Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Atlas Shrugged and the Sphere, Part I

Today is Part I of a three part reaction to Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged, in celebration of the movie coming out this Friday. (See yesterday’s post for more about the movie and my intro to this series.) As I said yesterday, the theme isn’t hard to identify: self-interest is a virtue. And the purpose of the book is to lay out a philosophy that contrasts starkly with philosophies of our day that lead to dependence for the weak and enslavement for the able. Here in Part I we’ll introduce the main characters and a bit of the plot as it begins to reveal the philosophy.

Here’s a thumbnail version: It is 1950s US (I believe the film has updated to today). Dagny Taggart is the great granddaughter of Nat Taggart, who started the biggest and best transcontinental railroad. Her brother, James, is the nominal president of the company, but it is Dagny who makes it run. Every problem that comes up, she finds a solution. James claims that his skill is managing the political relationships that will make things right for them, but at each step in a very long story, he agrees with the politicians who make purposeful efforts to make Dagny’s job less possible. He is worse than useless.

Francisco D’Anconia spent the summers of his growing up years with the Taggarts. He is the heir of an Argentine copper mining fortune. But at the beginning of this story, he has been apparently ruining the family fortune while pursuing playboy entertainments. Those who have depended on his uncanny ability to find good fortune everywhere are disappointed, first in a Mexican mining failure, followed by other failures. Dagny has come to hate him, who had been her first love in her late teens.

Then there is Hank Rearden. He worked from the ground up to learn to make steel, building his own corporation, Rearden Steel. And then he improves upon his learned expertise by creating a new stronger metal called Rearden Metal. It is lighter and stronger, and there are great things to be made from it. Dagny Taggart is the first to take a chance on it, building a line of Taggart railway, including a bridge, of the new metal.

Rearden is married to patrician socialite Lillian, and while it isn’t much of a marriage, early in the book (only 120-some pages in) he attends a dinner party she is giving at their house for all the social luminaries. The Taggarts attend, and D’Anconia drops in as well.

This dinner party sets up the philosophical struggles for the rest of the book. The enemies to Rand’s theme, various philosophers, writers, businessmen, politicians, say things like:

·         “I am in favor of a free economy. A free economy cannot exist without competition. Therefore, men must be forced to compete. Therefore, we must control men in order to force them to be free.”—Dr. Pritchett, when asked his response to a piece of legislation called the Equality of Opportunity Act
·         “Reason, my dear fellow, is the most naïve of all superstitions. That at least has been generally conceded in our age.”—Dr. Pritchett again
·         “Our culture has sunk into a bog of materialism. Men have lost all spiritual values in pursuit of material production and technological trickery. They’re too comfortable. They will return to a nobler life if we teach them to bear privations. So we ought to place a limit on their material greed.”—Balph Eubanks, described as a literary leader of the age.
·         “Only those whose motive is not moneymaking should be allowed to write.”—Eubanks again.
·         “Plot is a primitive vulgarity in literature.”—Eubanks again.
·         “When the masses are destitute and yet there are goods available, it’s idiotic to expect people to be stopped by some scrap of paper called a property deed. Property rights are a superstition. One holds property only by the courtesy of those who do not seize it. The people can seize it at any moment. If they can, why shouldn’t they?”—Bertram Scudder, magazine editor who had written a nasty piece against Rearden but is now socializing in Rearden’s house at Mrs. Rearden’s invitation.

A couple of additional significant things happen at this party:

·         Rearden has given his wife a bracelet, a somewhat crude looking chain, the first product of Rearden metal, symbolizing the success following his decade of hard work. Mrs. Rearden wears it mockingly, among her other jewelry. Dagny Taggart recognizes its value and makes a trade, exchanging her diamond bracelet for it.
·         D’Anconia appears. As for his explanation to James Taggart of the failure of his mine in Mexico, D’Anconia explains, “I don’t know why you should call my behavior rotten. I thought you would recognize it as an honest effort to practice what the whole world is preaching. Doesn’t everyone believe that it is evil to be selfish? I was totally selfless in regard to the San Sebastian project. Isn’t it evil to pursue a personal interest? I had no personal interest in it whatever. Isn’t it evil to work for a profit? I did not work for a profit—I took a loss. Doesn’t everyone agree that the purpose and justification of an industrial enterprise are not production, but the livelihood of its employees? The San Sebastian Mines were the most successful in industrial history: they produced no copper, but they provided a livelihood for thousands of men who could not have achieved in a lifetime, the equivalent of what they got for one day’s work, which they could not do.”

D’Anconia makes it clear that he is acting precisely as the philosophy and pressure of the day require. He is doing it purposely. He is doing it on principle. Eventually we learn why.

Tomorrow we identify the three factions and learn who is John Galt.

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