Rebecca Knapp, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
To Produce or Destroy
Good and evil are starkly defined in the world of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s heroes are producers who confront reality directly to gain their values. Their brilliant productivity, integrity, and self-interested actions bring them wealth and the ability to enjoy it. Her villains are vicious looters who preach that production is theft, integrity arrogance, and self-sacrifice a cardinal virtue. As a result, the “wealth” they attain is unearned, unsatisfying, and temporary. Both the producers and the looters of Atlas Shrugged seem to desire money, but there is a crucial difference between Henry Rearden, steel manufacturer, who makes money by inventing a revolutionary alloy—and James Taggart, railroad president, who gets money by using his connections to stifle competitors and wangle subsidies. Rearden recognizes that he must earn wealth, and its enjoyment, by exercising the virtue of productivity. Taggart seeks to cheat reality by grasping wealth unearned.
To make money is to produce value—to produce items that are useful or desirable to humans. Rand’s heroes make money by creating valuable products. Dagny Taggart runs an efficient railroad; Ellis Wyatt drills for oil. Both create products that improve their customers’ lives. Dagny’s passengers save days traveling cross-country. Industrialists use Wyatt’s oil to run machinery more efficiently. When a customer exchanges money for a train ticket or a gallon of oil, he says, in effect, I am willing to exchange a specific amount of my productive labor for a specific amount of yours—because the product of your labor helps me to live my life.
Money must be earned through production, and production requires a specific means: reason. Dagny and Wyatt produce, not through mindless labor, but through brilliant insight. Dagny’s complex system of tracks and terminals could never be coordinated without thought and planning. Dagny must judge good men and good engines, direct improvements, and coordinate the movements of hundreds of trains. She uses her mind to run a railroad that makes her money—through its benefit to the lives of those who eagerly pay to use it.
Yet while the production of value leads, in a rational society, to material wealth, material wealth has no intrinsic value. When Orren Boyle expropriates a down-payment for steel rail from James Taggart, Taggart’s money does not purchase good rail, but only a promise of “friendship”. By receiving money unearned, Boyle is helping to create a world where money is meaningless. True, he can use it to purchase the productive efforts of others, if they allow him, but in a world of Orren Boyles, a million dollars would be worth nothing—what could one spend it on?
Rand’s heroes recognize that money is not a value in and of itself. Dagny is certainly motivated by profit, yet when The National Alliance of Railroads votes Dagny’s major competitor, Dan Conway, out of business, Dagny does not think of making money from his destruction. Instead she rushes to his office, beseeching him, “Dan, you have to fight them. I’ll help you.” (Rand 78)1. Rearden likewise refuses The State Science Institute when it offers an immediate blank check for the purchase of his alloy. Rearden explains, “You see, it’s because Rearden metal is good.” (173) Dagny and Rearden act as they do because they are not motivated by money, but by the real value behind it. Dagny knows that she cannot create value by using force to destroy a worthy competitor. Rearden knows that an enormous lump sum for his past achievement would be worth less to him than the money he could earn using his metal to produce further value.
Rand’s villains, by contrast, struggle to believe that money is itself meaningful, regardless of how they get it. They evade the necessity of production. They attempt to get money by exploiting altruism (which they propagate for just that purpose), or by outright force. When Lee Hunsacker wants a loan to purchase a motor factory, he presents his need as collateral, later whining, “How were we to succeed in life if nobody would give us a factory? […] Weren’t we entitled?” (294) Ellis Wyatt’s small competitors use government coercion to tie his hands. When Wyatt finally burns his own oil fields in protest, the small oil fields make “the kind of fortunes they had dreamed about, fortunes requiring no competence or effort.” (327) But money mooched by guilt or looted by force does not stay in undeserving hands for long. Hunsacker is ruined when his incompetence puts his newly purchased factory out of business. Wyatt’s small competitors close down when they cannot produce enough oil to hold their customers. Each of Rand’s villains ends up destitute when he discovers that no matter how much unearned money he wheedles or steals, the money is worthless without the men who can create value to give it meaning.
The looters are not only incapable of producing material things independently, they are psychologically incapable of enjoying the material wealth they steal. They derive no pleasure from their parties, their champagne, or their expensive jewelry. Dagny describes her first ball: “There wasn’t a person there who enjoyed it…or who thought or felt anything at all. They moved about, and they said the same dull things they say anywhere. I suppose they thought the lights would make it brilliant.” (101) Rearden, on the other hand, delights in buying Dagny exotic flowers, a ruby pendant, and an expensive fur coat. The difference that allows Rand’s heroes to enjoy wealth, while her villains cannot, lies in another value, this time a psychological one: that of self-esteem. Because Rearden is virtuous—because he can produce—he views himself as efficacious, capable of meeting and conquering the challenges of life. He knows he deserves quality and beauty; they externalize his glowing self-view. James Taggart, by contrast, knows himself to be an incompetent wretch, without the ability to hang a door, much less run a railroad. He resents wealth and those who earn it.
Taggart’s resentment gives a clue to his true motivation for wanting money. Taggart knows he can not earn wealth, self-esteem, or respect through his own efforts—so he attempts to skip a step. Rather than seeking to produce, he seeks the result of production: money. He asks for government subsidies. Rather than upholding virtue, he seeks to fake virtue’s product: self-esteem. He marries a drugstore clerk, seeking unconditional adoration. Though he attempts to steal values, he cannot steal their substance. He cannot enjoy riches if he knows they are unearned.
Taggart finds his self-deception mocked by the existence of real value, real virtue, and real ability. Ultimately, his desire to steal becomes a desire to destroy. He becomes obsessed with crushing value out of existence, even at the cost of his own life. When John Galt, the personification of virtue, falls into the looters’ hands, Taggart wishes to see him murdered, even though he knows only Galt can save Taggart’s own life.
Ultimately, the alternative between making money and merely getting it, through force or guilt, becomes the alternative to produce or destroy. Life demands production. Rand’s villains evade this fact—and come to worship destruction and death. Her heroes embrace reality, embrace virtue—and live.
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, Inc., 1957.