Atlas Blogged #3

July 3, 2010

Part 3 of my blog of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 3: Top and Bottom

The increasingly unsubtle chapter titles are becoming slightly grating. You’ll see what I mean in this chapter in particular.

The chapter opens with Jim Taggart, the renowned pussy of the first chapter, discussing the future of the steel & railway industries with a set of co-conspirators in a dreary yet expensive bar at the top of a skyscraper. These conspirators include Orren Boyle, Jim’s friend to whom he had originally given the contract for the Rio Norte line. Once again, we encounter the very odd method of conversation we encountered in the first chapter, in which one person lectures and the others respond. I can only assume that this is how Rand believes conversations actually work – or that she’s trying for a prose form of a Socratic dialogue.

Socialists they are, despite being captains of industry. This is given by the description of Boyle as a man who started out with $100,000 of his own, and a $200 million loan from THE GOVERNMENT. A loan, it’s worth reminding ourselves, sourced from taxes. Boyle has bought himself the best available  plant for his company, leading to  being given the ‘Industry Efficiency Award’ from Globe magazine the previous year. He uses this to claim that he’s doing his best.

The arguments used here begin to get even more ridiculous and self-serving. It’s possible that Rand really believes that this is how socialists think. I shall call this particular group of antagonists The Straw Men from now on.

Following a circumspect discussion of the importance of collective action and the position of private property (Rand cannot possibly believe that anyone would ever say ‘The only justification of private property is public service’), the Straw Men pledge to use the power of their connections to overcome the competition their enterprises are encountering. Taggart will talk to Washington about the health & safety implications of Rearden Metal, and Boyle will use his connections with the National Alliance of Railroads to overcome the competition the Rio Norte line is experiencing from the Phoenix-Durango line.

The Straw Men discuss briefly the fate of the San Sebastian mines in Mexico – a high-profile investment made by a playboy called Franciso d’Anconia. They all have stock invested in the mines, and Jim was so persuaded of their potential that he overrode the objections of Dagny to building a railroad to serve them. Boyle informs Jim that the service on the line has been reduced to one passenger train per day and a freight train at night, using an ancient wood-burning locomotive. Jim is astounded that such a major operational change has slipped him by.

Scene change, into Dagny’s memories. We learn that she started working at the bottom of the Taggart pile aged 16, as a night operator at a small country station, and forged her way upwards by being willing to take decisions while others, seemingly, pussied out of them. By comparison, James Taggart started work at the age of 21 in Taggart’s Department of Public Relations.

Oooooh. Quick dig at PR there; but oddly Rand appears to think of PR as more like Public Affairs; in other words, lobbying. It’s not clear where she stands on advertising per se; surely projecting an image beyond the product counts as fraud?

Jim enters the office to confront Dagny over her scaling back of Taggart’s operation on the San Sebastian line. Dagny crushes this impertinence by once again pushing the decision onto him – a decision, of course, he is unable to take, on account of being a Straw Man.

Dagny is convinced that the People’s Republic of Mexico will nationalise the line, so has reduced service to a minimum. There is no profit to be had there, as copper has yet to begin flowing from the mines. One of her lines summarises her position rather succinctly: “So that the looters won’t have too much to loot when they nationalise the line”. Jim’s response to this is another Straw Man argument about the necessity of helping out developing nations rather than achieving profit.

I am increasingly convinced that Rand really does believe the arguments in favour of socialism are this weak.

Dagny leaves the office, and pauses to idolise the statue of her ancestor, Nathaniel Taggart, the original railway pioneer. ‘Idolise’ really is the right word here; we are left in no doubt that Dagny considers this man her personal Jesus – a man who rose from nothing from sheer personal endeavour to build a railway across the continental United States. We learn he acquired every penny of his wealth without force or fraud – and yet was content to murder senators when they attempted to revoke building permits in order to make money from selling Taggart stock short. He offered his wife as collateral for a loan from a man who hated him – with her consent – and paid the loan back on time. This was instead of being forced to accept a loan from the government – and, indeed, he threw the man who offered it to him down the stairs. We also learn he was never popular, and was infamous rather than famous, although it’s not clear why.

Meanwhile, Eddie eats in the company of an engineer in the Taggart Building cafeteria, and informs him that the only thing Dagny likes outside of work is the music of Richard Halley. What does this mean? Who is John Galt?

Analysis

The ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ should be obvious; Nathaniel and James Taggart represent the best and worst of Rand’s system of virtues. The key phrase to this system is ‘without force or fraud’; from my previous readings of summaries of libertarian thought, this principle is one they take as the foundation of their morality. This is where Rand departs from Nietzsche – he would doubtless view this principle as another iteration of a ‘slave morality’ like those of Christianity or Islam, one designed to hold back the ubermensch. I must admit I am surprised at this – why anyone almost evangelically committed to competition, as Rand appears to be, would limit its scope is beyond me. It rather appears to be a charter for the bullied.

Part 4 is here.

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