Useful Tigress Blog

A better world is possible, and we can make it real.

She's Been Working on the Railroad 🐯

Now I am the kind of person who read Atlas Shrugged once in high school and came away with an uneasy feeling rather than a burning conviction: it felt somehow petty to me. This is probably because I was reading Asimov’s Foundation novels at the same time, and the contrast between Hari Seldon and John Galt was dramatic and deeply unflattering to Galt. Faced with a cruel and overbearing government, a lone genius opts to found a colony of the like-minded in a secluded place. However, their tactics are strikingly different: Galt opts to affirmatively destroy the system, heedless of consequences, while Hari Seldon is all about mindfulness of the consequences. I think that’s one of the things that really gets to me about the center of the Randian movement: despite pretensions of intellectualism, they are blinded both to where they came from and where they are going. That is not a good recipe for a movement.

Those are broad strokes, though: there is a specific thing I’d forgotten, that Adam Lee ably points out:

Of all the businesses Rand could have chosen for her heroes, I always thought that railroads were a bad choice to show the superiority of laissez-faire capitalism. After all, railroads, like other forms of infrastructure, almost always take major government support and investment to build. […] In reality, the first American transcontinental railroad required major government financial support—to the tune of $16,000 per mile, rising to $48,000 per mile over the Rocky Mountains—plus extensive land grants. Modern engineering projects of similar scope, like the Keystone XL pipeline, have been embroiled in court fights with dozens of private landowners who don’t want to sell, and Keystone’s builders have been extremely aggressive about invoking eminent domain.

The story proceeds from merely unrealistic, as Lee notes here, to gleefully barbaric. It is part of a pattern where every time I think “well, I should maybe give Atlas Shrugged another chance, as literature if not as dogma,” some excerpt or another comes along and convinces me that Rand was definitely the predecessor to L. Ron Hubbard: promulgating a con-job religion on the backs of some awful sci-fi novels. Ugh.