Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Atlas Shrugged Essay Contest 2009

Just got the word that I didn't place in this year's Atlas Shrugged essay contest. I look forward to reading the winning essays when they're posted on ARI's website. Anyways, here's my entry from this year. Hope you enjoy reading it. -- American Anti-theist

BUSINESS & PLEASURE: Vice and virtue in the life of Hank Rearden

Hank Rearden runs his business with ruthless efficiency. The standard of value by which every aspect of his foundry is decided is one simple principle: What’s best for making metal? The wage of every worker he employs is balanced against the cost that wage adds to the production process and the necessity of that worker’s labor to the creation of product. The prices of materials are balanced against the market price of steel. The market price of steel is driven up by customer demand for his steel and down by the prices offered by his competitors. The only way to survive, the only way to prosper, is to minimize costs, to increase quality, to honor contracts, to expand his production so that he can further minimize costs, increase quality, and so on. In order to accomplish this he must pay his employees wages commensurate with their value. He needs quality workers to create quality product. He must buy quality materials. He cannot satisfy his customers with defective product. He must constantly refine his production process. He must condemn waste. He must reward efficiency. The highest value, the benchmark of all these other contributing elements, is simply the extent to which it enables him to produce better, faster, cheaper steel in greater quantities and make the greatest profit while doing so. This profit is his reward for organizing the resources of his business in such a way as to generate surplus. It is his reward for creating that which would not exist were he not to have created it. In business, this reward takes the form of money, a measure of the value he has added to the lives of all those with whom he does business.

If Rearden were to live as he ran his business, he would deal with all the people around him privately the same as he would deal with them professionally. Every emotional investment would be balanced by an emotional gain. If every process and function of his professional life is to render him a greater producer of steel, then every process and function of his personal life would be geared to render him a greater producer of his life’s highest values. The virtues of business are to minimize costs, to increase quality, to honor contracts, and to expand production. The virtues of his life would thus be frugality, integrity, honesty, and ambition. Just as he cannot settle for hiring just any worker for any job at any wage, so too he cannot afford to accept just any stranger into any given role in his life as only justified by their just having shown up. Friends, lovers, wives, and even family relationships cannot be based solely on chance, on the arbitrary advent of circumstantial proximity. They must be evaluated in terms of the value they offer and the price they demand. If they demand too high a cost for the value they offer, then they are not worthy of the role. On the contrary, the significance of the meaning of the words ‘friend’, ‘lover’, ‘wife’, and ‘family’ rests on the value that the people who fill those roles contribute to one’s life. A businessman cannot afford to promote an employee to a position of importance in his organization which outweighs that employee’s worth to the company. So, too, no man can afford to promote a chance acquaintance to a disproportionate position of importance within his own life. The objective measure of the success of his business is monetary profit, the value created by the practical implementation of his business philosophy. The objective measure of the success of his personal life is happiness, the value created by the practical implementation of his personal philosophy.

Rearden does not, however, initially adhere to parallel philosophies in his business and private life. Instead, Rearden follows a diametrically opposed moral code in his private affairs. His brother Philip, his wife Lillian, his mother, his “friend” Paul Larkin…these characters all represent the philosophical opposites of who should fill those roles were Rearden’s values applied consistently in both modes of his life.

Philip is devoid of ambition and produces nothing. He lives only to beg resources off others for the sake of others. He is an empty vessel, a conduit to be used by other men. He takes no pleasure in his existence nor deserves it. He has so little integrity that he has the audacity to undermine the brother who has supported him without complaint, to accept his money but condemn his character. Rearden would not even consider him for the job of a cinder sweeper, yet he considers him worthy of the title “brother”. Rearden would not even let him inside his mills, yet he allows him into his home and supports his every endeavor.

Lillian taunts Rearden with her sex. She uses it as a weapon to disarm him and to break him with guilt. Rearden is tortured by his own sense of guilt and hypocrisy every time he succumbs to her wiles. Yet he does not recognize that the source of the guilt is not the act of sex itself, but the act of sex with someone so completely devoid of any of the values he holds dear. His relationship with Dagny is the one truly worthy of the title “wife” but he does not recognize this inversion for what it is—that he has made the whore his “wife” and the woman who should be his wife into a whore.

His mother, completely dependent on her son for subsistence can do nothing but condemn him for the virtues which enable him to support her. His childhood “friend”, Paul, is simply someone he happened to know as a child and now is still somehow a friend despite the fact that there is nothing Rearden can conceivably respect him for and that he actively works against Rearden’s interests. Among these characters who hold the highest titles of honor in his life—friend, wife, mother, brother—not a single one is deserving of any respect. If his highest ideals are indeed frugality, integrity, honesty, and ambition, then Dagny should be his wife and Francisco D’Anconia should be his best friend. Yet those who scorn everything he believes in are his most valued relationships and he must view with contempt those who most closely reflect his own values.

Rearden is guilty of a terrible sin, a gross error of judgment. As Francisco tried to warn, "You're guilty of a great sin, Mr. Rearden, much guiltier than they tell you, but not in the way they preach. The worst guilt is to accept an undeserved guilt—and that is what you have been doing all your life. You have been paying blackmail, not for your vices, but for your virtues. You have been willing to carry the load of an unearned punishment—and to let it grow the heavier the greater the virtues you practiced” (421). Rearden’s willing acceptance of blame for pursuing his highest values has chained him to a philosophical system which will mean his destruction. He has accepted that the values that make him an excellent businessman, an inventor, and an entrepreneur are values which also make him a vile and loathsome human being. He has accepted a false dichotomy which states that productive activity which supports and enriches your existence is evil and that the only good is to support the lives of others. He has accepted the rule which condemns the fulfillment of one’s own desires but praises the fulfillment of the desires held by others. To the exact proportion that Rearden excels in his work, he is evil in his life. This is Rearden’s central error, the one that turns his life upside-down, that tortures him throughout his marriage, that tortures him throughout his affair with the only woman he has ever truly loved, and that eventually forces him to turn over his life’s work and greatest achievement, Rearden Metal, to a thankless mob of thugs as impudent as they are undeserving.

Then, Rearden realizes the weakness of his enemies. That weakness is that they have no power over him except what he has conceded. His sanction is necessary for them to continue their deception. His validation of their moral code is essential to enable them to brand him immoral. Once Rearden withdraws his sanction and aligns his personal moral code with his professional one, he removes the only device by which he could be chained, his own sense of guilt. Guilt is only possible to someone who has virtues, who feels that they have betrayed those virtues and sacrificed a greater value to a lesser one. By removing his acceptance of the slanders against him, he removed the ability of his enemies to pressure him with the guilt he had willingly accepted. By refusing to allow his virtues to be branded as vice, he was at last set free to feel his full worth, to embrace the self-esteem which had been rightfully his to claim from the very first. He was free to embrace his ethical peers as friends and to truly love them selfishly. With that simple realization, he was also set free of the world of decay. For him, the doors of Atlantis were at last opened and his place in the world of the future secured. That simple realization was that one’s virtues really are virtues and that it doesn’t matter who says differently. The only true measure is in one’s own happiness, the profit of a virtuous life.

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