Eddie Willers and the unforgivable elitism of Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is about a dystopia in which the world is neatly divided into productive people and moochers (or looters, or takers). The productive people get tired of being constrained by the looters and so go on strike. They were the ‘Atlas’ of greek mythology that was holding the world on their shoulders and they decide to shrug and let the world perish rather than suffer immolation (Rand really likes that word) on the altar of self-sacrifice.

There’s an obvious elitism here, but it’s not yet unforgivable.  What is unforgivable is her treatment of one of her characters, Eddie Willers. Eddie Willers is a childhood friend of the female protaganist, Dagny Taggart. He is her assistant at the railroad company they both work for. He is clearly not a looter and is presented as fully agreeing with Rand’s creed and being morally appalled at the evils of the looters he sees around him.

However, Eddie is also not a producer, he’s just not smart enough or creative enough to keep up with Dagny and all of the other geniuses of industry that are Rand’s cast of stars. For most of the book I assumed Eddie was brought in to counteract charges of elitism, as a way for Rand to point out that you don’t have to be born with a super high IQ in order to buy into her ideas; that it’s okay to just be a paper pusher as long as you don’t resent those who are more talented than you. But at the end of the book Eddie is not invited to join the super productive at Galt’s Gulch, instead he’s left crying and alone clinging to a broken down train engine.

The most charitable interpretation of this is that Rand really wanted to write a scene showing the outside world after absolutely all of the producers have left. Since the producers leave gradually and Dagny stays until everything has fallen apart it’s clear that this scene isn’t completely necessary to get across her point, but perhaps she really thought it would be emotionally stirring to see Eddie clinging to the railroad he loved.

However, leaving Eddie behind is in keeping with her stated philosophy that a human being’s moral worth is solely determined by their productivity. There are no hard-working janitors in Galt’s Gulch. (Yes, some of the super producers work menial jobs in the outside world for a while, but the point is there is no one who is a hard working but of normal or limited ability in Galt’s Gulch).

Rand is a virtue ethicist, and elitism is a common problem among virtue ethicist. But it’s not insoluble. I too am a virtue ethicist (though my virtues differ from Rand’s) but while I hold that a moral human being attempts to cultivate their virtues, I do not believe that human beings are of differing moral worth based on their virtues/ability.

Of course, the more important distinction is probably that I don’t divide up everyone into two categories and decree that one of those categories is subhuman and should be left to die.

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2 thoughts on “Eddie Willers and the unforgivable elitism of Ayn Rand

  1. Pingback: I used to like Ayn Rand « Faith and Public Policy

  2. Your assertion about no one other than alpha producers being in Atlantis is incorrect. There was the truck driver who did not wish to remain a truck driver. There was also the mother who didn’t want to raise her children in the outside world. The young brakeman who strives to be Richard Halley’s pupil is not portrayed as a giant. How about Andrew stockton’s ruined competitor? Eddie’s fate, though sad, is brought about by his own volition. He had the chance to remain with Dagny. He did not feel it was right for him to do so. He felt he still had a battle to fight in defense of his values. After the comet breaks down, most people think Eddie is doomed to die alone in the wilderness. I disagree. Every character trait of his portrayed in the novel suggests that even though he cannot build a railroad or a steel mill, he has more than enough ability to survive on his own.

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