Over the past year, I’ve been reading and reviewing the third and final section of Ayn Rand’s epic celebration of I’ve-got-mine-so-screw-youism, Atlas Shrugged. (See parts one and two.) Like the first two parts, it has important lessons for liberals and progressives to learn from.
In part III, the heroine Dagny Taggart crash-lands her private plane in Galt’s Gulch, the secret capitalist utopia where the world’s greatest businessmen have retreated to live free from taxes and regulation. While living in Galt’s Gulch and learning its ways, Dagny falls in love with its leader, the capitalist messiah John Galt. When Galt is captured and tortured by the evil socialists who control the government (#ThanksObama), Dagny joins a daring rescue mission.
Here are some things we can learn from this thrilling libertarian adventure:
1. Good doctors put profit above saving lives.
After her crash landing in Galt’s Gulch, Dagny has a sprained ankle and some mild cuts and bruises. (This is the worst injury that any of Ayn Rand’s protagonists ever suffer, because if she allowed them to be seriously injured or disabled, it’d raise difficult questions of who would pay for their treatment and support them through their recovery.) So she arranges to be seen by the resident doctor, a surgeon named Dr. Thomas Hendricks.
Like the other inhabitants of the Gulch, Dr. Hendricks tells Dagny that he quit his practice because there was too much government red tape and he’d gotten fed up with it: “I would not let them dictate the purpose for which my years of study had been spent, or the conditions of my work, or my choice of patients, or the amount of my reward.”
The only plausible reading of this is that Dr. Hendricks wanted the “freedom” to pick and choose his patients, charge as much as he pleased, and turn away sick people who couldn’t meet his fees. Because, of course, how much a person can pay should be the first thing any good doctor thinks about.
He also tells her that he’s continued to do medical research—where he procured test subjects for human trials is never addressed—and has invented a cure for strokes. Yes, all strokes. But he’ll never share his finding with the world because ordinary peons don’t deserve to benefit from his scientific genius:
“No, Miss Taggart, I have not given up medicine,” said Dr. Hendricks, in answer to her question. “I have spent the last six years on research. I have discovered a method to protect the blood vessels of the brain from that fatal rupture which is known as a brain stroke. It will remove from human existence the terrible threat of sudden paralysis… No, not a word of my method will be heard outside.”
You might think that a doctor’s first responsibility is to help the sick, and not to deliberately withhold lifesaving medical advances (that is, if you were the American Medical Association). But, if you live in Galt’s Gulch, you’d be wrong.
2. Laws should be made up by one person without any voting or debate.
The inhabitants of Galt’s Gulch tell Dagny that her crash-landing there constitutes trespassing, even though she had no way of knowing it was private property. As a result, John Galt tells her, he’s going to keep her there for a month—not because there’s a law that says so, but just because he wants to:
“You’re going to stay here for a month… I am not asking for your consent — you did not ask for ours when you came here. You broke our rules, so you’ll have to take the consequences. Nobody leaves the valley during this month. I could let you go, of course, but I won’t. There’s no rule demanding that I hold you, but by forcing your way here, you’ve given me the right to any choice I make — and I’m going to hold you simply because I want you here. If, at the end of a month, you decide that you wish to go back, you will be free to do so. Not until then.”
This is remarkable for many reasons. First of all, though John Galt claims Dagny is guilty of trespassing, there’s no trial, no judge and no jury, and she doesn’t get a lawyer. He just announces that she broke their rules, finds her guilty on the spot, and decrees a punishment. Ayn Rand wrote that her ideal libertarian utopia would still have police and law courts that work according to objective rules, but when she gets a chance to depict how this would work, what she actually shows is frontier-style self-help justice.
The more disturbing part of this is when John Galt says that because she unknowingly trespassed, he has “the right to any choice I make” regarding what to do with her. Any choice? In an ideal laissez-faire world, if someone sets foot on your property, could you shoot them on sight, or enslave them and make them into your indentured servant? That’s the implication of this.
3. When capitalists gather in large enough numbers, consumer goods materialize all around them.
Although Galt’s Gulch is hidden in the high alpine wilderness of the Rocky Mountains, it has an implausibly mild and idyllic climate. It’s a natural cornucopia where anything and everything can be grown in limitless quantities. As Dagny finds out while she’s staying as John Galt’s houseguest/prisoner, they even have fresh oranges (from the renowned citrus groves of Colorado?).
Plus, even though Galt’s Gulch has only a small number of people (Ayn Rand said it would be a thousand or less), they somehow have all the modern conveniences they want. It’s strongly implied that they made everything for themselves from scratch, because they’re just that good. Dagny even meets a guy who made a tractor in his spare time by hand-tooling pieces of scrap metal into an engine and all the other parts.
The real Colorado, with heavy winters and summer wildfires, wouldn’t be nearly as much of an agricultural paradise as the book depicts. Nor is it likely that a tiny fishbowl of a society, however talented its inhabitants, would be able to recreate all the vast industrial infrastructure of modern civilization from scratch with their own bare hands. But none of these inconvenient limitations apply to Ayn Rand’s protagonists, who are just so good at capitalism that consumer goods spontaneously materialize all around them.
4. True capitalism looks a lot like true communism.
Since Galt’s Gulch is the ultimate free market, you might think there would be cutthroat competition, businessmen trying ruthlessly to supplant each other, ferocious rivalries, a tumult of new companies coming into business and old ones collapsing.
But what Dagny finds is the exact opposite. It’s a sedate, pastoral society where each person knows their place and fits into it perfectly. Everyone has their own specialty, and everyone else seems to be aware of this and leaves a clear path open for newcomers. There’s only one copper miner, one railroad engineer, one lumberjack, one fisherwoman, one hog farmer, one doctor, one banker, one judge, one composer. No one attempts to elbow in on anyone else’s racket; no one cheats, lies to or gouges anyone. In the very few occasions where we see actual competition, it’s a low-stakes game where the loser gets hired by the winner as a consolation prize.
It’s as peaceful and harmonious as a communist state could ever dream of being. No planned economy could hope to do better at slotting people into the roles they fit best. It’s a massive irony that, even though Ayn Rand proclaimed herself a fierce individualist, she wrote a utopia populated by people who agree with each other and have all the same desires and opinions to a greater degree than has ever been observed in any actual society.
5. Women and children aren’t necessary.
There’s no nicer way to put it than this: The capitalist utopia of Galt’s Gulch is overwhelmingly dudes. In all the time she spends there, Dagny meets twenty-six men and only three women. And only one of those women is important enough for the text to even name her!
Coming from a book written by a woman, this is striking. It feeds off the classic sexist stereotypes that men are the thinkers, the doers and the builders, while women are passive objects of desire. Since Galt’s Gulch is the realm of only the most brilliant executives, the vast majority of women are stopped at the gates.
If this imaginary society were anything like the real societies that suffer from this problem, this extreme gender imbalance would soon lead to social breakdown, crime and even war, as the hordes of low-status men refuse to put up with an order in which they have no hope of love or romantic companionship. And with so few women, an even more obvious problem would soon present itself: Who’s going to have the children that will make up the next generation? Or will the Gulchers simply age and die off with no successors? Their stated plan is to remake the world in their own image once the looter society collapses, yet the absence of children in their utopia is a huge obstacle that none of them seem to be aware of.
Ayn Rand herself never had children, and no wonder. Her philosophy of selfishness has an extremely hard time explaining why anyone would engage in the inherently altruistic act of parenting. Except for one short scene that raises more questions than it answers, she completely ducks the question in Atlas Shrugged.
6. Time stops when a true capitalist is speaking.
The dramatic climax of Part III occurs when John Galt takes over the airwaves—in true supervillain style—to deliver an address to the entire U.S. In his speech, he explains that he’s knocked out the pillars of civilization by taking away the productive one-percenters who made the economy work. He says that a massive economic crash is coming, and while a few of those left might be able to survive by growing their own food in frontier communities, most people are going to die when civilization collapses as a result of his machinations. (He’s supposed to be the hero of the novel, in case you weren’t sure.)
However, in between outlining his evil plan, he also takes the time to deliver a dense, philosophical lecture explaining Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism in relentless detail. From start to finish, John Galt’s speech comprises 34,000 words—longer than some entire novels—and would take about five hours to deliver at an ordinary speaking pace.
Yet, somehow, no one’s attention flags, no one turns their radio off and no one falls asleep. The text tells us that even the villainous looters, for whom Galt’s speech represents everything they despise, simply sit there as if hypnotized and listen to the whole thing. It’s as if time stood still while he was talking.
What this really represents is Ayn Rand’s own desire for how people would react to her. She was fiercely intolerant of dissent or criticism, and this absurdity exemplifies her wish that, when she expounded on her ideas, people would sit in reverent silence like churchgoers listening to the reading of holy scripture.
7. Humanitarians secretly want people to starve.
After returning from Galt’s Gulch, Dagny makes one last try to save her railroad and the country. She tells the evil socialists who’ve taken over the government that their last chance to avert national collapse is to concentrate on saving the country’s heavy industry. But they ignore her because, the text tells us, collapse is what they secretly want:
She saw what they wanted and to what goal their “instincts,” which they called unaccountable, were leading them. She saw that Eugene Lawson, the humanitarian, took pleasure at the prospect of human starvation — and Dr. Ferris, the scientist, was dreaming of the day when men would return to the hand-plow.
Granted, John Galt and the other super-capitalists also take pleasure at the prospect of human starvation and the collapse of society (see point #10), but we’re supposed to ignore that. The message Rand wants us to take away is that anyone who claims to be concerned about the general welfare or the common good is a fiendish looter who only says those things as cover for their dream of destroying human ingenuity and accomplishment.
Rand carries this message through into the real world. If you support raises in the minimum wage, or more affordable housing, or stronger unions, or environmental protection, or anything else other than “rich people get to do anything they want”—then, according to her, that’s because you hate human greatness and life itself.
8. The key to utopia is abandoning your oldest and most faithful friends.
Dagny Taggart’s sidekick is a guy named Eddie Willers, who’s been her closest friend since childhood. He’s decent, loyal, competent at his job, respectful of her feelings, and utterly devoted to her. However, he’s not a superhuman genius who can build tractors from scratch. So, near the end of the book, Dagny sends him on a suicide mission—to restore interrupted railroad service in civil-war-torn California—and then forgets about him. Literally.
Eddie’s train breaks down in the middle of the Arizona desert, leaving him stranded countless miles from civilization (which is in the midst of collapsing, anyway). The last we see of him, he’s alone and sobbing in despair. Not only does Dagny not come to save him, as far as the novel tells us, she never gives any further thought to what happened to him. She never wonders about his fate or expresses sadness over his sacrifice.
She’s much too busy lusting after John Galt, whom she’s only known for a month or two as opposed to her whole life. On the other hand, he’s sexier, blonder, and better at capitalism, so it’s not hard to see why she prefers him to her lifelong best friend.
9. It’s okay to kill people who can’t make up their minds.
When Dagny and her friends go to save John Galt from the government compound where he’s being held prisoner, there’s a guard at the door blocking their way. Dagny tries to bluff her way past him, claiming she’s authorized to be there. But that doesn’t work, so instead she pulls out a gun and points it at him, saying, “Either you let me in or I shoot you.”
The guard, like all the incompetent looters who are the bad guys in Atlas Shrugged, claims that he has no way to know whether she’s allowed into the building and pleads that he’s not supposed to make decisions like this. So Dagny shoots him dead:
Calmly and impersonally, she, who would have hesitated to fire at an animal, pulled the trigger and fired straight at the heart of a man who had wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness. Her gun was equipped with a silencer; there was no sound to attract anyone’s attention, only the thud of a body falling at her feet.
At the time she killed the guard, he was cringing against the door, making no effort to draw his own weapon or do anything else to impede her. But because he couldn’t make up his mind—he “wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness”—that, in Ayn Rand’s philosophy, is a fatal defect that marks you as not really human, not a sentient being deserving of moral consideration. That’s why the text says that Dagny executes him with less of a qualm than she would have felt about killing an animal.
10. The death of millions is a happy ending.
In the end John Galt is rescued, and while they’re taking him back to the Gulch safe and sound, his plan to destroy the world comes to fruition. Without the underappreciated billionaire executives who kept everything running, civilization collapses and millions of people are doomed. Dagny and her friends witness the fall of New York from the air:
Looking down, they could see the last convulsions: the lights of the cars were darting through the streets, like animals trapped in a maze, frantically seeking an exit, the bridges were jammed with cars, the approaches to the bridges were veins of massed headlights, glittering bottlenecks stopping all motion, and the desperate screaming of sirens reached faintly to the height of the plane… The plane was above the peaks of the skyscrapers when suddenly, with the abruptness of a shudder, as if the ground had parted to engulf it, the city disappeared from the face of the earth. It took them a moment to realize that the panic had reached the power stations—and that the lights of New York had gone out.
While it’s not depicted in graphic detail, what we’re supposed to imagine is that, over the next few days or weeks, millions of people will starve or freeze to death, and most of the remainder will kill each other in futile warfare over whatever scraps are left. When John Galt and the other true capitalists return to the world, they’ll find it depopulated and vacant, free for the taking and for them to rebuild as they please. (And if there are any survivors, Galt and his allies will just subjugate or kill them, as he explains in his radio speech: “Those who choose to join us, will join us; those who don’t, will not have the power to stop us; hordes of savages have never been an obstacle to men who carried the banner of the mind.”)
In Ayn Rand’s eyes, this is a happy ending. The government thugs who wanted to force John Galt to help save the world are the villains of this story, and their failure should be cheered. Ordinary people are like the weeds that need to be plowed under before the field can be planted. And with most of humanity dead, the world’s richest and most arrogant people will be the only survivors and will finally be free to do as they please. They’ll create a world with no more pesky laws to hold them back, where literally anything is legal as long as you’re doing it for profit. That’s the future that Rand and her devotees long for.