Who is an honest man? The honest man, the hero, works with his mind and with his hands. He also respects and values the work of others. The honest man lives in reality and refuses to be deceived. The dishonest man, the villain, convinces himself that the money made by the work of others rightly belongs to him, simply because he sees the money and wants it. Villains want to have money without doing anything of value for anyone else. Heroes do things of value and rightly expect to be compensated for their honest efforts. One could argue that the villains love money, while the heroes love life. In the course of living their lives, doing what they love to do, the heroes make money. The villains, however, waste their lives envying and stealing others’ money instead of living their own lives and doing things that have value.
Hank Reardon invents a new metal that is lighter and stronger than steel. Because of his effort and ingenuity, Dagny Taggart is able to build a new style of bridge that could not be built of anything but Reardon metal. Because of Dagny’s effort and ingenuity, transportation exists that would not otherwise have existed. As Francisco d’Anconia says, “Money is made-before it can be looted or mooched-made by the effort of every honest man, each to the extent of his ability.” (381) The heroes take pleasure in what they create: music, philosophy, engines, metal, etc. They succeed honestly and expect favors from nobody-and for that, they are vilified by the villains. The villains believe themselves to be more virtuous, because they claim not to love money. Like the Gnostics of old, they claim that the material (money) is evil while the non-material (their “values” of “fairness” and such) is good. While claiming the moral high ground, the villains live dishonestly off the work of others-the work of those who deal with matter, reality, and honest exchange. They are hypocrites.
James Taggart is typical of the villains. He enjoys money, power, and status among the other villains, i.e. he wants to have money. James, however, despises the effort and especially the risk-taking behaviors that create the money. Dagny alone assumes all the risks in building the John Galt Line, while James cooperates with the villains and ultimately destroys the railroad. Hank Reardon’s brother is like James; he wants what Hank has without doing what Hank does. Hank’s wife despises his business, yet has no moral qualms about enjoying all the nice things Hank’s money provides.
The villains see the successes of Hank, Dagny and others, and assume entitlement to their wealth. The villains use government to confiscate the wealth of the heroes and to cripple the businesses that made the money. They are like parasites that ultimately kill their hosts. The villains assume that the producers will continue to produce, no matter how many obstacles the government places in their path. While the villains accuse the heroes of greed, it is actually the villains who covet and steal, while offering nothing in return. Francisco explains that “moochers claim your product by their tears” e.g. Hank’s family, while “looters claim your product by force” e.g. the government. (380) Dr. Akston further observes that the looters believe “need is holier than ability and pity is holier than justice.” (723)
While John Galt and others like him “disappear,” the holdouts (Dagny and Hank) continue to battle against increasing obstacles and stubbornly insist they will outlast the villains. Francisco is finally able to convince Hank that he must stop giving the looters what they want-continued use of his mind and resources, which they will squander and destroy. Of the looters, Francisco observes that “they are willing to bear nothing” while Hank is “willing to bear anything.” (387) In other words, the looters evade responsibilities, while the producers assume responsibilities. Thus, Hank realizes that his willingness to continue to behave responsibly and honestly is what enables the villains to continue behaving dishonestly. In psychological terms, Hank is an “enabler,” until he drops out of the corrupt system.
John Galt saves the world by convincing the heroes to stop feeding the parasite that is destroying them. He saw that the time had come for a strike by those who had never before gone on strike. The time had come to “Let the world discover who they are, what they do, and what happens when they refuse to function.” (677) The villains, having built their society on the assumption that they could mooch and loot from the producers forever, are defeated by their false assumption. Even their guns cannot force a hero to think for them. Having lived dishonestly, they cannot save themselves once there are no more producers to consume. They are defeated by people who see the truth and who insist on believing what they know to be true. They are defeated by the honest men, who will rebuild an honest world.
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. Page numbers given for quotations are from the 50th Anniversary Edition paperback by Signet Books, ISBN: 978-0-451-19114-4