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PrivateProperty

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter VI

To finish off this chapter, I want to flash back to an earlier scene. In it, the villains are discussing the one part of Directive 10-289 they’re worried they may not have the power to implement: the part about the state taking over all existing patents. Somehow, they have no concerns over whether enslaving people to their jobs, or requiring them to spend the same amount of money every year, will pass legal muster; but they fear that Rearden “is in a position to blast us to pieces” if he fights for the rights to Rearden Metal:

“The danger that I’m worried about will come from a different quarter,” said Dr. Ferris thoughtfully. “You might run into quite a bit of trouble on that ‘voluntary Gift Certificate’ business, Wesley.”

“I know,” said Mouch glumly. “That’s the point I wanted Thompson to help us out on. But I guess he can’t. We don’t actually have the legal power to seize the patents. Oh, there’s plenty of clauses in dozens of laws that can be stretched to cover it — almost, but not quite. Any tycoon who’d want to make a test case would have a very good chance to beat us. And we have to preserve a semblance of legality — or the populace won’t take it.”

I have to pause here, just to point out that this makes absolutely no sense. The Constitution has already been revoked in Atlasworld. That’s the only logical explanation for how they were able to put Rearden on trial without a jury. How is it possible that trial by jury has been revoked but patent rights haven’t?

Besides, if the looters control Congress, as we’re apparently meant to conclude they do, patents ought to be easy to get rid of. The Constitution provides that Congress can set the length of a patent. Why not just pass a law – or even a “directive” – limiting patent rights to, say, a month? (In the real world, Congress has repeatedly extended the term of copyrights to advance the interests of wealthy corporations, but in this world the government is inexplicably hostile to big businesses.)

But this wildly inconsistent treatment of the legal system doesn’t matter to Rand, because it sets up the conflict she wants to have. While all the rest of them are fretting what to do, Jim Taggart speaks up. It seems he’s been talking to Lillian Rearden, and he says, to their astonishment, that he knows how to make Hank Rearden cooperate.

On the morning of May 15, he sat at the desk in his office, above the spread of the mills, and watched the colors of the smoke rising to the clear, blue sky. There were spurts of transparent smoke, like waves of heat, invisible but for the structures that shivered behind them; there were streaks of red smoke, and sluggish columns of yellow, and light, floating spirals of blue — and the thick, tight, swiftly pouring coils that looked like twisted bolts of satin tinged a mother-of-pearl pink by the summer sun.

The buzzer rang on his desk, and Miss Ives’ voice said, “Dr. Floyd Ferris to see you, without appointment, Mr. Rearden.” In spite of its rigid formality, her tone conveyed the question: Shall I throw him out?

There was a faint movement of astonishment in Rearden’s face, barely above the line of indifference: he had not expected that particular emissary. He answered evenly, “Ask him to come in.”

Dr. Ferris says he’s come to give Rearden one last chance to turn over the patent on Rearden Metal to the government, and this time he knows what blackmail will make him cooperate:

In the manner of a cardsharp whisking out a long fan of cards with one snap of the hand, he spread before Rearden a line of glossy photographic prints. They were photostats of hotel and auto court registers, bearing in Rearden’s handwriting the names of Mr. and Mrs. J. Smith.

“You know, of course,” said Dr. Ferris softly, “but you might wish to see whether we know it, that Mrs. J. Smith is Miss Dagny Taggart.”

There are many things in Atlas Shrugged that are wildly implausible or contradict basic facts of human nature. Unfortunately, this part is all too realistic, as Ferris explains that if they make the news of Hank’s affair public, it would only hurt Dagny, not him:

“Beyond a few glances of curiosity and a few raised eyebrows in a few of the stuffier drawing rooms, you will get off quite easily. Affairs of this sort are expected of a man. In fact, it will enhance your reputation… But what it will do to Miss Taggart — with her spotless name, her reputation for being above scandal, her peculiar position of a woman in a strictly masculine business — what it will do to her, what she will see in the eyes of everyone she meets, what she will hear from every man she deals with — I will leave that up to your own mind to imagine. And to consider.”

Rearden has a long, agonized inner monologue about this, in which he realizes, too late, that he’s accepted the looters’ code of morals by keeping his affair a secret (“I should have lived it openly, as of our right — or made her my wife, as in truth she was”) and that “This is a battle that cannot be fought except with clean hands”. Finally, he decides that “I will not shift to [her] the punishment which is mine to take”, and signs over the rights to Rearden Metal to the looters.

This is a good place to revisit the question of intellectual property rights that I discussed earlier in this book. The writer Matt Bruenig has a clever conception of property rights, including patents, that helps clarify the subject. He calls them “violence vouchers“:

Ownership is not a relationship between a person and a piece of the world. It is a relationship between a person and all other persons. It is a relationship that consists of the following threat: should someone else act upon this piece of the world, violence will be brought against them in order to cause them to desist.

The person who we call the owner is the person who has the power to direct violence against others who try to act upon the piece of the world. In our society, that person directs violence against other people by calling upon the state, which then mobilizes its police forces to carry out the violence. Thus, what makes someone an “owner” is that they possess a violence voucher that they can redeem with the state under certain circumstances.

The libertarian/Objectivist view, including Rand’s view, is that they believe no one has the right to initiate force against anyone else. In their conception, all other rights flow from that, including the inviolable right to own property and to engage in commerce without restriction.

But there’s a problem with this: libertarians do believe in initiation of force. It’s just that, in their philosophy, “initiation of force” is a term of art. They’ve defined it such that some unprovoked aggressive acts don’t “count” as initiating force, even though they should count by any plain meaning of the term, and such that some entirely peaceful acts are treated as if they were violent.

For example, if I own a piece of land, I can fence it off and do nothing with it indefinitely, if I so choose. But now suppose someone climbs over the fence and plants a garden there. By the libertarian conception, that act constitutes an “initiation of force” against me, even if he’s made no threats and committed no violence, and I could summon the police to pepper-spray him and drag him away.

Patent rights are another excellent example, because they’re arguably even more intrusive. The principle of patents is that someone can own an idea. If I come up with a brilliant, novel idea for a useful product, but it turns out someone else has already had that idea, they can use the coercive force of the state to stop me from producing or selling it – even if I can prove that mine was an independent reinvention not derived from their work. This can happen even if I’m the first to come up with the idea, but I’m not the first to file at the patent office. If I try to make a profit from my idea, such as by peacefully building a plant to manufacture it, the patent holder can send “men with guns” to show up at my door and stop me. How can anyone but the patent holder be judged guilty of initiating force in that scenario?

I’m not arguing that private property or patents should be abolished; I think that, all things considered, a world with private property is better than one without. What I am arguing is that no one can claim to have “clean hands” when it comes to the use of force. Except for advocates (if there are any) of the grab-what-you-can world, everyone believes in coercion under some circumstances, libertarians included. The only question is what you believe the acceptable circumstances are.

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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...