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Dagny Taggart and Dan Conway meet in the aftermath of the passing of the “Anti-dog-eat-dog-rule.” They don’t know each other well, but nevertheless recognize each others’ characters as dynamic entrepreneurs. As an aside, this instinctive recognition is not only a facet of Rand’s characters, but is also found in the Robert Parker Spenser novels, and I am told that Rand liked the series.

Conway has given up. He says that he promised to obey the majority (of the National Alliance of Railroads), and he’s standing by his word. Interestingly, he tells Dagny that the world is in terrible shape, and that “men have to get together.” Dagny is incensed by this attitude, and I think that her resulting speech captures one of the many burning issues in Rand’s own heart:

‘ “If that’s the price of getting together, then I’ll be damned if I want to live on the same earth with any human beings! If the rest of them can survive only by destroying us, then why should we wish them to survive? Nothing can make self-immolation proper. Nothing can give them the right to turn men into sacrificial animals. Nothing can make it moral to destroy the best. One can’t be punished for being good. One can’t be penalized for ability. If that is right, then we’d better start slaughtering one another, because there isn’t any right at all in the world!” ‘

This impassioned speech fails to rouse Dan, whom Dagny realizes is broken. ‘ “Who knows why the world is what it is?” ‘ he says. ‘ “Oh, who is John Galt?” ‘ Clearly, Rand is answering her own question — she, via the character of John Galt, knows why the world is what it is, as we will ultimately see.

I think I’ll break there.

I find this a thought-provoking scene, and speech, and it reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron”, which features a dystopia where human equality is absolutely enforced in all ways — strong people wear weights to hold them down, smart people wear random, annoying buzzers in their ear to break up their thoughts, and so forth. I have no doubt that Rand would have supported the message behind that story.

Part of me wants to agree wholeheartedly with Dagny, here. OF COURSE it’s wrong to cater to envy in policy of any sort. OF COURSE it’s wrong to sacrifice people to benefit the rest. OF COURSE people should not be penalized for ability.

On the other hand, it seems to me that Rand is implying that any sort of law-based (i.e., force-based) restriction on economic behavior is wrong — and that the whole subject is a moral question rather than an economic one, with answers being either utterly good or bad, nothing in between. This seems to fall into the logical fallacy of the “false dilemma” — the idea that there are only two possibilities in a situation. Or, possibly, the straw man argument — she is showing the hellhole of a world that is occurring by people restricting business, so the obvious conclusion is that business should never be restricted.

This just doesn’t fit the facts. Certainly, the case can be made that bad government regulation can destroy prosperity and freedom; look at the history of the Soviet Union, for example, where Ayn Rand grew up (and that is most certainly not coincidental). However, there are also all sorts of cases of laws and regulation that give enormous benefits relative to their “cost” to freedom. For example, good regulation around prohibiting fire hazards and emergency exits is generally an extraordinarily good idea. I’m not saying that regulations can’t be idiotic, malformed, and all that — just that there is such a thing as good, desirable regulation that results in a preferable world.

To be fair, Rand (via Dagny) isn’t slamming all regulation here — she’s slamming regulation that treats some people differently from others, in effect. And to be clear, I think that the “Anti-dog-eat-dog-rule” as described in Atlas would be terrible for nearly everyone. However, I think that because of its actual ultimate effects, not because of the principle of the thing.

This post is going long, so I’ll curtail it here. I’ll try to expand on my point next time with a graphical example.