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Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter IV

The date of Hank Rearden’s trial has arrived, so it’s time for the obligatory Dramatic Courtroom Scene.

The first thing we learn, as spectators file in, is that the Constitution has apparently been revoked, because there’s no longer a right to trial by jury (which is guaranteed in Article 3 – it’s more fundamental than even the Bill of Rights). When and how this happened, we aren’t told. You might think this is a much bigger deal than the Equalization of Opportunity Bill or the Fair Share Law, but Ayn Rand doesn’t seem to share that opinion.

According to the procedure established by directives, cases of this kind were not tried by a jury, but by a panel of three judges appointed by the Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources…

The judge’s bench had been removed from the old Philadelphia courtroom for this occasion, and replaced by a table on a wooden platform; it gave the room an atmosphere suggesting the kind of meeting where a presiding body puts something over on a mentally retarded membership.

I wasn’t aware that that was a specific category of meeting.

One of the judges, acting as prosecutor, had read the charges. “You may now offer whatever plea you wish to make in your own defense,” he announced.

Facing the platform, his voice inflectionless and peculiarly clear, Hank Rearden answered: “I have no defense.”

“Do you—” The judge stumbled; he had not expected it to be that easy. “Do you throw yourself upon the mercy of this court?”

“I do not recognize this court’s right to try me.”

Because that’s always a brilliant legal stratagem: start out by announcing that you don’t recognize the authority of the court. Ask all those imprisoned “sovereign citizens” how well that worked for them.

Having stated that he won’t offer a defense, Rearden then launches into a defense, in the form of a Randian MonologueTM about how laws that restrict business owners are an offense to capitalism and how he has the absolute right to run his company any way he likes. Naturally, the judges permit him to ramble rather than cutting his speech off as irrelevant or threatening to hold him in contempt, as any real court would do:

“Are we to understand that if the public deems it necessary to curtail your profits, you do not recognize its right to do so?”

“Why, yes, I do. The public may curtail my profits any time it wishes — by refusing to buy my product.”

“We are speaking of… other methods.”

“Any other method of curtailing profits is the method of looters — and I recognize it as such.”

“Mr. Rearden, this is hardly the way to defend yourself.”

“I said that I would not defend myself.”

Note: any method of curtailing a company’s profits, besides not buying from them, is the method of looters. If a food producer, for example, was selling cantaloupes contaminated with Listeria, or beef harboring E. coli, it would be intolerable for the FDA to order a recall. If an industrial plant was pumping smog onto a downwind community, it would be unacceptable for the EPA to make them install filters. If OSHA orders the installation of safety equipment, that’s a sure sign of evil.

Inexplicably, the judges are flummoxed by Rearden’s refusal to cooperate:

The three judges looked at one another. Then their spokesman turned back to Rearden. “This is unprecedented,” he said.

“It is completely irregular,” said the second judge. “The law requires you to submit a plea in your own defense. Your only alternative is to state for the record that you throw yourself upon the mercy of the court.”

“I do not.”

“But you have to.”

“Do you mean that what you expect from me is some sort of voluntary action?”


“I volunteer nothing.”

“But the law demands that the defendant’s side be represented on the record.”

“Do you mean that you need my help to make this procedure legal?”

“Well, no… yes… that is, to complete the form.”

“I will not help you.”

OK, look: the legal system doesn’t work that way.*

When creationist clown and tax-protester Kent Hovind was brought up on tax evasion charges, he tried to offer a plea of “subornation of false muster“, which is, legally speaking, blithering nonsense. But Hovind’s refusal to cooperate didn’t bring the judicial system to a screeching halt; the judge simply threatened to enter a plea for him if he wouldn’t enter one himself. And defendants in the U.S. legal system have always had the right to choose not to put forth a defense.

Rand writes this scene as if a trial can only happen with the participation of the defendant, which is absurd. There are many uncooperative defendants in real life, and the judicial system is perfectly capable of dealing with their antics. If these judges act bewildered, it’s only because Rand is pulling their strings. Her theology decrees that the looters’ system can only exist with the tacit consent of the capitalists, and if they withdraw that consent and refuse to cooperate, the bad guys will be helpless – even in cases, like this one, where that doesn’t make any sense.

Having insisted that he wouldn’t defend himself, Rearden continues defending himself, speechifying about how he earns his own profit and refuses to apologize for his ability, and that he won’t willingly be a “sacrificial animal” to people who don’t recognize his “right to exist”. In true Hollywood-cliche style, the courtroom bursts into applause, and the bad guys back down:

The judges retired to consider their verdict. They did not stay out long. They returned to an ominously silent courtroom — and announced that a fine of $5,000 was imposed on Henry Rearden, but that the sentence was suspended.

No, no, no. You’re doing this villain thing all wrong.

The proper evil-tyrant protocol for show trials is to announce that the defendant is guilty and that the crime merits a very harsh sentence – say, twenty years’ imprisonment with hard labor. Then you add, as a show of how generous and merciful you are, that you’re suspending the sentence. This makes people both fear and love you. As a bonus, the threat of reimposing the sentence would be a useful sword of Damocles to hold over Hank’s head, something that will become very important two chapters from now. Really, what do they teach at supervillain school these days?

* As Morbo from Futurama might have put it.

Other posts in this series:

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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