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PirateShip

Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter II

Left alone in John Galt’s house, Dagny is cooking breakfast when a visitor arrives:

She was setting the table, when she saw the figure of a man hurrying up the path to the house, a swift, agile figure that leaped over boulders with the casual ease of a flight. He threw the door open, calling, “Hey, John!” — and stopped short as he saw her. He wore a dark blue sweater and slacks, he had gold hair and a face of such shocking perfection of beauty that she stood still, staring at him, not in admiration, at first, but in simple disbelief.

He looked at her as if he had not expected to find a woman in this house. Then she saw a look of recognition melting into a different kind of astonishment, part amusement, part triumph melting into a chuckle.

“Oh, have you joined us?” he asked.

“No,” she answered dryly, “I haven’t. I’m a scab.”

The visitor knows her, but she doesn’t know him. He asks how she got here, and seems amused to hear her story of how she crashed the gates of Galt’s Gulch while “trying to land on a prehistorical mirage”. As she tells him the story, Dagny tries to guess what profession he might have belonged to, but can’t think of any that would fit “because any work seemed too dangerous for his incredible kind of beauty… it seemed to be a stressed indignity of the outer world that a perfection such as his should be subjected to the shocks, the strains, the scars reserved for any man who loved his work.”

We’ve seen Rand’s beauty-is-goodness ethic, but this is a new twist: the assertion that someone can be so attractive he shouldn’t even have to work. (Presumably the rest of us should just bow down to him and pour gold on his devastatingly handsome feet.) This is a puzzling contradiction with the rest of her philosophy which holds that productive work is the only thing that matters in the world, although it’s right in line with the evidence that conventionally attractive people get better jobs, higher salaries and all sorts of other advantages. Unconscious bias is an insidious thing and hard to root out, even for the would-be queen of the meritocracy.

Before her visitor can introduce himself, John Galt comes home and greets him:

Galt turned to her. “Have you met?” he asked, addressing them both.

“Not exactly,” said the visitor.

“Miss Taggart, may I present Ragnar Danneskjold?”

She knew what her face had looked like, when she heard Danneskjold’s voice as from a great distance: “You don’t have to be frightened, Miss Taggart. I’m not dangerous to anyone in Galt’s Gulch.”

As he did with Hank Rearden, Danneskjold explains his plan of robbing food and fuel from the thieving, undeserving poor so he can give it to wealthy bankers and industrialists who’ll put it to better use.

As she listened, she kept seeing the perfection of his face — and she kept thinking that this was the head on which the world had placed a price of millions for the purpose of delivering it to the rot of death… The face she had thought too beautiful for the scars of a productive career — she kept thinking numbly, missing half his words — the face too beautiful to risk…

It’s ironic, you see. Because he’s attractive, and yet they still want to kill him.

As he explains his plan, Ragnar suggests she not waste her breath objecting, since he’s heard all the objections before:

“I’m a sort of freak here, anyway. None of them approve of my particular method of fighting our battle. John doesn’t, Dr. Akston doesn’t.”

Yes! At last, a genuine disagreement in Galt’s Gulch! For once, we might see a real debate, over whether their voluntary-trade ethos requires strict pacifism even in the face of oppression, or whether it’s permissible to resort to violence in a just cause. But if so, who decides whether a cause is just? Can a free society, even a quasi-anarchy like this one, really tolerate this kind of vigilantism, or mustn’t force be put under the democratic control of a well-organized state? No doubt, John Galt and Dr. Akston have a detailed list of their philosophical objections to—

“They think that my life is too valuable for it.”

But of course. The other Gulchers are opposed to Ragnar’s plan not because they object to violence, not because they think it’s morally wrong to take food from the starving, but merely because they’d be sad if a True Capitalist was killed by the bad guys. Needless to say, the number of people that Ragnar would realistically have to kill to do what he does is something that no one ever expresses the slightest concern over.

There’s another objection that no one ever expresses, which is that Ragnar is, essentially, a warlord. He has a battleship, a plane – he mentions using it to ship the gold he steals to the valley – and though we never see or hear about them, he must have a crew. More to the point, he seems to have all the guns. What happens if he decides one day that he wants to take over? He says that he’s not dangerous to anyone in Galt’s Gulch, but what makes them all so sure they can trust him? Historically, it’s common for disgruntled mercenaries to overthrow their former masters, change sides in the middle of a fight, or become brigands once the fighting is over and they’re out of work. (You could even justify it in thoroughly Objectivist terms. Why couldn’t Ragnar say to them all in a few months, “I gave you the gold that let you start up businesses. Therefore, those businesses belong to me, so pay up or else”?)

We earlier asked why Midas Mulligan doesn’t rule the valley through rent-seeking, since he owns all the land. Just the same way, we can ask why Ragnar Danneskjold isn’t tempted to conquer the valley through sheer, brute force. Rand’s answer in both cases is that all her heroes are morally flawless, such that they can possess unchecked power without being tempted to abuse it and never seek to take more than they deserve.

But if that’s the case, communism would work in Galt’s Gulch just as well as capitalism! Capitalism’s greatest strength over communism is that it has an answer for how to discourage the free-riders that inevitably arise in large groups of people, but in crafting her utopia as she has, Rand has canceled out that advantage. Her critique of communism is that it unjustly rewards people who seek more than their share without working for it, but there are no such people in the valley. In Galt’s Gulch, everyone cooperates perfectly with everyone else, everyone is willing to work hard and to produce, and no one ever tries to obtain anything they haven’t earned. These people would make an ideal communist society.

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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...