John DeWald, University College London
A considerable part of the story of Atlas Shrugged deals with issues of justice. What is the account of justice that emerges in the novel? How does it compare to other, culturally influential accounts of justice?
Through Rand’s exploration of the philosophical roots of man’s relationship to society, the meaning of justice lies at the very heart of Atlas Shrugged. The book’s central theme, the consequence of the prime movers of society going on strike, is essentially a question of what would happen if the prime movers were to refuse to remain the bulwark of a society that is grounded in injustice. Rand’s world is sharply delineated between the John Galts and Dagny Taggarts, living by their own productive merit according to the strictest rules of justice and ethics, and the James Taggarts and Orren Boyles, those who achieve their survival only at the expense of the former. In Atlas Shrugged, justice is served by unyielding rationality, self-reliance, and production; it is envisaged as yielding a society where no man must sacrifice his life for any other’s, and where hard work and perseverance result in personal achievement and success—and, ultimately, a rich and flourishing economy. It is based fundamentally on the sanctification of individual rights, the idea that justice may only be served where personal liberty is fully protected. Where individual rights are sacrificed to arbitrary notions of fairness and the public good, justice cannot hold sway; the end result is an anemic society that is artificially propped up by the virtue of the prime movers who continue to produce even as their right to the fruit of their labor is compromised. Contemporary accounts of justice that run counter to Rand’s may best be categorized as stemming from a misconception of the rights of man; an investigation into both models highlights why it is only Rand’s which emerges as ultimately compatible with the vision of a free and prosperous society.
The crux of most competing accounts of justice stems from a view of justice as “fairness”. It was set forth in those terms and made famous by the political philosopher John Rawls, for whom the touchstone of any system of justice must be consideration for the poorest and weakest in society. It is based on the idea that justice is grounded in the inherent equality of all men, and that a proper system of politics preserves justice by securing the rights of the poor and downtrodden. According to Rawls’s framework, though all men are equal, some are endowed at birth with greater fortune and propensity for success, whether in the form of superior intellect, a wealthier or more loving family, or any conceivable benefit one could happen to be naturally allotted. It is the fundamental injustice of human life that such disparity exists; it then becomes the purpose of political justice to protect those who have been less favored by chance, and to engender the most equal terms possible for all people, whether wealthy or poor, brilliant or imbecilic. It is the first moral task of society to look after its poorest, and it must fall to those who have been blessed with nature’s gifts to do so. In pursuance of this, it is just that wealth be re-distributed to the extent that it can benefit the most indigent in society without severely harming the economy. Those who achieve success by their own determination and brilliance are benefiting from the unjust fancy of nature just as much as those who are born with vast inherited wealth, and the essential unfairness of these conditions can only be remedied in the political sphere. Justice is hence conceived as supplying an artificial “fairness” to society that nature dispassionately fails to provide.
This is the type of justice advocated by the non-prime movers of Atlas Shrugged, those who pass increasingly stringent and controlling governmental measures to secure for the “good” of society the productivity and wealth of the Dagny Taggarts and Ellis Wyatts of the world. As Bertram Scudder proselytizes at Rearden’s anniversary party, considerations of social justice trump any objective view of individual property rights: “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”(135). Claude Slagenhop’s assertion that “Right is whatever’s good for society”(136) further echoes Rawls, intertwining justice with a vague conception of the public good. Though Rawls himself, recognizing the economic failure incurred by their historical application, does not propagate either socialism or communism in unadulterated form, the model of justice he advances nevertheless shares the same root. The premise behind his account of ethics leads to the axiom “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, basing the principles of justice not on any absolute, objective idea of individual rights, but on the needs of the neediest in society. This gives rise to the view of rights that is prevalent in contemporary politics, where it is believed that man has a “right” to a job, a “right” to affordable housing, a “right” to food, a “right” to health care, and so on. The question of how a man is to achieve the satisfaction of these “rights” is generally not discussed, though the answer is evident enough—it remains for those of productive ability and accomplishment to serve as the bulwark of society and provide such “rights” for those who are incapable of securing them for themselves. This view of justice is dramatized in its full implementation with the story of the Twentieth Century Motor Company, a business that molds its own society according to the stricture of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, and perishes accordingly. The right to property in the community is sacrificed to a subjective notion of the common good, and Rand vividly illustrates the truth that, ultimately, any conception of the “common good” that calls for the immolation of the rights of others can serve the good of no one in the end.
In contrast to the failed experiment in justice represented by the Twentieth Century Motor Company, Rand presents us with her own account of justice, poignantly portrayed by the society of prime movers in Atlantis. Atlas Shrugged seeks to underscore the truth that the type of justice envisaged by Rawls and Ivy Starns is dependent upon the tacit consent of the men and women of ability, the prime movers it bleeds in order to provide for the obscure needs of “society”. It is a justice that is dependent upon coercion, on an artificial system of government that takes what individuals have produced and redistributes it to others who have no valid claim to it. It takes little account of the rights of these providers, and, taken to its full conclusion, casts them in the role of sacrificial animals working for the good of all save themselves. The conception of artificial fairness and “human rights” it serves holds no regard for the true rights of the individual, the inalienable right to live one’s own life and reap the full benefit of one’s labor; that is, the right to property. In dispensing with this, the fundamental right of man in society, such a vision of justice leaves no room for actual justice, allowing an ethics of coercion to supercede one of virtue. The end result of such a stark violation of morality is rendered potently lucid through the cataclysmic fate of the Twentieth Century Motor Company (or that of Soviet Russia in the twentieth century).
In Atlantis, by comparison, private property is sacrosanct. One works to the best of one’s ability, and is free to lay claim to the full benefit of all that one produces. Justice reigns as society is grounded in the only complete equality man can achieve, the equal capacity to use one’s mind, to compete to the best of one’s ability and make the most of oneself that one is able to. On this account of morality, no individual has the right to lay claim to what another individual has earned; men live as willing traders, working as they choose and engaging with their fellow men only in fully voluntary meetings and never under the threat of compulsion. One of the best dramatizations of this view of justice in Atlas Shrugged occurs when John Galt offers Midas Mulligan, a man of inestimable wealth, twenty-five cents a day for the use of his car. When Dagny laughs at what she perceives as the irony of the situation, Galt’s rebuke is immediate: “We have no laws in this valley, no rules, no formal organization of any kind…But we have certain customs, which we all observe…So I’ll warn you now that there is one word which is forbidden in this valley: the word ‘give’”(714). No individual in a just society either asks for or accepts the unearned; rather, one always relies upon the strength of one’s free, rational mind and trades one value for another. In this way, a free society is allowed to flourish, a society in which men only deal with one another under mutual consent and with individual rights fully protected, and in which justice may fully be served.
Atlas Shrugged affords a full dramatization of the ultimate consequences of two very different systems of justice. The ruination of the Twentieth Century Motor Company and the moribund world outside Atlantis indicates the fate of a model of justice that replaces individual rights and the fullest protection of private property with a vague conception of fairness and “human rights” enacted at the cost of the individual. The world of the prime movers in Atlantis, on the other hand, exhibits the unbridled possibility and success which belongs to the society that recognizes the value of individual achievement, the society that sanctifies property rights and the inalienable right of the individual to lead a life of his or her own choosing free from any kind of compulsion, and that allows one to reap the full benefit of one’s rational productivity. In this, Rand illustrates the freedom and accomplishment that belong to a society that actively practices virtue and serves to protect individual justice above all else. When placed next to a dying world where justice is commensurate to some undefined standard of “fairness” and the rights of some men are immolated for the sake of others, there is little doubt which model forms the proper standard of a just and prosperous human society.