For fans of Atlas Shrugged, January 22 marks the anniversary of the destruction of Rearden Steel. That day, the People’s Manager, having driven out the founder and president, Hank Rearden, and having ground steel production to a halt through a series of anti-competitive labor measures, suspended all operations. That evening, a distraught former millwright set the factory on fire.
A writer with an early modernist sensibility might have written the scene as the tragic end to the dream of a fatally flawed man. A late-modernist might have written the scene as the ironic disgrace of a man who overreached. Someone with a Naturalist, or Marxist, or postmodern perspective might attribute the events of January 22 to the dispassionate inevitability of history.
Ayn Rand, of course, was a different kind of writer. For Rand, Rearden Steel didn’t burn because capitalism had run its course, nor was the fire, under any circumstances that she could imagine, Rearden’s just deserts. Rand described the scene as an act of revenge. The millwright in Ayn Rand’s benevolent universe was “a sixty-year-old worker” who had worked for and benefited from Rearden Steel. Caught setting the fire, the man confessed his reason: “To avenge Hank Rearden!” The fire was the only form of justice left.
It is a solemn scene, full of pathos:
The shaft of red smoke that shot to the sky on the night of January 22 and stood abnormally still for awhile, like a solemn memorial obelisk, then wavered and swept back and forth across the sky, like a searchlight sending some undecipherable message, then went out as abruptly as it had come, marked the end of Rearden Steel–but the inhabitants of the area did not know it. They learned it only on subsequent nights, when they–who had cursed the mills for the smoke, the fumes, the soot and the noise–looked out and instead of the glow pulsating with life on their familiar horizon, they saw a black void.
In Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand challenged the orthodoxy of cause and effect. She demonstrated with impeccable logic and skill that the destruction of Rearden Steel, indeed the ruin of the entire United States economy, had nothing to do with God or hubris or, most importantly, capitalism. It had to do with bad ideas. A catalog of bad ideas.
James Taggart and others had the bad idea to rent seek. Taggart had the additional bad idea of doing business with Orren Boyle, and he did so not because Boyle’s steel mills produced a better product at a lower cost than Hank Rearden’s did but, as he admitted to his sister Dagny Taggart, because “Orren is my friend.”
The cultural elite perpetuated the bad idea that individualism is a matter of arrogant pride, and that pride goeth before the fall. They took Hank Rearden’s accomplishments and used them against him. An economics professor and a journalist riding a Taggart train for Philadelphia saw the neon sign for Rearden Steel and sniffed their disapproval. “Of what importance is an individual in the titanic collective achievement of our industrial age?” the economist remarked. “Hank Rearden is the kind of man who sticks his name on everything he touches. You may, from this, form you own opinion about the character of Hank Rearden,” the journalist wrote in his notes for a hit piece.
His family nurtured the bad idea of holding Rearden in contempt at the same time that they exploited him for their financial support and sold him out to others. His brother Philip mocked him for making money. His mother mocked him for loving his work. His wife mocked him for his love of life, for the joy he took in mastering the steel business and creating Rearden Metal. “He remembered the silent reproach,” Rand wrote, “the look of accusation, long-bearing patience and scorn, which he always saw in the eyes of his family when they caught some evidence of his passion for his business.”
Pragmatists like Mayor Bascom and Cuffy Meigs held fast to the bad idea that anything is acceptable in business as long as you get what you want.
Bureaucrats and technocrats campaigned on the bad ideas of the collective good, the public welfare, and guaranteed jobs and income.
Those bad ideas led to more bad ideas. The Fair Share law criminalized private property. The Anti-dog-eat-dog rule criminalized competition. The Equalization of Opportunity Bill criminalized expansion and diversification. Directive 10-289 criminalized economic change, risk, and growth.
Describing the events of January 22, Rand made clear that Henry Rearden was the victim, and in the process she crafted a revolutionary response to victimhood: “No!” She wrote that as the economy collapsed, everyone suffered. Even the basics of food, clothing, and shelter became difficult to acquire. By then, however, Henry Rearden–along with Ellis Wyatt, Owen Kellogg, Richard Halley, Francisco d’Anconia, Midas Mulligan, Hugh Akston, and so many others–had gone. Hank Rearden had met John Galt, turned his back on bad ideas, and made other plans.