Robert Sanders, University of California, Los Angeles
Explain Ragnar Danneskj÷ld's statement that Robin Hood is the one man he is out to destroy. What is the deeper moral meaning of his claim?
In Ragnar Danneskj÷ld and Robin Hood lay two contradictory moralities, each an inversion of the other. Robin Hood embodies the morality contained in “stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.” The implications of holding such a symbol as a moral ideal lead to Danneskj÷ld’s statement of intention to destroy Robin Hood. If theft from the rich and alms for the poor are held—by themselves, out of context—to be the moral good, then the resulting moral standard is hostile to wealth and success while encouraging misery and failure. It is this reversal of justice that Danneskj÷ld is fighting. In fighting the symbol of Robin Hood, Ragnar Danneskj÷ld places, according to the principle of justice, the use of force in the service of reality rather than in the effort to avoid reality.
The idea of “stealing from the rich” omits the question of how the riches were obtained. It does not differentiate between wealth obtained by force and fraud and wealth produced by man’s individual effort. Danneskj÷ld notes that though Robin Hood is said to have stolen from the rich who looted, he is not remembered for protecting property, but for helping the poor by means of the money of the rich (532). Consequently, Robin Hood stole not just from the rich looters but from wealthy individuals as such. The result is that, in a morality that regards Robin Hood as the ideal, rich producers and rich looters share the same moral status. Accordingly, producers are punished for their success, while looters are evil not because they violate rights, but because they obtain money.
If the productive are regarded as evil, it is not only the most brilliant productive minds who suffer: each man suffers according to the benefit he could have received from each producer. As John Galt observes in his radio speech, in proportion to mental energy exerted, the man who creates a new invention receives a lesser payment than the man who could not have created it (975). Thus, the moral principle that allows “stealing from the rich” harms all men, not just the ablest producers. By punishing the producer for his capacity to build, the morality of Robin Hood inhibits the creation of products that improve man’s life, and thereby diminishes the capacity of each man to live.
Just as “stealing from the rich” involves seizing property in disregard of whether the riches are earned, “giving to the poor” evokes the concept of “need” to elevate the unearned into moral entitlement. In Danneskj÷ld’s words, Robin Hood “is the man who became the symbol of the idea that need, not achievement, is the source of rights, ... that the earned does not belong to us, but the unearned does.” (532) According to such a morality, the man who can produce wealth owes it to the man who cannot. Under such a system, neediness becomes an ideal, because the only way man can serve his interests is by not having earned that which he requires to survive. Therefore, one lives by dying.
Throughout the story of Atlas Shrugged, the Robin Hood mentality, with need at its foundation, drives the novel’s bureaucratic villains. The Starnes heirs’ experiment at the Twentieth Century Motor Company as told by the vagabond Jeff Allen illustrates this mentality and its logical conclusion. The company’s employees voted on who among them was the neediest and the ablest. The neediest would receive the greatest payment and benefits, while the ablest would have to work overtime. In the end, work at the factory became a struggle to hide one’s ability, lest one find himself working harder to compensate for others’ incompetence. One young worker, who devised a new, timesaving method of labor, shut his mind after the other employees voted that he should work nights. Ability was punished and failure rewarded, “[s]o we did our best to be no good.” (609)
In the ethics of Robin Hood, therefore, lies the essence of Galt’s meaning when he says that, according to mystic and social ethics, “any moral code must be designed not for you, but against you, not to further your life, but to drain it.” (925) The symbol of Robin Hood stands for the attempt to ignore the fact that “[m]an’s mind is his basic tool of survival” (926) and the responsibility that statement implies. With a moral system that gives to the needy, those who fail to assume the responsibility of living, i.e. the responsibility of thinking, count on those who do assume it to give away that which the Robin Hood morality demands of them. Survival under this moral code depends on those such as Hank Rearden, who do not follow it, but mistakenly accept others’ needs as a moral claim on one’s property. The system that holds Robin Hood as a moral ideal thus attempts to bypass the axiom that there are no contradictions in reality by attempting to create a contradiction in men’s minds.
Danneskj÷ld seeks to destroy Robin Hood by replacing this avoidance of reality with its opposite, the principle of justice. In discussing the virtues, Galt defines justice as “the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature.” (933) Justice consists in understanding that men are a part of reality and that they act according to their natures, as do all parts of reality. In punishing the productive and rewarding those who fail to be productive, the symbol of Robin Hood stands in direct opposition to the proper ideal of justice. By returning Rearden’s wealth and sinking the looters’ ships, Danneskj÷ld works to reverse such injustice.
Danneskj÷ld’s use of force, in particular, reflects his sense of justice. “I am merely complying with the system my fellow men have established,” he explains. “If they believe that force is the proper means to deal with one another, I am giving them what they ask for.” (531) As a result, he performs the function that the looters’ government does not—that of a policeman (533). As such, he destroys the morality of need by replacing it with the concept of rights. Where “need” as a moral term is based on the failure to live, “rights” are based on the required conditions of life. Need-based morality strips men like Rearden of their work, while rights entitle him to the property he has earned. Since rights align with the requirements of man’s survival, they work consistently in practice.
Because Ragnar Dannesj÷ld operates according to the principle of justice, his application of force is reality-oriented. Robin Hood’s use of force to “steal from the rich” negates this concept by failing to treat men according to their natures. The category of “the rich” necessarily includes the productive men whose work enhances each man’s ability to live. To deal with these thinking individuals with physical force is to undercut the source of life. Danneskj÷ld, through his role as a “reverse Robin Hood,” returns life to those who are capable of living it.