Editor’s note: Mr. Puglielli is the first-place winner of the second annual TOS essay contest. He won a cash prize of $2,000 and publication of his essay in the journal. The topic for the contest was “Atlas Shrugged and Conflicts of Interest Among Rational Men.” Mr. Puglielli’s essay has been edited only for typos and to conform to TOS’s style guide.
One often hears of “dog eat dog capitalism,” where “greedy special interests” exploit and trample the workers and the consumers. Indeed, the Declaration of Principles of the World Socialist Movement states:
That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (i.e., land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labor alone wealth is produced.
That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.1
From this document, we can easily identify the fundamental assumption behind the socialist ideology: that human relationships are fundamentally antagonistic; that one man’s pursuit of his interests must come at the expense of another; and that, left free, humanity will develop a “ruling class” that tyrannically exploits the rest of mankind. This claim underlies vehement opposition to both selfishness and capitalism. Holding up men such as Bernie Madoff, leftists proclaim that “selfishness” (they characteristically misapply the concept) involves crushing others underfoot and trampling upon their corpses. Similarly, they find the laziest, most incompetent worker they can and declare that “the capitalist class” has violated his “interests” by not giving him a job.
To the contrary, in Atlas Shrugged, John Galt states that “there are no victims and no conflicts of interest among rational men, men who do not desire the unearned and do not view one another with a cannibal’s lust, men who neither make sacrifices nor accept them.”2 This is quite readily obvious; if there were conflicts of interest among men, then one man’s right to pursue his happiness would contradict another’s same right. But because there cannot be any contradictions in reality, there must be a flawed premise in this argument. Indeed, as Ayn Rand demonstrates in Atlas, the interests of rational men are always in harmony.
When Dagny Taggart must accelerate her order for Hank Rearden’s metal, Hank says, “I intend to make you pay for it.” Dagny replies, “I expect to. How much?” After Hank names a higher price, Dagny asks, “Is that the best price you can give me?” “No. But that’s the one I’m going to get. I could ask twice that and you’d pay it,” answers Hank. “Yes, I would. And you could. But you won’t . . . Because you need to have the Rio Norte Line built. It’s your first showcase for Rearden Metal,” Dagny replies. Hank, satisfied, states: “That’s right. I like to deal with someone who has no illusions about getting favors,” and Dagny happily concurs.3
There is no conflict of interest between Dagny and Hank because both are rational people and both are traders. As rational people, they realize that their interest extends beyond the immediate present. Both know that if Hank demands too high a price, he may reap large profits in the short term, but it is unlikely that Taggart Transcontinental will be able to sustain the high costs and so Rearden will lose both an important customer and a demonstration of his metal in action; both know that if Dagny secures too low a price, Rearden will be unable to continue making the metal and the quality of her railroad will suffer. Further, as rational people and as traders, Hank and Dagny know that they have no right to the other’s product, that they cannot merely claim an “interest” to what the other offers, that they must earn it by providing something of value to the other. This harmony of interests is demonstrated by the fact that Rearden eventually becomes the largest investor (all of whom are Taggart’s customers) in the John Galt Line. And, regarding his investment, Rearden claims, “I therefore expect to make an inordinate profit—and you’re going to earn it for me.”4
These same characteristics affect Dagny’s view of her competitor in Colorado, the Phoenix-Durango Line run by Dan Conway. Though Taggart’s line is struggling and has lost all its business to Conway, Dagny says, “The Phoenix-Durango is an excellent railroad, but I intend to make the Rio Norte Line better than that. I’m going to beat the Phoenix-Durango, if necessary—only it won’t be necessary, because there’ll be room for two or three railroads to make fortunes in Colorado. Because I’d mortgage the system to build a branch to any district around Ellis Wyatt.”5 Indeed, after Conway’s railroad is stolen from him by a decision of the National Alliance of Railroads, Dagny tells Dan: “I hope you know it’s not for your sake that I wanted to help you fight . . . It’s not out of pity or charity or any ugly reason like that. Look, I intended to give you the battle of your life, down there in Colorado. I intended to cut into your business and squeeze you to the wall and drive you out, if necessary.” Dan replies appreciatively, “You would have made a pretty good try at it, too.”6
Though Dagny and Dan are competitors, their interests do not clash. Both understand that they cannot simply claim an interest to their customers’ business; they must earn it by providing a superior service than the other. As Ellis Wyatt tells Dagny, “I made no demands on you when you could not give me the kind of service I needed. I found someone who could.”7 Neither is willing to sacrifice himself, and neither expects the other to sacrifice; rather, they both expect to exert all their effort to provide an excellent service at a low price in order to earn the business of their customers. And, as rational people who think long term, both know that without any transportation to Colorado, their important customers such as Ellis Wyatt will go bankrupt, which would most likely cause the railroads to go out of business as well.
The harmony of interests among rational people such as Dagny, Hank, and Wyatt is eventually borne out by the events of Atlas. At the press conference opening the line, Rearden informs the press that his metal costs far less to produce than they think, and that he expects “to skin the public to the tune of 25 percent in the next few years.” A reporter asks, “If it’s true, as I’ve read in your ads, that your Metal will last three times longer than any other metal and at half the price, wouldn’t the public be getting a bargain?” “Oh, have you noticed that?,” answers Rearden.8 After Dagny completes the John Galt Line, there is a business boom in Colorado. Spurred by the construction of the line and by the existence of a rights-respecting government in the state, more and more businesses open in or move to Colorado.9 Well-run companies outside the state, such as Danagger Coal, also reap large benefits from the success of the line and Rearden’s metal. The process continues, with the success of one company furthering that of many others, until they are all crushed by government regulations and taxes.10 Colorado’s brief economic boom, under the conditions of free-market capitalism, clearly demonstrates the harmony of interests among rational men; intelligent and capable businessmen, with long-term visions for their companies, benefit others through their own pursuit of growth and profits.
In fact, the events in Colorado and the rest of the nation demonstrate the exact opposite of what we are usually told: it is under a statist system that men’s interests are in conflict. When, through government force, one man is forced to live at the expense of another, then their interests clash. When one man’s food, housing, clothing, employment, and sustenance are stolen from another, then the first man’s “interests” always clash with the second’s. It is only through a system of sacrificial immolation of free men that one life comes at the expense of another, and one’s gain is taken from another. On the contrary, as Atlas Shrugged amply demonstrates, when men are left free to live their lives selfishly according to the judgment of their own minds, their interests are always in harmony.
This is shown most perfectly by the society John Galt sets up in Galt’s Gulch. In the outside world, producers and consumers are always regarded as fundamentally opposed, as if every act of trade were a theft perpetrated by one party against the other. But as Ellis Wyatt tells Dagny,
If my oil takes less effort to produce, I ask less of the men to whom I trade it for the things I need. I add an extra span of time to their lives with every gallon of my oil that they burn. And since they’re men like me, they keep inventing faster ways to make the things they make—so every one of them grants me an added minute, hour, or day with the bread I buy from them, with the clothes, the lumber, the metal . . .11
In the outside world, competition is viewed as “dog eat dog,” and agencies such as the National Alliance of Railroads are formed to “protect” the railroads’ “interests.” Not so in the valley, as Andrew Stockton tells Dagny. He recounts how he had to drive a competitor out of business when he first arrived—and how his competitor now earns more in fewer hours working for Stockton and has time left over to pursue his true interests in sculpture, while his partner, a chemist, has developed a greatly improved fertilizer. Indeed, Stockton asserts that he would love to be driven out of business by someone even better than he is—Hank Rearden—so he could go work for Rearden even “as a cinder sweeper.”12 In the outside world, men are held to be in constant conflict. In Galt’s Gulch, “Judge Narragansett . . . hasn’t had to be called upon, as yet . . . You’d be surprised how easy it is [for men to agree]—when both parties hold as their moral absolute that neither exists for the sake of the other and that reason is their only means of trade.”13 The gulch clearly demonstrates the harmony of rational men’s interests. Indeed, these lessons from Atlas can be readily extended to the real-world relationships between suppliers, producers, competitors, and consumers.
Finally, we can again see this harmony of interests in Dagny’s romantic relationships. When Hank deduces that Dagny has fallen in love with John Galt, he tells her, “I knew what you felt for me. I knew how much it was, but I knew that I was not your final choice. What you’ll give to him is not taken away from me, it’s what I’ve never had.”14 Hank realizes that love is not a fixed quantity, to be divided among various people, but it is an unlimited expression of value for those who have earned it. In the words of Ayn Rand, “The most exclusive form—romantic love—is not an issue of competition. If two men are in love with the same woman, what she feels for either of them is not determined by what she feels for the other and is not taken away from him. If she chooses one of them, the ‘loser’ could not have had what the ‘winner’ has earned.”15 This is exactly what happens in Atlas, in Dagny’s relationships with Francisco D’Anconia, Hank Rearden, and John Galt. Her love for each of them is independent of that for the others, because her love is a response to the virtues of each man.
Ayn Rand’s theory of man’s interests, as she demonstrates in Atlas, is based on four considerations.16 First, the consideration of reality demands that one’s interests be identified through a rigorous process of reason and justification, rather than on chance whims, wishes, or desires. As Rand observes, “A man’s ‘interests’ depend on the kind of goals he chooses to pursue, his choice of goals depends on his desires, his desires depend on his values—and, for a rational man, his values depend on the judgment of his mind.”17 Most importantly, a rational man does not permit any contradictions in his values and goals. Rand identifies the second consideration as context, which means relating a specific interest to all the other facts about one’s life and other interests. “A rational man sees his interests in terms of a lifetime and selects his goals accordingly . . . he does not live his life short-range and does not drift like a bum pushed by the spur of the moment.”18 The third consideration is responsibility, which means knowing what is required to achieve a particular goal or interest. To hold something to be in one’s interest, one must understand how to achieve it. And one must understand that it will not achieve itself, but must be consciously pursued. Finally, the consideration of effort mandates that values are to be produced and goals earned. That some are rich or successful or loved does not prevent others from becoming so as well.
Armed with this evaluation, we can analyze the above examples from Atlas to see these considerations in action. Basing their interests in reality, and confident in themselves and the moral worth of their actions, people such as Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden always rely on their own reason and judgment to make decisions. Always identifying the context of their goals, they maintain an eye to the long-term goals and needs of their business. Thus, Dagny does not view her suppliers (Rearden), customers (Wyatt), or competitors (Dan Conway) as enemies, but as individuals who are vital to her own success. Retaining responsibility for their interests, they understand what their goals require and they never lose sight of the fact that it is up to them to fulfill their goals. Dagny never expects the John Galt Line to simply build itself, but rather knows that it is up to her to create it. Seeking to earn their values, they always exert the maximum effort to produce their values. They never content themselves with making claims on something, but recognize that benefits are to be produced rather than divided among men. This is particularly demonstrated by Hank’s reaction to Dagny’s love for John Galt.
Ayn Rand’s theory of harmony of interests has profound implications for our society. Today, it is commonly assumed that there is a class struggle between the “haves” and the “have-nots” and that, as the Declaration of Principles of the World Socialist Movement stated, the interests of these two classes are “diametrically opposed.”19 But is this really the case? A closer examination reveals that it is not. Those who proclaim this conflict of interest are those who simply demand jobs without questioning who is to provide such employment and who will produce it. It is an evasion of reality to simply expect to find a job lying around like an apple fallen from a tree. Next, people proclaim their interests to have been violated every time the management of a company resists the further demands of its employees’ union. Most recently, the National Labor Relations Board has told us that Boeing violated the rights of its workers by building a production line in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, even without changing anything at its strike-ridden Washington factory.20 This attitude ignores the context of employment—that ever-increasing demands on a company will eventually drive it out of business, thus in fact harming the workers these demands were supposed to help. We need only look at recent employment trends in the United Auto Workers to see how well this policy served their interests.21 Finally, people ignore their responsibility to understand what a job requires, and to earn it through their effort. We frequently hear of how offshoring of manufacturing operations has “devastated the middle class,” and the resulting displaced workers are unable to find work. Yet this evaluation relies on the assumption that those offshored jobs “belonged” to some group of people, and therefore they are now entitled to another job without consideration of the fact that the nature of the work and the educational requirements may have changed, and the workers must exert the effort to meet these qualifications.
Contrast the above with the attitude of a rational worker. Such a person would first and foremost recognize that reality is absolute, and any interests he claims must be consistent with reality and not contradict it. He would further acknowledge the context of any job: as he benefits from being employed, so his employer benefits from hiring him. For example, Henry Ford paid his workers twice the industry average and had shorter working days, knowing that this would be a great boon to his business in terms of higher productivity and lower labor turnover.22 Further, a rational worker would be constantly aware that the responsibility to identify his interests and pursue them—to find a job and earn it—is his and his alone. Finally, he would never lose sight of the fact that he must earn his job, because benefits, rather than statically existing in fixed amounts, are produced by rational men.
Though we are bombarded by the idea of class struggle, it is not a conflict of interests between “haves” and “have-nots” that explains it; rather, it is the irrationality and evasion on the part of those who abandon any attempt to identify their goals through reason and in accordance with reality and hide from the responsibility to earn their goals and produce their values. In reality, there are no conflicts of interest among free, rational men, as Rand showed.23 Clashes of interest arise only in the presence of irrationality or force, when men are constantly struggling against reality and preying upon one another.
Ayn Rand’s theory of the harmony of men’s interests, as elucidated in Atlas Shrugged, demonstrates that selfishness and capitalism are beneficial to all rational people. We who advocate for a free society must understand this fact and use it as evidence demonstrating the immense life-serving value of capitalism.