Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter VII
Hank Rearden has moved into an apartment in Philadelphia, so as not to have to see his family anymore. He’s also – finally – begun divorce proceedings against Lillian, handing his lawyer a blank check and telling him: “I don’t care what means you use, how many of their judges you purchase or whether you find it necessary to stage a frame-up of my wife.” (Remember, bribery, fraud and false accusations are fine, as long as it’s a Capitalist Hero doing it!)
Late one night, he’s walking home along a deserted country road:
He carried a gun in his pocket, as advised by the policemen of the radio car that patrolled the roads; they had warned him that no road was safe after dark, these days. He felt, with a touch of mirthless amusement, that the gun had been needed at the mills, not in the peaceful safety of loneliness and night; what could some starving vagrant take from him, compared to what had been taken by men who claimed to be his protectors?
To my knowledge, this is the one time that Rand so much as alludes to the possibility of crime (a subject she usually steers clear of). Even in this glancing mention, she clings to the idea that the worst crimes you can commit against a person are purely economic, as we see from Rearden’s apparent belief that having to sign over the patent for Rearden Metal was worse than being raped, beaten or killed would be.
Rand’s evasion on the subject of crime is a tacit refusal to face the consequences of her own ideas. She advocates a worldview built on fierce, merciless competition and an absence of any real charity or social safety net, yet at the same time, she somehow seems to believe that no one would lose out to the point where they’d be tempted to turn to crime, whether for revenge against an enemy or for mere survival. In the real world, highly unequal societies always beget crime and violence, to the point where the super-rich surround themselves with walls and bodyguards.
While Hank is having these thoughts, a stranger steps out into the road and takes him by surprise:
Rearden’s hand went to the gun in his pocket, but stopped: he knew — by the proud posture of the body standing in the open, by the straight line of the shoulders against the starlit sky — that the man was not a bandit. When he heard the voice, he knew that the man was not a beggar.
“I should like to speak to you, Mr. Rearden.”
Hank wearily tells him to go ahead, as long as he’s not asking for money or any other kind of assistance. The stranger holds out a parcel, saying that he hasn’t come to ask for money, but much the opposite:
He extended the package to Rearden, flipping the burlap open. Rearden saw the starlight run like fire along a mirror-smooth surface. He knew, by its weight and texture, that what he held was a bar of solid gold.
For once, a Randian hero is astonished:
“Did you come here to give this to me?”
“Do you mean that you had to stalk me at night, on a lonely road, in order, not to rob me, but to hand me a bar of gold?”
“When robbery is done in open daylight by sanction of the law, as it is done today, then any act of honor or restitution has to be hidden underground.”
The stranger says that he’s been watching Hank for a long time, keeping careful count of the money that’s rightfully his but has been stolen from him by taxes and regulations, all the “wasted time” and “lost effort” and “artificial obstacles” created by socialist laws. The stranger says that he intends to repay Hank for everything that was taken from him, and that this gold is just a down payment on a much larger account he’s holding in trust:
“How did you collect it? Where did this gold come from?”
“It was taken from those who robbed you.”
“Taken by whom?”
“Who are you?”
When Hank realizes who he’s talking to, he recoils in horror, saying that he “won’t accept the help of a criminal”. But Danneskjold explains that he sees his role differently:
“What I actually am, Mr. Rearden, is a policeman. It is a policeman’s duty to protect men from criminals — criminals being those who seize wealth by force. It is a policeman’s duty to retrieve stolen property and return it to its owners. But when robbery becomes the purpose of the law, and the policeman’s duty becomes, not the protection, but the plunder of property — then it is an outlaw who has to become a policeman.”
When capitalism is outlawed, only outlaws will be capitalists!
Danneskjold goes on to explain that, as he sees it, he’s merely following the rule the looters have laid down (“If they believe that force is the proper means to deal with one another, I am giving them what they ask for”) – and that he at least is honest about it, he doesn’t demand that his victims help him or tell them that he’s acting for their own good. And this is OK, he argues, because it’s only the government he’s robbing:
“If you remember the stories you’ve read about me in the newspapers, before they stopped printing them, you know that I have never robbed a private ship and never taken any private property. Nor have I ever robbed a military vessel — because the purpose of a military fleet is to protect from violence the citizens who paid for it, which is the proper function of a government. But I have seized every loot carrier that came within range of my guns, every government relief ship, subsidy ship, loan ship, gift ship, every vessel with a cargo of goods taken by force from some men for the unpaid, unearned benefit of others.”
No doubt, Rand intended this to sound stirring and brave. The problem is that this is a lie, and Hank Rearden knows it.
You may remember that, three chapters earlier, Hank tried to buy some copper from Francisco d’Anconia, but the ships carrying his order were attacked and sunk by… Ragnar Danneskjold. That wasn’t a “government relief ship” – it was two capitalists, two private companies trying to trade with each other for mutual benefit, and Danneskjold stepped in and violently prevented that transaction! How is he any different from the looting government thugs that Objectivists are supposed to despise?
That incident never comes up in this scene. Apparently Hank was afflicted by a sudden, convenient bout of authorially imposed forgetfulness. But the plot hole exists whether the characters acknowledge it or not.
While we’ve seen Rand’s approval of violence before, this section really drives it home: her moral isn’t just that political regimes other than absolute laissez-faire capitalism are unacceptable, but that any True Capitalist is justified in waging a campaign of piracy and terrorism to change society to fit his vision.
Rand tries to have this both ways. As we’ll see later, Danneskjold is the only one of her heroes who openly resorts to terrorism, and some of the others express unease or skepticism about it. But at the same time, Danneskjold wears the coat of Plot Armor that signifies he finds favor in the eyes of the author; because, socialist government or not, how else could a single man commanding a single ship evade and defeat the combined navies of the entire planet?
Other posts in this series: