Riding Coach Through Atlas Shrugged Part 3: Hit The Switch

50th Anniversary Edition pages- 33-48

[Part 2]

Chapter Summary: We meet our industrialist protagonist, he makes some metal, is weirdly sentimental, and doesn’t understand basic human interaction.

This chapter is very important for a number of reasons. Several (presumably) important characters are introduced, the MacGuffin is introduced, and several elements of Rand’s writing style and her personality are revealed. Because of this final revelation I, for the first time, am going to start one of these reviews off with the negative.

Ayn Rand’s descriptions of characters and those characters’ reactions to others in the story are both highly questionable. The protagonists, so far, all have crippling social issues that are not only glossed over but indeed are celebrated; while the antagonists are universally whiny, sycophantic, card-carrying bad guys who talk with each other like Bond villains; but more about them in the next chapter.

Let me provide some examples of our pseudo-autistic heroes from previous chapters.

Eddie:

“But he still thought it self-evident that one had to do what was right; he had never learned how

people could want to do otherwise; he had learned only that they did. It still seemed simple and incomprehensible to him: simple that things should be right, and incomprehensible that they weren’t.”

While I can relate to his feeling, I think it is imperative that libertarians understand completely why people want to do the things we consider “wrong” and to do that we need to have a solid foundation of what is right or wrong. The latter belief is why I hold so strongly to natural-rights libertarianism rather than any subjective based ethical system such as rule-utilitarianism.

Once we have a strong ethical foundation to build our beliefs on we begin to understand why most people operate outside those beliefs in practice despite the fact that most people would agree to them in theory. How many people would openly advocate violence against person or property when stated in such clear terms? Very few would, which is why society functions. It is only when we hide violence in plain sight through the control of language and education that most people begin to agree with their necessity. Extortion becomes taxation. Kidnapping becomes imprisonment. Murder becomes war and fraud becomes inflation.

Dagny:

“[b]ecause she thought that such a feeling was not within the humanly possible”

“She had always avoided personal reactions, but she was forced to break her rule when she saw the expression on Taggart’s face.”

Another clear lack of empathy in regards to dissimilar belief systems as well as some more personal social awkwardness. I wish I knew why Dagny “avoided personal reactions”. Did Rand think that emotion was a weakness? I cannot wait to spend more time with Dagny because she seems like such an unnecessary enigma.

And finally we have our new character, Hank Rearden whose complete lack of empathy boggles my mind. Hank begins the chapter at his foundry as the first batch of Rearden metal is poured. He waxes sentimentally over his past, especially his status as a self-made man; however the real story begins to be told when he leaves his work and returns to his home where his family is having a dinner party; or rather, the end of a dinner party. This scene provides us with two important sets of information.

First, Rearden’s family resents him for his aloofness and his lack of understanding of their problems and second he resent his family for not empathizing with him.

Let’s start with the relationship with his brother.

Phillip Rearden is a man who “had not been able to decide on any specific ambition.” A fact that Hank is generally disgusted by, he believes that “[T]here was something wrong…with a man who did not seek gainful employment.” When we meet Phillip he is a representative of a charitable foundation called “The Friends of Global Progress”. This organization is in dire need of ten-thousand dollars in its quest for “free lectures on psychology, folk music, and co-operative farming”.

Phillip is distraught that he cannot convince enough people to donate to the cause and Hank, in an attempt to improve his brother’s morale, simply donates the needed sum of ten-thousand dollars. Hank is then surprised when Phillip rebuffs his generosity. Hank misses the entire point though; Phillip isn’t upset that that he doesn’t have the money. Phillip is upset that more people don’t believe in his cause, something libertarians should have some measure of empathy for. We have to ignore the fact that Rand chose a completely ridiculous organization for Phillip, the scope of that organization is irrelevant. It is the relationship between the brothers that is vital.

Hank’s reaction, on the other hand, is far more vitriolic. He resents the fact that Phillip is acting selflessly to the point of wanting to hit him. “He wanted to slap Phillip’s face. But an almost unendurable contempt made him close his eyes instead.” Who seems more reasonable in this situation? Our “hero” or the villain?

Here is where Rand either rejects or misunderstands praxeological reasoning. Phillip, though acting selflessly, is also acting selfishly. Mises said that every action is taken in order to remove a “certain uneasiness”; this uneasiness is what drives human action. Even the most selfless act is done for the benefit of the person acting. How often has someone who risks their life for another uttered the phrase “I just couldn’t live with myself if I hadn’t done such-and-such.” It all comes down to a question of subjective valuations. No two people’s values are identical and there is no way to compare or rate those values against one another. Despite Hank’s objection that he “would not impose his standards on Phillip…” that is exactly what he does at every turn.

Next we have Hank’s wife Lillian. Our first reference to Lillian is as follows:

“He touched the bracelet in his pocket. He had had it made from that first poured metal. It was for his wife. As he touched it he realized suddenly that he had thought of an abstraction called ‘his wife’ – not of the woman to whom he was married.”

I think it is very telling that the first we hear of Hank’s wife he isn’t even considering her as a person, barely even as an object. “An abstraction” that throughout the rest of the chapter is the only one who even remotely stands up for Hank, even though she seems to do it only out of duty and not love. Another case where I can relate more to the character portrayed as the villain than the hero.

Lillian ends the chapter by holding up the aforementioned bracelet Hank had given her and calls it “the chain he uses to hold us all in bondage.” This rings true on several levels. Hank supports his family out of duty to them and then gets upset when they cannot stand on their own. Hank is proud of having earned everything he has on his own but then doesn’t expect the same from his family. He wants them to support him in his endeavors but only pays lip service to theirs. They pursue senseless causes but he supports them financially at every turn.

At this point in the story Hank is a contradiction. He is attempting to live in two worlds and because of that is failing at both. His family is biting at his heels and he cannot see the political danger right in front of him which will be revealed in the next chapter.

P.S. I forgot about his mother. She is essentially a high-class snob. I don’t really have any sort of insight on her other than she is insufferable.

 

P.P.S.  I have been scarce as of late due to a recent promotion and an increased workload as well as a series of outrageous summer adventures.  Thanks to Brandon for not kicking me out yet.

One thought on “Riding Coach Through Atlas Shrugged Part 3: Hit The Switch

Please keep it civil

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s