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Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter IV

It was Thanksgiving dinner, and the three who faced Rearden about the table were his wife, his mother and his brother.

“This is the night to thank the Lord for our blessings,” said Rearden’s mother. “God has been kind to us. There are people all over the country who haven’t got any food in the house tonight, and some that haven’t even got a house, and more of them going jobless every day.”

Recognizing your privileged existence as such, in Rand’s thinking, is another sure sign of depravity. According to her philosophy, the free market is infallible. If you’re rich, it’s because you deserve to be rich, and if you’re poor, hungry and homeless, it’s because you deserve that as well. Any questioning of the rewards and punishments dispensed by the impersonal gods of the market, in her eyes, is akin to blasphemy.

Rearden is sitting in his usual stony silence, neither talking nor touching his meal. His mother rebukes him for it, reminding him that he didn’t build that:

“What I think is you ought to drink a toast in gratitude to the people of this country who have given you so much.”

“Henry is not in the mood for it, Mother,” said Lillian. “I’m afraid Thanksgiving is a holiday only for those who have a clear conscience.”

The three of them are talking about his trial for illegally selling to Ken Danagger, which will begin tomorrow. Lillian chastises him for thinking he can make a stand on principle. What he should do, she says, is accept that he’s no better than anyone else, and then pay a bribe or trade a favor to get out of trouble, the same way that Orren Boyle and other state cronies have repeatedly done. She’s not shy about dropping a few hints that he can hardly claim to be morally spotless himself:

“Make concessions for others and they’ll make concessions for you… That’s the policy of our age — and it’s time you accepted it. Don’t tell me you’re too good for it. You know that you’re not.”

Because Lillian has the temerity to remind Hank that he cheated on her and then lied about it, he draws the obvious conclusion that she’s the black-hearted villain. After all, only the most evil of looters would ever try to make a True Capitalist feel guilt about anything.

He remembered his brief glimpse — on that morning in the Wayne-Falkland Hotel — of a flaw in her scheme of punishment, which he had not examined. Now he stated it to himself for the first time. She wanted to force upon him the suffering of dishonor — but his own sense of honor was her only weapon of enforcement. She wanted to wrest from him an acknowledgment of his moral depravity — but only his own moral rectitude could attach significance to such a verdict.

…If he were the kind of rotter she was struggling to make him believe he was, then no issue of his honor and his moral worth would matter to him. If he wasn’t, then what was the nature of her attempt?

This is going to become an important theme in the book from now on. Rand calls it “the sanction of the victim”, which is also the title of this chapter.

But it seems to me that this argument proves too much. After all, couldn’t you apply it to any crime? An honorable person would feel shame, but only an evil person would try to shame someone honorable; a dishonorable person wouldn’t care. Either way, you should never feel guilty about anything you’ve done. Why wouldn’t this logic also work on, say, murder? (Don’t forget, Rearden gave serious consideration to murdering his wife, but that doesn’t seem to have negatively influenced his opinion of himself.)

As usual, Rand’s black-and-white bifurcation overlooks the complex spectrum of human emotional life. A criminal may commit a crime in the belief that no one will ever find out, but when the deed is uncovered and they have to face the consequences, they can be overcome with shame. A person may think he doesn’t care about the judgments of others, only to find that social stigma is more powerful than he realized. Or someone might commit an act in a rush of some strong emotion, like rage or lust, only to feel ashamed of themselves when that tide recedes and cool-headed judgment returns.

But what’s really disturbing is what this idea implies: that the only thing that prevents the capitalists from doing whatever they want is their vestigial notion that they ought to care about other people’s opinions of them. This misplaced pity is what allows the looters to control them, and they only realize their fullest potential when they finally cast it off.

In other words, Rand thinks that ordinary human empathy is a weakness. The ties of sympathy which we all naturally feel for our fellow human beings, in her mind, are hindrances to be overcome. Basically, this is the mindset of a comic-book supervillain: that they’re above the puny moral standards invented by lesser beings.

Empowered by this newfound understanding, Rearden finally feels free to unleash the tirade he’s been holding back, interrupting his brother Philip who’s stating his opinion that he, Hank, is guilty:

“Whatever affection I might have felt for you once, is gone. I haven’t the slightest interest in you, your fate or your future. I haven’t any reason whatever for wishing to feed you. If you leave my house, it won’t make any difference to me whether you starve or not. Now that is your position here and I will expect you to remember it, if you wish to stay. If not, then get out.”

…”[Y]ou misunderstood me, Henry. I haven’t said anything to insult you. I wasn’t speaking in any personal way. I was only discussing the general political picture from an abstract sociological viewpoint which—”

“Don’t explain,” said Rearden. “Just keep your mouth shut.”

Translate this attitude into the real world – that billionaires should have no social conscience and shouldn’t care about the people they hurt – and it explains a lot. When the ultra-rich react to political policies they dislike with absurdly over-the-top rhetoric, when they go out of their way to make comments apparently designed to cause the maximum outrage, that’s their way of letting us know that they refuse to grant “the sanction of the victim”.

For example, Stephen Schwarzman, the billionaire chairman of one of the world’s largest private-equity firms, said that an Obama proposal to raise taxes on investment income from 15% to 35% is “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939“. The Nazi analogies fly fast and furious among right-wing billionaires; Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot, said that suggestions to raise taxes on the rich are like “what Hitler was saying“; or venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who said that being one of the wealthiest 1% in the U.S. is just like being a Jew in Nazi Germany.

There’s also Gina Rinehart, one of the world’s richest women, who said that the poor are only poor because they spend all their time drinking and “socializing”, and called on the Australian government to cut the minimum wage to compete with African miners who are “willing to work for less than two dollars a day”. To complete the Randian picture, Rinehart inherited her entire $20 billion fortune and control of her mining company, Hancock Prospecting, from her father.

And yet, while you might naively think they’d be above it – after all, what could we lesser mortals really do to hurt them? – we see time and again that many of the ultra-rich are remarkably thin-skinned and hyper-sensitive to criticism. (We also saw this in my earlier post about a ballroom of Wall Street bankers who urged President Obama to tell everyone to stop being so mean to them.)

This goes to show that ordinary empathy, and the desire to be liked, are much harder to eradicate than Rand supposes. In this, as in many other things, her protagonists act in ways that are implausible for any real human being. And that’s something we should be thankful for, because as flimsy as it is, the desire for approval and acclaim is one of the few things left to restrain the behavior of the one-percenters in the real world.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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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...