Atlas Blogged #7

July 22, 2010

Part 7 of my blog of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 7: The Exploiters and the Exploited

The chapter opens with Dagny hard at work rebuilding the Rio Norte line, hampered by the pathetic contractors she has been forced to engage for the project. Effective contractors have been becoming rarer and rarer. The ones she has brought onboard are wary of working with Rearden Metal; the vitriol attached to it in the national press has been growing daily.

Ellis Wyatt visits the work site, offering frequent suggestions to improve the effectiveness of her contractors’ work. He has the ability to identify potential improvements and risks quickly and effectively, and is pleased with Dagny’s progress on the line. Rearden offers to build her a new strong and cheap bridge made of Rearden Metal.

Rand’s aristocracy of the talented is becoming slightly wearing, for the rather obvious reason that minds capable of overseeing every single aspect of a business simultaneously without assistance from employees do not exist. The example given later in this chapter of Rearden personally working on a new design for a bridge support is a case in point – there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for a CEO of a multi-million dollar company to spend time pouring over new engineering approaches himself, unless he’s handed all the actual management to other people. Not to mention that his idea for ‘combining an arch and a truss’ suggests that Rand knows very little about engineering.

Meanwhile the attacks on Rearden Metal continue. Rearden receives a request from the State Scientific Institute to remove his product from the market until the social conditions are right, a request he treats with the short shrift it deserves. In response, the SSI issues a statement that fails to claim Rearden Metal is a bad product, but which emphasises the uncertainty attached to it and the potential risk. The market reacts badly, and Dagny’s contractors do similarly.

Dagny visits the head of the SSI, Doctor Robert Stadler. Dr Stadler is one of history’s greatest scientists, and it was at his urging that the Government paid for the SSI, to set science free from the ignominy of having to work for industry.

Bit of a misrepresentation of the history of science here. Science, especially abstract science, was historically the preserve of the sons of the rich, until the value of public funding for blue-sky research was recognised. You would find it very hard to identify any instance anywhere in the world of abstract or pure enquiry being funded by private enterprise – until that private enterprise had seen how they could make a profit out of it. The brutal fact, which Rand fails to address here, is that a significant amount of basic science – for example, zoology or in its early days geology – has no useful application beyond the advancement of human knowledge. Private enterprise in these fields is typically built on the back of public endeavour. In a Randian world, these fields would remain unexamined except if by chance a genius arose talented enough to compress the work of thousands of scientists and hundreds of years into a single lifetime. This would appear to put a brake on prosperity and human advancement for the sake of principle, and ignore knowledge as a value in itself.

Stadler plays the fool, pushing the blame off onto a subordinate, while recognising that the mealy-mouthed statement is an indictment of the SSI. He briefly refers to three students of his who took joint majors in physics and philosophy, whose genius he recognised and whose interest he competed for with their philosophy professor, Hugh Akston. The three were Francis d’Anconia, a Scandinavian pirate, and a vanished third man.

The collapse of public confidence in the Rio Norte line leads to Dagny persuading Jim to allow her to hive off that part of Taggart Transcontinental into a separate company for the time being to avoid attracting further opprobrium to TT. The line is renamed the John Galt Line. Dagny receives financing from a consortium of businessmen, including Rearden – but d’Anconia refuses.

The reader is left it little doubt that part of Rearden’s motivation for working so closely with Dagny is his complete infatuation with her.

Again with the wanting to make a woman submit thing Rand’s talked about before. It’s couched in terms of ‘wanting her to surrender to him’ – in other words, making her his property in order to use her to fulfil his desires. A feminist tract this is not.

The Equality of Opportunity Act passes (I unfairly suspected Rand of using this to mock anti-monopoly legislation in a previous post; this act is so insane no-one would think of it as anti-monopoly legislation), thanks to a sneaky flurry of activity within the legislature. The Act provides that any businessman may own only one business concern. What ‘concern’ entails is not clear, but it’s likely that it means only one business in one area of industrial activity – nothing more than a single area of single purpose plant. This will force Rearden to sell his ore mines to retain his smelting operation. Rearden reacts to this by designing a new bridge.

Analysis

The ‘legislature’ in AtlasWorld is clearly insane and evil – the Equality of Opportunity Act is a gross perversion of anti-monopoly legislation that would crush any vertical conglomerate and its attendant economies of scale, without actually ensuring that any single business cannot dominate a sector of the market. Yet the legislature is mandated by public consent. The twisted versions of philosophers and social commentators we encountered in the previous chapter have won the public debate to the point where such perversions are possible.

In AtlasWorld, the titans of industry are uninterested in public affairs. They find it despicable, to a large degree. They are now reaping the whirlwind of this distaste. This is an arena in which they have refused to compete, and so have been bested. It is surprising that Rand, who clearly believes in competition, would present as virtuous characters who refuse to engage in this particular type of it, and as sinful characters who gladly do.

Part 8 is here.

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