Part Four – Smart Money
The Portrait of a Lady is considered the greatest novel by one of the greatest novelists in the English language, even though it is difficult not to see in the novel condescension and even outright mockery of Americans and American business and industry. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, on the other hand, defended both. The novel told the story of Dagny Taggart, a woman who fought to keep her railroad away from looters and who finally destroyed it rather than relinquish it to them, a woman who never lost her innocence, who found love, and who resolved to build a new railroad. In contrast to The Portrait of a Lady, Atlas Shrugged is considered absurd, awful, heartless, elitist, immoral, and badly written.
Ayn Rand knew the value of money. Born Alisa Rosenbaum, into an upper middle-class family in St. Petersburg, Russia, Rand was the daughter of a chemist. The family enjoyed all the benefits of wealth he earned from his pharmacy business. As a child, Ayn Rand attended school, received instruction in French and German from private tutors, and read every book and magazine that made its way into the household. While still a child she decided to become a writer. She became enamored of The Mysterious Valley, a romantic adventure serialized in a French children’s magazine. Had circumstances remained the same, it is possible to imagine Ayn Rand growing up to be a more purely Romantic novelist. But circumstances didn’t stay the same. After the February and then the October revolutions in Russia, the Rosenbaum business, home, and possessions were confiscated and turned over to the proletariat. One of the fortunate ones, Ayn Rand immigrated to America, where her Romanticism would find an outlet in the moral defense of capitalism.
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand also told a different story of an heiress. Dagny Taggart too was largely self-educated, but unlike Isabel Archer, Dagny had begun putting her knowledge to work at an early age. Dagny had decided by the time she was nine to run the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, the company she and her brother inherited by way of the founder, her grandfather Nathaniel Taggart. At 16 she took a job on the railroad as a night operator, working nights so that she could study engineering during the day. She worked her way through the ranks to Vice President of Operations, and she ran the railroad in all but name, while her brother, James, a crony capitalist, held the position of President. Dagny ran the railroad for profit, for money. She understood that she was part of “the aristocracy of money. . . . the only real aristocracy, if people understood what it means, which they don’t.” It was an aristocracy based on the achievements of people who understood the value of money.
For Dagny, it was not stupid or vulgar to understand money, it was stupid and vulgar not to. To understand money was to understand the value of things. In the depiction of Dagny’s formal debut, for example Rand highlighted the difference between profit-motivated Dagny and the other guests. Because it was Dagny’s first formal gala, her mother took a moment to explain to her the meaning of elegance: “Dagny, there are things I would like you to learn to notice,” she said, “lights, colors, flowers, music. They are not as negligible as you might think.” Dagny listened and agreed but corrected her mother on one point: “I never thought they’re negligible,” Dagny answered happily. Dagny’s mother continued: “They’re the things that make life beautiful,” said Mrs. Taggart. “I want this evening to be very beautiful for you, Dagny.”
Dagny was arguably an innocent here, and as an innocent she was able to assess the value of the luxury in her midst. Dagny was disappointed by the gala, however, not because the elegance of the setting fell short, but because she had hoped to be among others who valued the night as much as she did. Rand's characters are frequently criticized as unfeeling, but it was Dagny who wondered why everyone around her was numb. The other guests were unable to rise to the occasion. The gala for them was a nonevent, and its beauty was lost: “The things you were talking about,” Dagny admitted to her mother after the party ended, “The lights and the flowers. Do they expect those things to make them romantic, not the other way around?” Her mother asked her to explain further, and Dagny continued, “There wasn’t a person there who enjoyed it,” she said, her voice lifeless, “or who thought or felt anything at all. They moved about, and they said the same dull things they say anywhere. I suppose they thought the lights would make it brilliant.” This insight made even her mother nervous, and she counseled Dagny to brush it off: “Darling, you take everything too seriously. One is not supposed to be intellectual at a ball. One is simply supposed to be gay.” Dagny agreed that the proper response to a ball was gaiety, but she questioned her mother’s premise. If you can’t bring your brain to a gala event, why go? “How? By being stupid?” Dagny asked.
Ayn Rand had no trouble reconciling money and culture in Atlas Shrugged. She wrote objectively about the importance of money and she defended the making of it. In what is affectionately known as “the money speech,” for example, the copper titan Francisco d’Anconia explained to a roomful of Jamesian-like bores the meaning of money, the meaning of capitalist America, and the cultural superiority not of the old-world aristocrat but of the American industrialist. In the following excerpt, Francisco explained that the culture that understood the value of things was the highest culture humans could reach:
To the glory of mankind, there was, for the first and only time in history, a country of money—and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement. For the first time, man’s mind and money were set free, and there were no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work, and instead of swordsmen and slaves, there appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being—the self-made man—the American industrialist.
If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose—because it contains all the others—the fact that they were the people who created the phrase “to make money.” No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity—to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted or obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created. The words “to make money” hold the essence of human morality.
Yet these were the words for which Americans were denounced by the rotted cultures of the looters’ continents. Now the looters’ credo has brought you to regard your proudest achievements as a hallmark of shame, your prosperity as guilt, your greatest men, the industrialists, as blackguards, and your magnificent factories as the product and property of muscular labor, the labor of whip-driven slaves, like the pyramids of Egypt. The rotter who simpers that he sees no difference between the power of the dollar and the power of the whip, ought to learn the difference on his own hide—as, I think, he will.
It was significant that Rand gave this speech to Francisco. Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastián d’Anconia was an aristocrat in his own right, but he never traded on his name. He traded only his work: “The reason my family has lasted for such a long time is that none of us has ever been permitted to think he is born a d’Anconia. We are expected to become one.” For Francisco, there was no unearned entitlement, not even to the family name he was given at birth. Like Dagny, Francisco was an innocent man. It was an innocence that was based in the objective value of things, and it could not be lost.