The title of this post comes from Ayn Rand’s classic dystopian novel, Atlas Shrugged. I’ve been working my way through that novel and I got to the point where steel tycoon, Hank Rearden, is on trial for violating a government regulation limiting the sale of his wonder alloy “Rearden Metal.” When Rearden comes before the tribunal, the three judge panel hearing his case asks for his plea. Rearden replies that he has no defense to offer. The court, stunned, asks him if he is throwing himself on the court’s mercy. Rearden replies that he does not recognize the court’s right to try him. From that point on, Readern offers a classic defense of the Randian ethics of rational self-interest. It also highlights a very important truth: Evil requires the sanction of the victim in order to succeed.
The Ayn Rand lexicon defines the phrase “sanction of the victim” as: The willingness of the good to suffer at the hands of the evil, to accept the role of sacrificial victim for the ‘sin’ of creating values. As it plays out in Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden is essentially being punished because he is a successful businessman. He has developed a new steel allow, called Readen Metal, that is cheaper, lighter, and stronger than normal steel. Because of this innovation, other steel producers are in danger of going out of business or losing significant market share. At first, Rearden’s competitors use their connections in government to downplay Rearden Metal by claiming that it might pose potential dangers because it is an untested commodity; claims that were not backed up with facts or evidence. After Rearden Metal passed its first stress test on the rebuilt Rio Norte Line of Taggart Transcontinental, the government (again at the behest of Rearden’s competitors) pass several laws that severely hamper Rearden’s ability to fully market his miracle alloy. Frustrated by the arbitrary restrictions placed on his business, Rearden is determined to succeed despite the regulations placed on him. He transacts an ‘illegal’ deal with a coal producer to sell him an order of Rearden Metal that far exceeds what he is allowed to do. Furthermore, he also refuses to ‘sell’ his metal to the government for a special project they are conducting. As a result of all this, Rearden runs afoul of the system.
The way Rand portrays it, Rearden is guilty of no crime other than disregarding a government regulation that limits what he can do with his own property. What he did was technically illegal, but it is not immoral. There is nothing morally wrong with one individual making a voluntary transaction with another individual. Neither is there anything morally wrong with an individual refusing to do business with another individual. What one does with one’s property is solely the business of that particular individual, and no one else. What makes it worse is that in Atlas Shrugged, the government’s actions are couched in the rhetoric of public welfare. It is for the public good that Rearden not put his less efficient competitors in the steel industry out of business. It is for the public good that Rearden sell his product to the government for their secret initiatives. It is for the public good that businessmen not be allowed to earn profit when so many others are doing without. However, in Rand’s world, much like in the real world today, it seems much evil is perpetrated in the name of the public good.
The ethic that Rand is arguing against is the ethic of altruism. According to Rand, altruism is the ethic of self-sacrifice. Again, consulting the Rand lexicon: The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value. The chief end of man is to serve others. That is the ethic of altruism, according to Rand. We can bicker over whether or not that definition is correct. Let’s grant that it is. As it’s presented, if altruism is the ethic of self-sacrifice, then it should be clear that it is not an ethic that promotes such classical liberal concepts as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But this is the ethic that is assumed in Rearden’s trial in Atlas Shrugged. Rearden’s innovation in metallurgy should benefit the public good, not his company’s bottom line. If that is true, if altruism is to be man’s guiding principle, then it becomes patently obvious that no one will survive. How can man survive if he is busy sacrificing his own welfare for that of others? If I sacrifice my own welfare for yours and you sacrifice your own welfare for mine, then we both die because we’re both sacrificing ourselves for the other. Altruism, as Rand defines it, is an ethic of death!
In order for this system to work, it requires the sanction of the victim. It requires the implicit approval of the one doing the self-sacrificing that his life is solely for the benefit of others. Consider how this plays out in our world today. It means that we, as a society, accept the premise that we work for the benefit of society as a whole and not for our own benefit. It means we accept the premise that it is right for the government to extract a certain percentage — one that they deem is fair — of our income to redistribute as they see fit. It means we accept the arbitrary rules and regulations that the government imposes upon us that dictate what we’re allowed to buy or what business we’re allowed to transact. In short, it means we give consent to the government to run our lives and control our wealth.
What happens if we refuse to give our consent? What happens if we refuse to sanction the legitimacy of the government to do what they do to us? The effect is that we expose the truth of what is really happening; namely, that we’re not free, but basically “wage slaves” for the system. However, by withholding our consent, we refuse to acknowledge that the government is right in doing what it’s doing. In Atlas Shrugged, Rearden basically replies to the judges that since they (the government) have the guns, they can take what they want from him, but he is not going to willingly give it to them. If they want to arrest him, they’re going to have to come to him and literally drag him to jail. If they want him to pay a fine, they’re going to have to take the money from him at gun point. In no way, was Rearden going to legitimize the system by willingly acquiescing to their demands.
Now imagine what would happen if the majority of the people in America simply withheld their consent from the government. It reminds me of that classic quote from the movie Braveheart when William Wallace says, “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take…OUR FREEDOM!” The system we have here in America is falling apart; it’s breaking. More and more people are living off of the wealth produced of fewer and fewer people. It’s an unsustainable situation. Pretty soon, as Margaret Thatcher noted, we will run out of other people’s money. This ethic of forced altruism, which is what we’re laboring under in this country, is evil to its core. It is evil to dictate that a man must live his life in service to his neighbor. Forced charity is not charity at all. Rather it’s slavery!
Libertas Aut Mors!