Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter II
As Dagny’s life in the Gulch settles into a routine, she notices that John Galt leaves the house every other night, returning at midnight or later. Notwithstanding the fact that Randian protagonists are supposed to bow out graciously when the person they love finds a better capitalist than them, she feels an unaccustomed “savage resentment” and “dread that there might be a woman in his life”. Finally, one night at dinner, she asks him:
“What is it you’re doing every other evening?”
He answered simply, as if he had taken for granted that she knew it, “Lecturing.”
“Giving a course of lectures on physics, as I do every year during this month… You know that this is the month when we all trade the achievements of our real professions. Richard Halley is to give concerts, Kay Ludlow is to appear in two plays written by authors who do not write for the outside world — and I give lectures, reporting on the work I’ve done during the year.”
“Certainly not. It’s ten dollars per person for the course.”
“I want to hear you.”
He shook his head. “No. You’ll be allowed to attend the concerts, the plays or any form of presentation for your own enjoyment, but not my lectures or any other sale of ideas which you might carry out of this valley. Besides, my customers, or students, are only those who have a practical purpose in taking my course: Dwight Sanders, Lawrence Hammond, Dick McNamara, Owen Kellogg, a few others. I’ve added one beginner this year: Quentin Daniels.”
“Really?” she said, almost with a touch of jealousy. “How can he afford anything that expensive?”
“On credit. I’ve given him a time-payment plan. He’s worth it.”
It’s never made completely clear how the economy of the valley functions, and this dialogue further confuses the picture. The stated costs of things don’t seem to make sense. We see John Galt borrow Midas Mulligan’s car for a day for twenty-five cents; Richard Halley also gives a concert with an admission cost of twenty-five cents, and Dagny buys a cotton skirt at the market for sixty cents. John Galt proposes to charge Dagny fifty cents a day for room and board, until he agrees to hire her as his housekeeper instead, for which he pays her ten dollars a month.
If everyone has hundreds or thousands of dollars in their Ragnar-funded bank accounts, these prices are far too low. The influx of capitalist refugees with carts full of gold ingots should spark massive inflation overnight. And the few who arrive without those generous endowments, like Quentin Daniels (who was a night watchman in the outside world) ought to be worse than penniless.
Apparently, the advanced physics course that John Galt gives costs the same as one month’s wages for a low-skilled laborer. Contrary to Dagny’s protest, that doesn’t seem “expensive” at all, compared to what a college education costs today. Either he’s charging far too little for his lectures, or he’s hugely overpaying her. So much for Randian capitalist acumen!
However, this passage is noteworthy because it’s the first acknowledgment that anything is expensive in Galt’s Gulch. So far, we’ve only seen these capitalists treat each other with generosity and benevolence. This is the first hint that they might ever put the screws to each other. If John Galt lets people attend his lectures “on credit”, then it’s likely that he’ll expect to be paid back with interest. How much interest will that be?
Although Ayn Rand sidesteps the question by having children virtually absent from her utopia (more on this later), it’s safe to assume that there are schools of some sort in the Gulch. And by definition, they’d have to be private schools. Whether or not John Galt’s single physics course is unreasonably expensive, how much will it cost for an entire education from childhood to adulthood, and will students be expected to shoulder that entire burden themselves? (Objectivist children know not to expect handouts from their parents.) Will they graduate saddled with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt?
This was less of a problem in Ayn Rand’s era, when higher education was much cheaper – ironically, thanks to more generous state support. But government funding for public colleges and universities has declined precipitously in the last few decades, even as tuition soars and a college degree becomes a requirement for even entry-level jobs. The unsurprising result is that student loan debt has skyrocketed as students try to keep pace, and now exceeds 1.2 trillion dollars. And imagine how much higher it would be if elementary and high schools were private as well, as Ayn Rand would surely want!
Unsustainable debt is society’s problem, not just an individual problem. High levels of student debt force graduates to cut back on consumption for many years, exerting a drag on the economy. This is especially noticeable for big-ticket purchases like homes:
Owning a home used to be a key marker of adulthood and maturity. But homeownership has plummeted among Americans under age 35, from 43.3 percent in the first quarter of 2005 to 34.6 percent in first quarter of 2015, according to the Census Bureau. (source)
Debt steers graduates into the same few high-paying professions – law, finance – required to pay back their loans, rather than less-remunerative but equally necessary work. (Ayn Rand thought highly of philosophy, but how many students are going to sign up for Hugh Akston’s classes if they come out six figures in the red?) And it may shut poor students out of higher education altogether, further deepening the class divide where social advancement is harder and harder for people who aren’t born into rich families to begin with.
Last of all, the erosion of public support has pushed colleges and universities to turn to wealthy donors for assistance – and many of them demand control over the curriculum in return. Among these donors are the Koch brothers, who’ve given money to schools across the country to fund ideologically friendly research. The most egregious case was at Florida State University, which the Kochs gave millions to in exchange for absolute power over hiring and firing:
The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it’s not happy with the faculty’s choice or if the hires don’t meet “objectives” set by Koch during annual evaluations.
Objectivists have eagerly jumped into the college-string-pulling business as well. John Allison, an Ayn Rand fan and the CEO of bailed-out banking company BB&T, has handed out pots of cash to colleges and universities in return for them making Atlas Shrugged required reading. One of the colleges that took Allison’s bargain was Florida Gulf Coast University (which also created the comically propagandistic title of “BB&T Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise” – I imagine the person who holds it has to go around plastered with corporate logos like a NASCAR driver).
Ayn Rand, I’m sure, would have been a big supporter of the idea that whoever gives money to a college should demand control over the faculty and the curriculum, academic freedom be damned. Her philosopher characters pay lip service to the importance of intellectual freedom and the “inviolate human mind”, but their actual ethic is something closer to the Capitalists’ Golden Rule: “Whoever has the gold, makes the rules.”
Other posts in this series: