Atlas Shrugged Part II: Hank Rearden Confuses his Principles

I just this afternoon went to see the second installment in the Atlas Shrugged series. With double the budget of the opening film, this one was a little less poorly executed than its predecessor–the entirely new cast was a little better, the dialogue was a little less stilted, the story was a little more coherent–but, as far as films go, it really left a lot to be desired. (I think it goes without saying that most people expected this).

Anyway, I just wanted to comment briefly on one element of the film. At one point, industrial steel magnate and metal manufacturer Hank Rearden is ordered by the state to sell his Rearden metal to them, which he has up until this point been refusing to do. He is also forced to sign away his rights to the metal, so that the state can distribute its procedure to other manufacturers and it can be universally produced. At this point, Rearden accuses the agent in his office of trying to take his patents from him.

This, to me, is a philosophically complicated position. Now, Ayn Rand, despite taking a position against the government in many cases, was a huge supporter of patents and intellectual property rights. As Stephan Kinsella has pointed out here, Rand endorsed them on a number of occasions:

 

Patents are the heart and core of property rights.

 

Intellectual property is the most important field of law.

 

Without getting into the larger points concerning intellectual property (which Stephan Kinsella covers well here, and which I discussed briefly in the Duke University Chronicle here), I think that Rearden’s position on this is a bit contradictory. He is indignant that the state would move to deprive him of his patents, thereby also depriving him of the fruits of his labors. But isn’t that what those patents do to others? Don’t they prevent others who develop similar products from bringing them to the market? It is true that, within the context of the film, Rearden plays a heroic producer who alone seems able to keep the steel industry afloat. But this glosses over the daily considerations of intellectual property laws, which are seldom enforced on such a genuine basis.

Furthermore, Rearden’s position seems to me to be a little bit disingenuous. After all, he opposes the state’s use of force. In fact, he constantly pushes state officials to actually endorse the use of force instead of merely allowing it to be implied. At the same time, however, his patents themselves rest on just such a threat. I see this as something of a double standard.

Of course, Rand might respond that the force backing Rearden’s patent is legitimate, since, in her view, patents are themselves legitimate derivations of individual property rights. I don’t agree with this either, but that would require a much more extensive blog post to cover. For now, see my article in the Chronicle on it, and Kinsella’s book, articles, YouTube videos, or even audiobooks available for free from the Mises Institute on iTunes U.

Overall, this is why I think that Ayn Rand’s work largely functions more as a gateway to discovery of free-market ideas rather than as a truly solid foundation for them. In my opinion, much of what Rand was right about is better said by others, and there was a lot that I don’t think she was right about, either.

 

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7 Responses to Atlas Shrugged Part II: Hank Rearden Confuses his Principles

  1. Alec says:

    I agree with your position on intellectual property, and that Rand was off base on that point, among others. However, I think Rand was an amazing writer. Her novels are among my favorites. I would encourage everyone to read The Fountainhead at least.

    • Hamsterdam Economics says:

      Alec,

      I agree, actually. Having read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, I find Rand’s work mostly enjoyable. I also find that the lessons in her writing are even more relevant and interesting as they apply to personal life. I think that’s the true value of her books. I also do really appreciate her insight that, often, those who argue against the market and individual liberty do so from an ultimately fundamental position of disdain for and distrust of humanity. I find that when I push people on their reasons for opposing the idea of a free society, it often comes down to that, and I think Rand really does a good job of capturing it.

      Perhaps I was a little too critical of her here. Sometimes, though, I feel I have to be, since laymen always tend to associate these arguments with her writing, when her ideas can actually be pretty incomplete/unsatisfying in some of these areas.

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  6. Jeff says:

    You missed the point entirely. Under your logic, if I am in the steel making business, my research and development budget should be zero. All I have to do is wait for someone else to undergo the expense of R&D of a new steel, and then copy the process. This retards innovation.
    As a steel manufacturer, if there is a patent on Rearden Steele, I have three options. I can continue to make an inferior product. I can pay Rearden for the right to use his process at a fee he determines to be equitable. Finally, if I find that Rearden is “unreasonable” in his pricing, I can invest in R&D and develop a “like” steel that is either superior in quality or price. This is actually the story of Andrew Carnegie. Had his efforts to “make a better steel making process” failed, he would died broke, having lost any money he had on R&D.

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