Atlas Shrugged Chapter 13: White Blackmail

I find myself being tempted by Rand’s philosophy. I do think her obsession specifically with money, though, is too simplistic. Also, anyone who claims to love Atlas Shrugged and then proceeds to praise Bush over Obama has read a different book than I. More after the summary.

Chapter summary: Hank’s wife discovers his affair, although not that it’s with Dagny; she refused him a divorce. Ferris, meanwhile, tries to blackmail Hank into giving the Institute the extra metal, using Hank’s illegal deal with Ken Dannager. Hank refuses, and he and Ken are indicted. Dagny arrives at Ken’s just as the mysterious shadow (presumably John Galt) leaves; Ken disappears. Hank and Francisco have a chat, interrupted by a furnace breach that they staunch.

As with the last chapter, Rand give Francisco a powerful speech, this time on moral motivation. He confronts Hank on the exploitation of the metal by the wrong sort of person, peaking with a paragraph that fairly well describes the ilk of Bush and Cheney:

Did you want to see it used by whining rotters who never rouse themselves to any effort, who do not possess the ability of a filing clerk, but demand the income of a company president, who drift from failure to failure and expect you to pay their bills, who hold their wishing as an equivalent of your work and their need as a higher claim to reward than your effort, who demand that it be the aim of your life to serve them, who demand that your strength be the voiceless, rightless, unpaid, unrewarded slave of their impotence, who proclaim that you are born to serfdom by reason of your genius, while they are born to rule by the grace of incompetence?

To be fair, this passage is condemning both people who live off a welfare state and those who cling to power through cronyism and tacit blackmail, but the more consistent target of Rand’s ire (at least, so far) has been the latter. The poor and destitute are largely invisible in Atlas Shrugged.

Speaking in terms of modern politics, I don’t think that Obama would be very close to Rand’s ideal, but Bush and, even more so, Palin are even farther from that ideal. Obama, at least, has made a career of being competent and intelligent; Palin’s consistent selling point is that she’s “just like everyone else.”

Where I have so far differed from Rand is in her implication that genius is best served in making a financial profit. I am still unclear as to whether that’s her own opinion or one cast upon her by both her acolytes and her critics. I would say that genius is best served in working on its own terms, and if that includes working to humanitarian ends, that’s wonderful. If someone chooses to use their intellect and effort solely for their own gain, that’s a decision I would question; ultimately, though, that ought to be their right.

What then of welfare? I think this is a different matter, even if it looks like it’s related. If a government is forcing the best and the brightest to work for its ends, if a government is placing an unreasonable cap on profits, that government is being abusive. If a government, on the other hand, is providing a minimal net for honest people who are working hard but struggling, and is doing so by taking fairly equally from more successful people, that government is not in my view being abusive.

It’s more complicated than Rand has thus far displayed. Where is the tipping point, from safety net to abuse? I don’t know, but I think that we’re still a distance from it.

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