Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter V
As the next chapter opens, halfway through Part II of Atlas, the crumbling of society is accelerating. Fuel has become scarce, household appliances and other modern conveniences are vanishing, and people are dying by the hundreds in winter blizzards. But what’s far worse is that Hank Rearden has failed to fill an order for the first time in the history of his company:
“It won’t make any difference to us now, forget it, Hank, it doesn’t matter,” said Dagny when Rearden told her that he would not be able to deliver the rail; he had not been able to find a supplier of copper. “Forget it, Hank.” He did not answer her. He could not forget the first failure of Rearden Steel.
This review would be twice as long if I pointed out everything that strains credulity in this book, but still, it’s worth pausing here just to marvel at the unreality of this. What large company has never missed a deadline or reneged on a deal in its entire history?
These niggling little implausibilities are a constant barrage, and ironically, they can’t help but weaken the author’s own argument. Rand considered her genre to be “romantic realism“, presenting the world as she thought it should be. But the more blatantly unrealistic and inhumanly perfect she makes her protagonists, the more her narrative recedes from reality, and the less confidence we ought to have that the principles she advocates in this book have any relevance to our own lives.
Part of the reason for Rearden Steel’s failure is that coal is becoming almost impossible to obtain, since Ken Danagger’s coal company has been taken over by his predictably incompetent cousin:
He could not help it, he said, if the tonnage intended for Taggart Transcontinental had been turned over, on the eve of its scheduled delivery, to the Bureau of Global Relief for shipment to the People’s State of England; it was an emergency, the people of England were starving, with all of their State factories closing down…
The coal shipped across the Atlantic by the Bureau of Global Relief did not reach the People’s State of England: it was seized by Ragnar Danneskjold.
This hasn’t been explained in the narrative yet, but believe it or not, Ragnar Danneskjold is one of the good guys. Just as Francisco d’Anconia is defrauding investors and causing chaos to undermine the looters’ system from within, Danneskjold is attacking it from without, seizing and destroying goods that the government is trying to redistribute to those who didn’t pay for them. Yes, this means he’s stopping food and fuel from getting to people who are freezing and starving, and no, the moral implications of this are never addressed.
Orren Boyle… sold to the Bureau of Global Relief, for shipment to the People’s State of Germany, ten thousand tons of structural steel shapes that had been intended for the Atlantic Southern Railroad. “It was a difficult decision to make,” he said, with a moist, unfocused look of righteousness, to the panic-stricken president of the Atlantic Southern, “but I weighed the fact that you’re a rich corporation, while the people of Germany are in a state of unspeakable misery. So I acted on the principle that need comes first. When in doubt, it’s the weak that must be considered, not the strong.” The president of the Atlantic Southern had heard that Orren Boyle’s most valuable friend in Washington had a friend in the Ministry of Supply of the People’s State of Germany. But whether this had been Boyle’s motive or whether it had been the principle of sacrifice, no one could tell and it made no difference: if Boyle had been a saint of the creed of selflessness, he would have had to do precisely what he had done.
Like “the sanction of the victim“, this is another of Rand’s philosophical themes: that cronyistic corruption is indistinguishable from genuinely selfless altruism. Both, in her view, result in resources going to the undeserving – whether out of actual pity or corrupt bargaining, it doesn’t matter – rather than the True Capitalists who can make the best (i.e., most profitable) use of them. (The fact that Rand’s own protagonists aren’t above bribery is casually ignored.)
What she’s trying to convey, however clumsily, is the idea of triage: a crisis situation where demand outstrips supply, like an emergency room that has half a dozen trauma victims but only a limited supply of blood for transfusion. Rand fiercely rejects the idea that “need” should ever be a factor in deciding how to allocate a scarce resource, believing that this leads to moral absurdities like the one described above.
But the point of triage isn’t, as Rand apparently imagines it is, to always help the sickest person (the one with the greatest need) first. The point of triage is to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number: to prioritize helping the people who need it the most and will benefit the most from it. In a triage situation, someone so severely injured that they’ll die no matter what isn’t a good candidate for treatment. Neither is someone who’ll pull through on their own.
Again, we’re not told the details of what’s going on in the rest of the world, but it seems that Europe is collapsing in the final stages of famine, while America is sliding down the same path but still has a barely functioning economy and some heavy industry. America can’t save the whole world, but it could save itself, if its remaining resources were directed efficiently. In these circumstances, the right thing to do is save those who can be saved – to keep America going so that it can recover and later rebuild civilization. That’s also what Dagny and Hank are trying to do. In a sense, they’re the ones making decisions based on need, not that Rand realizes this.
From a coldly logical perspective, giving scarce medical supplies to people who are probably going to die anyway is a bad idea. But even that would be better than, say, making a bonfire with them on the front lawn. Yet that’s exactly what Ragnar Danneskjold is doing:
In the foggy winter nights, on the waterfront, sailors whispered the story that Ragnar Danneskjold always seized the cargoes of relief vessels, but never touched the copper: he sank the d’Anconia ships with their loads; he let the crews escape in lifeboats, but the copper went to the bottom of the ocean. They whispered it as a dark legend beyond men’s power to explain; nobody could find a reason why Danneskjold did not choose to take the copper.
D’Anconia Copper is still theoretically owned by Francisco d’Anconia, and at least some of those ships must have been going to fill the orders of private businesses who paid honestly for them. (Don’t forget, Hank is one.) Armed resistance against tyrannical governments is one thing, as is convincing businessmen to leave their jobs and join Galt’s strike – but this is a direct, violent assault on the system of free enterprise that Rand supposedly respects!
At the beginning of this chapter, Rand tells us how the failure of one business causes a chain reaction that leads to the collapse of others – a ball-bearing company goes out of business because it can’t get steel, leading to the closing of a motor company that needed the ball bearings, leading to the closing of a sawmill that needed a new motor, and so on. But the looters no longer bear sole responsibility for this cascading disaster. Some of Rand’s heroes are complicit in it, working to destroy scarce, badly needed supplies that might have helped keep some people alive.
Other posts in this series: