Beverly Garside

Where is Hank Rearden? Atlas Shrugged's Reality Gap

   Atlas Shrugged fans' favorite question has traditionally been "Who is John Galt?" I'm not an objectivist, but I did enjoy Atlas Shrugged. The novel enlightened my understanding despite my disagreement with many of its assertions. Perhaps I took something different away from the book than those whom it recruited to objectivist philosophy. For me, the most important question was not "Who is John Galt?" By the end of the story that question is answered. I find the more important question to be "Where is Hank Rearden?"
     Rearden is a tortured figure in the novel, initially adhering to the socialist ideals of society before discovering liberation in the objectivist creed. This is not what makes him, for me, the story's  most interesting character. What facinates me is how Hank Rearden ran Rearden Steel. Because Rearden, way before the government took over his steel mill, paid his workers above union wages. And in return, his workers were the best in the country, never clashed with management, and repaid him with loyalty and superior work performance.
     I would love to work for Hank Rearden - who wouldn't? If real American corporations were run by Rearden, there would be no need for unions and "the working poor" would not exist as a class in need of public assistance. With an army of Reardens at the helm, American workers' productivity and quality would be unmatched. But this is not the case. Unions have been in decline in the U.S. for decades and most companies pay their workers below union rates. Where then, is Hank Rearden?
     I'm not so sure Mr. Rearden could exist in the U.S. today. First of all, our corporations are not owned or run by a single, heroic CEO. They are owned by stockholders who are represented by a board of directors - boards and CEO's that seem more intent upon looting their companies for extravagant salaries and bonuses than securing and retaining the best workforce. Secondly, Rearden Steel was not competing with foreign steel, manufactured by workers toiling under slave-labor conditions in third world countries. Could Hank have maintained his workers' salaries under that kind of competition?
     Perhaps we will never know. Our CEOs are known for pitting their workers on the "race to the bottom," sacrificing their retirements and benefits in exchange for just being allowed to keep their jobs. Our CEOs sit in the palacial mansions and complain about having to charge 12 cents more per pizza if they provide their employees with health insurance. And workers, especially at the bottom of the workforce, find that a superior quality of performance can often be punished rather than rewarded. This is not because of the communist dogma of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," that plagued industry in Atlas Shrugged. It's because corporations don't want to pay more for better performance, or for any performance. Ever wonder why service is so notoriously bad in so many retail establishments? Perhaps it's because all the good workers have quit, tired of having to cover for the poor performers in exchange for, well, nothing.
     Herein lies the gap between Atlas Shrugged and reality. Not only does Hank Rearden not exist, it's not clear whether he even could exist. To be fair, not all business in the novel is portrayed positively. There are some companies ruled by councils who are cowardly and afraid to take responsibility for their decisions. They blame their failures on others, etc etc.  These are not the causes of corporate failings in current reality however.
     What would business look like in a nation dedicated to the libertarian politics and the objectivist philosophy? Could Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart exist and operate in reality? I explore these questions in I and You. Just how wide is the gap between Ayn Rand's view of America in1957 and the realities of today? I think I have come up with one plausible answer.

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