November 22, 2004 -- If one looks upon Thanksgiving as a harvest festival, then it can also be seen as a celebration of producers. But the name must give us pause. Which producers should we thank? Ourselves? After all, one might argue, if we are self-supporting adults, then all accounts between ourselves and other producers are balanced by trade, with no remaining debt to others that needs to be paid in the form of thanks or gratitude.
Gratitude to contemporary titans of production is something morally owed to them.
But that argument overlooks certain facts. Even if one earns goods and services by productive labor and free trade, what one's labor can purchase today is infinitely greater than what it could buy in the past. And that difference is not something that one has earned. The sheer fruitfulness of today's economy as compared to the economy of the past, the sheer abundance of capital and knowledge that lie at our disposal, is a product of those who have gone before. It is a gift from our forebears, and gifts need to be acknowledged as such.
Thus, the first answer to the question "Whom should we thank on Thanksgiving?" is: All of those who, down through the centuries, have advanced civilization by means of their productive achievements. For it is they who allow us to live in the luxuriant world of the twenty-first century.
But that is not the whole answer. The remainder is set down in Atlas Shrugged, in the scene from which Rand's novel takes its name. Francisco d'Anconia asks Hank Rearden:
"When you felt proud of the rail of the John Galt Line. . . [d]id you want to see it used by men who could not equal the power of your mind, but who would equal your moral integrity—men such as Eddie Willers—who could never invent your Metal, but who would do their best, work as hard as you did, live by their own effort, and—riding the rail—give a moment's silent thanks to the man who gave them more than they could give him?"
"Yes," said Rearden gently.
"Did you want to see it used by whining rotters . . . who proclaim that . . . you are not to be paid, neither in matter nor in spirit, neither by wealth nor by recognition nor by respect nor by gratitude?"
"I'd blast that rail first."
Just as we cannot repay past generations of producers for the higher level of productivity they have bestowed upon us, so we cannot fully repay through trade the higher level of productivity that the great producers of today bestow upon us. The reason lies in a principle Rand called the "pyramid of ability." That principle was aptly summarized by David Kelley in his review of Ayn Rand's Journals: "The men with the greatest minds and talents confer on others much more value than they ever receive in return, no matter how much wealth they acquire, [while] the least able receive much more value than they create" (Navigator, February 1998).
Given this asymmetrical relationship, gratitude to contemporary titans of production is something morally owed to them, and Atlas Shrugged is, one might say, the greatest of all diatribes against the lack of such gratitude. For that reason, the most proper response to Rand's terrible cry of indignation would be for the United States of America to move Thanksgiving Day permanently to November 22, the date on which John Galt vindicated forever the moral greatness of those heroic producers who bear the world on their shoulders.