Friday, September 15, 2006

Robin Hood in Atlas Shrugged

Robin Hood in Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand is the story of a society where industry and innovation are discouraged, and wealth is meted out by need, not merit. The heads of government and the media brand tycoons like Hank Reardon as individuals whose only interest is profit, at the expense of the “public good.” Under the new regime wealth is forcibly taken away from those who’ve earned it and given to people who are incapable of making it. Society collapses as one by one the business leaders give up and disappear.

Ragnar Danneskjold was one of the first to realize the futility of playing by the new rules, and gives up a dream of philosophy to patrol the seas, destroying shipments of cargo that had been legally stolen. He meets Hank Reardon, and tells him that if he could destroy one thing on earth, it would Robin Hood. Robin is immortalized as the man who “robbed from the rich to give to the poor … but that is not the meaning of the legend which has survived.” (532) Robin Hood has been turned into a symbol, not as the champion of property rights, but of need as the highest authority. One does not need to earn a living, when a living is provided without effort to those who can prove their essential worthlessness. Those incapable of producing will have the producers indentured to them. The innovators will be shackled by the uncreative. Those who have talent will be forced to perform for the entertainment of those who have none, and the ones being exploited will have no choice in the matter.

The culture of entitlement is personified by Phillip Reardon. Phillip was content to live his life by the provision of his brother. Their mother tells Reardon that because Reardon is so brilliant his brother cannot succeed. His poor self esteem did not stem from lack of initiative, but because he could not live up to Hank Reardon. Therefore, by the logic of entitlement, it was Reardon’s responsibility to give Phillip a job for which he had no aptitude, so that his brother could pretend that he was standing on his own feet. Phillip was not to earn a job through skill or education, but because he felt he needed one. Likewise, Phillip, their Mother, and Lillian all depend on Reardon for the necessities of life, feeling it their due to live off his wealth. It is his responsibility as a large producer to provide for those who are “less fortunate” than he. The price for being successful is to be shackled with the useless, who don’t feel even basic gratitude. Supporting the three in the lifestyle to which they’ve grown accustomed is his penance for being good at what he does, and they can accuse him of being unfeeling even while lacking gratitude for their own status.

The first experiment of need based arithmetic on the corporate level was the Twentieth Century Motor Company. “Those whose needs were voted to be the greatest, received the most…It required men to be motivated not by personal gain, but by love for their brothers.” (301) Under the auspices of self sacrifice, self was indeed destroyed. The producers, the workers, the talented and the energetic quickly learned that they were to be worked beyond their endurance for the good of those who would not lift a finger to help themselves. Eventually life itself is devalued. Births are resented as adding to the burden of the already overworked. Death is preferred to lengthy and costly illness. In a hopeless gesture of self preservation, reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, the workers realize that the way to survive is to be just as mediocre as the person next to them; to pretend ignorance and incompetence, so as not to stand out. In Harrison Bergeron this mediocrity is directly imposed, in Atlas Shrugged it is the indirect consequence of need based policies. The company went bankrupt due to decline in production.

The culture of entitlement is imposed upon Reardon Steel by the government. Reardon develops Reardon Steel, a new product that is stronger than steel and cheaper to manufacture. The government rules that it is unfair for some businesses to have the advantage of Reardon Steel while others cannot afford it. Reardon is forced to sell equal amounts of his invention to each person that applies for it in the order the application is received. This equalization of opportunity negates the good of the invention, since no one is given enough of the metal to be of practical use. Those that desperately need the steel to keep their business afloat, fold while waiting.

The end result of a culture that rewards mediocrity and discourages creativity; which exalts need as the ultimate good, and calls anyone selfish who wants to profit from his labor, is the collapse of society. Being civilized requires a certain standard of value of goods and services. In order to live peacefully in society and survive there must be a standard which allots a certain amount of goods in trade for a certain amount of work. The only alternative is descent into violence, where he with the biggest weapon takes what he wants at the expense of the other. This is the end of the logical progression of Atlas Shrugged. The final image is a lone man in the shadow of the ruins of a factory, dragging a plow behind him.

Today we see much of the culture of entitlement. Our welfare system, originally intended as short term relief, has become bloated and ponderous as multiple generations of families have grown to depend on assistance, and lost the ability or desire to work. Programs to end the dependence on welfare have mixed success. Agencies force welfare users into short term employment where the paycheck does not depend on the actual quality of work, and altruistic employers train people with no skills how to have a job. The individual attitude of entitlement remains. Like Phillip Reardon, instead of direct assistance, we are now meting out jobs not due to skill, or a desire to work, but because we feel that is what their self esteem needs, not hand outs, but unsought work.

Danneskjold wishes to rid the world of Robin Hood, as he has survived in the cultural memory. But Danneskjold and Robin Hood are like-minded in purpose. Robin Hood did not steal to relieve need; he merely took back what already belonged to the populace. Robin was not an altruist, but in early versions is said to have been a nobleman, the lord of Loxley who was deprived of his lands by greedy churchmen. When Danneskjold, John Gault, Fransisco D’Anconia begin to rebuild the world, rather than eradicate Robin Hood, he should be reclaimed as the symbolic ancestor of their philosophy.