The government has just issued Directive 10-289, a mandate to nationalize all business and establish “stability” by freezing the economy. No wages shall change. No one may leave their jobs nor find a new one. No competition is to be allowed whatsoever. All prices, all terms of employment, all terms of sale are to be set and administered by a centralized government. In the aftermath of this directive, Hank Rearden, one of the last great industrialists, teeters on the brink of total despair as he struggles to comprehend the ramifications of what this will mean for his life and his dreams. At this moment, Ragnar Danneskjold, a renegade and pirate, presents himself to Rearden with an offering of hope and a glimpse of the world that could still be. He reveals to Rearden his true aim in pursuing the life of a pirate. That aim is to destroy a man and wipe every last vestige of his memory from the minds of the human race. That man is none other than Robin Hood.
This pivotal scene from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (Part II Chapter VII) does not draw its significance from the action, but from Ragnar’s portrayal of Robin Hood and his reasons for fighting the very idea of the mythical bandit. To fully understand the significance of this we must first address this question: Who is Robin Hood? Ragnar describes him as the “foulest of creatures, the double-parasite who lives on the sores of the poor and the blood of the rich, whom men have come to regard as a moral ideal.” The actual historical origins of the Robin Hood mythos are vague at best, but Ragnar makes clear that he is not fighting a historical character, he is fighting the moral principles that the legend of Robin Hood has come to represent.
Traditionally, Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Variations on the tale abound. Some state that he is dispossessed royalty fighting to regain what has been pillaged wrongly by the ruling regime. In this sense, the character is reminiscent of what Ragnar Danneskjold represents in Atlas Shrugged. Ragnar states explicitly that he avoids confrontations with representatives of the legitimate functions of government. He does not attack military or policing vessels. He only attacks those ships which carry resources that have been appropriated from their owners without their consent and in spite of their protest. He then takes those resources and holds them in reserve, waiting for their rightful owners to come and claim them. The rightful owners are those who created the resource, who either made a natural resource able to be utilized, or who created that which had formerly not existed. The rights to the distribution of those ideas and the benefits of that distribution belong exclusively to the creators of those values.
Oil belongs to those who make it possible to be drilled, those who do the drilling, and who process it and make it ready to be used to meet the demands of their customers. Each in turn works according to the terms they set amongst themselves in order to exchange productive work for their own survival and the resources necessary to develop their own dreams and ambitions. But if that oil is seized by some group of people without the consent of the producers, then that group is morally indefensible regardless of their social position. Justice is only served by returning the merchandise to its rightful owners. This is Ragnar’s function. He is an agent of justice reclaiming stolen merchandise. He even makes the concession that Robin Hood may be interpreted in this way “It is said that he fought against the looting rulers and returned the loot to those who had been robbed…”However, as he continues, he qualifies this by emphasizing, “that is not the meaning of the legend which has survived.”
Despite potentially nobler interpretations of Robin Hood, the popular and by far most influential interpretation of the myth is simply that Robin Hood steals from the rich to give to the poor. What gives the character moral status is that his crimes are mitigated by his charity. A robber who steals simply for himself would have been dull and commonplace in an era when highwaymen abounded. What gave the story its uniqueness and longevity was the idea that this character was somehow doing evil for good and the moral complexity that this signified. The heart of this paradox is the assumption that Robin Hood was doing good by distributing wealth to those who lacked it. In common portrayals of the story it is usually sufficient only to portray his victims as rich to establish Hood as the hero. Further explanations of the circumstances of the victim’s wealth are rarely given, if at all. The core idea is simply that it is justifiable to take from those who have and give to those who do not, simply because of the need of the latter and for no other reason. This is the moral imperative of altruism. It is this idea which Ragnar hopes to destroy.
Ragnar stands opposed to the idea that rights are defined by a person’s needs. Those who adopt the altruist ethic make a claim that the more productive and the more successful a person is, the more they deserve to be sacrificed to the needs of others. They claim that the good of an action is determined by how much the benefactor lacked the benefit. Means and ends become inconsequential. Cause and effect become inconsequential. The only things that matter are who benefits and how much they need. The altruist feeds off of the need of the poor and disadvantaged. He uses them as a justification for imposing his needs on the rich, whose resources he covets. His need is justified altruistically because he lays no claim for his own use; he covets those resources for the good of others. According to this reasoning, any crime is justifiable if it is done in the service of others. Even murder is justifiable as long as it can be justified by placating some group’s need—the greater the need, the greater the moral status of the crime; the more helpless the benefactor, the more noble the deed. Morality becomes defined by a calculus of human suffering and nobility restricted to those who sacrifice that they most value to the desires of whoever may demand it.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of this ethic is that the poor are condemned to suffer forever. They are guaranteed immunity from Robin Hood only as long as there is not anyone with more need than they. Only the neediest, the least able to provide for themselves—only these people are immune. Everyone else must wait for the time when they are chosen as the sacrificial victim to placate the need of the lowest common denominator. Everyone else must wait under the knife. The only way out is to compete for the bottom slot, to make a business out of begging for help and pleading one’s need to the arbitrary jury of those around you. The altruist ethic condemns the poor to maintain their poverty lest they be sacrificed for succeeding too much at the practice of survival. It forces them to compete for death.
This is why Ragnar describes Hood as a “double-parasite”. This is why Ragnar is Hood’s opposite. Ragnar defends justice where Hood destroys it. Ragnar defends human rights and the freedom of all human beings to choose their own path and reap the full consequences of their choices. Hood abrogates them all in the pursuit of his own ends. Hood is the embodiment of the collectivist ideal. Ragnar embodies the ideals of laissez-faire capitalism. Ragnar defends a moral code founded on the twin principles of “life and production.” Robin Hood represents cannibalism for cannibalism’s sake. The unstated price of joining Robin’s ‘band of merry men’ is a taste for human flesh. This is why the two characters stand in conflict. This is the true significance of Ragnar’s declaration that Robin Hood is the one man he must destroy.