The unprincipled exception as dramatized in Atlas Shrugged
Since liberalism contradicts the nature of reality, it must lead to the death of society if its principles are consistently followed. Therefore a liberal society, in order to continue functioning and surviving, must make lots of exceptions to liberal principles. But since liberal society prohibits all non-liberal principles, these exceptions, upon which the very existence of the society depends, have no principle to back them up. Thus the only way a member of liberal society can slow its march to destruction is through means that to him must seem unprincipled. Liberal society remains viable only insofar as unprincipled exceptions prevent it from consistently following its own principles; and it only seems viable to its members insofar as they employ unprincipled exceptions to disguise from themselves its true nature and inevitable end.
Two passages from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged powerfully dramatize these ideas. The first scene involves a conversation between Rand’s protagonist, the steel industrialist Henry Rearden, and the state bureaucrat assigned to oversee Rearden’s factory. A recent college graduate who has absorbed all the fashionable leftist and relativist ideas, he has slowly been drawn to take Rearden’s side despite his own liberal beliefs.
At this point in the story, the government has just passed a new set of regulations severely controlling industrial production and freezing people in their places of employment. It is also threatening to force Rearden to sign over to the state the rights to his great invention, Rearden Metal. The young bureaucrat, whom Rearden calls the Wet Nurse, offers his assistance.
The Wet Nurse had never entered Rearden’s office, as if sensing that that was a place he had no right to enter. He always waited to catch a glimpse of Rearden outside. The directive had attached him to his job, as the mills’ official watchdog of over-or-under-production. He stopped Rearden, a few days later, in an alley between the rows of open-hearth furnaces. There was an odd look of fierceness on the boy’s face.In a novel in which the minor characters tend to be cartoons, the Wet Nurse’s speech in this scene, as he struggles to enunciate moral principles in a world that denies morality, is both intellectually cogent and deeply moving.
The second scene I want to mention, one of the culminating passages of the novel, reveals the unprincipled exception as the secret key to the functioning and survival of liberal society, and thus as the point of its ultimate vulnerability. In a long discussion with the government collectivists who seek his cooperation and approval, Rearden finally realizes the truth that has eluded him all his life. These statist parasites, while assuring Rearden that the country depends on him for its economic survival, have just proposed a Steel Unification Plan that would rapidly drive him into bankruptcy. He tries to understand what it is that the statists are counting on. What do they think is going to rescue them from a law that must destroy Rearden and thus destroy the economy? He realizes that they are counting on the unprincipled exception. That is, they thought that they could impose their suicidal egalitarian scheme on a productive individual like Rearden, while Rearden would somehow find ways to work his way around the scheme and keep producing. They counted on Rearden’s not obeying the socialist principles they were forcing on him. Rearden then realizes that he himself is the guiltiest party in this fraud, because all his life he has enabled the statists to get away with this game, by providing them with the unprincipled exception that kept their parasitical system alive. The scene, which is too long to excerpt here, is at pages 909-916 of Atlas Shrugged.
Update (3-15-09): However, here is the culminating part of the scene (which I also quote in this entry):
Rearden had felt another click in his mind, the sharper click of the second tumbril, connecting the circuits of the lock. He learned forward. “What are you counting on?” he asked; his tone had changed, it was low, it had the steady, pressing, droning sound of a drill.(Note: Given Ayn Rand’s cultish status as the creator of a controversial and marginal ideology, there is a tendency on the part of many people today to assume that if someone quotes Rand approvingly, he is a follower of her thought. I am not a Randian in any way. Her radical atheism (indeed demonization of religion), her cult of hyper-rationalism, her weird sexual philosophy, her superhuman heroes and subhuman villains, her extreme libertarian ideology which is a kind of Bolshevism turned inside out, and much else in her books, particularly Atlas Shrugged, means that one can only read her selectively. At the same time, I find much in Atlas Shrugged to be of enduring value, prophetic of the civilizational crisis of our time and even of the spiritual struggles that we ourselves are going through as we see our society being destroyed before our eyes.)
Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 14, 2004 04:16 PM | Send