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.

“Mr. Rearden,” he said, “I wanted to tell you that if you want to pour ten times the quota of Rearden Metal or steel or pig iron or anything, and bootleg it all over the place to anybody at any price—I wanted to tell you to go ahead. I’ll fix it up. I’ll juggle the books. I’ll fake the reports, I’ll get phony witnesses, I’ll forge affidavits, I’ll commit perjury—so you don’t have to worry, there won’t be any trouble!”

“Now why do you want to do that?” asked Rearden, smiling, but his smile vanished when he heard the boy answer earnestly:

“Because I want, for once, to do something moral.”

“That’s not the way to be moral—” Rearden started, and stopped abruptly, realizing that it was the way, the only way left, realizing through how many twists of intellectual corruption upon corruption this boy had to struggle toward his momentous discovery.

“I guess that’s not the word,” the boy said sheepishly. “I know it’s a stuffy, old-fashioned, word. That’s not what I meant. I meant—” It was a sudden, desperate cry of incredulous anger: “Mr. Rearden, they have no right to do it!”


“Take Rearden Metal away from you.”

Rearden smiled and, prompted by a desperate pity, said, “Forget it, Non-Absolute. There are no rights.”

“I know there aren’t. But I mean … what I mean is that they can’t do it.”

“Why not?” He could not help smiling.

“Mr. Rearden, don’t sign the Gift Certificate! Don’t sign it, on principle.”

“I won’t sign it But there aren’t any principles.”

“I know there aren’t.” He was reciting it in full earnestness, with the honesty of a conscientious student: “I know that everything is relative and that nobody can know anything and that reason is an illusion and there isn’t any reality But I’m just talking about Rearden Metal. Don’t sign, Mr. Rearden. Morals or no morals, principles or no principles, just don’t sign it—because it isn’t right!” [pp. 520-521]

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.

“It’s only a matter of gaining time!” cried Mouch.

“There isn’t any time to gain.”

“All we need is a chance!” cried Lawson.

“There are no chances left.”

“It’s only until we recover!” cried Holloway.

“There is no way to recover.”

“Wait until our policies begin to work!” cried Dr. Ferris.

“There is no way to make the irrational work.” There was no answer. “What can save you now?”

“Oh, you’ll do something!” cried James Taggart.

Then—even though it was only a sentence he had heard all his life—he felt a deafening crash within him, as of a steel door dropping open at the touch of the final tumbril, the one small number completing the sum and releasing the intricate lock, the answer uniting all the pieces, the questions and the unsolved wounds of his life….

He had cursed these looters for their stubborn blindness? It was he who had made it possible. From the first extortion he had accepted, from the first directive he had obeyed, he had given them cause to believe that reality was a thing to be cheated, that one could demand the irrational and someone somehow would provide it. If he had accepted the Equalization of Opportunity Bill, if he had accepted Directive 10-289, if had accepted the law that those who could not equal his ability had the right to dispose of it, that those who had not earned were to profit, but he who had was to lose, that those who could not think were to command, but he who could was to obey them—then were they illogical in believing that they existed in an irrational universe? He had made it for them, he had provided it. Were they illogical in believing that theirs was only to wish, to wish with no concern for the possible, and that his was to fulfill their wishes, by means they did not have to know or name? They, the impotent mystics, struggling to escape the responsibility of reason, had known that he, the rationalist, had undertaken to serve their whims. They had known that he had given them a blank check on reality—his was not to ask why?—theirs was not to ask how?—let them demand that he give them a share of his wealth, then all that he owns, then more than he owns—impossible?—no, he’ll do something!

(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

Thats something I didn’t get out of Atlas Shrugged when I read it years ago. I’d like to read the second part you reference now, but I left my thick paperback copy at home.

From what I see, (and vaguely remember), Rearden had been both a player and a pawn in a high stakes game that was designed to maintain the illusion of legitmacy and raised questions about the very foundations of the society he sustained.

He was expected to discover what politicians would call the “Loophole”.

The logic of the State overlords would have been thrown into turmoil if he did the unexpected and refused the bait.

This is what the Ayn Rand Center has to say about another issue, multiculturalism:

Posted by: Andrew on November 14, 2004 5:28 PM

Ms. Rand offers a profound insight it would appear. I can’t think of an example though to support her proposition that the politicians are all that clever. Therefore, I suppose she is using satire much as L. Ron Hubbard uses it in his science fiction novels that I enjoy. She exaggerates the character to absurdity.

Those in control, in my view, don’t actually believe they are being treacherous. Instead, they simply rationalize; they employ the unprincipled exception without actually realizing the philosophical import of their habitual behavior. My point is probably obvious to most intellectuals but maybe not to many others.

Posted by: Paul Henrķ on November 14, 2004 10:15 PM

Doggone it! Now I’m going to have to read Atlas Shrugged again! Probably not a bad idea actually. Rand’s philosophy was, to say the very least, eccentric. She was nevertheless an immensely talented writer - I can still remember being riveted by “The Fountainhead” as a teenager - and certainly part of the contemporary canon of western writers.

Great find, Mr. Auster. It just proves the principle of the UE all the more.

Posted by: Carl on November 14, 2004 10:18 PM

Many others such as myself.

Posted by: Paul Henrķ on November 14, 2004 10:23 PM

It is common sport among my peers to mock Ms. Rand. I wish people would at least consider the time frame in which she was writing and then consider the sheer amount of courage and vision required to write as she did on political and economic matters. Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead were written during the socialist heyday, a period where the so-called Republicans were simply more hawkish kleptocrats and many of the current crop of unquestioned big-government programs (Medicare, Social Security, the present form of public education) were being cemented into place.

I will take a quirky, unique philosophy any day over the recycled crap you get from most writers, who are largely incapable of anything much philosophically beyond regurgitating what they read in the Bible or in the New York Times.

Posted by: Dan on November 15, 2004 11:11 AM

I agree with the overall drift of Dan’s comment, but gratuitous swipes at the Bible and Christianity are not welcome here.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on November 15, 2004 11:22 AM

Wasn’t meant that way. The Bible is clearly one the most important texts of all time. It has been the center of a great deal of my studies.

I was merely pointing out that the vast majority of what pretends to be “intellectual” or “revolutionary” writing is simply a restatement of biblical principles, principles that I think we are all perfectly familiar with. I give mucho credit to Ms. Rand for presenting utterly different philosophy of life and, as a result, stimulating.

Posted by: Dan on November 15, 2004 1:33 PM

Yes, how the promoters of secular humanism have escaped judgement for their 20th century atrocities is a marvel.

Religious conflicts killed what: at the most, one million people from the fourth century till 1900. The ideologies promoted and propagandized by so called intellectuals led to the violent and premature deaths of nearly twenty percent of the entire human population from 1914-1952.

From facism to Marxism and the gamut of “planned” outcomes for society, all intrinsically based on exclusively human rationalizing, its astounding how they can continue to blind society to inherently evil consequence.

Posted by: obvious on November 15, 2004 2:03 PM
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