I previously wrote a superficial review of Atlas Shrugged. Today, I want to talk about my emotional reaction to two scenes. There are no spoilers here beyond the first third of the book.

Early on, Taggart Transcontinental Railroad’s CEO, Jim Taggart, pulled the levers of the trade group to force a regional rival, Dan Conway, to cease operation of a superior competing line, the Phoenix-Durango. The program for Taggart was that their own line, the Rio Del Norte, had fallen into disrepair and was not ready to carry magnate Ellis Wyatt’s cargo out of Colorado. Though Conway agreed to cease operations, he declined to turn his existing lines over to Taggart.

Later on, Ellis Wyatt makes the decision to join the other Makers in Galt’s Gulch. The last straw for Wyatt is a series of regulations that were tailor designed to soak every extra bit of productivity out of him for everybody else (the “common good”). Rather than simply disappear, or take what capital he could with him, he essentially destroyed his mines in a blaze of glory.

There are similarities between the two events, in that they were both examples of successful industry injured significantly by interference in the markets by outside forces (a trade group for Conway, the government for Wyatt).

There were differences, too, that lead me to view the two cases so differently. To the point that I was happy with Conway’s decisions, and angry with Wyatt’s.

The less important difference between the two was that Conway was quite directly forced out of business. After losing his line, he had no business to operate. He could have gotten a job elsewhere, but he was displaced. For Wyatt, the expectation was that he would continue operations. He had operations to continue.

The big difference, though, was that Conway tore up the lines and sold them. That he refused to sell them to the place where they were most needed bothers me less because it’s the people who most needed it that played the central role in killing his business.

Wyatt, though, simply destroyed everything in site. He left a note saying that was basically leaving everything as he found it. I’m sure Rand saw some justice in that, and perhaps there was. I had an enormous amount of difficulty seeing anything other than needless destruction.

It’s one thing to prevent somebody from having something by keeping it or deliberately giving it to someone else. In the Trumwill Way of thinking, though, it’s another to destroy it to keep them from having it.

Most likely, though, it’s my own visceral reaction to destruction itself. Though I have defended Cash for Clunkers at Hit Coffee for not being particularly responsible for the rise in used car prices, I could only look at the whole process with dismay. I understand the environmental rationale for it, but the whole thing was dedicated to taking something useful and putting it out of the reach of the people who could actually have used it.

Presumably, like Conway’s tracks, there was a recycling and re-purposing of the metal. But there are people all across the country who could use cars in good working order, and there we were destroying them. Better that they should without than that they pollute the environment with it, while large numbers of middle class Americans got a new car at a reduced price.

Whether one considers my response to C4C to be right or wrong, I do admit that this reaction of mine does go to the almost certainly irrational. While tearing something down to build something new over it isn’t really a problem for me, I get that twinge of resistance when I see something torn down because it can’t be re-used and has been declared unsightly or (less unreasonably) a hazard. But if we’re not going to do anything with the building, it really shouldn’t matter. I just don’t seem to care.

In my own personal life, this relates to my historic inability to throw away old computers if there is even a semblance of functionality. There are very, very few uses I can imagine for a Pentium laptop, but by heavens it works so how do I throw it away or turn it into the recycler? It’s something I have struggled with enormously.

Logic did finally prevail earlier this year when I spent several hours trying to get a couple of old, single-core processor machines working. I mean, that’s not when logic prevailed. Logic prevailed when, after having done so, I realized how utterly useless these computers were and did dispose of them with prejudice.

Even then, it’s amazing how hard it is. It turns on! It works! It takes twenty minutes to open up an email but… functionality! In theory, anyway.

Presumably, had Wyatt simply left the mines in tact, the “looters” would have run it into uselessness anyway as they did with the society that they were left. In the context of the story it did make sense to hurry the process along because progress in Randverse was more-or-less predicated on the collapse of civilization. Burning the village to save in and all that.

Category: Coffeehouse

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4 Responses to Lost Capital and Atlas Shrugged

  1. Burt Likko says:

    Rand can argue with some power that individual greed is a motive force for generalized utility and therefore that profit is a moral justification for an action. (This seems a remarkably modest proposition around which to write a 3,000-page novel.)

    She loses some argumentative power when she suggests that profit is the only moral justification for an action, as she has D’Ancona (among others) suggest in several sermons.

    She stumbles pretty badly when addressing things that aren’t quantifiable and monetizable. When describing Dagny Taggart’s love affair with Rearden, for instance, there is a remarkably shallow explanation of why she loves him. “She really liked f–ing Hank, until she didn’t anymore, and then she figured she’d really like f–ing John,” would have been a more accurate description of Dagny’s behavior: sex is pleasurable so why not do as you and your lover please? A former lover’s broken heart is collateral damage in pursuit of the sensation of physical pleasure with someone new. Really rings hollow.

    And she loses me completely with Ellis Wyatt: Wyatt’s destruction of the mines was not motivated by a desire for profit but rather as a display of spite. No utility was gained to anyone by their destruction. The only benefit to anyone was Wyatt getting a moment’s worth of bitter satisfaction out of figuratively extending his middle finger to the Moochers. I’m not going to call him a hero for that and I have a hard time understanding why Rand did think it was heroic.

    • trumwill says:

      Oddly, it seems that a lot of people do take Rand’s expositions on love seriously. I don’t know that they necessarily got the idea from here, but the “love as a (benign) selfish act” is something I have run across disproportionately among people who like Rand.

      There was a tactical advantage of Wyatt doing what he did, insofar as the Galtians were waiting on the fall of civilization and the destruction of the mines did hasten that. So there was an efficiency argument. Not totally unlike how setting bombs in civilian centers has an efficiency argument…

    • Lowe says:

      Rand could not help but show the negative aspects of her personality, in her work. As you may know, she cheated on her husband with a younger man, Nathaniel Branden.

      From what I remember of the novel, the destruction of the wells was a demonstration that property rights were absolute in Rand’s moral framework. Although Wyatt clearly acted from hatred, his motives wouldn’t factor into the moral value of the act.

      I don’t remember Rand describing Wyatt as heroic. If she did I suppose it was because heroes presumably feel hatred for evil. For the sake of disclosure, I am a big fan of Rand’s work.

      • trumwill says:

        Wyatt may not be described as heroic, but he is pretty clearly (to me, anyway) a member of the Good Team right along with the protagonists.

        You’re right about the demonstration of property rights. Nobody else having any right to the wealth he created. The alternative arguments involve concepts like charity that she… is not a big fan of, to say the least. (Though charity is forgiven, to some extent, if the motives are self-centered.)

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