Atlas Mugged

Here’s an idea: let’s take two of the most crucial, stressful jobs out there, teaching and nursing, push their practitioners past their limits, then complain when they fail to deliver the impossible. By all means, let’s clap for them, call them “heroes,” give them gold stars for their performance, and then push the burden of their difficulties onto another overtaxed profession, mental health counseling. But let’s not question our sense of entitlement to make idle, arbitrary demands of them in the name of our “freedoms,” our “needs,” and our “rights” to their satisfaction.

Educated people often wonder why Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is such a popular or compelling book. You don’t have to agree with Rand’s politics (I don’t) to see that she has something of a point here: there has to be a limit to what can be demanded of workers in the name of need, or in the name of our supposed rights to their satisfaction. You can talk all you want about how X or Y has “urgent needs that demand satisfaction,” or formulate rights to their satisfaction, but you can’t just keep piling one demand to satisfy them on top of another, invoking the magical concept of a right to need-satisfaction, and expect perpetual delivery of the goods. Rand got a lot wrong, but she was right to question the set of assumptions that drive that demand.

Teachers and nurses seem, at some level, to have gotten the message: that’s why they’re leaving their professions in droves. It’s one thing to extend yourself for others in a spirit of empathy or a sense of professional responsibility; it’s another thing to accede to demands to become a martyr for the entitled. Increasingly, it’s the latter that seems to be demanded of them. Next to leave, I suspect, will be the front-line mental health counselors, whose services have been invoked as a kind of elixir for the ills of every other profession. The recipe seems to be first to fuck people up, then to open up “mental health space” to deal with it, fucking up in turn the mental health counselors whose job it is to deal with it.

I imagine that physicians aren’t far behind in shrugging off martyrdom, incentivized to stay only by their high salaries relative to the rest of us. But even physicians don’t live by bread alone. And the issue of high salaries only raises the question of what it is that keeps the EMTs in the game, a large proportion of whom work as volunteers, and the rest of whom make pathetic salaries in the 30s or 40s. If the high salary people start leaving, what about the low salary ones? Is it comforting to think that they’re staying only because they lack exit options?

How long can this “kick the can down the road” strategy last, and with what consequences? I guess we can keep pushing up the COVID19 caseload, and keep making demands of these people, then place bets on who’ll be next to collapse or resign.

First, the nurses dropped dead of exhaustion, but I threw a big party where no one wore masks and everybody rationalized their behavior by invoking the Great Barrington Declaration, because I was not a nurse…


The irony, of course, is that the professions being throttled the hardest are those where empathy and care are at the highest premium. So don’t interpret this post as a blank check endorsement of Ayn Rand, who’s as much a symptom of the malady in question as, in a different respect, one of its more insightful diagnosticians.

Rand was right to question the idea that one person’s need can function as a mortgage on another person’s life or labor, and right to question the concept of a “right to X” that confers a property right in the person or labor of another. She was also right to think that productive people–workers–on the receiving end of such demands would eventually tire of genuflecting before the idol of other people’s sense of entitlement, would shrug off those demands in the moral equivalent of a strike, and would eventually seek solace in privatized settings among people less inclined to make them.

But she got a lot wrong–maybe as many things as she got right. She had no kind words for the caring professions (qua caring),* and little of value to say about empathy.** And though her defense of “the virtue of selfishness” is not what her critics wrongly take it to be, it’s also not nearly as clear as her more dogmatic defenders wish it was. In many ways, it’s ripe for just the abuses that her most uncharitable critics attribute to her, whether she meant to defend those abuses or not.***

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Atlas Shrugged. It’s shrill to the point of hysteria, and tendentious to the point of tedium. But in other ways, it captures our moment better than any book I’ve ever read. No other book that I’ve read captures the way in which a false, arrogant sense of entitlement might lead to outright social collapse. So it doesn’t bother me, from that perspective, that Rand was only half-right. Because Atlas is shrugging, all right–just not the Atlas she had in mind.    

*I put the “qua caring” in because I don’t regard Rand’s (apparent, relatively lukewarm) support for cognitive-behavior-esque psychotherapy as relevant to the claim I’m making. The one essay she explicitly wrote on mental health practice, “The Psychology of Psychologizing,” is clueless and incoherent, and her depiction of social work in The Fountainhead (via her depiction of Catherine Halsey) is contemptibly tendentious. 

**The closest she comes are a few stray, Stoic-sounding remarks in “The Ethics of Emergencies,” which I’ve discussed here. PoT’s Greg Sadler has a discussion of it in this video

***And no, simply repeating this catechism for 50 years isn’t going to do the trick.

9 thoughts on “Atlas Mugged

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

    • Insofar as I do understand your comment, it sounds like you’re saying something like, “I engage in the arduous undertaking of climbing mountains like Everest and K2, so I don’t understand why common laborers ever feel put upon by exploitative bosses or demanding consumers.” Understanding their complaints may require a descent from the moral mountaintops you inhabit, but it’s worth a try.

      If that’s not what you’re saying, feel free to elaborate.


  2. Thanks for writing on this situation, Irfan. Walter has been in the hospital the last few days (see my FB page), and demands on nurses getting that work done is astounding. Last night—staff being reduced for the weekend, I gather—his nurse was being called for one nested urgency after another.

    The quality of all the hospital services being supplied now in comparison to 20 years ago is substantial, when we think back on it. Including the immaculate cleanliness of the rooms and the level of safety precautions and cross-checking. It’s something wonderful we as consumers have—for now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Am just getting around to reading this. Is Walter better? I apologize; I haven’t been able to keep up. (I see from your Dec 2 FB post that he is, but is he better since?)

      The demands placed on nurses really is astounding. I thought they were pushed to the limit in the OR–until I spent some time in the ER!

      What hospital was he admitted to, if you don’t mind my asking?


  3. The quality of all the hospital services being supplied now in comparison to 20 years ago is substantial, when we think back on it.

    I worked hospital EVS for a summer in 1990, and all I can say is that I worked with hazardous waste in the incinerator room without gloves, mask, goggles, or bonnet. In retrospect, that seems so crazy that I find it hard to believe I did it without complaint. But back then, I thought it was funny!

    Liked by 1 person

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