: the quality of local schools, the availability of mass transit and affordable housing, and, yes, your parents’ wealth and connections. (Children from affluent families have much better odds of remaining rich than children from poor families have of becoming rich, one of the few findings that held true across the country.) That’s not to say that individual talent is irrelevant – just that it’s far from the only thing that matters. The fictional Francisco d’Anconia is meant to refute this conclusion, but ironically, Ayn Rand’s depiction of him only reinforces it.

Image credit: Tony Vincelli, via CC BY 2.0 license

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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